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Victims of Victory : In the harsh light of reality, old spies must face up to old lies

August 09, 1992|Ross Thomas | Ross Thomas's newest novel, "Voodoo, Ltd.," will be published in October by Mysterious Press

It's assumed that all secret agents or spies lie as a matter of course and calling. But it's also hoped, if not assumed, that our spies--the good spies--lie only to foreign governments, to the media, to the executive branch, to the American people but never, under any circumstances, to the U.S. Congress.

If a good American spy knows that something really rotten is going on--say, a U.S. Marine lieutenant colonel trafficking in arms with one unfriendly country while using the profits to provide weapons to the rebels of another unfriendly country--then our good spy is legally bound, when asked, to tell Congress all he knows about this neat idea.

If he doesn't, he could be suspected of lying and find himself in federal court facing perjury charges. And this is exactly where Clair E. George, a respected 35-year veteran of the CIA, now finds himself at the end of a brilliant career that put him in charge of covert operations worldwide.

Apparently, George's defense, much simplified, will be that he was doing his extremely difficult job as best he could and may have missed whatever devilment Col. Oliver L. North was up to. How this will go over with a Washington jury is impossible to predict--especially when one juror claims to have never heard of the CIA.

George's problems are not endemic to the United States. Throughout Europe, the Middle East and in what used to be the Soviet Union, the Cold War's end has turned the espionage industry inside out. Some agents are forsaking political espionage for the more lucrative industrial brand. Yet, Germany is still determined to try four top East German spies--but not famed spymaster Markus Wolf, who liked to plant his agents in former Chancellor Willy Brandt's retinue. Marcus has fled to Russia and won't return to Germany unless he gets immunity. Meanwhile, there are rumors in Britain, France and Italy that agents with mind-sets frozen by the Cold War will soon be fired or pensioned off.

In Germany itself, it's expected that the I-was-only-doing-my-job defense will also be used in the trial of Erich Honecker, former leader of what was once the German Democratic Republic. Honecker has been indicted for manslaughter in the death of at least 49 East Germans who were killed while trying to sneak over or under the Berlin Wall.

Three months after the wall came down, in 1989, Honecker fled to Moscow where, at first, he was welcomed, or at least tolerated, until President Boris N. Yeltsin came to power in 1991. Yeltsin wanted nothing to do with him. So Honecker, who had once granted asylum to numerous Chileans fleeing the repressive Pinochet regime, called in a few markers and took refuge in Chile's Moscow embassy.

After months of pressure on Chile by Bonn, Honecker was turned out of the embassy, flown back to Berlin and jailed in a Moabit prison cell, which he shared for a while with a 40-year-old Gypsy awaiting trial for armed robbery. Moabit prison is the same jail where the Nazis stuck Honecker in the 1930s, before sending him off to a concentration camp for 10 years.

Germans appear divided over what to do about Honecker--even though his dreaded Stasi secret police kept dossiers on at least 5 million of East Germany's 18 million citizens. Some Germans seem most miffed by the $9 million Honecker is said to have embezzled from state funds to pay for imported big-ticket luxury items for himself and his cronies.

Honecker's wife, Margot, was expected to return to Berlin with her husband. Instead, she flew to Chile to join her daughter. Even more unpopular than her husband--if that's possible--Mrs. Honecker is said to have forced East Germans who made failed escape attempts to offer up their children for adoption.

There is speculation in Bonn and Berlin that Honecker will never come to trial because he knows too much rotten stuff about certain German and European politicians who, only five years ago, were rolling out red carpets to honor their fellow statesman.

But with a 40% unemployment rate in what was East Germany, most of its residents are far more interested in finding jobs than in following the trial of what one Leipziger called, "An old stupid man who should just go somewhere and die quietly."

Honecker is a trophy of the Cold War's end. All over Europe, aging secret agents have had their reasons for living snatched away virtually overnight. Yesterday's spymeisters become today's scapegoats, their only remaining weapons are the embarrassing secrets about their prosecutors, or the friends of their prosecutors, that may have been prudently squirreled away for just such an emergency.

If Honecker's secrets are damaging enough--providing he has any--he might never come to trial and simply linger on in prison until he dies--or until he, his crimes and his secrets fade from memory and a new and younger German government gives him a cheap suit and 50 deutsche marks, opens the prison gate and tells him to get lost.

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