Wolfgang Vogel, the spy trader

Aflurry of phone calls among old spies and diplomats passed along the news that Wolfgang Vogel, the shadowy East German lawyer who negotiated spy swaps between East and West during the Cold War, had died Aug. 21 at the age of 82.

Vogel’s first swap was the 1962 exchange of Rudolf Abel, a KGB colonel imprisoned in the United States, for Francis Gary Powers, the American U-2 pilot who had been shot down over Russia in 1960. His last, in 1986, involved the release of Anatoly Shcharansky, the prominent Soviet dissident who emigrated to Israel and (after changing his name to Natan Sharansky) became a Cabinet minister. In all, Vogel was involved in the release of more than 33,000 political prisoners.

For many years, as a State Department lawyer in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I was the U.S. official who dealt with Vogel on spy swaps, or “prisoner exchanges,” as they were officially known. We would sit in Vogel’s law office in East Berlin, with its overstuffed furniture, its lace curtains, a heavy, dark table and a stuffed fox (a gift from his children), and negotiate who would be traded for whom.

Because we both understood that his office was bugged by his client, the East German secret police known as the Stasi, we developed a special way of negotiating. We each brought a list of names that we would tap with our pens, pointing to the names of the people we wanted or were willing to trade. Eventually, we would signal through grunts, nods and smiles when we thought we had a trade that would be agreeable to our respective governments.

The last negotiation I conducted with him was in rather a different setting -- a bar in an upscale Washington hotel -- and it led to the release of a substantial number of prisoners in the East, including Sharansky, whom the Soviets insisted was an agent of U.S. intelligence, though he was not. I was stunned when Vogel said he thought the East would agree to trade nearly everyone on my list as well as Sharansky, whose freedom the U.S. had long sought. In retrospect, the willingness to release Sharansky -- who came walking across the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin some months later in an elaborately planned exchange of “spies” -- was an early sign that sea changes were about to occur in the Soviet Union and its puppet regimes in Eastern Europe.

In his dealings with the West, Vogel was always honest. When he said he had a “mandate” to negotiate, we could count on him to deliver. When he said something was too hard to do, it was. He was trusted by both sides, and, as a result, they used him not only for spy swaps but to convey sensitive political messages that couldn’t go through the normal diplomatic channels.

Although Vogel was personally honest -- meaning that he dealt with us in good faith when we negotiated -- he was, of course, an agent for a group of thoroughly corrupt regimes. Soviet Russia (which was his ultimate client even though his immediate superiors were in East Germany) maintained its empire through force and sophisticated terror. The Soviet empire had all the elements of criminal enterprises, and, in the end, it also corrupted Vogel.

After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, we heard that in addition to his work with us and with the West Germans on spy swaps and prisoner exchanges, he had arranged the emigration of thousands of people from East Germany. But he only did so, apparently, on the condition that they sold their property to someone favored by the East German regime, often a party official, and Vogel would take a cut. After the reunification of Germany, Vogel was charged with several crimes by the new German government, but he was convicted of only a relatively minor charge and forced to give up his law practice.

It seems ironic, in retrospect, that such corrupt regimes felt it necessary to bring in an outsider such as Vogel, an essentially honest man who was slowly transformed over 2 1/2 decades into a far more complex and, ultimately, tragic figure. He did what he had to do, I suppose, to prosper in a corrupt state, and prosper he did. He was no hero, but with us, at least, he remained honest.

Vogel’s death also is a reminder of Russia’s true nature. The Russians seem always to have, at the heart of their state apparatus, a totalitarian and authoritarian impulse that relies on a brutal secret police to maintain power -- going back to the czar and continuing until today. The events of 9/11 shifted our focus to radical Islamic terrorism, but the recent events in Georgia are a wake-up call: The Russians, led by a former KGB officer, are back, and this time with oil, money and nuclear weapons.

Russia is sliding again into the darkness. Who will be the next Vogel?

Jeffrey H. Smith, a Washington lawyer, is a former State Department lawyer and a former general counsel of the CIA.