"I never spied on Israel," says Markus Wolf, the spy master who led the East German security apparatus almost until the demise of the Communist regime. "The KGB approached me on several occasions and asked me to send agents and spies to gather information about Israel and in Israel. As Germans, it was easier for us to enter and operate in your country than it would be for Russians, Poles, or Czechs. But I always turned them down."

Why?

"In retrospect, I am happy to say that my Jewishness may have contributed to my lack of desire to operate against Israel, but it was mostly due to professional considerations. I preferred to concentrate all the effort on gathering information in West Germany and in NATO."

Wolf is considered to be one of the most talented, daring and brilliant intelligence operatives in the 20th century, particularly during the Cold War period. His character has been documented in dozens of books, documentary films and Hollywood-style action films, and he was the inspiration for several characters created by John Le Carre.

For two decades until his retirement in 1986 Wolf, called Mischa by his friends, led the Stasi foreign espionage operation, East Germany's main security and intelligence apparatus. And he did so with amazing success.

His agents infiltrated every aspect of West German society, including the nation's federal government offices, the BND [Bundesnachrichtendienst] West German foreign intelligence service, major corporations and NATO headquarters in Brussels. More than a few of Wolf's agents penetrated West Germany disguised as Eastern refugees, even after the Berlin Wall went up.

He conducted a special unit of "women hunters" whose mission it was to seduce secretaries in West German government offices to turn them into informants. Wolf transferred the information gathered by his agents to East German leaders and to the secret services of the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe.

Wolf's most famous success was the penetration of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt's office by Wolf's agent, Gunter Guillaume. However, that success gave rise to a dialectic process which led to stinging political failure. In the years preceding the Gunter Guillaume affair, East Germany secretly supported and encouraged Willy Brandt's Ost-politik policy of rapprochement with the East German government. When Willy Brandt discovered in 1974 that his most senior adviser was, in fact, a Communist agent, the chancellor was forced to resign. His successor, Helmut Schmidt, was less committed to the "Eastern" policy than the former chancellor.

Markus Wolf was born in 1923 to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. His father was a playwright who wrote the play "Professor Mamaluke," among others, which dealt with the oppression of Jews in Germany. In an interview with him last week in Berlin, Wolf said that he was proud that the first theater outside Germany to showcase his father's play was Habimah. The play, titled "Professor Mannheim" at Habimah, was performed in 1934 with Shimon Finkel in the starring role.

The Wolf family fled to Moscow after the Nazis took control of the government in 1933. Markus Wolf became a Communist, and returned to East Germany after World War II. He became a member of the German Communist Party and joined the Stasi apparatus, where he became a general. In the interview, he adamantly claimed that he never was involved in the oppression of his own people or those who resisted the Communist regime in East Germany. According to Wolf, he focused on gathering information abroad and was not involved in internal affairs despite his support of the regime.

After his retirement in 1986, Wolf was considered to be one of the liberal voices calling for reforms in the policy and structure of the East German government. In 1989, when East Germans led by Erich Honecker, marched to their inevitable end like characters in a Greek tragedy, Wolf escaped to Moscow. He says that he considered seeking shelter in Israel and taking advantage of the Law of Return. He consulted with Jewish friends who told him that Israel would probably not accept him, and that if he were accepted, he would be immediately deported to West Germany. After the German reunification, he returned to Germany, where he now resides with his wife in Berlin.

The German government tried to imprison him twice in the '90s. He stood trial in 1993 for his Stasi activities, particularly his involvement in the Guillaume affair. He was tried again in 1997 for kidnapping. These charges concerned the secretary of an American military attache to West Germany who was driven by one of Wolf's agents in 1955 to an investigation for the purpose of recruiting her.

"A friend in the CIA told me that a charge like that would turn all of the intelligence officers in the world into criminals," Wolf said today about the attempt to convict him.

Wolf says that the German government would like to revenge his successful penetration of their offices and exposure of their weakness. They used what he defines as "dirty legal tricks."

The man behind the plots against him, according to Wolf, is Klaus Kinkel who was the head of the BND and later, the foreign minister of Germany. Wolf says with a smile that Kinkel's father and his own father were born in the same small town.

Practically speaking, Wolf says, his greatest success occurred during Kinkel's last decade, when he became famous. The German High Court pardoned Wolf with a majority of five justices and repealed the decision of a lower court, which had sentenced him to eight years in prison. Wolf became a much sought-after guest on television as a result of the legal proceedings, and wrote six books. One of them, a book of his memoirs, became a best-seller and was translated into many languages. The book was titled a "A Man Without a Face" in Hebrew and English. Wolf visited Israel in 1997 in response to an invitation by Ma'ariv reporter Gad Shimron. He took advantage of the visit to meet with the Israeli intelligence community.

Carlos was a wild man

Wolf said that during those meetings and in previous encounters with former Mossad senior official Rafi Eitan (who according to Wolf asked for his assistance with the promotion of his affairs in Cuba), he always emphasized that the organization he led had no ties with Palestinian terror organizations. However, Wolf did allow that East Germany advised and trained Palestinian terrorists as part of its support of "national liberation" organizations. He claims that contact with terror organizations was maintained by another division of Stasi, known as "Number 22."

Wolf reveals that the Palestinian terrorists who murdered Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics penetrated West Germany via East Berlin. "They did it without our knowledge, or at least without our knowing what the real plan was, and we were, of course, very embarrassed by the event. After that affair, we made it clear to the PLO that we would no longer agree to them using East Germany as a way station to conduct acts of terror."

Wolf says that East Berlin became a sort of hostel for known terrorists including Carlos the Jackal, the Venezuelan master terrorist who is serving a life sentence in France, and Abu Nidal. He says that whenever Carlos came to Berlin, he was asked to stay in the guest house or hotel room provided. "But he was a wild man and never listened to us. He would make the rounds at night clubs and bars, and invite call girls to his room. We finally had to kick him out and he was transferred to Hungary where he continued with his escapades."

Wolf says that he was also aware of the presence in East Berlin of Dr. Wadia Hadad, the operations commander of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who was responsible for the skyjacked Air France plane to Entebbe, among other operations. Hadad died of leukemia in an East German hospital in the late '70s or early '80s. However, Wolf is aware that there are rumors that Hadad did not die of natural causes. We were not responsible, he says with a smile and adds, "It might have been the Mossad."