The spy who spoke on camera: RINO explores fascinating tale of CIA mole Karel Koecher

'RINO', photo: archive of Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival

One of the hottest tickets at this year’s Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival was main competition film RINO, a fascinating portrait of the only Communist mole known to have infiltrated the CIA: Czechoslovakia’s Karel Koecher. Director Jakub Wagner interviewed numerous former US agents and other officials for the film. But it is the charismatic and elusive Koecher who steals the show.

'RINO',  photo: archive of Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival
When Karel Koecher – who is today an extremely spry and forceful 81-year-old – agreed to be interviewed for RINO (the title referring to one of the mole’s many codenames), it surely made Jakub Wagner the envy of many other Czech documentary makers.

But producing the film was a very lengthy process (five years from start to finish), in part because it required considerable effort for Wagner to win over the largely reclusive Koecher, the director says.

“I established credit with him on the basis of my previous films, for the most part portraits. I guess I also won some credit for my great interest in his story, as well as my ability to get to grips analytically with his declassified secret police files, issued by the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.

“In the end he suggested we address each other informally and in our own way we actually had a very friendly relationship.”

One of the challenges faced by Wagner and his team on RINO was that, wholly unsurprisingly, much is still unknown about Karel Koecher’s actions and will no doubt remain so. It is a murky, convoluted story.

What’s more, though RINO makes no claims to be gospel, the viewer is occasionally left uncertain as to which of the interviewees – many American and therefore naturally ill-disposed toward the protagonist – to trust.

Photo: Prostor publishing
But there is no denying the impressive number and quality of interviews with now retired “cold warriors” and other officials.

“We found those people with the help of the journalist and writer Vladimír Ševela. He wrote a book about Koecher and had most of the contacts. So we used him as a co-author of our film in looking for American interviewees.

“We really found a lot of people – at least those who remain alive and were willing to speak: former agents of the CIA and the FBI, people from the Justice Department and the lawyers who represent it.”

Some of the US talking heads in RINO are dismissive of Koecher’s significance as a mole. Wagner says it is hard to counter their assertions, given the dearth of information on his activities.

“They call him a second-rate spy. We can’t judge… it’s hard to create a league table of spies, though of course the first would of course be [Aldrich] Ames [who spied for Russia].

“We don’t know the nature of the information he leaked and we probably never will. It’s either in the former USSR or only known to the CIA or the FBI, who arrested and questioned him.

“The Americans say he was second-rate, but they also say it was a unique infiltration, so we can only speculate about what’s true. I personally don’t think he was such a second-right spy.”

So what do we know for sure about Karel Koecher? The established facts are that he joined the Czechoslovak intelligence service in 1962. Three years later he emigrated to the US, where he gained a doctorate at Columbia University and eventually became an American citizen.

Karel Koecher,  Jakub Wagner,  photo: archive of Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival
After some years as a sleeper agent he was hired as a translator and analyst by the CIA, where he had access to classified information that he handed over to Soviet agents. He is believed to have betrayed Aleksandr Ogorodnik, a Russian diplomat who spied for the CIA.

In RINO we learn that he was accused of being a double agent by the KGB’s head of counter-intelligence in 1975, when he was effectively cult loose. He left the CIA for a job in academia.

However, by the end of the 1970s he was rehabilitated by the KGB and returned to work part-time at the CIA. He was eventually uncovered, with the arrest of Koecher and his glamorous wife Hana becoming a big international news story. However, it has never been revealed how the Americans discovered he was a mole.

After being handed over as part of a prisoner-exchange on Berlin's East-meets-West Glienicke Bridge in 1986, he returned to Czechoslovakia. There, incidentally, he worked at the same prognostics institute as future presidents Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman.

In RINO Karel Koecher comes across as charismatic, strong-willed, intelligent and vain. After spending a lot of time in his company, how would director Wagner characterise his protagonist?

“I know him well and for a long time – and actually not at all. I thought in the process of making the film we would get to know each other better. I thought he wouldn’t be still immersed in espionage – but I have a feeling that he is.

“I’ve known him for a long time – and paradoxically the longer I’ve known him the less I’ve known him. To the point of almost not at all. But as a character… all I can say is he’s a very strong person and a very complicated person. Incredibly complicated, for me.”

'RINO',  photo: archive of Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival
Off-camera but also still close to centre-stage in the film is Koecher’s beautiful and evidently charming wife, Hana. She has been with the former spy for over four decades and the two come across as a formidable partnership.

How much Koecherová was involved in Koecher’s activities never becomes clear, but at least one of the US interviewees insists she was the real brains of the operation.

“I would describe her as very attractive. Today she’s a real lady. Very impressive. She did receive training in uncovering surveillance – that’s spoken about openly in the film.

“I think she too became a strong personality over the years. For instance, in New York she was the only non-Jew to become a director of one diamond dealers.

“So perhaps she did become interesting to the spymasters. But she refused to be in the film – she doesn’t want to appear in the media at all or to be discussed in connection with his spying career.”

Karel Koecher was billed as a guest for a Q&A after the premiere screening at the Jihlava festival and was sat in the front row throughout the film.

However, when it came time for the discussion the 81-year-old immediately got up and left, much to the consternation of the organisers. The documentary is evidently not completely to the liking of its subject.

“He had very many reservations. Over facts, over the interpretation of facts. He had the most problems with private matters that he wanted to have at least partly limited or toned down – and we’ve been able to accommodate him.

“Other issues are still up for discussion. But what he really wants is that the film provide more factual proof of his innocence or guilt.”

Karel Koecher in RINO,  photo: archive of Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival
The version of RINO screened at Jihlava was not the definitive version, with its makers still needing to dot the i’s on contracts with the owners of the rights of some of the footage included.

But given Karel Koecher’s international notoriety, Jakub Wagner is confident that when completed the documentary can eventually win viewers beyond the Czech Republic’s borders.

“Outside the Czech Republic, in Europe or America, I think the film can be attractive – and maybe even a lot more attractive. Abroad it won’t be overshadowed by the local problem of information that’s sensitive for the actors, who have a lot of enemies here.

“I think it’s a really attractive story of a spy, or perhaps two spies, who for 20 years lived in a hostile environment – and nobody knew they were a hostile element in the greatest period of the Cold War.”