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KOBLENZ, West Germany — As a German court prepares to hand down a verdict today in the spying case of Clyde Lee Conrad, observers of his four-month trial remain at odds over the former U.S. Army sergeant.

Is he the worst traitor Germany has ever known, as German federal prosecutor Kurt Rebmann has charged? Could his personal greed have caused the atomic destruction of Europe?

Or, as others suggest, was Conrad a mere messenger of low-grade defense documents? A crafty man, but no great thinker?

"He is what we call 'farmer sly.'" is the way one legal expert put it. "He's clever and calculating, but no genius."

Conrad, 42, faces life in prison if convicted of leaking NATO secrets to the East bloc, allegedly for more than a decade. At the time of his retirement in 1985, Conrad was a sergeant first class with the 8th Inf Div in Bad Kreuznach, where he was in charge of a vault loaded with classified documents.

Excluding a year's assignment in the United States, Conrad had been with the division since arriving in West Germany in 1974. The prosecution claims he was recruited as a spy the next year by Zoltan Szabo, then a sergeant first class and Conrad's boss at the division.

Both Conrad and Hungarian-born Szabo were highly respected and considered top soldiers, and no one questioned their access to secret military documents. But Szabo lost his clearance in 1976, after getting caught black-marketing gas coupons.

"Once he lost his security clearance," trial witness Danny Williams said, "the Hungarian secret service could no loner use him. He was out of the game play."

Enter Conrad, the model soldier who volunteered for extra assignments and worked long hours.

Though he kept a low profile, investigation probably would have shown that the soft-spoken Vietnam vet lived beyond his income. Conrad's wife, Anja, dressed well and had a great deal of gold jewelry, neighbors said. At the time of Conrad's arrest, he had just given her a new car with her initials in gold.

Conrad also didn't appear to miss $7,000 in retirement pay that did not get credited to his account in 1986. He waited more than six months before reporting the missing funds.

In response, Conrad asked the court to consider more than retirement pay. "I had free medical care," he testified, "and could shop in the military shopping centers."

A Pentagon spokesman has acknowledged that Conrad's security clearance had not been checked as it should have been.

In the meantime, Conrad was given even greater access to the unit's documents. From 1981 on, he had access to all the secret plans of the division.

When it was rumored at one time that he might be moved to a position outside the headquarters, Conrad supposedly sought help in feigning a serious illness from one of his Hungarian spy contacts who was a medical doctor. However, the transfer never occurred.

According to testimony during the trial, Conrad became more and more ambitious. Far from slowing down upon his retirement, he wanted to set up an espionage network outside the gates of U.S. bases thoughout Europe.

The elaborate plan, which never made it outside Conrad's home computer notes, was to have featured a network of video shops, where information on U.S. troops could be gathered and passed along, and new spies could be recruited.

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