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His Code Name Is 'Uncle Ben' and He Arranges Prisoner Swaps

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Uncle Ben” is his code name. And these days Uncle is secretly negotiating another prisoner exchange. He won’t confirm it, but Lawrence Lunt, imprisoned in Cuba since 1965 for alleged CIA activities, should soon be traded for Lolita Lebron, a Puerto Rican Nationalist who has been in jail since she shot up the House of Representatives in 1954.

“Uncle Ben” is Rep. Benjamin Gilman, 55, a Republican from rural upstate New York. This spring he played a key role in bringing about the first U.S.-Communist political prisoner exchange in 15 years. He worked for seven weeks with Wolfgang Vogel, the East German lawyer who in 1963 helped arrange the trade of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. This time three prisoners were involved in a complicated swap. On April 23 Miron Marcus, an Israeli citizen held in Mozambique, Africa without specific charges, was turned loose at the Swaziland border. Eight days later a 22-year-old American, Alan van Norman, imprisoned in East Berlin for trying to smuggle a family to the West, was allowed to return to his Minnesota home (PEOPLE, May 22). The U.S. turned over to the East Germans Robert Thompson, a convicted spy and code expert who had served 13 years of a 30-year sentence.

The most novel aspect of this three-way exchange was that—for the first time in his career—Rep. Benjamin Gilman found himself in national headlines.

Ben Gilman sees his political life as one long effort to help individuals in distress. He explains, “Any worthwhile politician can see a mountain of trouble in this world, and he is supposed to do something about it. I think the only way a man can move a mountain is a little bit at a time. Each of us has to start somewhere.”

Gilman started soon after coming out of World War II as a 35-mission navigator—with a Distinguished Flying Cross. He became a lawyer specializing in habeas corpus proceedings in mental hospitals. “A lot of patients used to be put away for no good reason at all,” he says. “It was beyond belief. Abandoned, you know. Nobody to take care of their interests and rights.” Gilman ducks his head and smiles uneasily, as if he’s afraid it all sounds too pious.

It often does, with such platitudes as “I wanted an opportunity to work for people…I feel sympathetic to folks with problems.” But there are nearly 300 young Americans who would still be in Mexican prisons (a majority on drug charges) if Gilman, a man few of them have ever heard of, had not put his pieties into practice.

In Mexico City on a visit in 1976, Gilman decided to visit the countrymen he knew were behind bars there. “I found the most awful conditions,” he says. “They were emaciated, sick, abused. They had to pay a prisoner boss for medicine, letters, a shower, for fresh air! The whole place was corrupt. Most of them were just kids who had been greedy and stupid. Even a minor drug offense in Mexico means years in jail.”

Back in Washington, Gilman went to work with his colleagues on Capitol Hill. The result was an unprecedented U.S.-Mexican treaty which provides that certain offenders arrested in Mexico can serve their sentences in the U.S. and vice versa. It went into effect last October.

While these negotiations were going on, Gilman was asked by friends in the American Jewish Congress to help in the case of Jacobo Timmerman, a Buenos Aires newspaper publisher who had been imprisoned without trial by the Argentine military regime. Timmerman, too, was released after Gilman talked to officials in both Argentina and the State Department. An earlier victory was David Chernoglaz, a young Leningrad Jew whom Gilman lobbied unceasingly for as a “prisoner of conscience.” He was released in 1976 and is now with his parents in Israel. But Mark Nashpits, another forlorn stranger on Gilman’s conscience, is still in Siberian exile. Gilman continues to work on his case.

As a child growing up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where his father owned a dry-cleaning shop, Benjamin Gilman learned that Jews were less a chosen people than a marked race.

“In 1933 my father went to Berlin to try to persuade his sister to come and live in the States, and he took me with him,” Gilman remembers. “From her living room windows I saw the storm troopers marching up the street, painting signs on Jewish shops and houses and bullying people off the sidewalk. I was just a boy of 10, but my father made me take it all in. He told my aunt it would get worse and worse, but she wouldn’t leave. So we came back, and my father was very upset. Her letters stopped in 1937 when they took her away. She was never heard from again.”

In Washington Gilman lives in a bachelor apartment. Every weekend he goes home to a second bachelor apartment in Middletown, N.Y., a small industrial city in Rockland County 70 miles northwest of New York City.

Gilman and his wife, Jane, were legally separated two years ago. She now lives in Florida, New York and is a Republican candidate for state attorney general. She recalls their marriage: “At law school he went to day classes and I went nights. Once we were on a mock-court team together. He was the leader, but I won the case. We got married 27 years ago. We had three kids and adopted two more. I ran our joint practice, and we did fine. I raised his funds, and I ran his campaign.

“But these congressmen! They get to Washington and they’re treated like gods. They’re back home for the weekends—if they’ve got time—and you ask them to take out the garbage…it’s not easy.” Mrs. Gilman admits that she talks too much. She laughs and says, “They’re calling me the Casey Stengel of the campaign.”

The oldest son, Jonathan, 22, has a gift shop in Middletown; Harrison, 20, is in school in California; Susan, 18, attends the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. David, 17, lives with his mother. The fifth child, Ellen, was killed in a car accident two years ago when she was 14.

On a recent trip to Middletown, Gilman and Rabbi Ronald Greenwald strolled out of the Yeshiva Temple of Spring Valley, where a bar mitzvah was going on. As soon as they were alone, Gilman asked, “No problems crossing the frontier? I mean you weren’t, er, you know, spotted?”

“Oh, no,” said the rabbi. “It was all very smooth. His organization is excellent.”

“And you told Wolfgang what I suggested?”

“Yes. He says okay. And he wants to use the same code names.”

With that cryptic exchange about secret negotiations in progress, Rabbi Greenwald returned to the bar mitzvah. (Three times he has acted as Gilman’s courier to Wolfgang Vogel in East Berlin, whose code name is “German friend.”) Politician Gilman, making his local rounds, went on to a First Communion party for 8-year-old Tara O’Day. After planting three clumsy kisses on the child, Gilman rushed to Goshen trotting track to hand out one of the day’s prizes for amateur racing. He talked to a woman who wanted to know how to cut red tape at the Small Business Administration. He put in an appearance at a funeral. The entire weekend the congressman continued to make himself exceedingly visible.

His last visit Sunday evening was with George and Gladys Brooks in New Windsor, N.Y. For two hours they huddled over a table, going through old reports, telegrams, letters, radio intercepts. Their Navy bombardier-navigator son, Lt. Nicholas Brooks, has been missing in Laos since 1970. Intelligence reports at the time made it clear that he had survived the crash in enemy territory. Gladys Brooks says, “We didn’t know Mr. Gilman when we took the MIA issue to him. We’ve lobbied a lot of people, but right away he became truly involved—just tremendous support. He’s like another member of the family now.”

Because of his interest in MIA cases, Gilman is dismayed by President Carter’s decision last fall to approve hearings on the 557 U.S. servicemen still unaccounted for in Indochina. Unless evidence to the contrary is presented, the President officially will pronounce each of them dead. “It’s a really fantastic thing Carter’s doing,” Gilman protests. “Do you know he himself had an uncle missing on Guam, right after Pearl Harbor? Two years later the wife was notified he was dead and after a year or so she remarried. Then the war ended—and the officially dead man was found alive in some remote POW camp!” Mr. and Mrs. Brooks are convinced their own son is alive. “It’s his birthday soon,” Mrs. Brooks says. “He’s nearly 35.”

Gilman explains, “A presumptive finding of death—that’s what they will call it—means we no longer can demand information, an accounting at least, from the Communists. Our own government says they’re dead, so they’re dead!

“And yet, until their folks can know what happened to them, those missing men will always be people with birthdays to remember… I can understand that.” On his wrist Gilman wears an identity bracelet engraved “Lt. Nicholas Brooks 1-2-70.”

When Gilman was first elected to Congress in 1972, he assembled his staff and solemnly told them he wanted “to do something for people.” That ringing declaration did not get into the newspapers. Yet it comes as no surprise that when people take a problem to Room 1226 in the Longworth House office building, something gets done.

Rabbi Greenwald explains how the triangular Marcus-Norman-Thompson case evolved. The young Israeli had been imprisoned in Communist Mozambique for 19 months after accidentally crash-landing a plane there in 1976. Greenwald says, “This man’s wife flew to the States to try and get help. She had been recommended to a big-wheel senator. The senator told her, ‘Send me a letter.’ She was getting nowhere. I told her, ‘Forget the big wheels. I’ll call someone.’ ”

The rabbi continues, “Now I’ve known Ben Gilman for eight years. He’s low-key. He’s not looking all around to see how many votes there might be in it for him. Which in this case was none. I told Ben all I’ve got is Miron Marcus—an Israeli nobody has ever heard of—who is in a prison compound somewhere out in the East African bush…”

Gilman began his negotiating. Greenwald suggested contacting Vo-gel. Coded messages went to East Germany and word came back: “Yes, I can do something about Mozambique, but what can you do for me?” Gilman tentatively suggested that perhaps an exchange might be broadened to include others but said that he would have to consult with the State and Justice departments. He did so.

Gilman is a pacer—he talks on the phone in his office and the cord becomes impossibly tangled. Secrecy and guile are not as important as the sort of acquaintances a congressman makes in key places—people with information, with the power to move bureaucracies, to make things happen.

Most of the details of such delicate negotiations must remain confidential. But eventually, along with Marcus’ release, the Van Norman and Thompson swap took place too.

Today “Uncle Ben” continues his quiet discussions, but won’t identify whom he is trying to help. He says, “Whoever it is, nothing is going to happen overnight. There’s still a lot of delicate talking to do.”

Then he grins slyly. “First of all, we’ve obviously got to change our code names. Vogel doesn’t seem to realize we are both…” he hesitates, “blown. An unprofessional weakness on our side. The press tortured us until we told them everything.” Everything? He smiles again.