Students studying outside the library

Former FBI agent Lancaster helped crack spy operation

January 13, 2007

The Post and Courier

MOUNT PLEASANT - Former FBI agent James E. Lancaster Jr., who helped crack an international spy operation during the Cold War, died early Friday following a brief bout with cancer. He was 70.

The South Carolina native won acclaim for his role in a joint FBI-naval intelligence investigation that led from the Lowcountry to behind the Iron Curtain. The operation resulted in the capture of an Eastern German spy in 1983 and precipitated what was the called the largest East-West spy swap since World War II.

Friends and former colleagues described Lancaster as a dedicated professional with a keen mind, a modest demeanor and a deep love for his country.

"He was a great American hero," said retired FBI agent Stan Orenstein, a friend for 15 years.

Lancaster, who lived in Brickyard Plantation, was a Spartanburg native and a Wofford College graduate. From 1958 to 1967, he served in the Army in Korea, Germany and Vietnam, rising to the rank of captain and earning the Bronze Star.

Lancaster joined the FBI in 1968 and worked in its counterintelligence division in New York City before he was transferred to Charleston 10 years later. Here, he became a lead agent in the one largest cases of his career.

Lancaster worked closely with William H. Tanner Jr., a civilian employee at the Naval Electronic Systems Engineering Center in North Charleston who was recruited in March 1981 to serve as a double-agent. Tanner's mission was to pose as someone wanting to sell military secrets to the East Germans.

For two years, Tanner led a secret life, meeting with Eastern German intelligence agents in Washington, D.C., Mexico City and, eventually, East Berlin. The case led to the arrest of East German physicist and spy Alfred Zehe in Boston in 1983. Two years later, East Germany traded 25 people they had held prisoner for Zehe and three other spies in custody in the United States.

Charleston County Probate Judge Jack Guedalia was the Naval Investigative Service's supervising agent in the Southeast at the time. He said Lancaster was a "top-notch" agent who was instrumental in preparing Tanner to deal with the communists. "Without him, the operation probably wouldn't have gone down as well as it did," he said.

Tanner, now a minister in Summerville, remained friends with Lancaster after the probe and the two men often talked about their love of the United States. "Jim was very professional and very likable, a man of integrity and honesty," Tanner said. "There was nothing phony about him."