To the grand, art nouveau Café Louvre in Prague, once one of Franz Kafka’s favorite haunts in the Czech capital. Cockburn is here to meet another – very different – Czech figure of historical importance: Karl Koecher, the only KGB agent known to have infiltrated the CIA. He is relevant again because of a strange story claiming that Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, visited a New York sex club called Plato’s Retreat. Koecher went there too, when he was a Soviet spy. Is it possible that the Kremlin has kompromat – compromising material – on Bolton, dating from the 1970s and 1980s?
This question can be asked because of claims made when Bolton was nominated to be George W Bush’s UN ambassador in 2005. Larry Flynt, publisher of a porn magazine, Hustler, is reported to have made the claims in a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was holding Bolton’s confirmation hearings. A Hustler press release at the time said: ‘Mr Flynt has obtained information from numerous sources that Mr Bolton participated in paid visits to Plato’s Retreat, the popular swingers club that operated in New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s.’ Flynt called on the committee to ‘conduct an inquiry’. Press accounts at the time suggest that no one took Flynt’s allegations seriously. (Bolton was given a recess appointment but resigned once the Senate switched control from Republicans to Democrats.)
Such information today seems merely incongruous though, if true, might go some way to explaining Bolton’s mustache. But the reason that Cockburn is sitting in the high-ceilinged dining room of Café Louvre is a description of Koecher’s spying activities made in an authoritative history of the FBI’s counterintelligence operations, The Secrets of the FBI, by Ronald Kessler. The book says that Koecher, along with his wife, used the ‘orgy scene’ to learn US government secrets and even, the book implies, to gather blackmail material. At the time, Koecher had already joined the CIA, on behalf of the KGB:
‘Koecher had an unusual way of obtaining classified information: attending sex parties…Karl and [his wife] Hana regularly attended…orgies in Washington and New York. They frequented Plato’s Retreat and the Hellfire, two sex emporiums in New York open to anyone with the price of admission. If both spies enjoyed swinging, they also found the orgies a good way to meet others who worked for the CIA or other sensitive Washington agencies. Because security rules at agencies such as the CIA banned such activities, participants placed themselves in a compromising position in more ways than one. The Koechers took full advantage and picked up valuable information from other partygoers who were officials of the Defense Department, the White House, and the CIA.’
Koecher is now in his eighties, slim and a little frail. His wife Hana is in her seventies, with short grey hair, but you can still see in her an echo of the attractive women in photographs from their time in the US. A waiter in a black waistcoat arrives. Café Louvre was closed by the Communists as a ‘bourgeois institution’ and made into offices. It reopened only after the Velvet Revolution. Koecher describes how he escaped an ‘abysmal’ grey existence behind the Iron Curtain for what one account called a ‘swinging, gold-plated’ life of spying and sex clubs in the United States. It is a remarkable story.
He was arrested at the age of 16 because a friend had hidden some guns to use against the regime. Koecher got out of that jam but the authorities had marked him as a counter-revolutionary. ‘I was getting into more and more trouble. Whatever career I tried to follow, they would go and ruin it. They tried to pin on me some rape but eventually the police apologized and said: We got it from another section. I realized sooner or later they would get me…I had to get the hell out of there. I was desperate.’
His way out was to offer to spy for Czech intelligence. He spoke several languages fluently, including English. ‘I thought I would convince the intelligence service what a good asset I was and then the first thing I’d do [in the West] would be to go to the nearest police station and ask for asylum.’ But once in the US, he did not switch sides. He posed as a genuine defector to get a job at the CIA. He did this, he tells me, because he believed his handlers in Prague were ‘an entirely new generation’ of smart, young graduates who understood that there had to be reform. ‘I was a dissident but I realized there is no future in that: if you want to change the regime the best way to do it is from the inside.’
That autobiography will no doubt seem self serving to Koecher’s critics in today’s democratic Czech Republic, some of whom call him a traitor for working first with the Communists in his own country and then with the KGB. But he says that when the Prague Spring was crushed under the treads of Russian tanks, in 1968, he went to the FBI to offer to become a double agent. To his amazement, they turned him down, he says, and he ran into the arms of the KGB. He believed then and now that the spirit of the reformist movement snuffed out in Prague by the Kremlin existed ‘in some circles’ of Soviet intelligence in the Seventies and Eighties. ‘If Czechoslovakia was to be freed, it had to be done from Moscow, nowhere else…I was an idealist.’
Cockburn orders the pork goulash and dumplings; Koecher and his wife the chicken and mashed potatoes – good, hearty Czech fare. We turn to the question of the New York sex clubs and in particular, Plato’s Retreat, ‘open to free thinking adult couples,’ as an ad from the late 1970s put it, a ‘relaxed, no pressure environment complete with heated swimming pool and that great disco beat’. The club had a jingle:
At Plato’s Retreat, you can make your dreams come true
Fulfil your wildest fantasies, we’ve got them all for you.
The pleasure and the fun, will keep you feeling young.
It’s for yooouuu…it’s for yoooooouuuuuuuu!