The Czechoslovak agent in the BBC who almost was

  • Themes: Cold War, Espionage

Terézia Javorská, a BBC World Service broadcaster, was recently exposed as a Communist spy by the British press. A careful examination of the archives of the Czechoslovak State Security Service (Státní bezpečnost, StB) shows that few of these claims are true.

StB interrogation room in the Museum of Communism in Prague.
StB interrogation room in the Museum of Communism in Prague. Credit: VPC Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

On a cool summer evening in August 1987 a man and a woman in their late thirties arrived at Ashford railway station in Kent. Shortly after they got off their respective trains, acknowledging each other’s presence with a brief glance, they walked in the same direction, maintaining a cautious distance. Thirty minutes into their covert encounter, finally confident that they were free of hostile surveillance, they greeted each other and entered Blueberries restaurant on Church Street. It was here that Terézia Javorská, a BBC World Service broadcaster, reportedly agreed to become an agent – a top category of willing collaborator tasked with carrying out intelligence tasks – for the Czechoslovak State Security Service (Státní bezpečnost, or StB). Her initiation into the role was, however, also her last contact with the StB. She became an agent, but only on paper.

In January 2024, Javorská’s case received global coverage after it was revealed by a British tabloid that, in the 1980s, she ‘worked as a Communist Spy’ for the StB. The piece alleged Javorská was ‘recruited at a cocktail party’ and ‘agreed to betray her new country and colleagues for “ideological motive and patriotic sentiment”’. The revelations purported that the Slovak-born BBC broadcaster ‘used M&S [Marks & Spencer supermarket] carrier bags to signal potential danger, exchange code words about film directors and arrange rendezvous at opera houses by sending signals hidden in postcards’. The reporting suggested that the StB had successfully infiltrated the ranks of the world’s most famous public broadcasting service.

Over the past decades, remarkable historical documents detailing operations of Soviet Bloc secret services have emerged, allowing unprecedented insight into the workings of totalitarian security and intelligence services during the Cold War. Some of the best materials come from the Security Services Archive in the Czech Republic, where a copy of Javorská’s file is kept. The archive operates under remarkably liberal legislation – providing access to detailed, unredacted, files of communist operations, perpetrators and victims. This has been largely a blessing, but at times also a curse. While in most cases this unprecedented level of access has helped generate original, nuanced, research; in others it has invited ‘exposes’ of high-profile persons, often riddled with inaccuracies and presented without context or critical scrutiny.

The recent tabloid coverage of Javorská’s case is such a case in point. A careful examination of her partially destroyed file and that of her handler shows that few of the recent claims are in fact true. While Javorská did indeed meet and engage with Czechoslovak StB officers in the 1980s, this relationship is far more intricate than the recent revelations suggest. What these files reveal is not a story of a glamorous agent enthusiastically following StB orders and delivering high-grade intelligence on the BBC. It is rather a tale of how the StB zeroed in on a well-placed single émigré missing her family – spending years earning her trust, dispelling her fears, and collecting compromat in case she decided to slip away. It is a story of how, as her relationship with her handler deepened, she occasionally shared information about her contacts, but, after the StB pushed her into becoming an official agent, she cut off contact for good.

Javorská, born in 1950, grew up as one of five siblings raised by deeply religious catholic parents in Spišský Štiavnik, a village in eastern Slovakia. When she failed to get accepted into university, she decided to go abroad to improve her language skills. In 1969, shortly after Moscow and its allies crushed the Prague Spring, the 19-year-old left Czechoslovakia to work as an au pair in Britain. Like many Czechoslovaks who got a taste for the West and saw the post-Prague spring regime clamp down on basic rights and freedoms, Javorská also decided not to return home from her year abroad. Prague rewarded her disobedience with an unconditional 12-months prison sentence. Cut off from her homeland, she gradually found her way: winning a scholarship to study social sciences at the University of London, and, in 1976, taking up a job at the Slovak Desk of the Czechoslovak Section of the BBC World Service.

Javorská first appeared on the radar of the StB’s London rezidentura – its intelligence outpost embedded within the Kensington-based Czechoslovak Embassy – in November 1983. Following a public lecture, she approached a Czechoslovak diplomat attending the event inquiring about possibilities of ‘adjusting her legal relationship with Prague’. This was a euphemism for what was effectively a money-making scheme designed by Prague to acquire hard currency from émigrés eager to buy their way out of harsh prison sentences, secure an amnesty, and thus be able visit their families. While the diplomat – who was, in fact, the StB rezident – tried to lure Javorská to visit the embassy offering to advocate on her behalf, she did not take the bait. The StB would have to find a different way to get to her.

Six months later, in March 1984, the rezident and his more junior colleague, Libor Tělecký (alias VOZŇÁK) launched the first phase of their operation – approach and assessment – aimed at gauging Javorska’s reactions and receptiveness to further engagement. Posing as diplomats, they appeared at various social events – eagerly chatting to those attending the cocktail circuit – Javorská included. Nevertheless, the StB-orchestrated encounters came to an abrupt end. This was due to a case of suspected treachery within the ranks of the StB rezidentura in London which, in May 1984, imposed a freeze on all StB activity in Britain. For almost a year, life at the rezidentura stopped.

In early 1985, when clandestine activity was resumed, Tělecký continued where he left off: assessing the well-placed Slovak whom they now referred to as ‘TERY’. The StB was keen to learn more about her character, family, political views, networks, and standing within the BBC. The officers were also trying to identify plausible vulnerabilities or motivations for TERY to betray her new homeland. What stood out was her strong ‘emotional attachment’ to her family back in Czechoslovakia, whom she supported financially, and occasionally hosted in London. The StB thought her close familial bonds could ‘play one of the decisive roles in identifying the right motive for intended recruitment’. Accordingly, they ran checks on her family, intercepted their post and questioned her sister.

Soon after, Javorská was identified as a worthy candidate for an ‘agent’. Tělecký thus reappeared in her orbit – rekindling contact in March 1985 at an official function at the Czechoslovak Embassy. The operation had entered its second, development, a phase aimed at building trust, understanding Javorská’s needs or desires, and gradually revealing the nature of the agency’s goals. Tělecký used various pretexts to set up face-to-face meetings with the BBC broadcaster. By summer 1985, these became regular, deliberate, held in various pubs across town. Aiming to impress, at times Tělecký presented Javorská with an StB-funded bouquet. This, however, did little to dispel her worries. She knew that, as a BBC journalist, she was prohibited from meeting with representatives of Soviet Bloc states without her employer’s consent. Accordingly, their meetings had to be discrete and were soon ‘characterised by clandestine features’. While these measures were a necessary precaution, they made her uneasy.

In fact, by November 1985, TERY started getting cold feet. Several factors contributed to her anxiety. In August 1985, the Observer newspaper found that MI5 routinely vetted BBC staff appointments. If deemed unsuitable, BBC applications would be rejected without explanation. Shortly thereafter, Javorská confessed to Tělecký that she was worried about ‘spymania in the media’. Her fear was arguably further exacerbated when MI5 questioned her about her work and personal life, political views, and, most alarmingly, her relations to employees of the Czechoslovak Embassy. While TERY reportedly kept her cool at the meeting and only admitted to official contacts sanctioned by her superiors, this tipped her over the edge. She suspended her meetings with Tělecký.

The ambitious StB officer was, however, determined not to let her go. Javorská was considered agent material. She was confident, quick-witted, and strong-willed. Her job enabled access to persons and organisations of interest to the StB – be they émigrés or foreign nationals. She was also a class and ideological misfit. Unlike most of her colleagues in BBC World Service, she was not from a professional middle class, or, what the communists called ‘bourgeoisie’, background. While not a communist, openly displaying her discontent with the communist regime, she was also no vocal dissident. In fact, she was critical of some of the British-based opponents of the regime; and they also disliked her ardent Slovak nationalism. These fault lines were intriguing and potentially exploitable. She had another considerable vulnerability – incredibly close relations with the family she had left behind the Iron Curtain. Moreover, Tělecký worked hard to create an attachment between them, often a key factor in agent recruitment.

Arguably, he continued to pursue her for the benefit of his own career. She was Tělecký’s most promising contact, the best shot at recruiting an agent during his first posting abroad. It was not just him but, in the mid-1980s, the entire London rezidentura was struggling to meet their bosses’ recruitment demands. This was a far cry from the 1950s and 1960s, when Czechoslovakia’s intelligence outpost in Britain achieved considerable success recruiting assets. Research conducted by intelligence scholar, Dan Lomas shows that, during this time, the StB came close to planting an agent-typist into the BBC. Its three most notable recruitments, however, were Labour MPs William Owen and John Stonehouse, and a Conservative MP, Ray Mawby. Although difficult to run, they provided unparalleled insight into the workings of Westminster, Whitehall and the thinking of London’s allies. This won their handlers praise from the KGB.

Despire these early successes, the 1970s and 1980s were difficult times for Czechoslovak spies in London. Following the suppression of the Prague Spring, the StB suffered a series of blows. A year into the Soviet occupation, more than 40 Czechoslovak intelligence and security officials defected to Western intelligence services, providing valuable insight into the workings of the StB and KGB. Of key importance was First Directorate officer, Josef Frolík, who served at the London rezidentura in the mid-1960s and, following his defection, detailed his experience in a widely-circulated memoir.

Moles also significantly contributed to crippling StB performance in Britain. One Miroslav Kroča, a seemingly loyal employee of StB’s domestic security branch, the Second Directorate, which was tasked with running so-called ‘operational games’ against Britain, disclosed information that rendered most StB efforts in Britain futile. Prague learned of Kroča’s long-time treachery in 1976, shortly after his sudden death. This triggered a large-scale molehunt and reorganisation at StB. Most experienced officers working on Britain were either moved to other accounts or dismissed. Tělecký and other novices were put in their place. This, coupled with an aggressive MI5 surveillance strategy, ruses and expulsions, made any Czechoslovak espionage activity in Britain difficult. As the StB admitted, in the mid-1980s, the London rezidentura was not actively running a single agent or confidential contact.

Javorská was thus a unicorn, one of very few worthy candidates for an agent. Accordingly, Tělecký put extra effort into calming her worries triggered by the ‘media spy fever’ and her own MI5 questioning. While in early 1986, he succeeded in putting the operation back on track, their modus operandi had to change: from then on, all their meetings were pre-arranged and held outside of London. He also recorded their conversations as potential compromat. It was perhaps at around this time that Tělecký broke his cover, telling Javorská he was no diplomat, but an StB officer. In March 1986 he reported that Javorská was ‘fully aware of the potential of being compromised and being in contact with a member of CSSR foreign intelligence’.

This did little to calm her fears. Javorská missed several prearranged meetings, leaving the StB wondering whether she was getting cold feet again. It was time to end the development phase and see if Javorská was all in or out. At the end of 1986, Tělecký thus moved to the third, recruitment, phase. He was, however, not entirely confident that his three-year effort would pay off. While he believed that their close relationship coupled with the fact that she could now be easily blackmailed played in his favour, her fear of exposure and repercussions did not. He, nevertheless, proceeded with his plan and offered her collaboration. When TERY refused – not wanting to tie herself formally to the StB – Tělecký travelled to Prague to plan one last effort at recruiting his most prized contact.

Eight months later came that cool August day when the two met in Ashford. It was here that he made the formal pitch to Javorská – an offer to become an StB agent. Surviving documents show that she did not jump at the offer, reluctant to ‘tie her to this role for life’. After further persuasion, however, she agreed and gave a ‘verbal pledge’ to a trial period of three years. If she were ever to be exposed, Tělecký promised her safe return to Czechoslovakia, financial support and employment. Six years into his posting in London, Tělecký – now the StB rezident in London – finally recruited his first agent.

It was at this meeting in Ashford, in August 1987, that Javorská became Agent VORA and was, for the first time, tasked by the StB. She was to focus primarily on Czechoslovak émigrés – namely journalist Karel Kyncl, activist and future Czech minister of foreign affairs Jan Kavan, novelist Zdena Tominová, BBC colleague Jan Bednář, and academic Alexander Tomský. She was to make contact with them, acquire information and spot potential agents within their milieu. While the StB also asked her to acquire materials detailing BBC coverage of developments in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, she was not asked to engage in so called ‘active measures’ – aimed at influencing BBC broadcasting.

This new phase required careful planning and new rules. Moreover, after seven years in post, Tělecký was leaving London. Javorská would thus be run remotely, from Prague. She was given instructions on how to contact Tělecký via signal postcards sent to cover addresses in third countries, and, eventually, to meet him in either Hungary or Austria, where she would be trained in counter-surveillance and further clandestine conduct, including invisible writing. Javorská was told to initiate the next meeting in six months. Before they parted, Tělecký gave his first recruit a Czech garnet brooch; she wrapped her goodbyes in two books – Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister. The meeting ended amicably and, to Tělecký, it carried an air of promise.

What appeared to be the start of Javorská’s promising career as an StB agent was, in fact, its end. Despite agreeing to becoming Agent VORA, she never contacted her handlers, received training, nor did she use M&S bags or any of the agreed signals to contact them. Although, a year after her recruitment, the StB made a last-ditch attempt to resuscitate this alliance by sending her a letter, VORA remained quiet. And, as they were considering their next move, came the final nail in the coffin of Javorská’s relationship with the StB. In mid-December 1988, Vlastimil Ludvík (PANTŮČEK), a former London rezidentura, defected to the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) while serving in India. Fearing he might have exposed Javorská to SIS, the StB ‘conserved’ her file, stapling an unequivocal warning note on its cover: ‘DO NOT CONTACT! ATTENTION, content of this file no. 49308 was familiar to traitor Pantůček, Operation PANT.’

These concerns seemed to have been well-founded. According to Andrew Taussig, who was Controller of European Services in the BBC World Service in 1988 and knew Javorská well, it was around the time of Ludvík’s defection that the Security Service flagged further interest in her. He remembers being called into the office by his boss, who enquired whether he had any worries about Terézia Javorská. Taussig, who was familiar with the European services’ staff and output, replied that he had not had any worries expressed or reported from people working alongside her about attempted influence on her service’s output or otherwise causing unease among colleagues – a recollection he recently verified in recent conversations with retired staff. Clearly, the BBC’s key concern in any such case, alongside pressures on team colleagues, was the potential impact on broadcast output – something ‘VORA’ was never tasked with.

While Javorská’s career as a spy was over before it began, controversies remain. Key among them is the question of how much the BBC broadcaster told Tělecký during their 15 or so meetings prior to recruitment. While reporting on these meetings has been destroyed, documents summarising the evolution of her case note that Javorská shared ‘some information about persons from the Czechoslovak émigré community, their activities, and relations within the offices of the Czech and Slovak section of the BBC’, adding that some of this information was considered ‘very interesting’. Although she was not tasked with deliberately acquiring information for the StB prior to the meeting in Ashford, she clearly did have discussions with Tělecký, which revealed information about people in her orbit. It is unclear, however, whether she disclosed this information unwittingly during casual conversations with Tělecký, who, for the first two years of their relationship, posed as a diplomat; or whether she relayed it later, with the understanding that this will be used by the StB. The name register in her file suggests the missing reports featured 11 people (apart from her family), none of whom appear on the list of targets she was given in Ashford. The information Tělecký passed on to Prague was likely about them and, judging from his relatively lukewarm assessment, was far from high-grade intelligence.

Another mystery that lingers over this case pertains to her contact with MI5. While her handlers were confident that she did not disclose her StB connection to British authorities, without access to MI5 records we are unable to assess whether Javorská’s continuous fear of collaboration was fed by further visits by the Security Service she did not disclose. Or, as some have suggested, whether she ended up working for the other side. While espionage is a fickle game where sides are often switched and boundaries frequently crossed, Javorská’s persistent fear of exposure and MI5’s renewed interest after Ludvík’s defection, makes this scenario rather improbable.

These mysteries are unlikely to be resolved. Javorská, now in her seventies, is in long-term care following a debilitating accident, unable to tell her version of events. StB officers are cagey about their Cold War-era careers. And, while new documents may emerge, they are unlikely to settle these disputes entirely. The files directly relevant to this case available to us today, however, do not validate the damning exposé painting her as a well-trained and ruthless communist agent. They are not a testament of deep communist infiltration and treachery within the BBC. Their greatest value lies elsewhere – in what they reveal about StB methods of targeting Czechoslovak émigrés abroad; about the way the seemingly omnipotent StB struggled to recruit valuable assets amid escalating pressure from higher-ups to replicate past successes; and about how, in the 1980s, the East was slowly losing the covert Cold War with the West.


Daniela Richterova