The Waiting Game


He is behind bars and barbed wire for what is left of his life; this round, soft, sly, sometimes funny, mostly sad, always hopeful little grandfather.

This master spy they call the Meister.

This human relic of the Cold War.

This East German intelligence agent who stole America's military secrets for eight years and caused, in the still angry opinion of one American pursuer, more damage than any spy in the history of East-West tensions.

Eight years ago, with Europe divided and the Berlin Wall a firm symbol of conflicting ideologies, honor among spies was clear. U-2 pilot Gary Powers served only two years in a Soviet prison. Defectors were treated as new allies. The common scenario was pure LeCarre: one of ours, one of theirs, traded at dawn at some foggy border bridge where nobody smiled.

But those adventures are done. East Germany has been dismantled, and there's no government to negotiate for forgotten spies. Which leaves Huseyin Yildirim alone, begging for a hearing.

"I am wanting, desperately, freedom," he says.

He is 69 and has been in federal prisons, in Tennessee and California, for eight years. He tried to escape in Memphis--caught after the bolt cutters he built failed--so in 1992 he was sent here, a maximum-security penitentiary that replaced Alcatraz and is called the New Rock.

He wants again to visit Turkey where he was born, to live in the Germany that he adopted, to spend a few final years with his children and their children.

"I was spy, yes," Yildirim admits. "But that time was war, and eight years more than enough for prisoners of war."

Now he has an attorney sending pro bono appeals for commutation to anyone in Washington who will listen. This salvo of letters, e-mail and faxes pounds the human rights facets of Yildirim's case, his perception of a railroading in federal court, and the suggested inhumane confinement of an old man disintegrated into a Cold War museum piece.

"I am heavily punished," he insists, in English that has barely survived decades of his battering. "I want to forget all past. I would like to apologize to the American people."

But we, those American people and our system, say no.

For although America plays espionage games--even honoring those who work the shadows for our intelligence services--there is little forgiveness for those who trespass against us.

Especially, say his federal minders, a master spy such as Yildirim--a decorated intelligence craftsman who may still be protecting the names and activities of several suspected but unprosecuted American soldiers he turned into traitors.

So firm is that belief, agents of the FBI and the National Security Agency continue to visit and remain accessible to Yildirim. They write him letters. They send him Christmas and Easter cards.

He has confirmed some suspects, say sources, but the government believes he knows more. There is no statute of limitations for espionage, so the waiting game is endless. Said one agent: "It would be fair to assume [federal agencies] are not [visiting] because Yildirim reminds them of their kindly old uncle."

Gentle, harmless, genuinely remorseful man?

Or best actor?

Frederick Kramer of Savannah, Ga., the U.S. assistant attorney who prosecuted Yildirim, sees his old foe as a manipulative, lying mercenary who creates a simple-minded persona to conceal his absolute cunning.

B. Avant Edenfield, the federal judge who sentenced the spy to life without possibility of parole, writes that Yildirim is loathsome, should never be freed and is fortunate not to have forfeited his life for "a sordid and treacherous business."

A retired investigator, who requested anonymity, was no less inflexible: "The Meister was not small fry. He was one of the most effective, damaging, dangerous spies in the history of the Cold War."


The Meister. The Master.

First, it was a legitimate credential Yildirim earned in the '70s after Mercedes-Benz's scholarships put him through automotive engineering school in West Germany.

"Meister" evolved into a code name when he volunteered to spy for East Germany's intelligence service, the Hauptverwaltung Alufklarung (HVA), part of the Ministry of State Security--Stasi.

His spymasters, admits Yildirim, still with a flicker of pride, were Gen. Harry Schutt--often identified as Communism's most successful espionage chief--and the infamous Markus Wolf, HVA head.

Yildirim says his motive was money, lots of it, never communistic idealism or the rush of spying. And he was as polished at the craft as he was at rebuilding cars.

"I don't care about the [spy] games at all," he says. Dressed in penitentiary tan, shirt and slacks, he has brought to the interview wedding photographs of his children, snapshots of his grandchildren, old clippings of fellow spies captured or released. "East German spies. French spies. Everybody spying on each other. A very complicated city, Berlin, at that time. This was the Casablanca of the Cold War.

"And I was just a foreign agent. This was my job. Germany was my second country . . . and I am not ashamed of working for Germany. I was a government employee, just that."

The only flaw: Yildirim was also employed by the U.S. government as supervisor of the auto crafts shop at the Army's Field Station Berlin, a 1,300-person listening post that eavesdropped by satellite on Warsaw Pact military activities.

For almost a decade, usually on Stasi leads, he sounded out intelligence teletypists, cryptographers, analysts, officers and enlisted men. Yildirim even lived with a female sergeant from the station.

A majority of those contacted, he says, did not respond to his gifts of auto parts, invitations to expensive dinners and suggestions to provide harmless information for "a rich relative in Turkish consulate . . . [soldiers] don't mind that, they know Turkey is a NATO member."

But at least half a dozen GIs, including then sergeant, later Warrant Officer James W. Hall, were turned.

"Their weakness is money," Yildirim says. He makes it sound as easy as closing a deal on a Saturn. "I tell them: 'Join the moneymakers, your salary is no good, so get the money.' "

Rank wasn't important. The depth of a soldier's intelligence work was. A starting payoff was $1,000, which was "big money for a little soldier [earning less than $15,000 a year] . . . next, two, three thousand dollars cash and is a big surprise."

And the hook was set.

Working closely with Hall--arrested in Georgia in 1988 and serving a 40-year military sentence--Yildirim sent gold mines to his East German handlers. Information on the Strategic Defense Initiative, the controversial Star Wars program that proposed satellite laser bombardment to explode nuclear missiles aimed from Eastern Europe. And details of Operation Reforger, a Western battle plan should the Cold War boil over. Three times he was decorated by his Stasi spymasters.

While nobody holds Yildirim responsible for the loss of American lives, one federal investigator says he certainly wrecked the triple ideals of electronic surveillance: "You don't want people to know what you're going after, what you're getting and what you're not getting."

Another agent noted that when combined with information from another '80s spy ring--the one directed by Navy Warrant Officer John H. Walker Jr., also sentenced to life--Yildirim's input meant "the other side was flat reading our mail."

At one point, Yildirim had gathered more than 10,000 classified documents and stored them in four Berlin locations awaiting his single, monthly delivery to East Germany. In a Berlin cemetery, buried in a plastic jerrycan next to a casket. In a railroad embankment. In a suitcase in the storage room of an apartment building, and in a paint bucket beneath the Berlin Wall.


Yildirim was scooped up by the FBI in December 1988. Two months earlier, he had left Germany and moved to Florida to live with Peggy Bie, an Army widow. Although not under investigation at the time, Yildirim made the mistake of calling Hall, meeting his old partner and giving him $5,000 cash from the East Germans. The soldier was being monitored by federal stakeouts and telephone taps.

Yildirim was sentenced after a three-day federal trial. And it is that trial that excited Santa Barbara lawyer Jamie Nichols into his two-year struggle to free Yildirim.

Nichols, 46, has waded through 1,000 pages of transcript and depositions, and spoken to intelligence officers who worked the case, the attorneys, Yildirim's family and the Turkish embassy. He is petitioning for commutation--through letters to President Clinton, to Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, to Pardon Attorney Margaret Colgate Love--on four points:

* Before trial, Yildirim revealed the locations of his buried secrets and they were recovered. Why wasn't a leniency deal struck for his cooperation?

* Hall was not called to testify on his relationship with the Meister. Had Yildirim come in from the Cold War or was he relocating and jump-starting his espionage activities?

* His court-appointed attorney did not call Yildirim to the stand.

* No witnesses were summoned in Yildirim's defense.

"I'd at least have called in witnesses to corroborate [Yildirim's] story and create an argument for reasonable doubt," Nichols says. "Yildirim could have been called to testify. . . . He would have made an incredible, impressive witness.

"And I'd have tried to interview Hall, because there was no hard proof that [Yildirim] had actually spied in the United States."

Prosecutor Kramer, however, believes Yildirim was fairly prosecuted and competently defended. Judge Edenfield did not respond to three Times' requests to comment on the case, but in a short, stiffly written reply to Nichols, said he is "unalterably opposed to any mitigation or commutation of the sentence."

"Those who commit espionage against our Country should pay a dear price . . . [for] the espionage wars never end," he wrote.

Yildirim was defended by Savannah lawyer Lamar Walter, now an assistant U.S. attorney working with former adversary Kramer.

Walter acknowledges the opportunity of a plea bargain in exchange for the buried documents. But, he says, that chance was heavily damaged when Yildirim gave a pretrial television interview and disclosed the existence and locations of the secret papers.

Further, no deal was attempted because Yildirim intended to plead not guilty. "So it wasn't like: 'I'm guilty and I want to make a deal,' " Walter explains. But he did want to enter the documents as proof that Yildirim kept them rather than turn them over to East Germany. "It was like: 'I'm an innocent man and [keeping] these documents will prove my innocence.' "

That also backfired badly.

With the material were letters addressed to Yildirim--a thank-you note from the East Germans for services rendered and a Stasi wish list for additional documents. And some of the papers recovered were ones that had been ordered by the East Germans.

Why didn't Yildirim testify?

"He was given the opportunity to testify, the court fully explained to him his rights, and he elected not to testify," Walker insists. "It was his decision, absolutely."

Why weren't defense witnesses called?

"There was nobody I could have called as a character witness or whatever," he says. "This was a very, very difficult case. Yildirim was his own worst enemy."

Why not call Hall?

"Hall had branded him as a spy and had detailed minutely his involvement in the conspiracy," Walker says. "He would have no way exculpated us."

Why the sentencing disparity between Yildirim, a bona fide agent of a foreign power, given life, and Hall, a traitor to his country, sentenced to only 40 years?

"I didn't think that was good," acknowledges Walter. "But it was within the sentencing guidelines, which didn't confront Hall, who was tried by a military court."

Nichols, however, believes the sentencing gap remains a viable argument for freeing his client. Also that espionage superstars such as Wolf and Schutt are walking free, while their underling agent is in prison for life.

And Nichols thinks there may be weight to the fact--confirmed by a Justice Department spokesman--that Yildirim is the only foreign national in the federal prison system serving time for espionage.

"[Yildirim] is a prisoner of a war we won a long time ago," says Nichols, sounding a theme of his letters to Washington, correspondence so far unanswered. "Not to release this prisoner of war says we are unforgiving, punitive, hard-headed and mean-spirited."

At 69 and after having survived a 1995 prison attack (a wooden knife was rammed into his throat), Yildirim faces mortality as "a confused, vulnerable, helpless old man," Nichols maintains.

"We have exacted our pound of flesh. We've got eight years out of the guy. Let him go."


Only, imply government sources, if Yildirim tells all.

Although few directly involved with the case would talk for the record, some, always anonymously, say there are clear indications Yildirim is holding back. Otherwise, the National Security Agency and the FBI would not have sent agents to talk with the spy years after his conviction.

Alan Brisentine and Rod Weidner are the NSA agents who visited Yildirim. The agency's public affairs office denied all comment, even refusing to identify Brisentine and Weidner as agents. FBI agent Kate Alleman has visited Yildirim, sent him an Easter card and wrote in a 1992 letter: "I cannot visit you unless I have proof you are willing to speak truthfully. . . . I think about you and always wish you the best." Alleman has declined to comment.

But Barry Colvert, a now-retired FBI polygraph expert who gave Yildirim several lie detector tests before his trial, says Yildirim lied during the examination when asked if he could name other GIs who had handed him documents.

"I told him: 'There were other players involved in this with you,' " Colvert remembers. "And he said: 'Absolutely not.' I said: 'What if I tell you about a couple of players who have already told me about their involvement with you?' And he said: 'Oh, oh.' "

Colvert retested Yildirim.

"I asked: 'Now, other than these players that I've told you about, is there anybody else?' " continued Colvert. "He said: 'Absolutely not, absolutely not.' Well, he flunks."

Yildirim says that during Colvert's examination, he was confused by the questions, scared and anxious about his poor English.

So when Colvert asked about others involved, Yildirim says, "I tried to honestly think about another sergeant who give me a catalog . . . not classified documents, but a computer catalog.

"Was document or not document? I hesitate and this hesitation is recorded in the machine."

Colvert doesn't buy that.

He says it was a fair examination with clear readouts--and Yildirim's "computer catalog" was indeed a "highly classified volume."

With only life imprisonment to lose, with freedom to gain, with years ebbing, there seems no reason why Yildirim should hold back information.

Maybe, goes one theory, after decades of deceit, he is incapable of separating truth from lies. Or he simply doesn't believe a government that put him in prison can be trusted to release him. And it is conceivable there is a streak of honor in Yildirim that prevents him from turning on spies he genuinely likes and respects.

Or owes.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World