It was 31 years ago today, January 9, 1981, and a 47-year-old David Barnett (former CIA officer) was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison for spying on behalf of the USSR/Russia.
Barnett was the first former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer indicted for espionage, but he would not be the last.
What did Barnett reveal
He provided to the Soviet KGB the identity of CIA covert operation, which according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ), “was very successful [operation] and provided a large volume of Soviet data and a limited amount of Soviet hardware on a large variety of weapon systems” which had been sold and deployed to Indonesia. The project was given the cryptonym “HABRINK.”
Through HABRINK, the U.S. acquired from Indonesia those armaments which had been sold to the country by the USSR.
The acquisition of the information allowed the U.S. to develop countermeasures to the Soviet Sa2 antiaircraft missiles used by the North Vietnamese. In addition, the info collected via the operation provided intelligence on the Soviet Styx naval surface-to-surface missile and the Soviet “W” class diesel-powered submarine, the Kennel air-to-surface missile, the TU16 Badger bomber and more. The project was a gold mine for the U.S. as it provided insight into weapon systems of the day.
In addition, Barnett provided background assessment data on Soviet officials which he collected when he was Chief of Base; he compromised the identities of 30 covert CIA employees along with “personality data on some”, revealed the true name of HABRINK/1; and revealed the details on CIA covert operations to which he had participated or had knowledge.
For his subterfuge, Barnett was paid $92,600 by the Russians for his espionage.
Barnett enters into his covert relationship with the KGB
In 1970, Barnett resigned from the CIA to “seek his fortune.” In 1972, he returned to Indonesia to open a shrimp factory and a furniture export business in Indonesia.
His businesses were failing, and his debts were increasing. He knew, as a former officer of the CIA that information had value, and thus concocted the sale of information he had access to during his time with the CIA.
Barnett made his way to the home of the Soviet Cultural Attaché in Djakarta and offered to provide CIA secrets in exchange for $70,000 payment – a straight up cash for information deal. He was told to return in a week. In the ensuing week, the KGB no doubt did their due diligence, as a KGB officer, identified as “Dimitry” showed up the following week to meet with Barnett and paid him $25,000 in $100, $50 and $20 bills (about $120,000 today). Such payments by the KGB, known to be notoriously tight with their dollars is only given when information of value has been provided.
The KGB knew they had their own counterintelligence coup in Bartlett but did not wish to debrief him in depth in Indonesia. In February 1977, the KGB arranged for his circuitous travel from Djakarta to Vienna. They put him on a plane to Brussels, then a train to Antwerp for “business” then a train back to Brussels and another train onward to Vienna, Austria. Upon completion of his debriefing by three KGB officers in Vienna at a KGB safehouse in Vienna, he retraced his travel (to include a stop in Antwerp) back to Djakarta. He was paid $15,000 at the end of his debriefing.
KGB wants to seed Barnett back into U.S. intel community
In March 1977 Barnett was met in Indonesia by Vladimir V. Popov, alias “Igor” an officer of the KGB, who was brought in to further encourage Barnett to abandon his shrimp and furniture tycoon aspiration and return to the U.S. seeking employment with the CIA, Department of State INR (Intelligence Research Bureau), or the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) – a plan of action which Barnett had agreed during the February meeting in Vienna. Popov provided Barnett $30,000.
Barnett agreed, returned to the Washington DC area in April 1978, and attempted to reconnect with the U.S. intelligence community. Popov, who was assigned to the Soviet Embassy under diplomatic cover as a Third Secretary, had issued to Barnett a complete covert communications plan for use in the United States, Washington D.C. metro area specifically. The plan included dead drops, signal sites, and public telephones where Barnet could receive calls from Popov.
In January 1979, the CIA hired Barnett on a part-time contract, $200/day to train CIA employees in operational tradecraft. This position would afford to Barnett visibility into the operational training regime of the Directorate of Operations as well as the names (or aliases) of CIA trainees destined to be field officers.
In March, June, and November of 1979, he returned to Indonesia, meeting with various KGB officers and sharing with them information concerning his position within the CIA. The KGB urged him to follow the communication plan issued to him by “Igor,” to which Barnett apparently pushed back, claiming the plan was insecure. The KGB also pushed him to obtain “staff employment.” Barnett, during his interviews noted that he did not pursue staff employment as he was fearful that he would not pass the polygraph.
The KGB brought Barnett back to Vienna for another meeting, on April 25, 1980 at the Koch Radio Shop, located at 64 Taberstrausse, in Vienna’s second district.
The meeting at the “radio shop” was surveilled by Leonard Ralston, the FBI Legal Attaché assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Bern.
All told, Barnett received $92,000 (~$300,000 in 2022) for his espionage.
Barnett’s Motivation, Indictment, arrest, plea and sentencing
His wife, Sarah, would some years later note how she and the family knew he was being charged with espionage in April 1980, thought it would not be until October 1980 he would be indicted.
She speculated to the New York Times in 1982, “I wonder if David was doing two things at once from the beginning. He began to drink much more heavily, his laugh became different, more forced. And he became rougher, not in a physical sense of hitting anyone, but in the way he would eat.” She continued how “It wasn’t an ideological thing, but I think some of his happiest moments were with the Russian guy. And I think David lost his focus on reality, and he dreamed. He had an extraordinary fascination with making a lot of money and his value system got all screwed up. His rationale is that he did it for us because we needed the money.”
On October 30, 1980, he pleaded guilty to a single count of espionage and was sentenced to prison on this day in 1981 for a period of 18 years, eligible for parole in 1987. Barnett was paroled after a little more than 10 years on February 23, 1990.
In March 1980, prior to his trip to meet the KGB in Vienna on April 25, he was interviewed by the FBI and confessed.
A clandestine source of the CIA identified Barnett as a source of the KGB. Barnett’s subterfuge was revealed by KGB Colonel Vladimir Mikhaylovich Piguzov, who had served in Djakarta when Barnett was traveling to Indonesia and who volunteered to the CIA in 1979. Aldrich Ames subsequently identified Piguzov to the KGB, who the KGB subsequently arrested and executed.