R.I.P.: ‘Spy Trader’ Wolfgang Vogel crosses his final bridge

            Life, as a rule, is not all that simple. One should be wary of cries for "moral clarity" in a world that sometimes makes excessive rigidity dangerous to human life and, ultimately, to humanitarian values as well. The life and career of the late Wolfgang Vogel, the subject of New York Times former diplomatic correspondent (now assistant managing editor) Craig R. Whitney's superb biography Spy Trader: Germany's Devil's Advocate & the Darkest Secrets of the Cold War (Times Books, 1993), is only lightly touched upon in Whitney's tantalizing obituary that appears in this past Saturday's Times. I first recognized Vogel's complexity, but also his underlying humanitarian values and devotion to liberty, during my only face-to-face encounter with him in the winter of 1983.

            I had just been retained by Vogel to represent East German university professor Alfred Zehe, a physicist who had just been arrested by the FBI when he landed at Boston's Logan Airport to attend a conference of physicists at MIT. The story of Professor Zehe, and how he came to be inveigled into a clumsy Cold War "sting" engineered by the feds, is told by Whitney and will be further explicated in my forthcoming book, Three Felonies a Day, on the Department of Justice (second quarter 2009). My encounter with Vogel left an indelible impression.

            Vogel and I met over breakfast in the Parker House Hotel. I was joined by my then-law partner Jeanne Baker, and Vogel by his wife Helga, whom he said he needed to translate (even though I suspected that the canny fellow was actually quite adept in English). I spotted a federal prosecutor having breakfast at a nearby table, and two men in trench coats, who I suspected were FBI agents, at the table next to that one. I warned Dr. Vogel that we should not speak about confidential matters, since there was a prosecutor and two suspected FBI agents sitting nearby. "How do you know they are FBI agents?" Vogel asked. "Do you know them?" I admitted that while I knew the prosecutor, I did not know the agents, but they were actually wearing their trench coats indoors, and this was a sure tip-off that they were agents and were wired for sound.

            "Ah ha," Vogel continued, a slight smile racing across his otherwise stolid face. "And are you sure that the trench coats are FBI, not KGB?" I was startled by the question, which Vogel then went on to answer himself: "You know, the FBI and the KGB buy their trench coats from the same supplier."  Thus did Vogel make the point that the security services of all nations pose a potential threat to liberty if not subject to adequate controls. It was at that moment that I began to recognize that this was a devotee of liberty, but wily enough, and sufficiently a survivor, to speak in the kind of code language not likely to be understood by either FBI or KGB agents.Wolfgang Vogel

            After the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany, German prosecutors, employing a revisionist view of history, indicted Vogel for fraud, embezzlement, and related crimes growing out of his activities as a lawyer adept at dealing with both sides during the Cold War and negotiating the release of accused spies as well as Eastern bloc citizens seeking to come to the West. One of the major charges was related to Professor Zehe's legal fees, which Vogel had transmitted to me from the East German government. These, and other monies, the prosecutors alleged, were funds embezzled by Zehe from the state treasury. These charges were dropped after I executed an affidavit swearing that Vogel in fact paid the monies to me. Other lawyers paid by Vogel did the same. Still other charges were reversed on appeal, leaving only a minor charge resulting in Vogel's disbarment, but not imprisonment.

            Wolfgang Vogel had been responsible for an estimated quarter million human beings' escaping the clutches of totalitarianism, but he was treated, after the fall of Communism, like a criminal rather than a hero. May he rest in piece, and may his good reputation outlive his tormenters and detractors.

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