History is replete with instances where secrets were obtained via pillow talk. Hollywood has provided us with a number of fictionalized examples of the Soviet Union’s use of sex as a weapon to facilitate espionage. The movie Red Sparrow and the television series The Americans are just two examples. The latter, shared with us how two Russian illegals operated in the U.S. running sources and collecting intelligence.
The arrest on charges of espionage of Karl and Hana Koecher on this date, November 27, in 1984 demonstrates how truth is stranger than fiction.
Karl and Hana Koecher – The Illegals
Karl and Hana Koecher joined the Czech intelligence service in the early 1960s. They were chosen as a couple with a singular mission: To establish themselves in the United States as emigrants and to position themselves in a manner to gain access within the United States intelligence community on behalf of the StB and KGB (Czech and Soviet intelligence services).
On September 11, 1965 the two “defected” in Vienna, Austria and entered the U.S. as immigrants on December 4, 1965. As new immigrants it was time begin building their new persona, just like every immigrant must. Karl received a PhD from Columbia University’s Institute for Communist Affairs, and Hana becoming a regular fixture within the diamond business of New York. Karl, fluent in Czech, Russian, French, and English obtained sporadic work with Radio Free Europe. In 1969, he became an assistant professor at Wagner College on Staten Island and then while still teaching, obtained a position on the RFE Czech desk in 1971. Hana cemented her position in the New York diamond scene with employment at Harry Winston, Inc. Her work took her regularly to Europe. For pleasure, they visited the Caribbean, the Canary Islands and other fun-in-the-sun beach locales.
After years pass they receive their U.S. citizenship, first Karl in 1971, age 37, then the next year Hana, age 28. With citizenship in hand Karl was now in position to begin his effort to acquire access or employment to the U.S. intelligence community.
KARL Koecher and the CIA
In April 1972 Karl Koecher submits his SF-86 and applies for employment with the CIA. With his background investigation complete, in October 1972, he takes his pre-employment polygraph – he answers the counterintelligence questions truthfully – he had been a member of the communist party, he had met with foreign nationals, including intelligence officers. On February 5, 1973, the seed planted in 1965, begins to grow roots and Koecher walks into the CIA as a translator, with a Top Secret security clearance and an annual salary of $10,000/annum. He is one of many émigré translators which made up the cadre of translators for the program known by the cryptonym, AE/SCREEN. His job was to translate covertly acquired Czech and Russian language tapes in support of the Soviet European division of the CIA.
Shortly after his snapping in period, Karl complained that translation duties weren’t using his full skill set: he had a PhD from Columbia. He complained, and his colleagues listened. They asked him to begin writing assessments on the various individuals within these conversations. He continued in this vein, and received a raise after two years to $12,000.
Hana Koecher clandestine courier
While Karl Koecher managed to weave his way into the CIA, Hana his partner in life and crime, lived in a co-op they purchased in New York and acted as a courier between Prague and the couple. Her travel patterns to Europe provided the opportunity to pass secrets and collect funds in person, outside of the eyes of the U.S. counterintelligence apparatus. When she was unable to travel, she would conduct brush passes and service dead drops in both the Washington, D.C. and New York metro areas. Karl was providing Top Secret information gleaned from the tapes and assessments. They had their pipeline for getting Russian and Czech leads into the hands of the StB and KGB.
They weren’t done yet.
Sexpionage – The Swinging Koechers
The role of sex in the operational lives of the Koechers cannot be understated. Hana lived in New York and Karl lived in the Washington, DC area where they were frequent, if not regular, participants in each city’s “swinging” scene. In addition, each had extra-marital partners on the side.
They referred to Washington, D.C. as the “Sex Capitol of the World” and were regular participants on the weekend at the “Exchange Restaurant” on G Street near the White House and at “Virginia’s In Place” which met at houses and hotels in Northern Virginia. In New York City, they frequented now defunct clubs like Plato’s Retreat, located in the Ansonia Hotel, 230 West 74th Street, and the Hell Fire sex club, 29 Ninth Avenue. Their escapades are well documented and confirmed by both Hana and Karl in a 2015 interview.
During an interview with noted national security journalist Ron Kessler (Spy vs Spy), Karl noted how the Washington D.C. swinging circle included some interesting individuals and that he would on occasion hear a tidbit or two of interest and pass it along. He noted the circle included senior Pentagon officials, at least ten CIA employees, a number of reporters from major newspapers, and at least one U.S. senator.
It is reported that Hana was the more sexually active of the duo, with Karl being perceived as somewhat odd, more interested in conversations than sex. There is no doubt the duo was able to provide operational leads to the StB and KGB about the various participants for operational follow-up extant by the hostile intelligence services.
The Koecher’s would claim in 2015 the swinging lifestyle was just what people did in the 60s and 70s. Hana declined to answer questions, noting that her participation was personal.
Damage to the CIA
Karl’s work as a translator provided him direct access to operational activity of the CIA field. He did not hesitate to pass this information to the StB or KGB. He no doubt compromised a number of CIA operations, including one of the CIA’s penetrations of the Soviet MFA, an asset known as “TRIGON,” the pseudonym for Alexander Dmitrievich Ogorodnik. Koecher passed the content received from TRIGON to the KGB and their analysis connected the dots between the MFA official in Bogota and the MFA official with global access in Moscow.
TRIGON was ultimately arrested in his apartment in Moscow on June 22, 1977. As the KGB was searching his flat, he was asked to write a confession. He picked up his Mont Blanc fountain pen and began writing. He then, unexpectedly, bit off the tip of his pen which contained a CIA issued “L-pill” (lethal) and in doing so committed suicide.
The compromise of the Koechers has always been fuzzy. The Soviets claim that Oleg Kalugin, former chief of counterintelligence at the KGB identified Koecher to sweeten the pot in order to garner his own desired immigration to the United States. While the FBI claims that their surveillance of an StB officer in 1982 led them first to Hana and then to Karl, and that they watched her conduct brush passes and service dead drops.
On November 15, 1984, the Koechers were approached by the FBI while walking in downtown New York on West 57th Street. They were asked to join the FBI for a chat. Over the course of the next few days, the FBI and CIA met with the Koechers in a New York hotel room which was wired for video and sound. The Koechers were allowed to go home and resume their discussions the next day. Koecher told the FBI his tale, starting from 1962 when he first joined the StB, to their being sent to defect to the United States in 1965 and his path to citizenship and CIA employment. He told it all (or at least his version).
It is well documented that the encounter and interrogation/interviews of the Koechers was bolloxed from the beginning, when one of the first FBI special agents to encounter Koecher in a hotel room after the arrest offered Karl immunity. Those interviewing Hana repeatedly rejected her request for a lawyer.
That didn’t stop the Justice Department from pursuing an arrest warrant and holding him pending a trail. The case was assigned to an Assistant U.S. Attorney by the name of Rudy Giuliani. After two weeks of conversation, the FBI had convinced the Koechers that in exchange for their having been cooperative, they would be able to leave and be resettled in Europe. The couple sold their co-op, literally in days, and on November 27, were going to board a plane to Switzerland and then onward to Austria. The FBI was going to chauffer the couple. Instead, the FBI arrested the Koechers as they came out of their building, bags in hand.
The spy exchange
The DoJ and the administration did the best they could with the hand dealt. They suggested including the Koechers in a prisoner swap with the Soviet Union. The Koechers and a handful of others in custody in the West were to be exchanged at the Glienicke Bridge for Soviet dissident Anatoliy Shcharansky.
On February 11, 1985, the pair crossed the bridge and got into a gold Mercedes and were taken to Prague. They were interviewed for a couple months and then given a hero’s welcome – they received a new Volvo, a place to live and Karl received a position within the Czech Academy of Science.
Karl Koecher succeeded in his intelligence mission. Much to the dismay of all concerned, he established himself in the United States, penetrated the CIA as a mole, and provided damaging national security information to the StB/KGB. Today, the Koechers, Karl in his late 80s and his wife, Hana in her 70s, reside in the Czech Republic.
They are but a footnote of Cold War history.
Spy vs. Spy – Ron Kessler
The Bureau – The Secret History of the FBI – Ron Kessler
Spy Widow – Martha Peterson
Spymaster – Oleg Kalugin
2004 – Betrayal – Episode 2 – Karl Koecher: Stranger in a strange land
2015 – International Spy Museum – Jonna Mendez lecture on the Koechers