A Life of Espionage – Jack Barsky

A Life of Espionage – Jack Barsky

A Life of Espionage – Jack Barsky

Jack Barsky — chemist, linguist, computer programmer … spy. The former KGB agent lived under cover in the United States for decades before being found out by the FBI. Now, he’s sharing his story — his childhood in East Germany, his life of espionage, his turn from communism and everything in between — with host Charles Mizrahi.

Topics Discussed:

  • An Introduction to Jack Barsky (00:00:22)
  • Recruited by the KGB (00:07:04)
  • Becoming an American (00:15:06)
  • Undercover Life (00:23:44)
  • A Communist in a Capitalist World (00:33:38)
  • Baruch & Beyond (00:37:53)
  • A Strong Warning (00:43:25)
  • Found by the FBI (00:48:45)
  • A Message to Fellow Americans (00:54:35)

Guest Bio:

Today, Jack Barsky is a proud American … but his journey to citizenship was anything but traditional. The former KGB spy came to the U.S. in 1978 in order to report back to the Soviet Union. Today, he’s active on his website, JackBarsky.com, and tells his incredible story in his book, Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America.

Resources Mentioned:

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Read Transcript

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

My guest today is former Soviet KGB agent Jack Barsky. Jack Barsky was born Albert Dietrich in 1949 in East Germany. When he was a senior studying chemistry at a university in East Germany, he was approached by someone from the East German secret police, Stasi, and offered a job he accepted and was then sent for training with the KGB. In 1978, when he was 29 years old, he was sent to the United States as a sleeper agent and given the alias Jack Philip Barsky.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

His mission was to get a U.S. passport, insert himself into American society and to make contacts with foreign policy think tanks and get close to President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in order to influence policy. Boy, the KGB—they thought big. After close to 20 years undercover, the FBI finally caught up with him. Since his capture, the FBI found him to be a tremendous source of information about KGB spy techniques. And he has worked with both the FBI and NSA. In 2014, Jack became a U.S. citizen. Today, he’s a law-abiding, patriotic American living a normal life with his wife and family. I recently sat down with Jack to talk about how we led a double life, and why he decided to defect to the United States and become a citizen.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

Jack, thanks so much for being on the show. I greatly appreciate it.

JACK BARSKY:

It’s my pleasure, sir.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

Over the last several days, I read your book, Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America. And I want to tell you, pal, it sounded like I was reading fiction. This is your life. And it’s absolutely amazing. So, before we begin with anything, how do I know I’m speaking to Jack Barsky today?

JACK BARSKY:

Well, you are speaking to the documented Jack Barsky. That’s, indeed, correct. But if you’re referring to how you know this isn’t mostly fiction… Well, I got some really good support from people that know my story from the other side—people that are still alive who knew me way back when I was in Germany, and, most importantly, the FBI that did a very thorough investigation. And whatever I put in there to the extent that can be verified is verified. The rest of it, you’ve just got to believe.

JACK BARSKY:

But I’ve got to tell you… At this point, it doesn’t make any sense for me to lie anymore. Because I started out as a child, as a young person… I was always called “brutally honest.” And then I had to live that lie. And now, I’m much more comfortable with myself now that I can tell the truth.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

OK, so now let’s back up here… I read this book, and I’m saying, “I just can’t believe this.” Because it takes place in New York City. It takes place at Baruch College, which is a stone’s throw from my house. In fact, we were talking about this before the show… Several of my friends were probably passing you in the hallways at Baruch College in the early 1980s. And that’s how you got in there.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, lets start at the beginning… You were born in what was then East Germany, right after the partition after World War II.

JACK BARSKY:

Yes. Which, at the time, was not a state. It became a state—the German Democratic Republic—six months after I was born. It was the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, you grew up there. Your parents—I’m assuming—were German. Where were your parents from?

JACK BARSKY:

Well, my parents were both from the eastern part of Germany—pretty far east. And it turns out that really, I’m only genetically half German. The other half is divided into Czech and Polish. Because the area where I grew up and my parents grew up was mixed quite a bit.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, you’re growing up in post-World War II Germany, which, especially in the Soviet-occupied territory, was pretty terrible. I think you wrote in the book that your parents had an average caloric intake of 1,500 calories a day.

JACK BARSKY:

That was the average across the country. And it was skewed in terms of… It hit the big city dwellers much harder than those in the country. We always had enough to eat, but not always nutritious food. Our staple was potatoes. And we live din a country where you’ll find a farmer and you had to either buy or trade. But I grew up very thin. I have a picture of me from when I was 11 years old and it looks horrible! I’m so thin. And I wanted to play sports, but my heart wasn’t developed, so I wasn’t even allowed. It eased over time, but the first 10 years, I can’t remember ever having been hungry, but I also cannot remember getting good food.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, it’s pretty amazing to me that, in today’s environment in America, we have so many people who are calling for socialism and a “utopia” that they have no idea about. They can go to McDonald’s or Burger King where they can consume 1,500 calories in one sitting and still be hungry. And here you were in a zone where they were not even eating 1,500 calories a day.

JACK BARSKY:

Let me expand on this a little bit… As time went on and I was in my 20s, at that time, food was readily available. But every time I go into a supermarket in the U.S., I still marvel at the variety and the amount of food available in this country. Even when it was “good” in the Soviet Union or East Germany, you got one of something… Or very often, you had to buy what they had, not what you wanted. It’s a huge difference!

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

100%. So, you grew up in what later became East Germany. You were a smart kid, you went to university, you were studying chemistry… And then, what happens that changes your life?

JACK BARSKY:

Well, I studied chemistry. I finished my degree. I have the equivalent of a master’s degree. And I became an employee of the university as an assistant professor. Taught a little math, taught a little chemistry… But in my third year, I was approached by the KGB. And I had a relationship with my handler—with one person who I met on a regular basis. And it was pretty clear what they wanted me to do, but we took a long time getting to know each other.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

How does that work? I really don’t know the spy game. I’m sitting in class one day, I’m teaching math or chemistry… Does someone come up to you and say, “Hi, I’m from the KGB and we’d like you to work for us”? How does it work in the spy world?

JACK BARSKY:

No, see… When somebody from an intelligence agency comes and introduces themselves, most likely, they’ll give you a cover name. They won’t give you a real name, they won’t show you a real ID at all…

JACK BARSKY:

So, I was initially approached by a German national who spoke very good, accent-free German. He was most likely a collaborator—one of those unofficial folks who worked with the KGB in our country, and he introduced himself. One day, he came to me in the dorm where I stayed. It was on a Saturday. I was up in my room. And he introduced himself, initially, as a representative of a local optical company, stating that he just wanted to chat about my future after graduation—which was an idiotic cover story. I knew, immediately, that he wasn’t telling me the truth because in East Germany, companies did not recruit or assign places, so I don’t know… but this guy was unlikable and incapable. But I knew what he was after, so I played along. It came to a point where he changed his story and said, “I’ve got to come clean with you. I’m not really from that company—I work for the government.”

JACK BARSKY:

And then he asked the question that he’d come to see me for. And the question… I can remember this very well… He asked, “Can you imagine to one day be working for the government?” And I just gave him an answer that he understood. I said, “Yes, but not as a chemist.” So, we had an understanding that I’m willing to talk about intelligence work. I was pretty clear that this was not some Stasi recruiting me to watch over the population and make sure that there wouldn’t be a counterrevolution or something like that. So, I was interested. And he did his job.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

But Jack, how does he find you? How does it work in the intelligence world?

JACK BARSKY:

Ah, this is very interesting. Just yesterday, I had a chat with my best German friend who—at the age of 16—became an unofficial collaborator for the Stasi. And he claims that it was he who fingered me. And there’s some merit to that. The Soviets didn’t have access to files in East Germany. The state would just go and rummage around in files. So, when they went shopping for candidates for undercover work—someone who would be able to assume an identity of a different nationality—they had to go and ask the Stasi. And apparently, I was on a list of names that they then went through, and they started talking to people.

JACK BARSKY:

According to the high-level KGB officers of the time, they literally went through several thousand candidates to eventually come up with about a dozen that they sent to the U.S. in the late 70s or early 80s. So, once they had a name, I was easy to find.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

And the Stasi—just for those of you who don’t know—is what? The East German secret police?

JACK BARSKY:

Yes, sir.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

What does it stand for?

JACK BARSKY:

Staatsicherheit—literally, state security service.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

I forget where I saw this, but I was reading that, in East Germany, about a third of the population was spying on the other two thirds.

JACK BARSKY:

I’m not sure about a third, but the overall number I remember is about 100,000 people that were either employees or collaborators. And, interestingly enough, I also had a talk with a German high school classmate of mine, and the Stasi tried to recruit him to spy on his father because his father was a known Christian. These things happened… They’re not just in the movies.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

Wow, OK. So, they find you. And now that you know the spy game pretty well—deep undercover in the middle of New York—what do they see in you that they knew you’d make a great intelligence officer?

JACK BARSKY:

Well, they saw a lot of things. First of all, they were looking for very bright people. Secondly, they were looking for people who weren’t afraid to make decisions—could make up their own mind. They obviously were looking for people who were ideologically correct (nowadays, we would call it “politically correct”). You know, I was a member of the Communist Party, I was a believer in communism… At that point, that belief was unshakable. And then, they were also looking for an adventurous type—somebody who was not afraid to do really crazy things. And if you put this all together, I fit that profile quite well. They weren’t looking for tall people, by the way. I almost got disqualified because I’m 6’3.”

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

Really? Because you stick out too much?

JACK BARSKY:

Yes, exactly. But all these other qualities that I had, in addition to my ability to learn another language (which we found out later) to a point where I’m almost indistinguishable from people who were born in the country… At that point, I was too valuable an asset to say, “Oh, that guy’s too tall.” They actually shared that with me and eventually decided, “Well, we’ll send him to America. There are tall people. He’ll be OK.”

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

If you went to Japan, it wouldn’t have worked out as well for you.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, you meet with KGB… They like you, you pass the interview, you get the job… And what do they tell you the job is?

JACK BARSKY:

Well, initially, I was supposed to go to West Germany and do some spying there, which is the easiest thing for a spy to do. Because the country is fundamentally the same background, same language, same everything… You don’t have to learn anything other than spy craft. But I also—as part of my training—had to learn another language. And as I threw myself with full force into that, within about six months, I was able to read novels in the original. And I bragged about it, and that’s when they said, “Maybe we can make him into an American.”

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

You learned English on your own?

JACK BARSKY:

Initially, I had a tutor. I started from scratch. I’d had high school English, but I’d forgotten everything. I had a couple of tutors… But from then on, I was reading a lot and learning the words. And by reading, you also learn the grammar, rather than academically, it becomes part of how you speak. So, I couldn’t pass a grammar test right now, but I write well.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

OK, so after learning how to speak the language, they teach you the spy craft. And that takes about how long? At what age do they find you?

JACK BARSKY:

They found me at the age of 21.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, they find you at 21… They train you for how many years?

JACK BARSKY:

I started being full-time KGB at the age of 23. I came to the United States at the age of 28. So, there was roughly five years of training in between.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

The only spy training I ever saw was what I saw in James Bond movies… So, tell me, what do they teach you? How to kill people seven different ways with a fountain pen?

JACK BARSKY:

The most important part of training was spy craft—operational stuff. I had to learn Morse Code and short-wave reception, decryption and encryption. It was pretty elaborate stuff. A had a code that was developed specifically only for me, but this was all manual. Nowadays, things are a little different. Countersurveillance, very important. Meetings and dead drop operations…

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

Describe what a dead drop is.

JACK BARSKY:

A dead drop is, fundamentally, an asynchronous handing over of material. For instance, I traveled, periodically, behind the Iron Curtain. And for that, I always got a manufactured passport. So, in order to avoid a Russian diplomat / KGB agent meeting me and handing me this thing, he put it in an oil can and threw it some place I would know to pick it up from. That’s a dead drop operation.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, they’re teaching this over a five-year period… Dead drop… All spy craft… You’re learning a language and the nuances of a language (because what you read in a book and the way people talk is not the same).

JACK BARSKY:

That’s correct. In Moscow, I had a native speaker American who had defected or emigrated from the United States to the Soviet Union. And I met with her twice a week for almost two years. And lastly, I was also introduced to two ex-spies—also American citizens. Also, for people who know a little about espionage, they are rather famous: Helen and Peter Cohen. Atomic spies. And I met with them about once a week. So yes, I learned conversational English as well. While in Germany, no way. Because they didn’t have a trusted individual with whom I could have interactions.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

Once they feel that you’re ready, they pick the assignment for you to go to the United States?

JACK BARSKY:

That’s right. Now, you’re never really ready. The authorities give an order, and you sink or swim. I guarantee you, most people like me sank.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

Explain to me, what exactly do you do? They said, “You’re going to get on a plane. Here’s $10,000 and a fake passport. Good luck”?

JACK BARSKY:

Not quite… I went from Moscow to New York. It took about three weeks. And it was a zigzag route. To avoid tracing me back to Moscow, I changed passports twice—once in Vienna, and once in Rome. And the most important thing I had with me was a certified copy of a birth certificate that was under the name of Jack Barsky. This is who I was to become. And as I said, it took about three weeks. And I met Soviet agents in Vienna and Rome. And that was it.

JACK BARSKY:

But fundamentally, the moment I stepped into the departure hall in the international airport in Moscow, I was on my own. There was no more talking to the boss, no more reporting back… I was on my own. The immediate task was: Get to New York and acquire documentation under the name of Jack Barsky so you can become a functional American citizen.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

What did your passport say? The fake one they made.

JACK BARSKY:

They would never tell me things they thought I didn’t need to know… So, the passport I entered the United States with was Canadian. That was the only passport whose phony name I remember: William Dyson. That’s not a surprise, because that’s the name I entered the United States with in Chicago.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, you come through Chicago… You have the fake passport of William Dyson. And your objective now is to get enough identification as Jack Barsky.

JACK BARSKY:

Correct. And in those days, it was still doable. I had to start at the bottom. And I don’t know if the rules are still the same, but in those days in New York, to get a driver’s license, you needed to have two documents. One that showed where you lived, and the other showed where you were born—a birth certificate. I had the birth certificate. The other one, at the time, that was acceptable was a library card. And that was supposed to be a piece of cake. You go to the library, get an application and then get a card. They asked me for identification. The Russians didn’t know that. And this is why they picked somebody like me. I eventually found a way around this…

JACK BARSKY:

One time, I went to the Museum of Natural History, and they had memberships. So, I paid $50 for a membership and I got a plastic card that had my name and my address on it. With that, I could get the library card.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, they gave you cash also, for living expenses?

JACK BARSKY:

Well, I got one infusion of cash… For one year, I didn’t work because I didn’t want to work under the table. I just worked on getting to know the city and getting the documentation. Particularly important was to get a social security card. And so, some time at the end of this first year I got another $10,000 from a dead drop operation. That carried me to the point when I had my first job. And that paid enough for me so that I could live on that. I didn’t need the extra money anymore.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, you come to this country—to New York City—and you rent an apartment?

JACK BARSKY:

No, no, one of those SROs (single-room occupancy) hotels—certainly not a luxury hotel.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

New York in the 70s was not a luxury place… It was pretty terrible.

JACK BARSKY:

And the thing is: In those places, if you had cash, you paid with cash. Nobody asked you who you are or where you came from or where you were going. So, that was reasonably safe. But it didn’t have an address. So, I had no job, and I had no apartment. I didn’t socialize—period. I shouldn’t. I couldn’t.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, what did you do there? You’d wake up in the morning in this SRO, you’d have your coffee… Now what? It’s 9:01—what are you doing?

JACK BARSKY:

I left the hotel every morning at a certain time, and then spent the rest of the day in the city. I got to know New York on foot really well. I took the Subway—every line to the very end. And sometimes I went to the movies. In those days, you could get a double feature on 42nd Street for $2. The floor was a little sticky. I’m not talking about those porn establishments… You could see some real movies. And then I came back around 5:00 to give the impression that I actually had something to do.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

You were building a cover.

JACK BARSKY:

Yeah.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

By the way, I read in the book… An outrageous project they gave you where you had to infiltrate the United States, get close to Jimmy Carter’s Zbigniew Brzezinski.

JACK BARSKY:

That was a dream… I was trained, fundamentally, to collect political intelligence—in other words, get close to decision-makers in foreign policy or at least influencers. And they mentioned a number of organizations, such as the Hudson Institute, which is still in existence, Columbia University, the School of International Relations or whatever it’s called… It was headed by Brzezinski, who also, then, became the National Security Advisor for Jimmy Carter. Brzezinski was the only name they ever mentioned…

JACK BARSKY:

It wasn’t a clearly defined task. It was like a pipe dream.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

That was their wish list.

JACK BARSKY:

Yeah. My first job… I was a bike messenger. If you’re a bike messenger, you really can’t get close to somebody who’s the head of Columbia University. By the way, I’m now mentoring graduate students at Columbia, so eventually, I made it. It took a long time.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, during this first year, are you meeting other spies? You’re communicating with Moscow any progress that you’re making?

JACK BARSKY:

Yeah. Well, the communication was… Once a week, I got radio transmissions with encoded messages by short-wave. And my report back went through the snail mail with secret writing. And so, the communication cycle was about three weeks. And so, when I said they were looking for people who could make decisions on their own… I made a lot of decisions on my own. A lot of the advice that I got in Moscow was given to me by people who thought they knew who didn’t know. I had to find out myself.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

Like you got a library card and all these other things…

JACK BARSKY:

Yeah. And you know, get your first job without proof that you’ve worked someplace else! So, I found that bike messenger was the way to go. Nobody asked questions.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

And one would think that the KGB should know these simple things, right?

JACK BARSKY:

They should’ve, but they didn’t. And these were all smart people. And they spent time in New York, but as diplomats. And so, they didn’t live like Americans. They interacted with Americans, but that’s like going to the zoo and observing the tigers. You don’t know how to really be a tiger.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

Yeah, good point… So now, in this first year, you’re building up a cover. By the way… This is like the mid-70s or late 70s?

JACK BARSKY:

I arrived in ’78. I was done getting my documentation in 1980.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, those two years, I lived in New York. I had just graduated high school at that time… How many spies from the Soviet Union—KGB—were in New York at the time?

JACK BARSKY:

Well, you’ve got to think that at least half the Soviet diplomats (and there were two types—the ones that worked at the United Nations and the ones that were in the embassy) were officially KGB. As far as people like me, a lot fewer. I don’t think it added up to double digits.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

Really?

JACK BARSKY:

Yes, and this is verifiable. There was some information that came directly out of KGB archives that indicate that in those years, the KGB trained about 10 of us and sent 10 of us into the United States.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, you’re staying in New York, and then in 1980, you get all your documentation. You get your job as a bike messenger, and then you go to Baruch College. Why did you go to Baruch?

JACK BARSKY:

I’m always a little bit inaccurate with the years, but I think it was 1982. First, I had to get the high school equivalent diploma. That took me a little time… And they wanted me to maybe go to Columbia, but they had no idea what the tuition was. I couldn’t possibly afford this. I had to be able to cover the fact that I went to school full-time and had the money to do that. So, a city university was the one to go to. I was supposed to study economics, and Baruch would’ve been the school. And I also took a student loan. I took $10,000 out. And I still worked part-time as a bike messenger. So, nobody could’ve questioned or come up with the idea that I had funds coming from places other than my work.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

You’re still living in the SRO?

JACK BARSKY:

No. As soon as I got this paying job, within a month, I disappeared from that place. I wound up in Queens in a nice, one-bedroom apartment that I could afford. I think the rent was $270 a month in those days.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

And you’re meeting people? You’re making friends?

JACK BARSKY:

Slowly… Most of the people that I befriended at the time were young people in college, and a couple of professors. But going out there and socializing in circles where I would’ve found people of direct interest wasn’t that easy because I had school, part-time work, still a bike messenger, limited means… No way. When I had my first job in MetLife, the job took over because I wound up in data processing, and that had a lot of night and weekend work. So, I just wasn’t situated to mingle—neither time-wise, nor money-wise—with folks that were of interest. That happened over time, but at that time, I was already done with the KGB.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

Now, at this point, you’re ideologically in tune with communism… They picked the best and the brightest. They send you over here, and you’re here for two or three years. You’re looking at an American way of life… Were you a Yankee or a Met fan back in the day?

JACK BARSKY:

Neither. But I became a Yankee fan because my son was a Yankee fan. And when my son—who’s now 30 years old—got into baseball in high school, I really started taking an interest in it. And now, I understand baseball better than football. I was a Knicks fan—big-time.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

OK, so you’re a Knicks fan. You’re acclimating to New York—an American way of life, especially in New York City where you have people from all over the world. There’s freedom… New York, back then, had Mayor Koch, who was about as vocal as a mayor could be. Very to-the-people. Used to walk around town going, “How am I doing?” He was a man of the people.

JACK BARSKY:

Let me just put something in here, because it just popped into my head… We had a water shortage while I was a messenger. And Koch came out with this saying: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.”

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

Right! I remember that time.

JACK BARSKY:

He was a people-person.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

He was! But restaurants didn’t serve water at the table unless you asked for it because we couldn’t waste water.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, are you having an ideological clash? Between what you learned in the Soviet Union where you grew up on 1,500 calories a day and a lifestyle that’s drab… and now you’re coming to New York City—the capital of the world. You’re seeing the freedom that’s here. You’re seeing the opportunity for someone that just literally came in with nothing is able to make something of themselves. No one’s bothering you… You have freedom. Are you starting to say, “Wait a second… things aren’t lining up the way I thought they would”?

JACK BARSKY:

See, ideology, especially if you get this from childhood on, is not that easy to shed. You start rationalizing. One of the rationalizations was that the United States was doing so well because they stole everything from the Third World. So clearly, the difference in the standard of living was phenomenal, but that didn’t get me off communist ideals.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, you’re still a communist? You love the communist way of life, and it makes sense to you. So, what you’re seeing here, you’re rationalizing away.

JACK BARSKY:

Yes, but some of the things that we were taught just didn’t pan out. So, I started working for a mutual insurance company. And those days, insurance companies, banks and the military industrial complex were like the evil representatives of capitalism. So, I’m starting to work for MetLife, and I couldn’t find any evil people in my immediate environment. And they paid me well, they fed me lunch. And this was on Madison Avenue where 10,000 people work. They couldn’t have them go out for lunch, so you got free lunch and the people were nice. It felt almost like East Germany. So, I know not everything I was taught was correct. I slowly moved from way Left toward the center, politically speaking. When I voted, I voted illegally twice. I voted Democrat.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

You voted for Carter in 1980?

JACK BARSKY:

I certainly did.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

Yeah… That should say something about the Democratic Party, huh? That a KGB guy feels OK with that.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, you’re doing this now, and now you go to Baruch. What are you majoring in at Baruch?

JACK BARSKY:

This is what the KGB folks told me: “Study economics, and then get a job on Wall Street.” Well, not a bad idea. So, I enrolled with the intent to get an economics degree. And then I had to take one computer course and I said, “Oh, my God, this is awesome. I love it.” And without even checking with my handlers, I just changed my major and I got into computers.

JACK BARSKY:

And, interestingly enough, when I told them back in Moscow—when I went back for my debriefing every two years—that I’m about to graduate with a degree in computer systems. They thought it was a good idea, and it was an easy way to get a job, and an easy way to rather quickly make a significant amount of money. So, they let it go. I wasn’t reprimanded for that. And I loved it. I mean, this was great. I finally could use my brain again and play with the computer.

JACK BARSKY:

You know, deep down inside, I’m a nerd. And this was probably the best job I’ve ever had—computer programing. And I don’t know exactly when it happened, but there was a pivotal point when the spying got in the way of my real job. And this is, I believe, something that the Russians were aware of because if you’re really successful at establishing an identity in another country, that is not your true self, but it eventually it becomes your true self. And if you’re the KGB, your asset is in danger of doing things you don’t want them to do.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, you graduate from Baruch, you get a job. Life is great. And all this time, you’re supplying the KGB with information about the country. What are you telling them? What information—looking back 40 years later, I don’t know how much information… But during the day, what was pivotal information you were passing along?

JACK BARSKY:

So, two things that I think they considered of value, other than the fact that I was actually there… That part of my value, I was never really told. But in hindsight, I know that because there were times during the Cold War when the Soviet Union and the United States got very close to kicking out the diplomats from the other country. And then, the only ones left behind enemy lines, so to speak, would have been the illegals like me.

JACK BARSKY:

So, the other two things of value here were… First of all, I was to periodically send them information how Americans react to certain things that happened around the world. Things like shooting down the Korean airliner, or how they might vote—this kind of stuff. They got these reports, a lot of them from the diplomats, but they read The New York Times and copied that. And the other thing is, I was supposed to act as a talent scout. Meet people, particularly in college. Because college students eventually could wind up in positions—either in industry or in the government—of value. So, meet them, describe them, profile them … and send that information to the center.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

Did you recruit people while you were here?

JACK BARSKY:

No, this is not how it works. When it comes to recruiting and running an agent, there’s always three individuals involved—at least in it, within the KGB. The first one who spots the talent, the second one who recruits the talent and the third one who runs the talent. They don’t know about each other. As a spotter, I was never told what they did with the information. Because this is the rules of conspiracy.

JACK BARSKY:

By the way, I’ve got to throw that into the mix here, because it’s really delicious… I graduated from Baruch as valedictorian, and that was most likely the only time that a Russian agent gave the valedictory at an American business school.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

The school talking about the virtues of capitalism. Amazing world we live in, eh?

JACK BARSKY:

Well, yeah. And you know what? The speech was about five minutes long… And I talked about—and it sounds almost like—Left-wing, Democrat ideology. I talked about developing capitalism with a human face. So, I just wanted to throw that in because it’s pretty bizarre.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

How are you doing this before trouble starts—before you realize that the FBI might be on to you?

JACK BARSKY:

OK, so I didn’t realize that they thought… I was in my 10th year. I had passed my 10-year anniversary, which was Columbus Day 1988. And in December, the Soviets, the KGB, gave me a very strong warning. It was a graphic emergency signal that had only one interpretation: Get out of the country. And my escape route plan was to go to Canada. And then, I would be exfiltrated out of Canada back into the other side of the Iron Curtain. And I didn’t go.

JACK BARSKY:

Because something else that the KGB didn’t know was the fact that I had an 18-month-old daughter in this country. And I really, really struggled. I wanted to take care of her. I loved this girl. I mean, this is the first time that I had an attack of unconditional love. I mean, just like the kind of love that I would give her everything, and what I got back was a smile, right?

JACK BARSKY:

And so, I ignored that sign, and I intensified my countersurveillance measures. I tried to figure out if I was really in danger. And I determined I wasn’t. And I was pretty sure I was right because my training was so good. But they were insistent. And eventually, that was the first the only time that they actually sent somebody to very briefly speak to me. And it was on a subway platform of the A train at 80th and Hudson in Queens where he came up to me and whispered into my ear: “You’ve got to come home, or else you’re dead.” So, I knew now that I had to make a decision: either go or stay. And if I stay, I have to tell them a story why I stayed. And I didn’t want to defect. I still had that residual loyalty to my country, East Germany, which was still allied with the Soviet Union.

JACK BARSKY:

And I don’t know… Nowadays, I’m thinking it may have been the Holy Spirit. Because I came up with this phenomenal lie, which I told him in a letter in secret writing that says: “I can’t come back. I have HIV AIDS.” Death sentence in those days. And certainly, they didn’t want to have somebody with that kind of a disease in their country. And it worked! Now, I didn’t know that it was going to work because they could have determined, “The guy is lying, and now we’re going to go after him.” I knew that was a possibility. And so, for about three months, I lived in fear.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

When they said that you’d be dead, who would kill you? The KGB would?

JACK BARSKY:

See, you can interpret this one way or the other. You can take it as straight… It was spoken by a Russian with an accent. You know what that means? That your cover is blown. You can say, “You’re dead.” It’s not the word I would use in a situation like that, but it can be interpreted that way. Or, it can be interpreted as, “We’re going to kill you.” And I knew of a couple of cases that were out in public where the KGB went after defectors. Betrayal of the motherland was to be punished by death.

JACK BARSKY:

Now, my saving grace was that I wasn’t a Soviet citizen. I was a contract worker as a German. And all this, you puzzle together in hindsight and you figure it out later. But at the time, as I said, for about three months, I lived in fear. For instance, I made sure that I was not predictably at a certain place at a certain time. So, I changed the way I went to work. I changed it on and on and on. And I also made sure that the FBI wasn’t really chasing me, and I was right.

JACK BARSKY:

So, after three months, I thought I was pretty much in the clear. And I was married to this girl, Chelsea, for whom I stayed. And at that point, I said to her, “OK, why don’t we go see if we can buy a house?” That was the point where, officially, I knew that I would live the rest of my life as an American citizen without necessarily ever having to talk with the FBI or be discovered.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

And so, you’re still playing this game, and no one is on to you really. You keep this up until, what? A couple more years?

JACK BARSKY:

Well, the cover was blown, fundamentally, by somebody who betrayed his ex-organization. It was a fellow by the name of Vasily Mitrokhin. He was a senior KGB employee who worked in the archives. And they had piles and piles—rooms full of files. And he had an early epiphany that that system was terrible. Because he could read some of the internal stuff—the gulag and all that. So, he said, “The only thing I can do is like collect information.” And he would take snippets of paper that he’d written on by hand out day after day, year after year. And after so many years, he decided to initially offer it to the CIA who said, “No, thank you.” Because the person who he spoke with was a junior employee at the embassy.

JACK BARSKY:

And then he wound up with MI6—British intelligence. They received him with open arms and got him to England. And eventually, some of that information was shared with the FBI. And amongst the notes was just a name, Jack Barsky—illegal, living somewhere in the Northeast.

JACK BARSKY:

And that’s how the FBI found me. If I had taken on a name like John Smith or something like that, they wouldn’t have found me. You know, when you put it all together… all these “accidents” allowed me to be able to speak to you now, allowed me to eventually go back to Germany, allowed me to merge my two personalities and live out a reasonably happy and reasonably sane life—to the extent you can be reasonably happy or sane with that kind of a background. So, that’s the rest of the story. The FBI then introduced themselves. And obviously, to me, once I found out that they want information in exchange for my freedom, I was relieved, to put it mildly.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

This was, what? This was 1997 or 1998 or so?

JACK BARSKY:

Yeah, in that neighborhood. I believe it was 1997.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, you were never incarcerated or prosecuted? Nothing? Zero?

JACK BARSKY:

No. I was detained for two hours the first time we “met.” When they introduced themselves, they took me to a motel and talked with me for a couple of hours. When I made it clear that I would be 100% cooperative, I think I made a pretty good impression. But they weren’t sure at the time. They let me go home after those two hours. But they had a large contingent of folks in the area just in case I were to try to run.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

You’re in this country for close to 20 years—deep undercover—giving the Soviets, the information that they need and passing yourself off as not only a good American, but valedictorian of Baruch—a responsible guy, a father, a husband, a businessman making money… And right under the noses of the FBI.

JACK BARSKY:

Yep. Here’s another tidbit—something that’s not in the book, because it happened after the book was finished. I’m now friends with a retired FBI agent who, at one point, was moved to New York, where he was supposed to look for people like me. He didn’t find any, but he found me in an Atlanta, Georgia many years later. People like us were fundamentally not findable unless somebody pointed to, you know, me with a name.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, Jack, if this agent didn’t turn over information to MI6, you could have still been operating!

JACK BARSKY:

That is true. I had stopped, but there’s always a possibility… I cannot say how I would have reacted, let’s say, if a Russian national working for Russian intelligence were to come to me and offer me a lot of money for stuff that I had access to. It’s so easy to say, “I wouldn’t have done it.” This is not right. Because you can’t. Somebody says, “Here’s $1 million, and all we need is the schematic of the New York State electric grid.” I don’t know. Now, I wouldn’t do it. But once upon a time…

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

Well, now, you became an American citizen. You’re a full, patriotic American citizen living in the United States. And in 2014, I believe you became a citizen…

JACK BARSKY:

Correct.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

You’ve been a citizen of this country, never prosecuted, I believe you also work with or aid the NSA and the FBI on espionage tactics of the KGB.

JACK BARSKY:

Right.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, with your background of espionage and the world of espionage, who would you say the top spy agency in the world today is?

JACK BARSKY:

One of them doesn’t exist anymore, but let me give you three… And none of them are U.S. or Russia. The Mossad, Cuban intelligence and the Stasi.

JACK BARSKY:

And the Mossad is obvious. Because since the state of Israel came into existence, they were fighting for their survival—real survival. The Mossad is absolutely excellent. The Cubans had it easy because of the diaspora—so many Cubans moving to Miami. So, it was very easy to introduce agents into the United States. And the East Germans had the Stasi that had an easy time operating in West Germany. So, really, the Mossad, to me, is the one that deserves the gold medal.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

So, it’s now close to 40 years later. If you were giving the speech now at Baruch, valedictorian, speaking to a lot of millennials who believe socialism is an alternative form of economic rule… Living the life you’ve lived, learning what you learned, becoming an American citizen from East Germany, what would you be telling them? What would be your message today?

JACK BARSKY:

Well, this is the kind of speech that I’m still hoping to be able to give one day. I have it already written out in several essays. First of all, I would start with what I got to know pretty well—the American Constitution, which is, in my view, the best document ever written about how to run a country. And when we’re talking about the opposite… The opposite, to me, is collectivism—opposing the Democratic Republic that we supposedly still have. And collectivism is already starting in this country. The left is a highly collectivist. You know, It Takes a Village, right? That book that supposedly Hillary Clinton wrote. Collectivism typically moves toward socialism and communism… And it hasn’t ever worked in history. And this is built into the communist ideology.

JACK BARSKY:

The basic tenet that was written down or expressed by Karl Marx is: “From each to their capabilities, to each according to their needs.” Now, who determines what you’re capable of and what I need? So, now you need somebody who is to be the determinant. And that eventually becomes the party. And the party is hierarchical. And before you know it, everything becomes a dictatorship. And in history, every revolutionary movement that succeeded eventually wound up in a dictatorship. Period. No change. And the funny thing is—well, it’s not funny—that the initial revolutionaries very often become victims of their own revolution.

JACK BARSKY:

And what you see right now when you look at what’s happening with Black Lives Matter… That was supposed to be a grassroots movement, and they’re building a hierarchy. Isn’t that interesting?

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

This is George Orwell’s Animal Farm, right? Everyone’s equal, and the pigs are more equal. And I think it was Rousseau who said that every revolution starts to consume its own.

JACK BARSKY:

Yes, it does.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

We’re seeing that. And I hope you’re right. I hope you deliver that essay. I hope it’s in print one day. I know a lot of Americans could learn from your life experience and what you’ve seen, and basically shed light on what I think is just a misguided way. They’re just misguided, and they just don’t get what’s going on. They don’t see the bigger picture.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

Jack, I want to tell you, man… This book—if you didn’t read this already, go out and get this. Deep Undercover. How Jack Barsky was deep undercover in the United States—in New York, my city—for 20 years. And nobody knew, right? Just your handler. Until you got called out. You were so good, you could have been you could have a spy for the next 20 years and no one would have found you.

JACK BARSKY:

Yes, and thank God the ending is what the ending became as it’s laid out in the book.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

Jack, all I can say is: I’m glad you’re on our side. And I’m so happy that you’re an American citizen. You’re going to live out your life here, and you have a beautiful family. And you could spread that message of what a great country we have. And I don’t think anyone better than a former KGB agent could tell that story.

JACK BARSKY:

I’m still working on it, sir.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

Great. Jack, I want to thank you so much. I greatly appreciate the time you spent, and just what I’ve learned from you. And I wish you continued success. God bless you and your family.

JACK BARSKY:

God bless you, too, sir.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

Thank you, Jack.

CHARLES MIZRAHI:

Thanks for listening to this episode of The Charles Mizrahi Show. If you’re a new listener, welcome. If you’ve been listening for a while, we’re glad to have you back. Either way, we’d love to know what you think of the show. Please leave a review. If you listen to an Apple podcast, reviews make it easier for others to find the show. You can also see the video of the interview on The Charles Mizrahi Show channel on YouTube.

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