Spy Swaps: How They Did It In The Cold War If this week's spy exchange was full of Cold War drama, imagine how it was during the real Cold War. Jeffrey Smith arranged some half dozen prisoner exchanges in the 70s and 80s as a lawyer for the State Department. He tells how he and his East German counterpart evaded surveillance to agree on which prisoners would be freed.
NPR logo

Spy Swaps: How They Did It In The Cold War

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128432398/128434882" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Spy Swaps: How They Did It In The Cold War

Spy Swaps: How They Did It In The Cold War

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128432398/128434882" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Guy Raz is away.

Our attention has been riveted this week to a story that had it all: undercover spies embedded in suburbia, a modern-day Mata Hari with a Facebook page, a key figure still on the run.

And it all culminated yesterday on an airport tarmac in Vienna. The U.S. traded 10 Russian agents for four Russians accused of spying for the West. The echoes of the Cold War were inescapable, including a kind of espionage code of honor.

Mr. JEFFREY SMITH (Partner, Arnold and Porter LLP; Former State Department Lawyer): If a person agrees to be an agent for the U.S. intelligence community, we have an obligation to him or her to try to get them out. This is a moral obligation.

NEARY: Former State Department lawyer Jeffrey Smith. During the Cold War, Smith negotiated half a dozen spy swaps, though he says all those involved were not necessarily spies.

Mr. SMITH: Even during the Cold War, individuals were exchanged who were ordinary dissidents in the Soviet Unions, Jews, Pentecostalists, others who opposed the Soviet regime, both in Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

But the Soviet Union would always try to assert that people we were getting out who were genuine dissidents like Natan Sharansky, for example, were, in fact, spies when they weren't. So it was always a bit of a dilemma for the United States and the West as to whether we would include dissidents in exchanges where there were real spies being traded.

NEARY: Well, during the Cold War, how did this work? I mean, how did the decision get made about who would be exchanged?

Mr. SMITH: We would develop a list of individuals in our custody or in the custody of some of our allies, the British, the French, the West Germans and, in one case, the South Africans. And then we would develop a list of persons whom we wanted in the East. And most of the negotiations were conducted with a lawyer in East Berlin named Wolfgang Vogel. And I would travel to Berlin and we would meet in his office in East Berlin. And he would have a list and I would have a list. And we knew his office was bugged. So we would talk, but we would also point to the two lists and he would reach over with his pen and sort of tap a name on my list and I would do the same on his list, because we didn't want his spymasters to know exactly what he was saying to me.

So we would be talking about one name, but pointing to another. It was a way of him signaling to me what his bottom line was that he had gotten and his negotiating instructions. So we began to engage in the dance of the two pens.

NEARY: What kind of personal relationship did you have with him, friendship (unintelligible)?

Mr. SMITH: Oh, a very - a good friendship developed over time. We would bring one another gifts. I remember one Christmas, we took him some frozen Butterball turkeys, because they were hard to get in the East. And we developed a friendship.

NEARY: Wow. Now I know you were present at some of the actual exchanges...

Mr. SMITH: Yes.

NEARY: ...when the - you know, from a distance, we are reading about it on paper or hearing it on the radio or seeing it on TV, it always seemed very dramatic. You know, stuff of spy novels. Was it as dramatic as it seemed from a distance?

Mr. SMITH: It was less dramatic from the sort of spy perspective as it was from the human perspective. The ones that we were returning, we're not certain how they would be treated when they got home. I mean, those were brutally repressive regimes, and the fact that they had been caught in the West they had no confidence that they would be treated well.

But what was exciting was when people would come across. The sheer joy of coming into freedom in the West was what made it worthwhile.

NEARY: Was there one in particular that you remember?

Mr. SMITH: The one I remember most was one we did in March of 1983, a man named Franz Soretzky(ph). And, by the way, I should say that I have been authorized to talk about this by the CIA and the State Department.

Franz Soretzky had spied for the United States for a number of years in East Germany, was a very, very effective agent for us. And Vogel had told me for a long time that Soretzky was in terrible shape, that he was - he had a bad back, he had bad nerves, bad stomach, bad eyesight. And we did this one at checkpoint bravo in (unintelligible).

Soretzky came bounding across and we got in the car and I said we're taking him to the hospital for checkup and treatment. And he said, why. And I said, well, Vogel had told us that you had all of these maladies. Oh, he said, I was malingering. He said, I am a Prussian and I agreed to work for your government because I hated the Russians and I was doing this for patriotic reasons. And so, his whole term of imprisonment, he faked these injuries in order to maintain his own discipline, but also as a way of continuing to protest what he saw as Russian occupation of his country.

NEARY: Jeffrey Smith is a partner at the law firm Arnold and Porter. He's also a former CIA general counsel, as well as a State Department lawyer who negotiated spy swaps during the Cold War.

Jeffrey Smith, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. SMITH: You're very welcome.

NEARY: Though this week's spy exchange drew worldwide attention, the White House has had little to say about it publicly. But last night, Vice President Joe Biden broke the silence during an appearance on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno")

Mr. JAY LENO (Host, "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno"): Now this Russian woman here, let me ask you, and you would know this, Mr. Vice President. Do we have any spies that hot?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Vice President JOSEPH BIDEN: Let me make it clear, it wasn't my idea to send her back. Wasn't mine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

NEARY: Vice President Joe Biden speaking with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show."

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.