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!
The jingle comes from a video that shows a pile of men and women on wall to wall mattresses. It looks unsanitary. Koecher dismisses claims that this was a place where he would have done intelligence gathering. ‘All intelligence services use honey traps but those are long-lasting relationships. You just don’t screw somebody and then during pillow talk learn what government secrets they know. There’s no way.’ And, he goes on, Plato’s Retreat was just a ‘tourist attraction,’ a place to take visitors from Europe who wanted to see ‘what’s going on in there’.
This account is at odds with the story told by Ronald Kessler in his book Secrets of the FBI. On the phone, he tells Cockburn that he spent five days with the Koechers in Prague in the late Eighties and believes he got at the truth – which is, he says, that visiting sex clubs helped the Koechers in their secret work as Soviet spies. The important point about the swingers’ clubs, Kessler says, is that employees of the CIA – or the NSA, or the State Department – weren’t supposed to be there in the first place. Koecher had told him it could be useful ‘even knowing someone attends parties like that…’
If John Bolton had gone to Plato’s Retreat, Kessler says: ‘The only issue in my mind was if he was in government at the time and had a security clearance.’ Bolton was, however, a lawyer in private practice during the period when Flynt claimed that he visited the club. There is, perhaps, potential for blackmail over embarrassing personal behavior – especially if someone is later nominated for public office. But Larry Flynt made his Plato’s Retreat allegation during Bolton’s failed attempt to become UN ambassador, in 2005.
What if the Soviets had compromised Bolton before 2005? And then blackmailed him with the secret of his cooperation afterwards? Koecher scotches that notion, saying he does not remember encountering Bolton at all in the swingers’ clubs. The source who passed the ‘Bolton file’ to Cockburn – and to Congressional investigators – conceived of another possibility: that there was a KGB operation to film kompromat inside Plato’s Retreat and other US sex clubs. Such tapes might be devastating but Koecher says he didn’t do this and ‘can’t imagine’ other KGB operatives doing it either. ‘The KGB: those were moral, decent, very reasonable people, and certainly honorable people. No way.’
What’s left, perhaps, is the odd coincidence that several of those who would later become members of Trump’s inner circle are alleged to have enjoyed ‘swinging’. This group includes Roger Stone, Paul Manafort and – if Larry Flynt’s old claims are true – John Bolton. It should be remembered that, while Stone has openly acknowledged ‘swinging’, Manafort and Bolton have never confirmed these claims. Someone who’s known Bolton for decades said it would be ‘out of character’ for him to have gone to sex clubs. ‘He surrounded himself with awkward people.’ A spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to comment.
Koecher himself had to leave the ‘swinging, gold-plated’ life when he was arrested for spying. The US attorney leading the prosecution of the case was – in another odd coincidence – one Rudolph Giuliani. Koecher was held in jail for a few months but then swapped for a prominent Soviet dissident, Anatoly Sharansky. He has one regret, he says. ‘I’m sorry that I lied to my friends. I’m very sorry.’
Koecher’s tortuous explanations of how he found himself on the wrong side of history suggest a keen instinct for self-preservation. He is cautious, even calculating, and these are times to be careful if you’re a former Soviet spy living in Prague. Has he given up all his secrets? Ronald Kessler sends Cockburn an excerpt from the book that Koecher was originally interviewed for, Spy vs Spy, which is now out of print. Koecher muses on what he has seen, the information he possesses about the people running the country in the late 1980s. Could this apply to some of those running the country today? ‘I could, if I really started talking, compromise people in very high positions in the White House and Pentagon. I’m not saying I will not. I may well decide when the moment is right or when sufficiently provoked. I don’t think it’s worth doing it right now.’