June 2019: Polish Folk Artifact Concealment Device
The FBI’s June 2019 Artifact of the Month is a Polish spy’s concealment device disguised as a wooden chess piece. In June 1981, the FBI arrested the spy and his U.S. informant, who hid U.S. secrets inside the chess piece.
Used by Polish intelligence officer Marian Zacharski and U.S. citizen William Holden Bell, this chess piece has hollowed-out cavities in both the body and lid. Unlocking the device required the spies to turn it upside down for 45 seconds and gently tap it.
In 1977, Zacharski was sent to California by the Polish government, then an Eastern bloc country working in concert with the Soviet Union, to uncover military and industrial secrets in the aerospace industry.
Zacharski found an ideal target in Bell, a longtime engineer at Hughes Aircraft Company. Bell had a security clearance and access to vital classified information. Just as important, he was struggling financially and emotionally and was vulnerable to recruitment.
Bell and Zacharski shared an interest in machine technology and a love for recreational tennis. They soon began spending time together both on and off the court. Bell would later tell a Senate committee that Zacharski eventually became his best friend. Or so it seemed.
Financially, Bell’s troubles lingered, and he declared bankruptcy. Zacharski offered to help. Perhaps, Zacharski proposed, Bell could share some of his knowledge on various engineering matters as a paid technical consultant. Bell agreed, and the money began to flow. But ultimately Zacharski wanted more: classified information.
Bell began to show Zacharski projects he had worked on, like sophisticated radar systems and fixed weapons platforms. Zacharski supplied a camera and special high-resolution film so Bell could make photographs of confidential and secret plans and schematics. He would later receive other concealment devices like a tie rack and the large wooden chess piece.
As Zacharski paid him a steady stream of cash and gold coins—ultimately totaling over $110,000 and possibly much more—Bell knew he had crossed a line from neighborly friendship to American turncoat. But Zacharski was skillful, keeping Bell in line with clever manipulation and possibly even threats to his family. The demands for information just continued to grow, including a series of trips overseas to deliver it.
Meanwhile, the FBI had become aware of Zacharski’s activities and had identified Bell as one of his sources. Agents began following both men, but not before Bell compromised another American radar system.
Coordinating counterespionage work here and overseas while building a case that can hold up in U.S. court is difficult, but the Bureau methodically gathered information and evidence. On June 24, 1981, agents from FBI Los Angeles confronted Bell. He soon confessed and allowed the FBI to use microphone surveillance at his next meeting with Zacharski. Four days later, both men were arrested and charged with espionage-related crimes.
Bell agreed to plead guilty and cooperate in the prosecution of Zacharski. By the end of the year, Zacharski was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Bell was sentenced to eight years. In 1985, Zacharski and three other Soviet bloc agents were exchanged for 25 people held in Iron Curtain jails for dissenting against Eastern European communist regimes. The exchange took place on the famous “Bridge of Spies” (the Glienicke Bridge in Germany).
Bell’s betrayal of his country mirrors the story of many others ensnared by foreign spies both past and present. Over time, vulnerable Americans are drawn in with money, companionship, attention, and other “carrots” in exchange for information, which gradually increases in importance, classification level, and quantity.
The threat remains. Espionage agents are as skilled, dangerous, and active as ever.