The Rogue Journalist Who Could Bring Down the Polish Government

Sylwester Latkowski has been a political organizer, an importer of bad hair products, a music executive, a documentary filmmaker, and a talk show host. He's also a convicted felon, the editor of one of Poland's most respected magazines, Wprost, and the unlikely man at the center of a political scandal about Warsaw's relationship with Washington that threatens to bring down the Polish government.

In the last week, Wprost has published recordings of conversations among high-level Polish officials that appear to have been made surreptitiously at two Warsaw restaurants. One recording features the head of Poland's central bank and the country's interior minister discussing how the bank might help the government win re-election. (The bank president suggested firing the finance minister, though of course by law the central bank should remain independent.).

The more eye-opening recording, released on Sunday, reveals Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski making some less than diplomatic remarks about what he sees as Warsaw's subservient relationship with the United States. "You know that the Polish-U.S. alliance isn't worth anything," Sikorski said. "It is downright harmful, because it creates a false sense of security ... Complete bullshit. We'll get in conflict with the Germans, Russians and we'll think that everything is super, because we gave the Americans a blow job. Losers. Complete losers."

Moreover, Sikorski used the racially-charged word murzynskosc -- which is derived from the word murzyn, a dark-skinned person who does another person's bidding -- to describe what he sees as Poland's willingness to do the same when it comes to the United States.

The tapes' release has rocked the Polish government. Prime Minister Donald Tusk has floated the possibility of early elections, and the opposition is up-in-arms, demanding explanations for a scandal that has deeply embarrassed the government. The authorities' response has only made matters worse. On Wednesday, state prosecutors and officers from the Poland's domestic security agency barged into Wprost's offices and in a physical tug-of-war, which was broadcast live on Polish television, they tried to pull the editor-in-chief's laptop from his grasp, triggering yet another round of outrage.

Prosecutors have launched a wiretapping investigation, and on Monday, Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza reported that authorities suspect a network of waiters bugged the politicians' meetings and later sold the recordings to businessmen (some have speculated Russian secret services are behind the wiretapping, as part of an effort to sow discord in Eastern Europe just as Russia is flexing its muscles in Ukraine.) How Wprost journalists obtained the tapes remains unclear.

Latkowski, the editor-in-chief, has endured a hailstorm of criticism for publishing the recordings, dividing the journalism community. While initially a group of journalists came to his defense, protesting state attempts to muzzle the media, many others have come out against using what they describe as material obtained obtained illegally and which pertains to private conversations. At one point, a journalist who initially supported Latkowski, said that it was unfortunate that a man with such a "sketchy past became an icon of journalism."

Indeed, Latkowski's checkered background has now become a focal point of the talk surrounding the scandal.

Born in the small Polish town of Elblag, Latkowski comes from humble beginnings. In the late 1980s, he was a grassroots organizer for Solidarity, the Polish labor movement instrumental in overthrowing the communist regime. With only a trade school education, he began as a teacher, giving high school courses in Polish and physics. (He would later enroll in a one-year pedagogy course, a point which he likes to emphasize).

During Poland's economic opening in the early 1990s, Latkowski, like many entrepreneurial Poles, started his own business. He would import empty containers of hair gel and fill them up with a cheaper domestic product, adding a fragrance because "it just didn't smell nice," as he told the Polish edition of Playboy in 2005.

The accounts of Latkowski's business career in the mid-1990s are foggy. He did business in Belarus, and then became, in his own words, the CEO of one of the first Polish brokerage firms. In 1998, he served two years and three months for extortion. According to daily Gazeta Wyborcza, he brought hired hands from Lithuania to physically extort a debt.

He does not like to talk about his extortion conviction. In cryptic remarks a decade ago, he said that "he participated in an effort to corrupt Poland, to do business at the expense of the state," all in cahoots with "people who are in power." While he said he deserved to be punished, he claimed he was not guilty of the crimes he was charged with.

While on furlough from prison, Latkowski started his career as a documentary filmmaker, with which he would attract the national spotlight. Critics described his films as "shoddy," with both microphones and the interviewer's shadow visible in his shots. He dismissed the criticism, pointing to the ad-hoc style of U.S. documentary filmmaker Michael Moore.

"He only tries to shock with the drastic character of his subjects, there is nothing else there," the documentary filmmaker Maria Zmarz Koczanowicz told the Polish magazine Press in 2008. His films documented brutal hooligans, pedophiles, a controversial murder of a Polish police chief, and shenanigans in the Polish music industry. He was repeatedly accused of manipulating his subjects. The singer Justyna Steczkowska says he tricked her into letting paparazzi into her apartment by claiming they were part of the film crew.

Latkowski told Playboy he made most of his money through his work as a PR consultant and music producer. His name rarely appeared on the albums he produced because "he did not want young artists to be forced to deal with his enemies."

In the mid-2000s Latkowski was a talk-show host on state television, where he again caused controversy by hurling accusations at prominent Poles. Among other things, Latkowski's show claimed that Tusk's grandfather had served in the the German army, an inflammatory statement in Poland, which suffered immensely because of German actions during the first half of the 20th century.

In 2010, he began working for Wprost, where he became the editor-in-chief last year. Under his watch, the magazine emphasized aggressive investigative journalism, uncovering one politician's attempt to hide an expensive watch in his tax statement. But as with everything that Latkowski touches, Wprost has been repeatedly accused of sensationalism under his tenure. One undercover female journalist writing for Wprost exposed famed Polish tennis star and businessman Wojciech Fibak as an intermediary setting up his rich male friends with young women. The magazine came under fire for using cheap tactics and provocation to obtain evidence. In another case, the magazine was accused of manipulating the words of Alicja Tysiac in a controversial abortion case.

A colorful character with a tainted past, Latkowski keeps his apartment clinically sterile. When in 2005 two Playboy journalists asked him why was his apartment hospital-white, he described himself in saintly terms.

"Too much sterile white? It's because I have to cleanse myself from all the dirt of this world."


National Security

The Iraqi Army Isn't up to the Job, and the Entire Country Is Suffering

When the United States left Iraq in 2011, the Pentagon said the Iraqi security forces it had spent tens of billions of dollars training were more than up to the job of securing the country's borders and preventing extremists from reigniting the kind of civil war that devastated the country during the long U.S. occupation.

Top American commanders conceded that the Iraqi forces didn't have a strong air force and that there were legitimate concerns about how the army would maintain its equipment or handle a sectarian crisis, for example, or plan and execute missions based on its own intelligence capabilities.

Still, U.S. officials confidently proclaimed that the Iraqi security forces were on the right track as they bid the Iraqis adieu.

"The Iraqi army and police have been rebuilt and they are capable of responding to threats; violence levels are down; al Qaeda has been weakened; the rule of law has been strengthened; educational opportunities have been expanded; and economic growth is expanding, as well," then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at a Baghdad ceremony in December 2011, just weeks before the last American troops left the country. "And this progress has been sustained even as we have withdrawn nearly 150,000 U.S. combat forces from this country."

Those optimistic assessments were catastrophically wrong. Iraqi troops have literally melted away rather than fight militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, abandoning their uniforms and enormous amounts of American-supplied vehicles, weaponry, and ammunition as they fled south. The Iraqi military Panetta boasted about three years ago has become corrupt and politicized, with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki replacing skilled Sunni commanders with Shiite loyalists. Whatever capabilities it once had have decayed dramatically, and the Iraqi military has proven feeble in the face of a determined enemy. In a recent speech, Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said 60 of Iraq's 243 army combat battalions had basically disintegrated. Putting them back together, he said, would be a Herculean effort requiring U.S. advisers to "help Iraqi forces pick themselves up and dust themselves off."

"The key is to take baby steps -- win small, easy battles first to rebuild confidence for the larger battles farther north," he said in a June 17 address.

Even baby steps may be hard for the shattered Iraqi military. Indeed, with ISIS advancing closer to Baghdad and Secretary of State John Kerry pressing Maliki to make a serious outreach effort to the country's Sunnis and Kurds, it's clear that warning signs that Iraq's forces weren't up to the task were missed or went unheeded. The 300 troops President Obama is now sending to Iraq to advise the Iraqi forces and to assess their capabilities will likely identify many of the same issues that were just under the surface three years ago. Experts had said at the time that the Iraqi forces would have challenges addressing sectarian tensions because of their dominance by Shiites -- and, even more dangerously, by the ways Maliki has used them to crack down on the country's embattled Sunni minority to further his own political aims.

In late 2011, James Dubik, the retired three-star American general who led training of Iraqi forces until 2008, noted that the country's military still needed to hone its counterinsurgency training, wasn't capable of deterring external threats, and didn't have the capabilities required to sustain itself in a long-term fight. Indeed, today some believe the Iraqi army has become a "checkpoint military" -- good at static security, but flawed when it comes to actually fighting militants on the battlefield.

Military officers intimately familiar with the decline of the Iraqi security forces over the last few years point to a number of factors for the circumstances in which the Maliki government now finds itself. Top on that list is the departure of American forces in 2011. While a residual American force would not have prevented the current crisis, which has its roots in political dissension in Baghdad, many argue that it would have at the very least helped Iraqi forces manage it better today.

"The warning signs were all there," Dubik said Monday. American military leaders who had spent years fighting in Iraq were convinced -- as they are now in Afghanistan -- that a residual American force was necessary to sustain the gains the United States had helped the Iraqis to achieve since training formally began in 2004. "This was not a military decision; this was a policy decision," Dubik said.

To Dubik, the best analogy to describe the condition in which the United States left Iraqi forces in 2011 is in the form of a spear: American forces had successfully created the "tippy end" for Iraq, but the rest of the spear -- the maintenance of equipment, the logistics skills required to conduct operations, medical capabilities, and the like -- were still on the "to do" list.

"We left before we were done," he said.

Dubik and others say that all the planning that went into building and maintaining a robust Iraqi security force was premised on the notion that some American trainers and advisers -- if not a small number of combat forces -- would remain even after Iraq took over primary responsibility for securing the country. But when negotiations between Washington and Baghdad broke down over a security agreement that would have allowed American forces to stay in Iraq and all but a small contingent of U.S. troops left, signs quickly emerged that the Iraqis weren't ready.

"Withdrawing all U.S. forces before Iraq becomes self-reliant in external defense would create an unintended deterrence gap," Knights wrote in a June 2011 report. Knights noted then that Iraq's Defense Chief at the time, Gen. Babakir Zebari, thought the United States should stay until at least 2020. "Given its domestic political concerns and legacy of past military actions, however, Iraq might not be self-sufficient in external defense even by 2020, at least as defined by the United States," Knight wrote.

The Pentagon's own assessment of the Iraqi security forces, which include the army, police, and counterterrorism forces, among others, hinted that there were problems in the offing.

"With the exception of logistics and sustainment, the [Iraqi Ministry of Defense] is currently on track to achieve its [Minimum Essential Capacity] objectives to provide oversight of the Iraqi armed forces prior to U.S. Forces withdrawal in December 2011," said to a Defense Department assessment of Iraqi capabilities published in June 2010 -- the last time the biannual report to Congress was published. "In addition to logistics and sustainment, the current [Ministry of Defense] challenges are in the areas of planning and budgeting, procurement, and information technology."

The same report notes shortfalls in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR, as well.

"They do not have their own unmanned aerial system capability and are largely reliant on the United States for ISR support," the report said. "ISR development is a major focus in the next period to include assisting the ISF with procurement and fielding of this critical capability. Finally, the ISF are still developing the ability to analyze, integrate, and disseminate intelligence sufficiently."

The Pentagon report still painted a somewhat rosier picture of Iraqi security forces' capabilities generally, though Iraqi units' ability to conduct "independent" operations was an issue. The GAO later knocked the Pentagon for its confusing use of the terms "independent" and "fully independent" in its Congressional reports, as the watchdog agency said the terms easily caused confusion, hinting at the idea that the U.S. military was putting the Iraqi security forces in the best light.

"In order to provide the Congress and other decision makers with a clear picture of ISF capabilities, DOD should clarify its use of the terms 'independent' or 'fully independent' as they relate to the assessed capabilities of ISF units, especially with regard to the logistical, command and control, and intelligence capabilities of those units," the GAO said.

But with essentially no American forces left in Iraq after 2011 to help the Iraqis, few of those capabilities were allowed to mature, experts point out.

Meanwhile, Maliki himself has contributed significantly to the problems in Iraq. Not only has he built a government that is seen among Sunnis as excluding them -- leading many Sunni leaders to back ISIS -- but Maliki is thought to have injected sectarian politics into selections for top command posts, filling them almost entirely with his fellow Shiites.

"There's no question that as time went by and particularly as Maliki came into a more open political struggle with the Sunni members of the government that he was using the security services more and more as an instrument of control and less and less than for a counterinsurgency or counterterrorism campaign," said Tony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who studied Iraq extensively for years during and after the Iraq war. "We weren't surprised at all by the decline."

Cordesman said the problems in Iraq really began last year and that he and others attempted to warn American policymakers of the pending disaster. In January, Cordesman authored a report, "Iraq in Crisis," that detailed the reasons behind the failing political and security institutions in Iraq.

"Nobody paid much attention here," he said.

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