June 20, 2018

Jack Barsky: The KGB spy who lived the American dream

63It’s no secret that the Russians have long tried to plant “sleeper agents” in the US – men and women indistinguishable from normal Americans, who live – on the surface – completely normal lives. But what happens when one of them doesn’t want to go home?
Jack Barsky died in September 1955, at the age of 10, and was buried in the Mount Lebanon Cemetery in the suburbs of Washington DC.
His name is on the passport of the man sitting before me now – a youthful 67-year-old East German, born Albert Dittrich. The passport is not a fake. Albert Dittrich is Jack Barsky in the eyes of the US government.
The story of how this came to be is, by Barsky’s own admission, “implausible” and “ridiculous”, even by the standards of Cold War espionage. But as he explains in a new memoir, Deep Undercover, it has been thoroughly checked out by the FBI. As far as anyone can tell, it is all true.
It began in the mid-70s, when Dittrich, destined at the time to become a chemistry professor at an East German university, was talent-spotted by the KGB and sent to Moscow for training in how to behave like an American.
His mission was to live under a false identity in the heart of the capitalist enemy, as one of an elite band of undercover Soviet agents known as “illegals”.
“I was sent to the United States to establish myself as a citizen and then make contact, to the extent possible, at the highest levels possible of decision makers – particularly political decision makers,” he says.
This “idiotic adventure,” as he now calls it, had “a lot of appeal to an arrogant young man, a smart young man” intoxicated by the idea of foreign travel and living “above the law”.
He arrived in New York in the Autumn of 1978, at the age of 29, posing as a Canadian national, William Dyson. Dyson, who had travelled via Belgrade, Rome, Mexico City and Chicago, “immediately vanished into thin air”, having served his purpose. And Dittrich began his new life as Jack Barsky.
He was a man with no past and no identification papers – except for a birth certificate obtained by an employee of the Soviet embassy in Washington, who had kept his eyes open during a walk in the Mount Lebanon cemetery.
Barsky had supreme self-confidence, a near-flawless American accent, and $10,000 in cash.
He also had a “legend” to explain why he did not have a social security number. He told people he had had a “tough start in life” in New Jersey and had dropped out of high school. He had then worked on a remote farm for years before deciding “to give life another chance and move back to New York city”.
He rented a room in a Manhattan hotel and set about the laborious task of building a fake identity. Over the next year, he parlayed Jack Barsky’s birth certificate into a library card, then a driver’s licence and, finally, a social security card.
But without qualifications in Barsky’s name, or any employment history, his career options were limited. Rather than rubbing shoulders with the upper echelons of American society, as his KGB handlers had wanted, he initially found himself delivering parcels to them, as a cycle courier in the smarter parts of Manhattan.
“By chance it turned out that the messenger job was actually really good for me to become Americanised because I was interacting with people who didn’t care much where I came from, what my history was, where I was going,” he says.
“Yet I was able to observe and listen and become more familiar with American customs. So for the first two, three years I had very few questions that I had to answer.”
The advice from his handlers on blending in – gleaned from Soviet diplomats and resident agents in the US – “turned out to be, at minimum, weak but, at worst, totally false”, he says.
“I’ll give you an example. One of the things I was told explicitly was to stay away from the Jews. Now, obviously, there is anti-Semitism in there, but secondly, the stupidity of that statement is that they sent me to New York. There are more Jews in New York than in Israel, I think.”
Barsky would later use his handlers’ prejudices and ignorance of American society against them.
But as a “rookie” agent he was eager to please and threw himself into the undercover life. He spent much of his free time zig-zagging across New York on counter-surveillance missions designed to flush out any enemy agents who might be following him.
He would update Moscow Centre on his progress in weekly shortwave radio transmissions and deposit messages in secret writing at dead drop sites in various New York parks, where he would also periodically pick up canisters stuffed with cash or the fake passports he needed for his trips back to Moscow for debriefing.
He would return the to the East every two years, where he would be reunited with his German wife Gerlinde, and young son Matthias, who had no idea what he had been up to. They thought he was doing top secret but very well-paid work at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Barsky’s handlers were delighted with his progress except for one thing – he could not get hold of an American passport. This failure weighed heavily on him.
On one early trip to the passport office in New York an official asked him to fill out a questionnaire which asked, among other things, the name of the high school he had attended.
“I had a legend but it could not be verified,” he says. “So if somebody went to check on that they would have found out that I wasn’t real.”
Terrified that his cover might be blown, he scooped up any documents with his name on them and marched out of the office in a feigned temper at all this red tape.
Without a passport, Barsky was limited to low-level intelligence work and his achievements as a spy were, by his own account, “minimal”.
He profiled potential recruits and compiled reports on the mood of the country during events such as the 1983 downing of a Korean Airlines flight by a Soviet fighter, which ratcheted up tensions between the US and the Soviet Union.
On one occasion, he flew to California to track down a defector (he later learned, to his immense relief, that the man, a psychology professor, had not been assassinated).
He also carried out some industrial espionage, stealing software from his office – all of it commercially available – which was spirited away on microfilm to aid the floundering Soviet economy.
But it often seemed the very fact of him being in the US, moving around freely without the knowledge of the authorities, was enough for Moscow.
“They were very much focused on having people on the other side just in case of a war. Which I think, in hindsight, was pretty stupid. That indicated very old thinking.”
The myth of the “Great Illegals” – heroic undercover agents who had helped Russia defeat the Nazis and gather vital pre-war intelligence in hostile countries – loomed large over the Soviet intelligence agencies, who spent a lot of time and effort during the Cold War trying to recapture these former glories, with apparently limited success.
Barsky later found out that he was part of a “third wave” of Soviet illegals in the US – the first two waves having failed. And we now know that illegals continued to be infiltrated in the 1980s and beyond.
He believes about “10 to 12” agents were trained up at the same time as him. Some, he says, could still be out there, living undercover in the United States, though he finds it hard to believe that anyone exposed to life in the US would retain an unwavering communist faith for long.
He is scathing about his KGB handlers, who were “very smart” and the “cream of the crop” but who seemed chiefly concerned with making his mission appear a success to please their bosses.
“The expectations of us, of me – I didn’t know anybody else – were far, far too high. It was just really wishful thinking,” he now says of his mission.
On the other hand, the KGB’s original plan for him might actually have worked, he says.
“I am glad it didn’t work out because I could have done some damage.
“The idea was for me to get genuine American documentation and move to Europe, say to a German-speaking country, where the Russians were going to set me up with a flourishing business. And they knew how to do that.
“And so I would become quite wealthy and then go back to the United States without having to explain where the money came from. At that point, I would have been in a situation to socialise with people that were of value.”
This plan fell through because of his failure to get a passport, so the KGB reverted to Plan B.
This was for Barsky was to study for a degree and gradually work his way up the social order to the point where he could gather useful intelligence – a mission he describes as “nearly impossible”.
The degree part was relatively straightforward. He was, after all, a university professor in his former life. He graduated top of his class in computer science at New York City University, which enabled him to get a job as a programmer at Met Life insurance in New York.
Like many undercover agents before him, he began to realise that much of what he had been taught about the West – that it was an “evil” system on the brink of economic and social collapse – was a lie.

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