Monday, October 10, 2016

Jack Barsky's KGB Radiograms and Family Tales

Commercial SW radio. A Spy's
favourite tool to receive messages
Jack Barsky's espionage career was a quite remarkable one with a surprising ending. Barsky was born as Albrecht Dittrich in East Germany. He was scouted by the Stasi, recruited and trained by the KGB and sent to the United States as a so-called illegal under the false identity of Jack Barsky. In contrast to intelligence officers that operate under official cover (often pretending to be embassy personnel), illegals do not enjoy diplomatic protection if they are caught. They usually stay low-profile and only have contact to their agency through their handler, a career intelligence officer. Illegals are often regarded as the elite of spies but their live, although quite risky, is usually all but glamorous or exciting.

Barsky's spying career lasted from 1978 until 1988, when his cover was blown. He refused KGB orders to return to East Germany, where he had a wife and son, and chose to stay with his American wife and daughter. Amazingly, the KGB bought his excuse that he had contracted AIDS and allowed him his final years in the United States (where he happily lives and works in good health since). Eventually, the FBI tracked him down thanks to information from the vast collection of documents that KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin smuggled out of the Russia in 1992. Barsky, already inactive for several years, decided to cooperate with the FBI. He was extensively debriefed on KGB spy techniques and in return has never been indicted or put on trial.

Illegal agent's one-time pad
booklet and microdot reader
Source: Canadian SIS
Jack Barsky is one more source that confirmed the use of one-way shortwave communications by intelligence organisations, known as numbers stations. Every Thursday evening Barsky tuned his shortwave radio to a predetermined frequency and listened for a so-called radiogram from the KGB. Barsky believes that his radiograms were broadcast from Cuba. His radiograms contained operational instructions that were encrypted into digits and sent in groups of five. His radiograms could take an hour to receive and write down and up to three hours to decrypt. Anyone could hear the message, you had no idea who was actually listening and no one could decrypt or read it. When encrypted with a one-time pad, this pen-and-paper system is proven unbreakable.

The Americans: fiction and
real-life spy stories interwoven
You can watch Jack Barsky's two-part interview in which talks about the radiograms in part one (alternative video at dailymotion). Slate's TV Club has a Podcast about season four of the TV series The Americans (spoiler alert) where Jack Barsky tells about his life as an illegal in the United States and the similarities and differences with the illegals in The Americans (Soundcloud link). The Guardian also has a long article on Barsky. An excellent Spiegel TV documentary follows Jack Barsky in 2014 on his first trip into Germany in 30 years, as he explains how he became a KGB spy. The actual life of Jack Barsky as an illegal may not be that spectacular and full of action, compared to Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans, but the work of illegals can take quite a toll on their personal life.

Donald Heithfield and Tracy Foley lived a seemingly ordinary life with their two sons Tim and Alex until their house was raided by the FBI in 2010. To their children's surprise, Donald and Tracy, whose real names were Andrei Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova, turned out to be members of a Russian spy ring in the United States, controlled by the illegals department of the SVR, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. Eventually, Canadian born Tim and Alex were deported with their parents to Russia in one of the biggest spy swaps ever. Their life as they knew it ended instantly. They received Russian passports and had to build a whole new life. The fascinating story of Tim and Alex was published last May in The Guardian and on McLean's you can read about their struggle to return Canada and their fight in court.

Andreas and Heidrun Anschlag, the spy couple arrested in German in 2011, also had a grown up daughter. Her life was undoubtedly also turned upside down by the spying career of her parents. But spies are not the only ones to pay a high personal price. The wives and children of defectors often suffered the same consequences. When Igor Gouzenko, a GRU officer (military intelligence) and cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy to Canada decided to defect, taking along most sensitive intelligence documents, this also changed the life of his wife and child dramatically. The interview with his wife and the story of his daughter who, as a child, never knew that her father was not the man she believed him to be, are striking examples of the price for living a fabricated live. Remember, think twice before you start a spy career when you're a family man!

Further reading: numbers stations, one-time pad and Cold War signals.


Arduino Enigma said...

It's good to read your articles again. This blog has been quiet for a little bit.

Dirk Rijmenants said...

@Arduino, I know my on-line life has been on the back burner due to a chronical lack of free time, but I'm hoping to publish more stuff this fall...

Greg Melton said...

Thanks for sharing. Although I am a rank novice in the science of cryptology, I appreciate the elegant simplicity and virtually unbreakable nature of the one time pad. Coupled with numbers stations (or now numbers pages), even to this day, it has allowed foreign illegals to operate undetected for years.