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The Waiting Game

As he sits in prison--sentenced to life--Huseyin Yildirim contends he's being unfairly punished for his role in a Cold War long over. But federal agents say he's a top spy who's still keeping secrets.

March 26, 1997|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOMPOC — 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.

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