True Spies Episode 4: The Illegal
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?
This is True Spies Episode 4: The Illegal.
JACK BARSKY: This wasn't just spycraft. It started with ideology. Fundamentally, as an end result, I was one of the best-trained agents that they ever sent into the West. We were the sleeper agents behind enemy lines, activated when diplomatic relations were broken off. We would be, sort of, the last line of defense.
NARRATOR: It's 1988 and late fall, early winter. Today’s guide is someone you might call ‘an average American’.
JACK BARSKY: I live in Queens with my wife, Penelope, and our 18-month-old daughter Chelsea. My job is in Manhattan. I work as a computer programmer for the insurance company Metropolitan Life.
NARRATOR: A company man.
JACK BARSKY: I write code and ID. That's typically what programmers do. I really like my job and in my spare time, I get on a PC, a personal computer at home, and write more code.
NARRATOR: A family man.
JACK BARSKY: Other than that, I serve my family. I do shopping. I do chores and all that. But that's my life - work and the family.
NARRATOR: A simple life really. Nothing to see here. Just an ordinary day for an average American. Getting up, gulping down a cup of joe, and starting out from the suburbs on that same old boring commute.
JACK BARSKY: My way to work is about one hour and it's a 10-minute walk to the subway station. I take the 8-train and then I change a couple of times until I finally wind up in Manhattan in the area where the MetLife building is. And this is another two-minute walk, and up there is an elevator up to the 17th floor. That's where I'm working.
NARRATOR: Today’s guide is Jack Barsky.
JACK BARSKY: I received the Jack Barsky name because it was stolen from a young man who passed away at the age of five. The gravestone still exists.
NARRATOR: And that ‘simple life’ is about to come to an end.
JACK BARSKY: I'm on my way to the subway station when I spotted something I didn't want to see. It was a red dot on a steel beam. That was the danger sign that meant I was supposedly in danger of being caught. That was set by a KGB agent, and that was a signal for me to run, not to look back. I follow the instructions. I make a beeline to a park to receive an emergency document and then make my way to the Canadian border where, eventually, I would hook up with somebody in the Russian Embassy, which then will exfiltrate me out of the country and get me back into Russia and East Germany. The decision was pretty clear. I either follow the instructions or I don't.
NARRATOR: This is the story of Jack Barsky and Albrecht Dittrich. One KGB sleeper agent dropped behind enemy lines in 1970’s America to spy for the Soviet Union. One man, two identities, and a world that came crashing down after decades of spying culminating in a simple decision: whether to be Albrecht or Jack, to stay or go. What would you do? To answer that question we have to go back in time, in the German Democratic Republic, otherwise known as East Germany...
JACK BARSKY: … which was Soviet-occupied at the time, it was born four years after the end of World War II in the easternmost part of East Germany. World War II really devastated this country. There wasn't much left. I remember it was a matter of just plain survival - food, clothes, shelter. I had, for many years, maybe at Christmas, I got one toy.
NARRATOR: Poverty. Any spy recruiter will tell you it’s a fertile ground for grooming talented future agents. Cherry-picking the best of those looking for a way out. And there was plenty of poverty around in post-war Europe on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
JACK BARSKY: But we didn't know that we had a problem because everybody else lived the same way.
NARRATOR: Plenty of bright young men and women were hungry for a future that looked different from the lives playing out around them - and maybe some adventure.
JACK BARSKY: Well, I was recruited by the KGB, in my third year as a student at the university, it was a long process. Initially, the question was only: “Are you willing to work with us?” And then it took a year and a half to get to know each other. At the end of that year and a half, I was asked that question: “Are you in or are you not in?” That was the decision point. That decision was not an easy one because I had a stellar career path ahead of me, something I always wanted to do. But, on the other hand, there was an opportunity to do something really great to help build a better world because I was a strong believer in the communist cause. And, on top of it, this kind of an offer really does something to a young person's ego because I knew I was going to be very special.
NARRATOR: Ideology and ego. You’ve heard it before. They’re among the spy recruiter’s most reliable tools. Well, that and tapping into some other common teenage characteristics.
JACK BARSKY: And on top of it, I knew I was going to be outside of the law and I never liked the law that much. I didn't like the rules. So the feeling that you would be somebody special and a hero, eventually, I think, took precedence over all the other considerations.
NARRATOR: What would you do if your government came knocking, promising a chance to serve an exciting new life? Possibly some glamor away from the drab reality of society? Are you in?
JACK BARSKY: And after an agonizing night, I finally said: “Yes, I am.” At which point, I then became a contractor - not an employee because I wasn't a Russian - a contractor to the KGB.
NARRATOR: Okay, that’s the easy part over. Now it’s time for some spy training, KGB style.
JACK BARSKY: This wasn't just all spycraft. It started with ideology. I had to read a big, fat book on the history of the communist party of the Soviet Union. And, I also was required to broaden and deepen my knowledge of music, the arts, culture, and so forth.
NARRATOR: And, of course, some of the essential skills for spies, whatever side of the Iron Curtain you’re from.
JACK BARSKY: Specific spycraft training that is still relevant today. We are talking about Morse code, shortwave radio, reception, decryption, encryption, secret writing, photography, making microdots. And the dead drop, which is the handing over of material, all of that had to be practiced over and over again. So counter-surveillance, finding out whether somebody has ransacked your apartment. Yeah. Counter-surveillance took a big part of my time, particularly in Moscow. On any given day, my handler could come to my apartment and tell me it's time to go. And ‘time to go’ means get out into the city and get on a predefined and pre-selected three-hour route, and try to find whether you're being followed or not. And it was a competition. It was more than a game because they were highly trained professionals. In the end, the score was: Me 10. Them 0. And, altogether, I practiced this kind of stuff for about four years. I trained for two years in Berlin and another two years in Moscow. Fundamentally, as an end result, I was one of the best-trained agents that they ever sent into the West.
NARRATOR: Just in case you’re getting the impression that Jack - or Albrecht - as he was then, was starting to enjoy the spy games...
JACK BARSKY: I lived in Moscow for two years, pretty much all by myself. And these exercises - even though they were like games - weren't fun because it was high tension, eh? Because I wanted to do good. I knew it was preparation for the real thing.
NARRATOR: What was that real thing going to be? Excelling in his training, among the best of the best, he was destined for one particular program: The Illegals.
JACK BARSKY: The Illegals program was, sort of, their crown jewel. If you joined The Illegals program you were considered a superstar amongst superstars. There were like three waves of it in the post-World War II period. I was a member of the third wave, and according to information that was obtained directly from the KGB archives, there were 10 of us that were trained and sent to the United States. We were the sleeper agents behind enemy lines, activated when diplomatic relations were broken off and there was no, really other, KGB representation in the country.
NARRATOR: When ‘diplomatic relations were broken off? You can imagine how bad things might have become in the Cold War before that happened? We might not be talking about an all-out nuclear conflict, but we’re not far off.
JACK BARSKY: We would be, sort of, the last line of defense. We would still be there and be able to communicate to the center, that is, Moscow.
NARRATOR: As a member of The Illegals, Jack would be operating using his own intelligence to spy from within America - out on his own, using his own initiative to gather information, carry out certain covert tasks but, crucially, to lie in wait for when he was required.
JACK BARSKY: My personal mission was really somewhat ill-defined. I knew that I had to, initially, acquire all the documentation necessary. And I knew that I was acting as a sleeper, but I also had a whole bunch of tasks, you know, get to know more people, find out what the Americans are thinking, get closer to decision-makers or influencers, and so forth. But almost nothing is ever really clearly defined to be operational on the other side of the front line - so to speak. They knew that these things, these tasks cannot be all planned in advance. It required somebody who would be really good at making decisions on the spot, without asking questions of peers or superiors.
NARRATOR: One of the most vital skills for a sleeper agent working undercover in an enemy country is, naturally, language.
JACK BARSKY: When I was first recruited, fundamentally I had to start learning English from scratch, like English 101.
NARRATOR: However it’s not just a case of just speaking fluently. You have to pass it off as your mother tongue.
JACK BARSKY: And, of course, the accent was a big thing to get rid of as much as possible. Now, I had proven to myself already that I had a really good ability to imitate people, to imitate other people - voices, and so forth. It now required a lot of practice. I now had to listen to the American pronunciation of words and repeat them over, and over, and over, again. I did this for like three years, every night, about a half-hour phonetics exercises.
NARRATOR: Judge for yourself how successful Jack was at doing this.
JACK BARSKY: Oh boy. It got to a point where my accent was small enough to hold up, with an explanation. And the explanation was that my mother was German and I spoke a lot of German in my childhood.
NARRATOR: Okay, so your accent is pretty convincing but becoming an American is going to take more than just training your voice. It’s about identity. You need a whole new history.
JACK BARSKY: So, let's talk about the legends, also known as cover stories. These are made-up stories that account for the time you weren't there.
NARRATOR: Every undercover spy has their own unique legend.
JACK BARSKY: It all depends on the situation. This depends on the background and the individual.
NARRATOR: And it’s not just you, an entire family history needs to be created.
JACK BARSKY: And so, we made up where mother and father were and where I was born. And, from then on, we made up where I lived and what schools I went to, why I didn't graduate from high school - because I would have left a record where I started working - and then how I ‘reentered civilized society’.
NARRATOR: Jack Barsky, or at least the idea of Jack Barsky, was conceived. Not a very romantic conception... the name being stolen from the gravestone of an American child.
JACK BARSKY: We acquired the name of Jack Barsky and then wove a legend around this person as to what he did after he was born.
NARRATOR: The real trick to dreaming up an actual living legend is not simply creating a believable backstory. It’s to create one that’s memorable. After all, you might be captured and interrogated - or, at the very least, casually asked a random question about your past - when you’ve knocked back a few drinks at a party. When your mind isn’t quite focused. That’s when you’re most at risk. Just one slip and it might be game over. So what are you going to do to embed that completely new identity?
JACK BARSKY: What I did to be able to own it more readily is, I took a lot of people from my German past with me. So, for instance, my first-grade teacher, or my first friend, and I just gave them similar names. So, if I ever had to talk about this, I would have just reached back into my German past and would have a perfectly consistent good memory about these people when it came to people, and memories, and injuries, and stuff like that. I took that all with me, just in translation.
NARRATOR: Borrowing details from your real past sounds like a clever trick, right? But could there be an element of danger in there too? There are some in the world of spycraft who would warn against taking real details from your real past into your new identity. You see, it merges the two worlds. And carrying two separate identities - almost two different personalities now occupying the same space - it blurs the lines. And maintaining boundaries is very important now that you’re a sleeper agent.
JACK BARSKY: As a result of doing that, the two identities that I carried for many years of my life weren't 100 percent separate. I have enough proof to myself that I did have two psychologically speaking identities, but they were bleeding into each other, particularly the German into the American. And, even today, I have vestiges of behavior and possibly thinking. One thing that I still do in German is counting. I just can't count in English or do basic math in English.
NARRATOR: Of course, this is about more than problems with doing maths in your head. It’s about full assimilation. Not just looking and sounding like a different person but actually becoming a new person. And that was one part of the undercover spy game that Jack’s handlers failed to fully appreciate.
JACK BARSKY: There was one thing that the KGB really wasn't very good at. They had some really good strong points, particularly in the operational aspect of being an agent, but preparing future agents culturally was not one of theirs. I was supposed to become a full-blooded, born-in-the-United-States American. And the way we thought about it back in Moscow, both my handlers and I were very naive. You just learn the language. You learn history, you learn the United States Constitution.
As a matter of fact, they failed completely - simply because they figured, in my case, I'm a German. I would fit in naturally which absolutely is not the case. It took me many, many, many years to find out where my German still peeks through my American facade. You just learn a lot of things but that doesn't make you an American. And it takes a long time to actually integrate to a point where you are like you were born in that country. Here's an example. My communication style is very direct. I can use perfectly good English words, but even today, even though it's… I have softened quite a bit. It's not typical American. And, so that part of the integration, it was by assimilation and it took a long time and it isn't finished and it never will be.
NARRATOR: Cracks in Jack’s new identity had already started to appear right at its very foundation. They might lie hidden for years. But they were there even before he made that fateful journey west.
JACK BARSKY: So when I first entered the United States I was 28 years old. The entry happened in 1979. My port of entry was Chicago O'Hare airport. This was the final leg of a zig-zag journey.
NARRATOR: In the late ‘70s, international travel wasn’t a straightforward business, particularly if you were leaving a communist country and arriving in the home of decadent capitalism. So, if you were an undercover sleeper agent leaving the Soviet Union for a new life behind enemy lines? Well, you couldn’t simply jump on the first plane out of there to head straight to the land of the free.
JACK BARSKY: I had to arrive in Chicago in such a way that you couldn't trace me back to having originated in Moscow. So, I went from a communist country to a socialist country, to a sort of neutral country, then a Nato member, and eventually wound up in the United States. So, there was an escalation with regard to the “friendliness” of the countries I traveled through. So, from Moscow, I got on a plane and flew to Yugoslavia, Belgrade.
NARRATOR: In those days Serbia was still part of Yugoslavia.
JACK BARSKY: Same day, I took a train from Belgrade to Vienna.
NARRATOR: In Austria.
JACK BARSKY: I stayed one night, and I met a Soviet KGB agent and handed him the passport I traveled with to Vienna. He got me a different passport. And, from Vienna, I took a train to Italy, Rome, where I met yet another agent and I got another passport that I then used to go to fly to Mexico City, and from Mexico City to Chicago.
NARRATOR: Jack wasn’t yet passing himself off as Jack. As he traveled through airports and train stations he transformed from one identity to the next. In Mexico City, he picked up one of the last false identities he would ever use.
JACK BARSKY: I used many, many false identities, but this one I remember because it was so crucial - and a critical moment in my life - and it was William Dyson.
NARRATOR: But as soon as he had arrived in America, William Dyson’s life was cut short.
JACK BARSKY: Now, in Chicago, I became Jack Barsky. I destroyed the passport with a Dyson name and started using the Jack Barsky birth certificate. That is a rather tenuous existence because the only document I had on me that indicated who I was was a birth certificate.
NARRATOR: Jack became Jack, and set out from the cocoon of KGB spy training into a parallel universe. From Jack’s side of the Iron Curtain, schooled in anti-Americanism and Marxism pretty much since birth, this was the place you were always warned about. Your adversary. You arrive at the customs desk. Uniformed officials and police everywhere. Will they see straight through your fake identity?
JACK BARSKY: When I arrived in Chicago, I went to Immigration and Customs. And what I was really concerned about was some kind of an interview where I would fumble the answers. But none of that happens. I got through. I sailed through, no problem. And so, I was in the clear.
NARRATOR: And then you step out into the sensory overload of 1970’s Chicago - the smells, the music, the people. Everything around you is at once familiar, yet totally different. An upside-down world. Knowing absolutely no one. Thousands of miles away from your friends and family, and your old identity. Will you ever see home again? Will you even hear anyone say your real name ever again? Now you’re behind enemy lines with just a few simple possessions in your suitcase.
JACK BARSKY: A false passport, a birth certificate, and maybe $6,000 in cash.
NARRATOR: That’s all you have to start your new life. For spies, this is what it’s all about. These moments. The years of training are over. You’re out on your own in the world. No one to rely on but you. How would you cope?
JACK BARSKY: Looking back, how I handled these high-pressure situations, this was mostly instinctively. I went into what I call ‘execution mode’. So execution mode, to me, means the following: when you have a task, you focus on every step. It needs to be taken to accomplish that task. In this case, it was travel and, in this case, it was getting through various borders and eventually winding up at your destination. All other thoughts that were not relevant to that task, I fundamentally got rid of in my mind. And, if they were trying to enter, I chased him out. Therefore, fear did not come into play. Tension? Yes. And that's good tension you need to have in a situation like that. You need to be on. But fear, doubt - none of that - came into play. And I have this with me to this day.
NARRATOR: Jack made his way into Chicago.
JACK BARSKY: And since the KGB had nobody in Chicago, they had no clue what the city was like. They couldn't give me any recommendations - where to go, where to stay overnight. So I picked out a hotel at random in the Yellow Pages.
NARRATOR: This is the late '70s. No internet, let alone Airbnb. When it came to last-minute cheap hotels, a business directory was the best you were going to get. But unfortunately, they don’t come with previous user recommendations.
JACK BARSKY: I got to the hotel and, as we were driving toward that address, the neighborhood really became rather seedy. Not very nice. Here I am, brand new to the United States. I had no frame of reference. I didn't know how to interpret this. I got into it, went into the hotel, and the reception desk was protected by plexiglass. Again, having no point of reference. I thought maybe most hotels would be that way. So, I handed the guy behind the plexiglass the money I had. I made a reservation for two nights. Paid in cash. Gave him the whole amount. Got my key. I went upstairs and I couldn't turn on the TV. I had to put a quarter in to make that thing work for a little while. And when half an hour was up, I had to put another quarter in. And I, at that point I had, in order to turn off execution mode, I took to the drink - half a bottle of Johnny Walker Red, and fell into a drunken sleep.
NARRATOR: The first day of Jack Barsky’s young life was over.
JACK BARSKY: Next morning, after taking four aspirins to get rid of the headaches, I went outside to look for a place to eat and it became pretty clear to me that I was a stranger in a strange land. So, I decided to just get out of there real quick. So I took a flight to my destination. And I had arrived, after spending almost two weeks traveling from Moscow to New York.
NARRATOR: Jack had reached his final destination.
JACK BARSKY: I arrived in New York City in 1979 and it was in the fall - I remember because it was a gorgeous fall day. I'm there with a suitcase and some equipment that would allow me to communicate with a center. The plane arrived at LaGuardia airport and I took a bus to Manhattan. And I'm looking out the window as we get into Manhattan. And I'm saying: “Oh my God. These streets are so narrow.” Well, it was an optical illusion because they were flanked left and right by huge skyscrapers that seemed to squeeze the streets and make them really small.
NARRATOR: Coming out of his daze, under the skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan, Jack set about setting up his new life.
JACK BARSKY: Again, the number one task was to find a place to live. Once on the ground, I wandered around and eventually found a reasonably clean hotel. It was private. It had a private bathroom.
NARRATOR: A private bathroom - desirable for many choosing a hotel, but essential for a spy.
JACK BARSKY: That was an absolute must because when you do certain types of work you need to destroy. Burn up paper and then flush it down the toilet. There were some seedy characters in that place, but it was reasonably safe. And that became my ‘home’ for the next year.
NARRATOR: Jack got on with building his life in New York, eventually gaining a social security number so he was able to work. And, with a job in place, establishing his cover was almost complete. But when your mission lasts for years rather than days, sometimes it's more than just the logistics that need to be addressed. After all, being a spy with a secret identity can be lonely.
JACK BARSKY: When it was safe for me to engage in the kind of relationship that was a little more ‘close’ than just cursory acquaintances… that was the point when I finally had a decent job as a professional, where I didn't have to hide my intrinsic intelligence. I was very lonely. I was looking for a companion. So, I put an ad in the newspaper and I met the lady who, originally, was from South America. And I liked her. She liked me.
NARRATOR: But mutual attraction isn’t the only consideration for undercover spies looking for love.
JACK BARSKY: And she was incredibly safe. Safe, meaning that she wasn't American by birth. She wasn't American by education. She wouldn't have had a clue that I had some German vestiges in me, that my story wouldn't quite add up. So she was as safe as it gets with regard to hiding my true self.
NARRATOR: And so, Jack settled into his new existence as Jack while hiding his true self. But how were the years of dual identities playing out in his mind? Building a life that was a lie, and maintaining it? The reality is, every action in your life is built on a foundation of dishonesty. It is dramatic to say, but everyone you allow to get close to you, every relationship, is built on lies. Only you know the real secret. How does that feel?
JACK BARSKY: Let me tell you something. While I was doing all of this, I did not feel stressed to a point where I couldn't take it anymore. I did not feel lonely. No depression, no anxiety, no fear. I just did what I had to do.
NARRATOR: The cracks in Jack’s new identity were holding for now. So he set about doing what he was in the US to do - spy for the Soviet Union. Okay, if we’re going to be honest, even for KGB sleeper agents, spying sometimes involves laborious bureaucratic tasks.
JACK BARSKY: Communication with a center was the most awkward and most annoying part of the whole spying business because it was labor-intensive. It took a lot of time. And the amount of information that could be transmitted back and forth was not enough to - really, in many cases - make sense. I never met a Soviet agent on the territory of the United States for purposes of direct communication. So, I got my instructions on a shortwave radio. It was a double-encrypted Morse code. I had a transmission about once a week. On a particular day, at a particular time: Thursdays at 9:15 pm. And, if you think of... maybe, a half-page… of type-written material that would take me to receive and to decrypt - it would take me roughly about two and a half hours. Sometimes, I spent the whole night and early in the morning if there was a very lengthy radiogram for me. To transmit information to the center, it was even more awkward because it was via secret writing through the regular mail. I would compose a letter as if I was writing to somebody. And then, on top of the open text, I would put a text in secret writing. And that letter was then mailed to - what we call - a convenience address, in, say, South America or Europe, to a person who was collaborating with the KGB, who would then hand it to a local KGB agent and it would then go into the diplomatic pouch sent to Moscow. And, over there, it would be developed. So, when you think about whether there was a conversation. You ask a question and you get an answer three weeks later. So it was awkward and fundamentally insufficient.
NARRATOR: There was also the waiting because, being a sleeper agent also requires a bit of, well... sleeping.
JACK BARSKY: My primary task was actually just to be here.
NARRATOR: At least until it’s time to wake up for some actual spying.
JACK BARSKY: One time I actually managed to hand over to Moscow some stolen software that they were interested in. And then I had some special assignments. These special assignments had a lot to do with the fact that I could travel freely in the country whereas the diplomats, like the UN - employees who were actually KGB - were subject to restrictions. As a talent-spotter, I sent profiles of, probably, up to 30 individuals, most of them college students, to the center. And I have no idea what they did with that. They may have recruited one of those two people, that kind of information.
NARRATOR: And then came the hunt for Nikolai Khokhlov.
JACK BARSKY: But one of those special assignments came across in the mid-80s when I got a radiogram that sounded a little bit out of the ordinary. It was a lengthy instruction to get a flight to California, wind up in San Bernardino, and find a person named Nikolai Khokhlov. I had no idea who Nikolai Khokhlov was or if they were interested in, fundamentally, the basics, you know? Does he still live there? Does he, as we think, still teach at the University of California, San Bernardino? And then came an appendix to this task: “Under no circumstances must you make contact with that individual.” So here I go. It's a task I'm going to do. And I had no idea how to find somebody like that.
NARRATOR: How do you work with just a name and a job title to track someone down? Sounds easy? Well consider this, your target very likely does not want to be found. And this was the 1980s.
JACK BARSKY: There was no internet. It was really, really hard to do in those days. You couldn't look up people on Wikipedia.
NARRATOR: No mobile phones. No internet. Just the phone book And, if someone was ex-directory, that was useless. What would you do?
JACK BARSKY: So I wound up just wandering around in the hallways of the UC at San Bernardino. And, as luck would have it, at the end of those hallways there was a door with a nameplate on it, and it says: Professor Khokhlov. I’m like: “Whew.” I found him at that point. As I'm looking at the sign, the door opens, and out comes the guy, presumably Khokhlov.
NARRATOR: The center had specifically said: "Under no circumstances must you make contact with that individual."
JACK BARSKY: I averted my eyes and quickly went the other way. So I had my information. I sent it back to the KGB. A couple of months later, I was watching late-night television and there's this guy who was being interviewed about Russia and the Soviet Union and intelligence, and I said: “I know this guy.” And there was Khokhlov. And I realized the guy was ex-KGB, which made me somewhat uncomfortable because now I had a good idea why they wanted to know where this guy was. What I didn't know, at the time - which would have made me even more uncomfortable - is that he was still under a death sentence because he had defected in the ‘50s. And, in those days that generated a death sentence, and that death sentence was still in effect.
NARRATOR: Had Jack just facilitated Khokhlov’s assassination as a Soviet defector?
JACK BARSKY: I took a big sigh of relief when I found out, eventually, that Mr Khokhlov passed away from natural causes.
NARRATOR: Okay, so you might have spotted something in Jack’s voice there? Just then, when he was talking about his fear of causing Khokhlov’s death. The more perceptive (or should I say recruitable) might have noticed. It doesn’t, exactly, sound like the words of a cold-blooded KGB sleeper agent. Well, that’s because, after so long away from the motherland, Jack had started to experience conflicting thoughts.
You see, the girlfriend he’d met through his newspaper advertisement had become his wife. And they had a child, Chelsea. And so Jack became more.. well, real. The cracks in his identities' foundations were widening. And so let’s go back to that morning of that ‘late fall, early winter’ day in 1988.
Average American, family-man Jack Barsky on his morning commute. Some of those conflicting thoughts might have been there at the back of his mind. But little did he know how quickly they were about to be brought to the surface.
JACK BARSKY: I spent 10 years in the service of the KGB, undercover in New York. And here's the one thing that happens... When you take on this kind of assignment, over time, you become quite arrogant. You think you're invulnerable. Nothing ever happened. Initially, I was prepared to be intercepted at the border and go right to jail. And then, I figured, eventually somebody will find me out and I'll be called into the FBI and interrogated. But nothing ever happened. And then, one day in early December, I saw this signal on a predetermined spot that said only one thing: EMERGENCY.
NARRATOR: Jack’s identity had been compromised. He was in immediate danger of being exposed. The KGB and Albrecht Dittrich were calling him home to the Motherland.
JACK BARSKY: Get out of here and don't call back. Don't pack your bags. Don't empty your bank account. Just take what you’ve got and run.
NARRATOR: Can you imagine having to drop everything in your life and leave, never to return? Your career, your house, all your possessions? And, most importantly, the people you love?
JACK BARSKY: And here was a problem. And, my problem was personal. I had an 18-month-old daughter at the time and I had really fallen in love with this girl. I loved this girl more than anybody else in my entire life. This is the kind of love that you don't really have when it's romantic love - because in romantic love you give, but you also receive, you want something back. You know? When you love a child, you get nothing much back.
NARRATOR: But if you stay and your false identity really has been compromised... What then?
JACK BARSKY: And that's it. And I just loved this girl so much. So I was conflicted because clearly if the Russians were right, I would wind up in jail and I wouldn't be any good for this girl anyway. But, eventually, it wasn't entirely a rational decision. I decided: “To heck with all the reasoning.” And, at one point, I think, people can relive this in their own lives. If you have a big decision to make, you write up the pros and the cons in two different columns and you figure it out... maybe there's a formula that will make you arrive at the right decision. Eventually, you throw it out and you say: “To heck with it. This is what I feel I should do and my feelings that I am going to stay.” And so, I declared to the KGB that I was quitting.
NARRATOR: But you can’t just quit the KGB.
JACK BARSKY: And so the question comes... Did you get away with it?
NARRATOR: What could Jack possibly say to justify his decision to stay in America? Or rather, what could possibly make the KGB not want him back? To solve this problem, Jack fell back on his training: deception.
JACK BARSKY: Well, I think that was probably the most brilliant lie I have ever committed, and so I told him that I had contracted HIV AIDS.
NARRATOR: That was late ‘80s America, at the start of the HIV AIDS epidemic.
JACK BARSKY: Which at the time was a death sentence.
NARRATOR: With so much unknown about the illness and treatments still in their infancy, there was panic and fear in most countries at possible contagion from the emerging illness.
JACK BARSKY: And they bought that lie. They told my family in East Germany that I had passed away from AIDS. And, I was In the clear, I thought: “This is it. I've landed. And, from now on, I'm going to live like a normal person.”
NARRATOR: Jack had survived KGB extraction. He was free to continue his life. What would be the first thing you would do? Jack decided he was going to live a little.
JACK BARSKY: And the first, very first thing that I did was to sign up for the Retirement Savings Plan at my company, that made sense up to that point. I wasn't participating because you can't take it with you. So now I knew I was going to stay. And, the next thing that was indicative that I was going to stay, was I bought a house in the suburbs. And so, for another seven years, I lived totally retired.
NARRATOR: It was almost as if Jack’s identity as a KGB agent had completely dissolved into the past. But of course, that’s not the way the past works - no matter how much some spies might want it to. And Albrecht Dittrich - who he was and what he had done - was always still there. Sure, maybe he was out of sight for now. But he was there, quietly standing behind the curtain, waiting to reveal himself. And, when he did, it all began with a very normal domestic scene.
JACK BARSKY: I had a verbal altercation with my wife and she was constantly not trusting me. And I was trying to explain to her that we're really on the same team. And, she just didn't believe it.
NARRATOR: Jack needed proof of his devotion to his family. But what could he say that would show his wife he was committed to them above all else? Well yes, there is the whole ‘defying the KGB’ example. But he’s not going to reveal that his entire identity is a lie just to prove a point in a domestic argument, is he? Well, actually...
JACK BARSKY: So I went for what I call the ‘nuclear option’. That means I was going to prove to her that I really am there for her and our children. So I told her: “Hey, listen. There's one thing I forgot to tell you. And maybe that should prove that I really love you and Chelsea. I was once a KGB agent and I was asked to leave the United States and I defied the mighty KGB because I wanted to stay with you and Chelsea.”
NARRATOR: Jack had finally come clean to his family about the truth - the ultimate confession. He revealed the secret he had carried and protected so carefully for years. But there was a small problem.
JACK BARSKY: And that was recorded by the FBI bug. They had bugged my home, my house, with listening devices. So they had my confession on tape.
NARRATOR: You have to appreciate the irony here. After all the deception, Jack finally comes clean, and in doing so finds out that honesty isn’t always the best policy. But why was the FBI listening in on his mundane domestic life in the first place?
JACK BARSKY: Well, there was a defector from the KGB who smuggled tons and tons of information out of the KGB archives where he worked. And among that information, there was a little blurb about Jack Barsky: undercover agent. It was enough to find me because they're not too many Jack Barskys and there was only one who got his social security card at the ripe old age of 35, so then they knew they had their man. But they had no idea as to whether I was still active, or whether I was just asleep, or to be woken up at a certain time. So they were very careful until they decided it's time to go in for the kill, so to speak. Well, thank God it wasn't a kill because I'm still here.
NARRATOR: But, of course, Jack doesn’t know anything about the FBI listening in as he’s revealing his past life to his wife. And, argument over, his conscience clear, he heads off to work
JACK BARSKY: I was stopped when I drove home from work.
NARRATOR: Side note: Isn’t it strange that Jack lived all these years as an undercover spy yet all the most exciting moments that he experienced happened on the mundane daily commute. Anyway…
JACK BARSKY: I was stopped at a toll bridge and very quickly it became clear they were FBI wanted to, literally, the fellow said: "We would like to talk to you.”
NARRATOR: Albrecht Dittrich had returned.
JACK BARSKY: So my past came right back, rushing back into my brain. Now I remember that I had been a secret agent and I knew I was in big trouble. And the agent took me to a motel and spent about two hours interrogating me.
NARRATOR: But Jack quickly realized this wasn’t the interrogation he had long feared.
JACK BARSKY: It was very friendly. It was almost a talk, a chat. And I, from the very first moment, I made it clear to them that the only chance for me to get out of this in decent shape - and to be able to take care of my family - had grown to a total count of four. I had a son and I would like to cooperate. I fundamentally had no reason not to cooperate. And so, it took three months of interrogation. And I had to pass a lie detector test until I was told, one day, that I was in the clear. And that, eventually I would be allowed to stay in the United States and even attain citizenship, which I did four years ago.
NARRATOR: Amazingly, in the spirit of post-Cold War friendship, Jack had been forgiven by the FBI at least - for all his years of spying - and perhaps even more amazingly he became the person whose identity he had created, even down to the name taken from a young boy’s grave all those years in the past.
JACK BARSKY: The question of why I kept the name Jack Barsky has come up frequently. There's a number of reasons. Initially, when the FBI caught up with me, I was still operating for quite some years under my illegally obtained documentation. It would have caused trouble with my employer and it would have been a cause for immediate termination. I was so enmeshed in American society - bank accounts, a mortgage, and our names all over the place. My kids, my wife, I mean… it would have created a phenomenal amount of disruption. It also would have cost the government quite a bit of money. They allowed me to, pretty much, they cleaned me up. It took a while, but it was all around the better way to go. I also was very much used to being Jack Barsky. Now, the one thing that the FBI did, they paid a courtesy call to [Jack Barsky’s] parents, who were still alive at the time. And they ask for permission for me to retain that name. And they graciously allowed for that.
NARRATOR: There is a final footnote in the story of Jack Barsky. It's one that speaks to the unlikely forgiveness and friendship at the end of his years of Soviet spying.
JACK BARSKY: So the fellow who was the lead agent in my case was a fellow by the name of Joe Riley. He had a lot of experience doing organized crime and counter-intelligence. And so, he spent three years investigating me. He watched me from a distance with binoculars. He went through my garbage. I mean, they followed me. He learned a lot about me just by watching me. And, when they finally decided to introduce themselves and have a conversation with me, he was the one who interrogated me over a period of three months.
Initially, every evening and then, eventually, once a week. And, meticulously, we went through every detail of my life. At one point, whatever he wrote down was probably more than I could remember. If I were to tell you right now... there's a lot of things I couldn't remember.
At the end of these interviews, we exchanged opinions about society, philosophy, God, and the world. And we found out that we have a lot in common. At that time, I had pretty much said goodbye to any vestiges of my belief in communism and Marxism, Leninism… It just didn't compute.
I also had found out all the bad stuff that happened in the Soviet Union and in East Germany that I never knew about until after I had the ability to do research and had access to sources. So we really got along swimmingly. And, one day, he said: “Well, why don't you come and play a round of golf with me? I never even had a golf ball in my hands. So I said: “Okay.” So, I initially went to the range. I hit a few balls, and then I hacked it up. And, in my first round, I joined his group, and it became a weekly occurrence. And we really became good friends.
One time, he invited me to his Christmas party and I had to sing a German Christmas song. And, eventually, he became the Godfather to my last child. He's one of my best friends. Kind of odd, but not necessarily so unusual that you couldn't imagine it because once you shed the baggage that you have - if there is baggage to be shed - then you find out who you really are.
NARRATOR: Jack Barsky. Not so illegal now. And who among us - or, should I say, ‘which Spies among us’ - don’t have any baggage to shed? I’m Hayley Atwell. Join us next week for another debrief with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
Jack Barsky, aka Albrecht Dittrich, is a German-American author and IT specialist. He was also a KGB agent for a decade. Exposed after the Cold War, Barsky began working with US counterintelligence agencies, hoping to remain in the States. He now works as a SPYEX consultant.