Truth, lies and the Czech scientist named as a secret police collaborator

A top Czech scientist has jumped to the defense of his colleague accused of collaboration with the Communist-era secret police (StB).

Marián Hajdúch 18.7.2011

Ze spisu Státní bezpečnosti na profesora Jiřího Bártka jasně vyplývá, že materiály neposílal do ČSSR pro StB, ale na vlastní brněnské pracoviště či pro další kolegy v Československu, kteří spolupracovali s laboratořemi v zahraničí. foto: © ČESKÁ POZICEČeská pozice

Ze spisu Státní bezpečnosti na profesora Jiřího Bártka jasně vyplývá, že materiály neposílal do ČSSR pro StB, ale na vlastní brněnské pracoviště či pro další kolegy v Československu, kteří spolupracovali s laboratořemi v zahraničí.

Top scientist and Director of the Institute of Molecular and Translational Medicine, Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, Palacký University in Olomouc, Marián Hajdúch accuses Czech newspaper Mladá Fronta Dnes (Mfd) of telling lies and half lies in its story that internationally recognised Czech scientist Jiří Bártek collaborated with the Communist-era secret police, StB, in stealing samples and equipment during foreign work placements. The story was covered by Czech Position and published by Britain's Daily Telegraph under the headline "Czech spy stole living tissue from London cancer clinic." Hajdúch asked Mfd to publish his letter but the paper refused. We have taken the opportunity to publish the letter in full together with the  deputy editor's reply.

I feel obliged to respond to the series of articles written by Jaroslav Kmenta and Roman Helcl and published in MF DNES on 7 July 2011 pertaining to the alleged collaboration of my colleague Prof. Jiří Bártek with the former communist State Security Service (StB). I am writing as his direct superior. It should be pointed out that in addition to his domiciliary workplace in Denmark, Prof. Bártek also works within two significant and highly productive research teams in the Czech Republic, namely, at the Institute of Molecular Genetics of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic in Prague, and at the Institute of Molecular and Translational Medicine of the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry of Palacký University in Olomouc, whose director I am.

It would seem that Messrs. Kmenta and Helcl have grossly violated elementary journalistic ethics. Their article is a shrewd mixture of truths, half-truths, lies and omitted yet crucial information.

It would seem that Messrs. Kmenta and Helcl have grossly violated elementary journalistic ethics. Their article is a shrewd mixture of truths, half-truths, lies and omitted yet crucial information. Coincidentally, Mr. Kmenta interviewed Prof. Bártek in Olomouc after he had given a lecture at Palacký University, during the photo session of our institute’s employees on 6 June 2011. At the time, the two journalists did show Prof. Bártek a subtle folder from his file, yet they only did so after the interview had ended. Accordingly, Messrs. Kmenta and Hecl are lying when they write: “MF DNES brought him his StB file and asked him to explain.‘I am not interested in reading it,’ he said.”

A colleague of mine, Vladimír Mišauer, witnessed this part of the interview and he can testify that the very opposite is the case. In point of fact, Messrs. Kmenta and Helcl were not interested in any explanation. Immediately after he was shown them, Mr. Bártek asked whether he could keep and read through the StB materials, which he had never seen before. Mr. Kmenta refused but offered to send to Prof. Bártek in Denmark a copy of these materials, including the text of the interview, which should be authorised by Prof. Bártek. However, although more than a month has passed since then, Messrs. Kmenta and Helcl have not been able to send either.

Hence, it comes as no surprise that in the published article Mr. Kmenta repeatedly claims that Prof. Bártek wasn’t interested in the content of his file. 

On the very next day, we found out Mr. Kmenta’s telephone number and tried to contact him with the aim to obtain the materials, yet he repeatedly failed to answer our calls. I therefore decided to acquire the entire file from the Archives of Security Folders of the Czech Republic, read through it, come to my own opinion of the matters and subsequently act accordingly. 

To begin with, I have to point out that the file in question contains 908 pages and that it is practically impossible that it is identical with the thin file Mr. Kmenta held in his hands. The content of the file was extremely illuminative for me – it is an example of the sophisticated work of the incredible apparatus of the State Security Service, an absurd ideology, human bravery, as well as failure. It can only be judged as a whole and in no case is it possible to draw any conclusions from mere fragments of it.

Following my thorough reading through the entire StB file and in light of my deep knowledge of the science community, I am convinced that Prof. Bártek basically did not do anything wrong and I regard the materials published by Mladá fronta dnes as, at best, manipulative. For several reasons:

1) Sending cell cultures and apparatuses cannot be deemed “theft”. As far as I understand, it concerned published materials which in the science community are routinely provided against payment of postal charges. A number of leading journals even condition publication of a scientific work on releasing used cell lines, plasmids and antibodies for the science community. This claim is especially absurd given the fact that many of these lines and antibodies were prepared by Prof. Bártek himself and sent to his own workplace in Brno with very precise instructions as to whom they should be handed over, how promptly and at which temperature the material must be delivered. In several passages of the file, the StB officers even complain of being mere couriers to Prof. Bártek.

2) The materials and apparatuses sent to Czechoslovakia were very often bought by Prof. Bártek himself, which surprised the StB officers themselves, or were discarded equipment from the host workplace. By no means were they embargoed apparatuses, as claimed by Mr. Kmenta in his article, but ordinary small pieces of laboratory equipment (for example, electrophoresis units, shakers, etc.), which were unavailable in Czechoslovakia owing to a lack of foreign currency, not because of an embargo…  For instance, after the revolution in 1989 our Olomouc workplace received two trucks full of similar apparatuses and medical equipment from abroad, free of charge, out of sheer professional camaraderie and in the endeavour to help a science community previously suffering behind the Iron Curtain. 

The materials Bártek sent to Czechoslovakia were not for the StB but his own Brno workplace and other colleagues in Czechoslovakia. 

3) In his work, Bártek exclusively focused on basic cancer research, whose direct industrial applicability was very small. Throughout his life, Bártek has been motivated by the desire for knowledge, a natural inquisitiveness and the endeavour to help patients, medical students and science in general. If you read through Bártek’s file attentively, you will find, among other facts, that in 1988 he turned down an extremely lucrative offer from a Nobel Prize winner, since he wanted to live and work in his homeland and build up here a state-of-the-art oncology research institute. The file also reveals that the materials Bártek sent to Czechoslovakia were not for the StB but his own Brno workplace and other colleagues in Czechoslovakia who co-operated with laboratories abroad. Owing to this, even in the onerous conditions of a country behind the Iron Curtain, these scientists published significant joint works that advanced our knowledge of cancer cell biology. Evidently, this co-operation was mutually beneficial.

Prof. Bártek’s interaction with the State Security Service was without any financial remuneration. Quite the contrary. He even contributed his own money to Czechoslovak science and research. Prof. Bártek evidently did not consider the impacts and consequences of this co-operation. Given the circumstances of the time, no choice was perhaps the right one, but by no means did he harm anyone. From a historical perspective, he managed to outsmart the StB and make use of this for the common good. 

Who of us has the right, some 25 years later, to judge him? Who is all of a sudden interested in it, and who wants to destroy the reputation of the most distinguished Czech cancer research expert?

I do not think that it is someone from the science community. We may be competitive, but we have a code of honor and are able to appreciate an extraordinary talent whose level we have not attained. In addition, Prof. Bártek has never kept his collaboration with the StB a secret; I myself have known about it for about three years now. Messrs. Kmenta and Helcl have by no means convinced me by claiming that a random MF DNES reader drew his attention to the connection. Identification of the respective person, especially in the case of such common names as Novák or Bártek, in the StB files is not simple. To do so, one needs precise personal data, and definitive identification of the given person is only possible after picking up and reading through a file. Perhaps one day we will find out who picked up this file, whether someone else besides a MF DNES employee did so, and what was his/her real motivation. 

On 11 July 2011, I offered my response to the MF DNES article. Unfortunately, the editorial staff refused to publish it. I am attaching the explanation from the MF DNES deputy editor-in-chief Jiří Kubík upon his request:   

Dear Mr. Hajdúch,

I am replying to the letter you sent to us in response to the articles written by my colleagues Jaroslav Kmenta and Roman Helcl. I have to inform you that we will not be publishing your text since, in my opinion, there is no reason to do so. If, as you wrote, you offer this text to another media outlet, I would like to ask you to include this statement of mine too.

In your text, you claim that a colleague of yours witnessed the discussion between Messrs Kmenta and Helcl and Professor Bartek. Unfortunately, it would seem that this “witness” of yours, your colleague, either misheard or made some conjectures. It is not true that the journalists told Professor Bártek that they were in possession of the entire file and that they would scan it and send it to him in Denmark. They offered him the opportunity to read through the part of the file they had with them, which Professor Bártek refused to do. When it comes to the so-called authorisation of the interview, which you claim was promised, the journalists transcribed it from a dictaphone, edited it and emailed it to Professor Bártek to look at about two days before the article was published. Professor Bártek did not respond to the email (sent to the address he himself gave to my colleagues).

When it comes to the conclusions you arrived at after reading through the thousand pages of the StB file, I must point out that you often have a different angle of vision of the matter since you strove to tone down some things and overlook others. Hence, you may have the impression that Professor Bártek carried out meritorious activity and managed to outsmart the State Secret Service. I admit that his collaboration with the intelligence service is not a matter that could be the subject of a simple commentary (after all, MF DNES did not publish a simple commentary but, on the contrary, tried to view the issue from various angles). Nevertheless, in the described “Interleukin 2” case, for instance, it was by no means a routine delivery of a piece of scientific knowledge. “With regard to the cogency of the information pertaining to IL2, it is necessary that Rak (Bártek’s nickname – my note) keep absolute discretion about the fact that he delivered IL2 to the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic,” wrote the intelligence service to Bártek operative officer, and continued: “The development of IL2 will probably continue at the research institute in Brno, provided that a state task will be built for this research, and thus the possible result of the research will be legended. This will make it clear that IL2 was developed in Czechoslovakia  and not imported from abroad.”

This too is a quotation from the file we read through.

And as regards the end of you text, where you indicate that the publishing of the story relating to Professor Bártek in MF DNES has a sinister background and that you do not believe that a random reader could have drawn attention to it, I can only state that you have no proof on which you could base your claim and you made unfounded speculations about some sort of conspiracy. 

I understand that you are trying to defend your colleague in this form. However, in our opinion, shutting one’s eyes to the past and things one would rather not be reminded of is not the right path. We cannot run away from the past, the most we can do is want to pretend that we do not see it.

Wishing you a pleasant summer

Jiří Kubík, deputy editor-in-chief, MF DNES

 

What can be added to this reply? Mr. Kubík is in an unenviable situation, given that he has to rely on the assertions of his subordinates, such as myself. Be that as it may, I must insist that the interview took place in the manner I described. In this matter, we have found another witness, the journalism student Marek Partyš, who is filming a documentary about the building up of our institute. He described the situation exactly as my colleague Vladimír Mišauer did. And what’s more, we have found that one of the illustration shots in the footage he shot that day captures by mere chance the moment when Mr. Kmenta shows Professor Bártek the StB file. The video recording confirms that Mr. Kmenta only showed Professor Bártek the materials after the interview was over, and that he and his colleague refused to hand them over to Professor Bártek. In no case did Professor Bártek say that which Messrs Kmenta and Helcl quoted him as saying in the MF DNES article: “I am not interested in reading it.” The very opposite is true. Professor Bártek was indeed interested in reading the file, which he had never seen before, and expressing his opinion of it. Therefore, he expected Mr. Kmenta to send it to him, as Mr. Kmenta promised he would, which is also caught on our video recording. If Mr. Kmenta did actually send the interview for authorisation, Prof. Bártek could not have responded to it anyway. Copenhagen was afflicted by major floods, which also disabled the email server, and the institute has been without electronic communication for more than two weeks.

When Prof. Bártek sent the plasmid with the IL2 gene to Czechoslovakia, it had no commercial value; it could only be used for research.

As regards the IL2 “affair” from the end of 1988 and the beginning of 1989 quoted by Mr. Kubík, I cannot but express deep regret at the fact that Messrs Kmenta and Helcl have not consulted a specialist in this matter, and have not even bothered to look at, for example, Wikipedia. If they had, they would have found out that IL2 was discovered in 1976 (Morgan D.A., et al.: Selective in vitro growth of T lymphocytes from human bone marrow. Science 1976, 193: 1007-1011), that the full sequence was published in 1983 (Tanigushi T. et al.: Structure and expression of a cloned cDNA for human interleukin 2. Nature 1983, 302: 305-310), that the recombinant protein had been available since 1983, and that the first clinical studies pertaining to it were published back in 1985 (e.g. Rosenberg S.A. et al.: Use of tumor infiltrating lymphocytes and interleukin 2 in the immunitary of patients with metastatic melanoma: a preliminary result. N. Engl. J. Med. 1985, 313:1485-1492). In 1988/89, when Prof. Bártek sent the plasmid with the IL2 gene to Czechoslovakia, it had no commercial value; it could only be used for research activities. It was available in hundreds of laboratories around the world and any specialist could draw it out from the cDNA library himself/herself. The fact that the StB seized upon this to serve its own interests only goes to show just how absurd the whole matter is. By the way, even if Slušovice (former company in Czechoslovakia) had begun producing IL2 (which, at the time nobody was able to do), nothing would have happened, since IL2 and its therapeutic use had never been patented in Czechoslovakia…

What to say in conclusion? MF DNES’s sloppy conduct, which has resulted in Prof. Bártek’s name being besmirched at both the national and international level, reminds me of an old joke dating from the totalitarian era: In the Egyptian desert, a Russian expedition discovers a new pyramid in which the pharaoh Tutankhamen and the sacred bird Ibis are living. “Given that you have been alive for more than 3,000 years, may we ask what you have been feeding on in the tomb?” the head of the expedition asks. The Pharaoh replies: “Well, I feed on the droppings of the Ibis.” The surprised archaeologist then asks the Ibis: “And what have you fed on?” You can certainly anticipate the Ibis’s answer: “I feed on Tutankhamen’s droppings.” Let us add a bit of background – the model of symbiosis between Tutankhamen and the Ibis served as the basis for the origination of Comecon (the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance, the economic counterpart to the Warsaw Pact).

Droppings

Professor Bártek was not a snitch. He made use of the StB so as to send materials to his laboratory in Czechoslovakia. The StB officers were happy to be able to display “high activity” to their superiors; therefore, we can find a lot of exaggerated information in the file. Messrs Kmenta and Helcl did not make the effort to verify the information and, what’s more, in the endeavour to produce a new media “story”, they concealed a number of essential items of information contained in the file that cast Prof. Bártek in a favourable light. And what is the upshot of their endeavours? Merely the confirmation of the fact that, even 25 years down the road, only droppings can be produced from droppings...