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Defector's web still tangling

Officer who fled Prague in 1968 remains controversial

Jan Sejna
By Katerina Zachovalova
For The Prague Post

Seven years after his death at the age of 70, Jan Sejna, a well-connected ex-general in the Czechoslovak Army who escaped to the United States in 1968, remains a man of controversy.

For most Czech officials and historians, Sejna was a liar who made up his claims implicating Czechoslovakia in conducting medical experiments on U.S. prisoners from the Korean and Vietnam wars and in serving as a transit country for prisoners on their way to the Soviet Union.

Sejna, a poorly educated son of farmers, climbed quickly up the military career ladder. He joined the army in 1950. Eighteen years later, a protege of then-President Antonin Novotny and a close associate of the president's son, Antonin Jr., Gen. Sejna was a chief of staff and the chief Communist Party secretary at the Defense Ministry. He was also a member of the National Assembly.

"I never liked these sort of people," Lubomir Strougal, 80, a former top communist politician said of Sejna, who exercised his ambitions through an extensive network of connections. "It was typical of him to go after yet another post."

Gen. Sejna carried out President Novotny's policy of installing uneducated workers into offices at the ministry, according to Vojtech Mencl, a historian who in 1968 was the rector at the Military Political Academy. Sejna, a short chubby man, described by Mencl as jolly and entertaining, was admired by those he helped and hated by those he left behind.

"People's feelings toward him were more escalated than toward anybody else," said Mencl, 81.

Not long after conservative President Novotny was sidetracked by reform communists in January 1968, a scandal erupted around his favorate general. Sejna was, among other fraud charges, accused of embezzling approximately 300,000 Kcs by selling state-owned clover seed on the black market.

Nicknamed a "seed general" in his native country, Sejna defected to the United States just before being stripped of his parliamentary immunity.

In the decades after Sejna fled Czechoslovakia via Hungary, Yugoslavia and Italy, he worked for the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), providing them with credible information from behind the Iron Curtain.

"It should be noted that the source did submit to the polygraph examination during which no deception was indicated," reads a DIA memo dated April 27, 1992, on Sejna's initial POW debriefing.

Nevertheless, suspicions grew within the agencies over the trustworthiness of those claims.

According to Joseph D. Douglass, the author of Sejna's memoir, Betrayed: Missing American P.O.W.s, the former general has never made anything up.

"He does not gain anything by it because nobody wants to hear what he has to say anyway," Douglass said, referring to the cold welcome Sejna's claims received by the government and the intelligence agencies. "The reaction was to discredit him, and to discredit his reputation on Capitol Hill, and to set people against him."

But Sejna was not completely honest in what he had said. In a Sept. 17, 1996 statement before the House National Security Committee, he mentioned that he escaped Czechoslovakia with his son and his son's girlfriend. But the young woman was in fact the general's girlfriend, according to his Czech military counter-intelligence file and a former neighbor.

For Norm Kass, the executive secretary of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission for POW/MIAs, the dispute about Sejna's credibility is not relevant to the ongoing investigation.

"We don't take a position on what he said other than to say it is a starting point for conducting our work," Kass said by telephone from his Pentagon office. "We are not saying we are there to validate what he said. We are saying that we have reports, and by the way there are more sources than Jan Sejna that lead us to conclude that there should be a serious inquiry into the facts."

— Katerina Zachovalova

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REAL ESTATE Special Section June 17, 2004

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