Spy chief: My defection to the West

Former head of Romanian foreign intelligence explains why he abandoned the Eastern bloc.

Pacepa’s mantra is ‘side with the people, not with the tyrant!’

Ion Mihai Pacepa, the chief of foreign intelligence under Nicolae Ceausescu, the former Romanian president, defected to the US in 1978.

He then worked with US intelligence against the former Eastern bloc and denounced Ceausescu in his 1987 book Red Horizons: Chronicles of a Communist Spy Chief.

In an exclusive article, Pacepa recalls his time working for Ceausescu and explains why he decided to abandon his role and defect to the West.

Special report

On November 10, 1989, when the Berlin Wall was torn down by angry masses, my eyes welled up.

I paid with two death sentences [in absentia] for the privilege of becoming free, and I was deliriously happy that millions in the Soviet bloc, who had never known what real freedom meant, could now taste it as well.

A year later, when the Soviet Union collapsed, The New York Times columnist AM Rosenthal wrote: “Russia did this to Russia.”

I will put it my own way: In the long run political crime does not pay, even when it is committed by a superpower.

It was Communism’s practice of solving its ideological conflicts by killing the opponent instead of talking to him that made me start my life from scratch.

Assassination request

Files at the headquarters of the Securitate, the Romanian secret police, near Bucharest [AP]

On July 22, 1978, Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian president, whispered into my ear: “I want Noel killed.”

Noel Bernard was the director of Radio Free Europe’s Romanian programme, and he had exposed Ceausescu’s efforts to transform Romania into a monument to himself.

At that time I was head of Ceausescu’s Presidential House, national security advisor, and chief of the country’s foreign intelligence service.

Privilege can generate cowardice. It did in my case. I certainly did reprehensible things to preserve my privileged life.

But in 1951, when I became an intelligence officer, I swore to myself that I would avoid involvement in “wet operations” – the intelligence jargon for the killing of political opponents.

I reinforced that oath on March 2, 1973, during operation Nahral-Barad, in which the Black September terrorists occupied the Saudi embassy in Khartoum and took hostage visiting diplomats attending a reception.

‘Be careful’

The group wanted to use them as exchange chips for “freeing” Sirhan Sirhan, the Palestinian assassin of Robert Kennedy, the former US attorney general.

Richard Nixon, the US president at the time, refused the demand.

Arafat became chairman of the PLO in 1969 [AFP]

A few hours later I reported to Ceausescu that, according to intercepts of a Single-Side Band radio tuned to 7150 kHz, Abu Jihad, an aide to Yasser Arafat, had radioed the late leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) order to execute three hostages.

[Arafat denied any involvement in the operation and insisted it was carried out independently by the Black September group].

Cleo A Noel Jr, the US ambassador to Sudan, his deputy George Curtis Moore, and Guy Eid, the Belgian chargé d’affaires, were immediately killed.

Ceausescu applauded. “Be careful,” Ion Gheorghe Maurer, a Western-educated lawyer who had just retired as Romanian prime minister, told Ceausescu, “political assassination is an international crime, and no matter how high up you are, you can still be convicted for it”.

Although a fanatical Communist, Maurer had a prurient, superstitious fear of breaking what he called the most fundamental law of civilisation.

Fateful step

One day, after my July 22 meeting with Ceausescu, I flew to Bonn to deliver a secret message from him to Helmut Schmidt, the West German chancellor, and there I requested political asylum in the US.

On July 28, 1978, when the C-130 military plane that was bringing me to freedom landed at the presidential airport near Washington DC, the only encumbrances from my past I had with me were a camera containing a few snapshots of my daughter, Dana, and a wristwatch I had received from King Hussein of Jordan for saving his life from an assassination attempt organised by Arafat.

That day I was exactly three months short of the round age of 50, and I more than ever regretted that I had kept postponing the fateful step for so many years.

On Christmas Day 1989, Ceausescu was executed for genocide at the end of a trial where most accusations came out of my book Red Horizons.

At that time, nobody really knew that tyrant’s hidden life.

Personal call

Ceausescu was executed for genocide in 1989 [GALLO/GETTY]

In March 2003, the month the US-led invasion of Iraq began, the US media published an open letter I sent to Iraq’s generals.

Do what I did, I asked. “Side with the people, not with the tyrant!”

Thousands of copies of that letter, I was told, were dropped over Iraq during those turbulent days.

Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi tyrant, who like Ceausescu lived in monumental palaces built with money stolen from his people, ended up in a rat hole.

Most of the Iraqi generals who did what I did are still wearing their uniforms. The others ended up in jail.

Symbolic performance

When Al Jazeera asked me for a few thoughts on the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall, I was honoured and pleased.

Al Jazeera focuses on the world’s oldest civilisations, going back to 7,000 BC, whose philosophy, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, literature and art have been major contributors to civilisation.

Unfortunately, some parts of the world targeted by Al Jazeera still have their own Ceausescus, who are treating their people like their slaves.

On this memorable anniversary, I would like to use Al Jazeera’s microphone to repeat my call: Side with the people, not with the tyrant.

And some modern-day Leonard Bernstein will be soon conducting another monumental performance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, in which the German word freude [joy], which rings out in the Fourth Movement, will be changed to hurriyya [freedom in Arabic].

I can even see that orchestra and choir, composed of singers from Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Morocco, Iraq, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, a united Germany and – why not? – Israel.

See you there!

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source : Al Jazeera

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