“It was a total shock”: US journalist Mark Baker on discovering StB plan to recruit him
US journalist Mark Baker spent time in Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s and was long curious whether the Communist state’s secret police kept a file on him. Eventually he did discover that not only was he being monitored in the dying days of the Cold War – the StB also wanted to recruit him as a spy. Baker, who in 2021 published the memoir Čas proměn (Times of Change), has just begun sharing this story – filled with eye-popping details – in a series of blog posts.
In the late 1980s you lived in Vienna but you also covered Czechoslovakia for a magazine called Business International and visited the country many times. Later, after 1989, it seemed from your enquiries that the StB didn’t keep a file on you. More recently it turned out that they did. How did you finally discover that?
“As you said, in the 1980s I was working as a journalist and travelling relatively frequently to Czechoslovakia.
“When I was travelling I needed a translator, because at the time I didn’t speak any Czech.
“And our company hired a fixer and translator. His name was Arnold.
“We worked together when I would travel to Czechoslovakia.
“You can imagine what his job was – to translate, arrange my meetings and accommodation, and all that stuff.
“After 1989 I fell out of touch with Arnold.
“Several years later I was sitting in my apartment, Googling and wondering what had happened to my old colleagues and friends.
“I Googled Arnold’s name and one of the search results returned a PDF of a report that was authored by the Military History Institute – a researcher named Dr. Prokop Tomek.
“That’s when I learned that Arnold had a double job, basically.
“He was not only my translator – he was also a paid informant for the secret police.
“Naturally I thought maybe I was one of his main targets. It was a very logical assumption.
“I made inquiries, as you’ve said, and they came back saying I didn’t have a file.
“When I started my book, Čas proměn, in 2021 I was writing under the assumption that I didn’t have a file.
“It was only after I published the book that Dr. Tomek himself – I had sent a copy to him – wrote me that he thought it very unusual that a person with my background wouldn’t have a file.
“So he went back into the archives and that’s when he found that I did have a file.”
You had to wait a month between this email from Prokop Tomek and actually getting to see the file on you. What was going through your mind in that month?
“First off there was the surprise that I even had a file.
“Second there was the email Dr. Tomek sent me itself, saying not only that I had a file but then he added in just a few lines – maybe just to spice up the email, or whet my appetite – saying, Oh, by the way, the StB wanted to recruit you to work for them as an agent, a paid informant, and your job would be to spy on Americans in Vienna.
“And I thought, What?
“I was really worried that I once I read my file I would find out friends - or maybe girlfriends or whatever - had informed on me.”
“So I was really anxious to get my hands on the file.
"I was really worried that once I read it I would find out that friends – or maybe girlfriends or whatever – had informed on me in some capacity.
“I mean, you just never know.
“Also maybe the file had been altered or embellished. These things are not objective pieces of work, they’re very subjective things that can be manipulated really easily.
“So I was a little bit apprehensive, and at the same time I was very excited of course – I wanted to know all the details about what this crazy plot was.”
What exactly were the StB hoping to use your for? What did they think you could do for them?
“At first I had really no idea.
“You have to put yourself in my place in the 1980s. I was fresh out of university.
“Like I said, I didn’t speak Czech. I didn’t really know this country that well.
“I don’t know what exactly they felt that I could be useful for.
“But once I had the chance to page through the materials – and they were sprawling – there was a large group of papers from an operation called Operation Oheň, which means Operation Fire.
“I later learned that that was a Czechoslovak espionage plan to try to infiltrate American institutions across Europe, and one of the target cities for the operation was Vienna.
“So after I was able to go through the materials with a translator and really figure out what was going on, it became very clear that they had tapped me to be an agent for them in Operation Oheň.”
It’s kind of flattering also, though, because they saw you as a potential high-flyer who could get a job at Voice of America or the BBC. They thought, This is the guy to follow.
“Not only were the StB monitoring my activities when I came to Prague, they were keeping track of my career in Vienna.”
“[Laughs] That was encouraging – they really did believe in me back then, I guess you could say.
“But it was also kind of startling.
“Not only were they monitoring my activities when I came to Prague, they were keeping track of my career in Vienna.
“They had known that I’d gotten a recent promotion to be an editor of a book series that they published in Vienna at the time, that I’d gotten a raise in pay.”
And your codename was INTER. Why was it INTER?
“The company that I worked for was Business International, so probably it was a reference to that.
“When I would travel to Prague they often wanted me to stay in the Hotel Intercontinental, which I’ve written about in the past, so it could also have been that.
“One thing that I learned when I was going through the file was that some of the codenames are actually very good – it’s very difficult to figure out who that person is – and sometimes the codenames are just extremely lazy and even dumb.”
The codename of Arnold was ARNOL.
“Yes, ARNOL; at least in some of the files, that was his name.
“How many people in this country have that name? That codename would be relatively transparent, I think.”
When the StB were preparing to turn you they made a kind of psychological evaluation of you. That included the lines “He cares a lot about his appearance, with which he’s probably not satisfied” and “INTER always showed a great interest in girls but he didn’t get many, it’s obvious that the matter of sex would be a weak side of INTER’s psyche.” What are your feelings reading this stuff today?
“First off, it’s painful to read an evaluation of you from your mid-20s by a presumably hostile observer.
“And of course it was a little bit embarrassing, all that stuff.
“But I also laughed. That could describe a lot of guys at that time.”
That could be me – great interest, but didn’t get many!
“It’s painful to read an evaluation of you from your mid-20s by a presumably hostile observer.”
“[Laughs] But on the other hand I thought, How did they even get this information? On what basis did they make these?
“And I realised they couldn’t have much of a basis for this.
“So it was kind of projection on their part, and I think it set the stage for how they wanted to exploit my weaknesses toward their own goals.”
The story gets considerably crazier when in early November 1989 the StB planned a honey trap operation against you for a hotel in Bratislava using video and audio surveillance.
“That was a trip that I managed to write about in my diary quite extensively.
“It was a trip to Prague, first, and then to Bratislava.
“The Bratislava thing was just supposed to be one night – one terrific night – from November 9 to 10, in the Hotel Devín.
“I wrote in my diary, I wrote in my book, that it felt like the presence of Arnold and the monitors, etcetera, on me was somehow less on that trip: I felt free, in a weird way.
“The honeypot trap was to go down on the night of November 9, 1989.”
“But I only realise now that of course they were holding back. They were watching every step.
“I have surveillance from my stay at the Hotel Paříž here in Prague –that’s where they put me up on this trip – that is extremely detailed, minute.
“So I realised they were watching me very carefully.
“And then the Bratislava part, which you talked about, the honeypot trap, that was to go down on the night of November 9, 1989.
“Coincidentally that was the very same evening that the Berlin Wall fell, so a total coincidence but somehow a very dramatic Hollywood ending to this honeypot trap that never went happened actually.”
As is written in the file, it was nerealizováno, or unrealized. One thing I don’t understand: How did they imagine that videoing you in a hotel room with a girl would give them a hold over you? You were a single guy in your mid 20s – how is that a lever?
“As you said, the plot was never realised. I really don’t know why.
“We did go down to Bratislava but this is where my memory really fails: I don’t remember meeting the Slovak agent, the female who was supposed to approach us at the restaurant of this hotel and make her introduction.
“It could very well have happened that she came to the table, we had a nice chat and then I looked at my watch, thought we had a big day tomorrow and said a polite goodnight, or something like that.
“That’s probably what really did happen.
“It could have been called off because of events that were going on in Berlin. Or anything – I really don’t know.
“Yes, what was the leverage? It’s not explicit in the file how they wanted to use the information.
“There are some lines in there that give me some indication of what they might have wanted to do.
“Look, obviously boy meets girl in a Bratislava hotel is not a huge story.
“But I was working for a company. They would have been very upset that I had tried to engage in some kind of thing.
“I did have a girlfriend in Vienna at the time, with whom I was reconciling; we had been separated for a few months before that.
“She would have been extremely upset. I don’t know how I would have talked my way out of that one.
“So there was a little bit of leverage. But career destroying?
“It would have been embarrassing, it would have filled me with a lot of bad feelings, a bit of shame.
“But I don’t think it would have really altered my life’s course.”
But also the StB weren’t completely sure that you weren’t CIA?
“Yes. They had a very good idea that I was not, when they observed me.
“The file is very clear: I don’t show any signs of formal espionage training.
“But to the very end I don’t think they were entirely sure.”
Perhaps the craziest aspect, to me, is that the StB didn’t just imagine this female agent or whatever she was, this INA, would have a one-night stand with you – they also wrote that she could be a long-term partner of yours.
“Yes. As I said a little bit earlier, it’s not exactly clear how they wanted to use this information.
“There are a couple of lines in the file, and one of them is the one that you just said.
“Perhaps they could have used this audio and video as blackmail, to force me into cooperation.
“But the other plan – it’s mentioned in the file – was that I would never know anything about this operation but would be so taken with this INA that I would fall in love and bring her to Vienna to be my wife, or we would start a relationship that could blossom into something.
“I suppose it’s conceivable – it depends a lot on a million things – but it just seems like a very far-fetched and disturbing episode of this whole operation.”
But similar things did happen in the Cold War. I often wonder about the people who were willing to do these things. For example I read about some Czech agents who in their late teens or early twenties joined a seminary and went to Rome, where they stayed for decades, their whole lives devoted to this. It’s inconceivable to me.
“You know, what would have been her motivation?
“Maybe she would have been really taken with me, or just dreamed of a life in the West or something like that.
“But for me it’s very difficult to even imagine that you would be so committed to something that you would devote your life to it in this way.”
This has certainly given you an amazing story, Mark. How do you view the whole episode?
“It was a total shock, to be honest.
“I love a Cold War spy thriller as much as the next guy, but it’s a very different feeling to find one and then realise that you were to play one of the central roles in it.
“For me that is the mind-blowing aspect of the whole thing.
“It doesn’t change my view of what was going on back then. It just kind of fills in some of the blanks.
“In a way it’s been helpful for me, a lot.
“I published my book Čas proměn in Czech, but now I will publish it in English – that has always been the plan.
“And this gives me a lot more detail to add in to the English version of the book, and perhaps to go a second edition for the Czech, if my publisher wants to do that.”
For more on Mark Baker’s story, visit his blog: https://markbakerprague.com/part-1-introducing-our-man-inter/