After growing up in post-war East Germany, Jack Barsky was convinced that Communism was the greatest force for good in the world. And yet, in a nation ravaged by two recent wars and suspicious of its neighbors on the other side of the Iron Curtain, Barsky had no illusions about the threats faced by his ideological enemies. When he was a sleeper agent in New York City for 10 years working for the KGB, he knew the threats that America posed to Communism and himself on a daily basis. He writes about the Soviet fears of Ronald Reagan in his 2017 book Deep Undercover.
Now, a U.S. citizen who’s lived in America for most of his life, he sees mounting threats against the nation that he fears many Americans do not recognize. He also has had to adjust to what it means to live an open life after decades of living in secret.
In the Wake of the Cold War, Few Americans Recognize Today’s International Adversaries
These days, Barsky is concerned about American attitudes towards the threats that face the nation. Unlike Europeans who, given their geography, have had to be wary of invaders for centuries, Americans can’t resonate with that concern. The fear or awareness that was alive during the Cold War has all but dissipated.
“During the height of the Cold war, you know we’re talking about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs and all that stuff, there may have been more awareness. But today? ‘La di da.’ It’s truly amazing. And the threats are out there…and this kind of insouciant attitude does a lot of damage to us because we’re allowing the enemy to do lots and lots of damage in cyberspace and otherwise. You know, the Chinese and the Russians are spying like crazy.”
And with the resurgence of totalitarianism in Russia, some KGB methods are coming back in style – including the Illegals program Barsky was once a part of.
“The Illegals that were caught in 2010, those five couples, used some techniques that I was familiar with. They used it in a very amateurish fashion. There are still dead drop operations. There’s still brush-by handovers, there are still meetings according to certain protocols, there are still graphic signals to convey a quick message – all of this is still in use.”
What’s the Biggest Threat to American Security Today?
While working as a spy, Barsky’s “cover” was as an IT professional in corporate America. Both during his time as a spy and the years following, he rose considerably high in the ranks and understands the critical IT infrastructure that keeps the country running. This is where, Barsky says, today’s greatest threats lie.
“Outside of the nuclear threat that is posed primarily by rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea, when we’re talking about particularly our main adversaries would be China and Russia, it’s cyber. If there’s ever another war – a world war – I think it would start out in cyber and might actually be finished in cyber.”
How Can Intelligence Professionals Cope with Life after Espionage?
Though his situation was rather unique, many intelligence professionals can sympathize with the struggles and wisdom Barsky has experienced in his life deep undercover. No one transitions easily from a life lived in secrecy to the everyday world that most people occupy.
“My experience is rather rare because I didn’t have any colleagues, I didn’t have an office to go to. I was a lone wolf and, as such, I have a lot of baggage that I carry with me. For instance, I have a hard time accepting help from somebody. I still cover up things that don’t need to be covered up.”
His advice to others in the clandestine world is to be aware of the burden you may carry. “Eventually, almost everybody that is working in the secret world will step out of this world, and people need to be aware that you’re taking baggage with you that will cause potential difficulties interacting with people who have not been in that world. “As I said, in my case it’s somewhat extreme – and I’ve also met some people where it was even more extreme.”
Serving an Ideal and Living an Exciting Life Doesn’t End After Your Clandestine Career
Jack Barsky will be the first to tell you that life is full of unexpected twists that you can’t control – and that can offer incredible joy. For example, after a lifetime of atheism, this unlikely convert has found solace in a spiritual life he had long denied.
“Very late in my life I became a Christian and I found a spiritual, as well as an intellectual home in my Christian belief. That has helped me a lot to deal with some of the baggage that I’ve had.”
For this and other reasons, Barsky says that when he looks back at all the close calls and unexpected turns, he can see one thread in his life: it’s a love story – but not in the way most people think of it. After a lifetime of seeking love from his parents and in romantic relationships, he eventually found relationships that offered the kind of purpose and connection that his life as a spy for so long denied him. It was this love that caused him to stay in the U.S. when the KGB told him to abort his mission.
“Love made me defy that order – and that was the love for an 18-month-old child which came crashing in on me totally unexpected. This was the true love that only happens when it’s unconditional.” He risked staying in the U.S. and being killed by the KGB or captured by the FBI because he could not bring himself to leave his daughter.
Today, Barsky has four adult children – both in the U.S. and in Germany – and one granddaughter. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and youngest daughter.
After decades of espionage made relationships challenging – even with his children – Barsky proudly reports that she gets an abundance of hugs and “I love yous.”
“I love her the right way. I’m still struggling with receiving love, but it’s gotten better.”