The Spy Next Door: The Double Life of Agent Jack Barsky
An East German national spent two decades spying for the KGB in the United States before his capture, establishing two families in two countries and leading a complicated double life. The story of how a former communist became the guy next door.
Jack Barsky's double life came to a close on the banks of the Delaware River. He had been driving from New York in his Mazda 323 when, after crossing the bridge, a police officer waved at him to pull over. Barsky came to a stop and a man in civilian clothes appeared at his window, saying, "FBI. Mr. Barsky, we need to talk."
"Am I under arrest?" Barsky asked. Then he said: "What's taken you so long?"
The hunt for the man believed to be the last KGB spy working in America ended on a Friday in May 1997. It had been 6,794 days since Albrecht Dittrich, a former East German citizen from the city of Jena, had traveled to America in order to spy for the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB.
By the time of his arrest, though, the Soviet Union no longer existed and the Cold War was history. The communist agent was now a 47-year-old American with a wife, children and a life in the suburbs. A tall, blond man with hair parted to the left, who would drive to work early in the morning, play basketball with his daughter in the garden and invite the neighbors over for BBQs during the weekend. Only the very observant would be able to detect his slight accent.
He might have continued getting away with his disguise if it weren't for Vasili Mitrokhin, a former KGB archivist who fled to London in 1992 and exposed the identities of thousands of KGB agents operating around the globe. One of the names he revealed was "Barsky".
For three years, the FBI surveilled Jack Barsky, bugging his living room and his kitchen, spying on him through binoculars and even purchasing the home next door in order to observe him more closely.
The agent watching from the house next door was Joe Reilly, who'd been with the FBI counterespionage unit for 23 years, a conservative, patriotic American and a devout Catholic. He was the first in his family to go to college. He found his true calling at the FBI, which allowed him to defend the country that had made so much possible for him against attackers. He had already blown the cover of many other secret service informants, including Eastern European diplomats and foreign students. But Barsky was the biggest fish yet.
The discovery of an East German agent didn't exactly shake Washington to its foundations the way the spy cases of Aldrich Ames or Julius and Ruth Rosenberg did. Still, the fact that a spy could live under an assumed identity in the United States for almost two decades without detection was a massive embarrassment for the FBI.
Reilly spent months observing the German. First he disguised himself as an ornithologist watching from a nearby field and then from the neighboring house. He followed his daily life, getting to know Barsky from a distance and even growing fond of him. All the while, he waited for Barsky to slip up. In the end, it was a fight with his wife that brought his double life crashing down. During the spat, Barsky yelled at his spouse that, by the way, he was a spy.
It was a mistake.
He was captured a short time later. After his detention, Reilly interrogated the German for an entire weekend in a motel. Barsky confessed and even revealed the Morse code used for transmitting secret messages to FBI investigators and everything else that he knew about the KGB's training techniques and the modus operandi of Russian spies.
"Eventually they're all arrested or shot, or they hang themselves or drink themselves to death," Reilly said. But not the German, since he was valuable to the FBI. So useful that they let him go after only a weekend. Reilly was convinced that Barsky could better serve the United States in freedom than in prison. He enabled the German to avoid a long prison sentence.
Over the years, the spy hunter and the former spy formed an unlikely friendship. Today, the two even play golf together.
Harkening Back to the Cold War
Barsky's story is a journey back in time, one that provides a glimpse back at the Cold War era. It's reminiscent of the recent TV series "The Americans" about two KGB agents living in Washington, DC with their children, who are oblivious to their true identities. The difference is that Barsky's story is true. Although it's based on his own claims, FBI man Reilly backs his version up on the major points.
The story begins with a young chemist, highly intelligent and good looking, but with one small weakness: He wants to stand out from the crowd. When the KGB approaches him in 1970, he is fascinated by the idea of becoming an agent in the West. "I could see the world and I didn't have to go by the usual rules -- I would be above the law," he explains.
In Berlin, he learned the craft of spying -- the secret handwriting, Morse code and how to escape a tail. Then he went to Moscow, where he received two years of agent training. He learned English, memorizing hundreds of words each day. Back in Jena, his girlfriend Gerlinde and others all awaited his return.
On Oct. 8, 1978, Albrecht Dittrich, then 29, arrived in Chicago, with $6,000 in his bags and the birth certificate of Jack Barsky, a boy who had died in 1955 at the age of 10. An employee at the Soviet Embassy in Washington had noted the name at a cemetery and obtained a copy of the birth certificate.
Failure at the First Hurdle
The KGB's plan was for Barsky to obtain a passport with the help of the birth certificate and then begin a life as a businessman and secure as many friends who were politicians or influential members of society as possible. They also wanted him to establish contact with then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, gain his trust and then spy on him.
It was an ambitious plan and it failed at the first hurdle. The German didn't succeed in obtaining an American passport. The KGB hadn't prepared him for American bureaucracy.
Still, Albrecht Dittrich didn't give up. He called himself Jack Barsky and began working as a bicycle messenger in New York. After a while, he obtained a Social Security number -- the first step on the path toward becoming a US citizen. He studied computer science and then began working as a programmer for an insurance company. Whenever anyone asked where he came from, he would tell them New Jersey. And if they asked about his accent, he would say his mother was German.
Looking back today, he says he was a good liar. At night he wrote profiles of potential new agents. He drafted political assessments and used small steal containers to create dead drops disguised as stones in which he deposited photos or microfilm. He hid them at the edge of the city in a park for other agents to later retrieve them. Each Thursday at 9:15 p.m., Barsky would sit down at home with his short-wave radio and receive messages from KGB headquarters in Moscow. One time, he was supposed to find a renegade KGB spy in Canada, and on another occasion he was asked to evaluate the Americans' opinion about the Red Army's war in Afghanistan.
By his own account, his greatest success during this time was stealing programming code, the identity of which he will not reveal today. Barsky said it was economically important to the Soviet Union. Ultimately, he conducted economic espionage and never once came into contact with his actual target, National Security Advisor Brzezinski.
But Barsky didn't just have one life in America. He had a second one in Germany. He had two marriages and had also built two families over the years. In Germany, he married Gerlinde in 1980 and they had a son named Matthias. Dittrich would return to East Berlin for three weeks of vacation every two years, and Gerlinde would be waiting for him. He would always bring back expensive gifts, including a shiny watch one year. But then, back in the US, he met Penelope, an immigrant from Guyana whom he found through a personal ad in a newspaper. They married in 1986 and had two children together, Chelsea and Jessie.
Reflecting on this time, he says, "I did a good job of separating the two. Barsky had nothing to do with Dittrich and Dittrich wasn't responsible for Barsky."
But in 1986, he visited Gerlinde and Matthias in East Germany for the last time, and stopped shuttling between these two worlds. The family spent vacation together on the Baltic Coast, swimming in the sea and picking mushrooms, and he promised he'd be back soon. But then he flew on to Moscow, was given a series of new assignments and traveled on fake passports back to New York via Belgrade, Vienna, Rome and Mexico.
In his last letter to his mother, Dittrich write that he had planned to visit her in Zwickau but hadn't found the time. In two years' time, he promised, his job would be finished for good. She believed her son was working in the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Kazakh Steppe as a scientist. This was the official story which Dittrich told his family and friends in East Germany.
But then the KGB ordered the spy to return to the GDR, apparently believing he'd been burned. Barsky was to be given a passport and money, which would be hidden in an oil can on a hiking trail. Barsky maintains he never found it. Be that as it may, he knew at this point that he didn't want to go back to East Germany.
He told his handlers he was HIV positive and could only be treated in the US. The KGB imposed the death sentence for insubordination, and Barsky recalls that in late 1988, he was approached by a KGB officer in New York who told him that if he didn't return, he was a dead man. But he decided he'd gamble on the KGB neither tracking him down nor taking revenge.
Barsky feels he had to choose between Chelsea, who'd just been born, and Matthias in Berlin. "The girl needed me more," he says. But it seems more probable that the ardent communist Albrecht Dittrich, who saw Marxism as a "natural state," had turned irrevocably into Jack Barsky, who enjoyed the unlimited possibilities of capitalist America.
Gerlinde and Matthias disappeared from Barsky's life in 1986. But it wasn't as though he himself disappeared from the lives of those he'd left behind. His mother got in touch with the East German embassy in Moscow and had Russian television broadcast a missing persons' appeal. She even wrote to then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. It was only in 1996 that the Foreign Ministry established that Dittrich's story didn't check out. The project in Baikonur which he was supposed to have worked on had ended in 1978. His mother was eventually diagnosed with Parkinsons disease and died knowing her son had lied to her. "If Albrecht had known what he'd done to our mother he might have acted differently," says her other son Günther. "He has to live with the guilt."
Gerlinde, meanwhile, had known that her husband was a secret agent but still struggled to come to terms with his mysterious disappearance. At some point she had him pronounced missing and got a divorce. She refuses to talk about her former husband and suffers from nerves, says her son Matthias. He himself has since met his half-sister. Barsky told Chelsea shortly after her 18th birthday that he'd been a spy and that she had a brother in Germany. Chelsea wrote to Matthias, who visited her in the US in 2005. He also met his father, for the first time in nearly 20 years. It was an encounter overshadowed by repressed anger and unresolved issues, but it was a start. They wouldn't see each other again for many years.
Wiping the Slate Clean
A few months ago, Jack Barsky came to Berlin, on his first trip to Germany in 28 years. He wanted to wipe the slate clean and make amends for the lies he'd told. The more he'd tried to forget the past, the more it had haunted him. He resolved to break his iron rule, which was to keep his two lives separate. Before leaving New York, he'd written a note on his calendar: "Let's see if Herr Barsky and Herr Dittrich can be reconciled."
But what was he going to tell his son? That he'd left him because other people had mattered to him more? That he'd married again, had more children and never told them about his family in Germany? Barsky says he was afraid of the confrontation and the inevitable questions. He knew he didn't have any answers.
Barsky is now a youthful 65-year-old with a bouncing gait and broken German. He planned his trip to the past in meticulous detail in an attempt to retain control and prevent it from getting the better of him. He packed meetings with family and friends from school and university into his 2-week visit, arranging to go and see his former basketball team and the house in Saxony his parents once lived in. The only person he didn't arrange to see was Gerlinde. But he did intend to find time for Matthias, now 33, and a chemistry graduate like his father, who works as a pharmacist in Berlin. He grew up without a dad, never knowing why, and not knowing anything about him or his work.
Barsky wanted to tell him why. He wanted others to know why he did what he did. But it was an attempt doomed to failure, probably because it came years too late. Matthias cancelled their meeting at short notice, angry at being just another chore on his father's to-do list. He's said he understands why his father chose his other family. But can anyone abandoned by their father as a child ever really forgive him?
Barsky and Penelope are long since divorced. They're still waging an acrimonious legal battle about money and who lied to whom and who hurt the other most. Barsky seems to be the only one who didn't mind all the lies. In 2014, 36 years after he first set foot on US soil, he became an American citizen. He was allowed to keep his stolen name -- thanks to the help of Joe Reilly, the FBI officer.
After his trip to Germany, Barsky went home to the pretty wooden house he recently bought in upstate New York. A heart-shaped pond decorates the yard, where a little girl with curly hair is playing. It's his four-year-old daughter Trinity. Barsky's third wife is Shawna, a devout Christian from Jamaica. She helped him find God, he says, and because she wanted him to face up to the sins of the past, he recently joined the local church. There, in an emotional confession that seemed genuine, he told his fellow parishioners that he deeply regretted living a lie. His frank manner always helped him, he says. "The most honest people make the best liars."
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