He flew out early this morning for Berlin, a blond Atlanta lawyer in flight jacket and slacks, a curious go-between in the high-stakes game of Soviet dissidents and international espionage.
Robert Fierer, 44, a self-styled Dixie diplomat who represents an admitted Czechoslovakian agent, was planning to watch his first "spy-swap" deal, scheduled for Tuesday morning on Berlin's Glienicke Bridge.
To hear Fierer tell it, last July, on his second trip to Prague, he pitched the Czechoslovak government on a long shot for his client, Karl F. Koecher, the first Eastern Bloc intelligence officer ever believed to have penetrated the CIA.
"Why not ask the Russians to hand over [Soviet dissident Anatoly] Scharansky," he said at that meeting. "Maybe we can arrange a swap."
Across the table in Koecher's mother-in-law's Prague apartment sat a Czechoslovak government liaison named Joseph; mid-forties, tall, heavyset, flecks of gray about the temples.
"I'm a novice at all this," Fierer went on, "but Scharansky is a thorn in the Russians' side. And Koecher is, according to our government, the first eastern agent to penetrate the CIA. Since the Russians have always maintained Scharansky was a spy for the West, they might find equating them to their advantage. A 'spy for a spy.' "
The Geneva summit was coming up, Fierer argued, and such a request from an Eastern Bloc ally would surely pack more weight than one from, say, Israel, or Amnesty International. Joseph scribbled notes. He didn't laugh, as had Justice Department lawyers at Fierer's audacious idea.
"We don't talk swaps until after a conviction," Fierer says he was told. Koecher had been indicted for espionage, but no trial date was then set. (Justice and State department officials declined comment on any pending swap or on Fierer's role today, except to disavow any suggestion that Scharansky was a spy.)
Joseph came back the next morning. "How would you propose we do it?" he asked. "How is [Koecher] holding up in jail?" They talked for hours. Joseph took notes and came back the next day.
"Bob," he said, "the authorities have agreed to seek the release of Scharansky as you have requested." It was July 21. Joseph said it would take time, that any request had to come from the office of the Czechoslovak president. Nor could anything be done until September: August was a traditional vacation month.
"Great," said Fierer, "let me know."
Today he was on his way to Germany hoping to watch it happen: Koecher and his wife, Hana, and several Eastern Bloc agents held in West Germany exchanged for several West Germans, one American and Scharansky, all held behind the Iron Curtain.
He has no idea where he fits into whatever may have been going on behind the scenes for a Scharansky swap, but the saga of a brassy spy lawyer offers a rare glimpse into the clandestine world of foreign agents and superpower deals.
Fierer says he first met Koecher, 52, at a bar mitzvah in New Jersey almost a decade ago. Koecher asked him what he did for a living. Fierer told him about his client list, which included a former chief aide to then-senator Herman Talmadge who wound up behind bars for misusing campaign funds, and Atlanta Hawks basketball player Eddie Johnson, who beat a cocaine possession charge.
But Fierer didn't hear from Koecher again until after his arrest on spy charges Nov. 27, 1984, in New York. At the time, Fierer was in Brussels taking depositions for an African client accused of currency smuggling.
Koecher and his wife were on their way to the airport to fly to Austria when FBI agents took them in. Fierer was asked to fly to Zurich to fetch about $250,000 from the sale of their East Side co-op to help with their defense. The money was being held, he was told, in a Swiss bank account.
He fetched their money, but he farmed out the case to New York attorneys until last January, when he hunkered down with Koecher in a federal prison holding cell in Manhattan to plot strategy. Koecher was facing a possible life sentence, accused of having been dispatched to the States in 1965 as a Czechoslovak mole with his wife. Their mission: to burrow into any U.S. intelligence service.
Koecher managed to find work with the CIA in Washington and New York for four years in the mid-'70s, analyzing Eastern Bloc data, translating -- and funneling names of American agents abroad and other data to the Czechoslovakians. He pleaded guilty to the charges last week, renounced his citizenship and was sentenced to life in prison in a secret Justice Department agreement. The agreement also promised to swap the Koechers for Scharansky and others, sources say.
The idea for the swap that Fierer proposed to Joseph had actually been born in January 1985 when Koecher first broached it to Fierer in a federal holding cell in Manhattan. As naturalized American citizens, the Koechers were a dilemma for the Czechoslovakians, but the only way to find out how the Czechoslovakians would respond to any proposal would be to fly to Prague. Koecher urged Fierer to go, so off he went.
The lawyer met the mysterious Joseph at the Intercontinental Hotel, then moved to the apartment of Hana Koecher's parents. Through an interpreter, he explained the case against the Koechers. Joseph kept getting up and coming back with more questions.
Six weeks later back in Atlanta, Fierer got a phone call from Prague. "Bob?" It was Joseph. He instructed Fierer to go to the Czechoslovak Embassy in Washington. A letter was waiting. It deputized him officially to represent the Koechers "for humanitarian" reasons on behalf of the Czechoslovakians. He showed it to Justice Department lawyers.
"You guys may think I'm nuts, but I'm going to try to make a swap," Fierer said. Meanwhile, he was fighting in court to suppress videotaped FBI interviews with Koecher made at the Barbizon Plaza before his arrest.
Nothing happened, so in July he made his second trip back. Joseph wanted to know what was a "motion to suppress" evidence, what were the chances in the criminal case, how Koecher was holding up. But they never admitted he was their spy, said Fierer. To strengthen his case for a swap back home, he was pushing the Czechoslovakians for the name of a New Yorker he had heard was behind bars there, along with other westerners in jail anywhere behind the Iron Curtain.
That's when Joseph gave him the green light on Scharansky, Fierer says, but no western names were volunteered. Then, in October, he got another call from Joseph: "Go to the Czechoslovak Embassy, Bob," he said. "There is something waiting for you there."
There an official handed him a thin white sheet of tissue paper with four names. He was not allowed to take the paper, only to copy the names. One was Walter Randa, of Queens, N.Y. He was serving 13 years in a Czechoslovak prison for murdering a border guard during his escape from Czechoslovakia about two decades back. An American citizen, he was arrested in the late '70s when he flew home to see his dying mother. He also scratched down names of three West Germans held behind the Iron Curtain and flew home. Now he had something. He told the Justice lawyers "what was going on, but I kept getting bounced around by the State Department," he said. "They didn't want to deal with me."
Only once, in October, "did some guy on the Czech desk slip up when I told him what I had. He said, 'The Czechs were in the other day and we gave them an answer that shouldn't discourage them.'" To Fierer, that meant something was cooking.
Fierer offered to give his list of names to the official. "It might help you deal with the Czechs," he said.
"Come on by," said the official. Fierer put on his trademark three-piece suit and dropped by Foggy Bottom. At the guard desk, he picked up the phone. The official told him he'd been ordered by the Justice Department not to talk to him.
"Here I was dressed up in my dancing gown and no dance to go to," he laughs. "They wouldn't give me the time of day."
He grabbed a cab to the West German Embassy and met the consul general, a "delightful woman in her sixties," he recalls. He showed her the names.
"I don't know who the right people are, but I will see they get these names," she promised.
News accounts were then reporting that the United States was trying to spring Scharansky through Wolfgang Vogel, the noted East German spy swap lawyer. "My guess is," says Fierer, "that he saw the Czechs were pushing to get Scharansky and he could push and do a deal."
Fierer flew back to Atlanta and prepared Koecher's court case. Joseph phoned about once a week. "Don't worry," he said. "Things are working. Tell your client to be patient."
On Jan. 23, the phone rang again. This time it was Bruce Green, the assistant U.S. attorney in charge of the case. "Bob, are you alone?" he asked.
"Are you off the speaker phone?"
"No one else is listening?"
"Only if you have the phone bugged," Fierer joked.
"There's going to be a trade," said Green. The government was tossing Koecher into the pot. He was the only card in the deck at the time. Fierer was elated. He okayed a meeting between Vogel and his client in New York. The East German lawyer was fresh from a meeting with Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.) on Capitol Hill, who had met in Berlin last month with two East Germans believed to be working on a Scharansky deal. He was upbeat about a swap.
Fierer flew to New York and found out his client was going to be exchanged for Scharansky. "I don't think I created the trade," he reflected today from his room at the Intercontintal Hotel in Berlin, "but I don't think I hurt it any. Maybe nudging the Czechs was enough to do the deal, I don't know."
Fierer says he has received a modest six figures for his work on the case so far, but he claims he is owed $100,000 in "billable hours" for his team of attorneys on the case. Once Koecher walks across the bridge, it is unclear whether Fierer will ever collect. Laughed one Justice Department prosecutor when told of Fierer's predicament, "You don't get rich representing spies."
Koecher has asked Fierer to walk him across the bridge into East Berlin Tuesday, but U.S. officials refused to let him meet with his client, he said.
He is furious about that restraint, but philosophical about his supporting role in superpower politics. No matter what, though, he aims to be at the bridge, at least to watch the anticipated swap. And he hopes someone might snap a photo to show his wife, Judy, and five children back home.
Does he see himself as a footnote in history? "Maybe an asterisk," he said.