February 11, 2017

WHERE'D YOU HIDE THE COOKIES? (profanity alert):

'I thought I was smarter than almost everybody': my double life as a KGB agent : Raised in East Germany, Jack Barsky abandoned his mother, brother, wife and son to spy for the KGB. In America, he started a second family. And then it all came crashing down... (Shaun Walker, 11 February 2017, The Guardian)

Dittrich was given his mission: to establish contacts with foreign policy think tanks, and in particular President Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. He was given little guidance as to how he should do this, or even how best to blend into US society. The people who trained him had little feeling for the real fabric of America, its visceral, unquantifiable essence. "It's as if they had spent time looking at fish swimming in an aquarium, and now they are training you to be a fish," Barsky says. "But they don't actually know what it's like to be a fish." [...]

Barsky made his last trip to Moscow in 1986. He was introduced to an industrial espionage officer who told him to start stealing. "He was quite open with me. He said the Soviets were hurting. 'We need hardware, software, whatever you can find.'" He gave them software his company used, via dead drop, but never knew if they used it.

In 1988, a year after Chelsea was born, Barsky got the message from the KGB to run. Although he had grown disillusioned with Soviet communism, he had never considered defecting, he says, and did not want to go to the FBI now. "I had withdrawn into a kind of agnosticism. I would probably have called myself a socialist, but I tried not to think about it."

He ignored the warning. More messages, increasingly insistent, came through on his shortwave radio. A couple of weeks later, he was approached by a stranger on a subway platform, who told him that if he did not come home, he was a dead man. It was the first time someone from the Soviet side had made contact with him inside the US.

But Barsky was determined to stay. He wrote to Moscow, telling the KGB he had contracted HIV from a woman he had dated and profiled, and that he needed treatment he could get only in the US; he had no plans to defect. Remarkably, this ruse seemed to work. The Soviets were terrified of HIV, the USSR was starting to fray at the seams and Mikhail Gorbachev's new policy of openness was putting pressure on the KGB. The higher-ups presumably had other things on their mind; chasing a rogue agent was not a priority.

And so Barsky settled into family life. He and Penelope had another child, a son called Jessie, but the marriage began to fall apart. He decided to tell his wife the truth, hoping it might save the marriage. "Do you know what I've risked for you? I could have been captured or killed," he told her. But she was angry rather than grateful: if he was here illegally, that meant Penelope was, too, and that her children could be taken from her.

That conversation, in 1997, proved fateful in more ways than one. Barsky had in fact been trailed for several years by the FBI. His name had been discovered in files copied from KGB archives by Vasili Mitrokin, an archivist who walked into the British embassy in Riga in 1991 to offer up his secrets. The FBI had kept an eye on Barsky's house, sometimes dressed as birdwatchers; they searched his car and had MI5 tail Penelope on a trip to London. They even bought the house next door and moved two agents in, who grew frustrated that there seemed so little out of the ordinary about his life. Perhaps he was a sleeper agent, waiting for a signal from Moscow.

Eventually, they bugged the family home; when Barsky confessed everything to Penelope, the FBI concluded he had left active service and made their move. Barsky was pulled over while driving, and told that, if he cooperated, he might not go to prison. "I agreed immediately. I told them everything I knew," he says. In 2009, he received a green card, and in August 2014 a genuine US passport, in the name of Jack Barsky, the identity stolen for him by the KGB.

After Barsky's marriage to Penelope came to an end, he cried himself to sleep every night, he says. "There was no reason for me to exist any more. I was in my 50s, my kids were out of the house, my marriage was on the rocks. What was the point?" It was more than a decade since he'd had any contact with his German wife Gerlinde and their son Matthias.

He moved between jobs, working for various companies, first as a programmer, then as a head of IT. He began a slow romance with his assistant, Shawna, and later married her. They now live an hour outside Atlanta with their six-year-old daughter, Trinity. Through Shawna, Barsky has found God, filling the hole left after the evaporation of his communist zeal. Joe Reilly, the FBI agent who worked Barsky's case and led his interrogations, has become a good friend and Trinity's godfather.

Shawna, who is Jamaican and moved to the US a little more than a decade ago, smiles when she tells me about her first date with Barsky. He decided to tell her everything about his past, making her one of the few people outside the FBI who knew his real story. But she simply laughed. "I used to be married to a man who lied a lot," she says, "so I didn't really want to hear it. I thought he was a quirky guy, and I thought, 'OK, if you want to live in this fantasy world, fine - but no need to talk about it.'" It was only years later, she says, that she realised his story about growing up in Germany might be true.

Barsky's new life is reassuringly suburban, that of the "natural-born American" he was sent out to be, but there are a few behavioural tics he has carried over from his KGB days. Occasionally, when out running, he sees a car parked in an unusual place and darts away from the road, zigzagging to lose any potential trails. Usually, it turns out to be birdwatchers (real ones) or amorous young couples. The habit of dead drops and secret hiding places has not completely left him, either, just morphed into a habit of hiding cookies. "I know I shouldn't have them, so I hide them. Various places - you can't make a pattern. Shawna says I don't need to hide them, but I can't help myself."

They'd have learned more about America by just believing what they read in the New York Times.

Posted by at February 11, 2017 9:20 AM