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Czech Republic: Secret Police Files Unlocked This Weekend

  • Jolyon Naegele

Prague, 30 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Beginning this Sunday, Czech citizens who were victims of the former Communist-led State Security (StB) will be able to read their own files.

Opening the archives to public viewing comes just over one year after the Czech parliament passed a law requiring the Interior Ministry to grant access to the StB files.

The secret police, acting on orders from its commander, First Deputy Interior Minister Alojz Lorenc, destroyed most their files in late 1989 and early 1990. But some 60,000 files, mainly on microfiche, still exist. That is just a fraction of the approximately 900,000 personal files the StB kept between 1954 and its dissolution in 1990.

Control over the StB's Slovak files was transferred to Slovakia as a result of the break-up of the Czechoslovak federation four and a half years ago.

President Vaclav Havel had said shortly before the law was passed that granting victims access to the secret police files was likely to cause greater social turmoil than that occurring after the passage of the "lustrace" or screening law in 1991 and the publication the following year of incomplete lists of people who collaborated as agents and informers of the StB.

Stanislav Devaty, who led the post-communist Czech secret police from 1993 until late last year, has said that several thousand names are missing from the published lists.

Those who have already seen their files say they tend to cover up the illegal aspects of much of the StB's activities and portray the agency in positive light. Many were surprised as much by the fact that a relative, friend, colleague, or acquaintance collaborated as by the extent or depth of that collaboration.

The motivation to collaborate with the StB appeared frequently a result of pressure or threats. But some people seemed to have collaborated out of political conviction, believing they were serving a just cause. Most did it for money or other benefits.

Seven and a half years after the Velvet revolution, only few Czechs have admitted collaboration. When challenged, they tend to hide behind a Czech law which only accepts original documents as legal proof, not photocopies or microfiche as evidence. And not many of such original documents exist.

The StB had an extensive network of agents, but it was not all powerful and often suffered from its own excessive secrecy. At times, agents spied on each other and betrayed each others' identities in the files.

The StB was a bureaucracy. Its interdepartmental rivalries frequently resulted in striking reluctance to cooperate, for example a department handling dissidents slow in helping that dealing with counterespionage. These rivalries and the complicated organizational structure, tended to hinder the effectiveness of operations.

Most agents appear to have been primarily concerned with protecting themselves, their families, friends, jobs and privileges. As a result, much of what they told their control officers seemed self-serving, and some of it was almost certainly false. This might have included reported names, places, and dates.

Control officers appear to have been frequently unable to determine whether an agent was reporting the truth, a half-truth or a lie. The little box on debriefing forms indicating the trustworthiness of the source is said to have been routinely ticked off regardless of the nonsense an agent might report, although the StB's did carry out occasional checks and even sometimes stopped using agents found to have been withholding information.

The StB's formally cooperated with Russia's KGB, Poland's SB, East Germany's Stasi and other Soviet bloc intelligence agencies. These agencies supplied each other with intelligence data on request. The KGB is referred to in StB files as "our friends," and specific KGB officers are identified as "Comrade P" or some other initial. KGB communications with the StB, unlike StB documents, were written on plain paper without a letterhead and without exception were in Russian.

But ultimately, the StB was controlled by Communist leaders and functionaries. In the final years of Communist power, the Party's Central Committee departments and even the Czechoslovak Federal Government routinely overruled StB decisions because they might have colluded with the party's domestic or foreign policies.

Individual reports in the files tend to be one or two pages long, although reports supplied from regional StB offices are in many cases much longer. The reports denote the source's code name, the date and time a conspiratorial meeting was held, and whether covert recording devices were used.

Although the homes and telephones of numerous dissidents were subject to audio surveillance, taped conversations were often either unintelligible or else lacked context. Using agents as sources rather than relying on listening devices appears to have been considerably cheaper and more helpful in interpreting.

The StB was not the only intelligence agency that maintained a network of agents. Czechoslovak military intelligence, the prison administration (SNV) and the Soviet KGB had their own networks in Czechoslovakia. Their files remain secret, unaffected by last year's legislation.

The law taking effect this Sunday allows access to the files to Czech citizens or those who had held Czechoslovak citizenship between 1948 and 1990 and were victims of StB repression. Emigres will only be allowed to view their files from the period when they still were Czechoslovak citizens. Other foreigners are not covered by this law, but departing Interior Minister Jan Ruml has said foreigners are being allowed to view their files on a case by case basis taking into account security and foreign policy considerations.

The Interior Ministry is required to respond to a request for access to a person's file within 90 days. The names and personal details of third persons who figure in the files will be blacked out, though not the names of StB investigators. On request, the Interior Ministry will decipher the code names of StB agents, informers or collaborators contained in the file.

In contrast to the German Democratic Republic, where the master lists of agents of the communist Stasi secret police were destroyed on orders of a civic committee in early 1990 when files were made available to victims, Czechoslovakia and subsequently the Czech Republic have until now relied on lists of StB agents and collaborators drawn up by the StB rather than the contents of their files for determining whether a person collaborated. But this method has not been fully effective. Those listed have routinely denied past collaboration with the StB.