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Double life as a KGB agent (theguardian.com)
286 points by whitenoice 222 days ago | hide | past | web | 75 comments | favorite

A fair number of sleeper agents like this have been outed over the years. Another example that comes to mind is the KGB agent couple on which the TV show "The Americans" was based: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/07/discovered-our...

FBI Operation Ghost Stories arrested 11 people back in 2010. https://vault.fbi.gov/ghost-stories-russian-foreign-intellig...

What I'm wondering is: how many other agents are out there and haven't been caught yet? Or were here and left without being caught?

I wonder if this type of agent is still in active use, in the sense of seeding more of them. Given the arrests just 7 years ago, I'd guess so. But perhaps not, since hacking and electronic surveillance can be so effective. You don't necessarily need an agent within a country's borders to penetrate a lot of their networks, email, and other communications.

But you never know ... what lengths would Russia go to to get an agent TS/SCI clearance and access to a SCIF?

One of the inefficiencies of embedding agents like this seems to be that they're subject to the same vagaries of chance as all of us.

What are the chances of an agent being hired and then promoted to have access to an SCI file you're interested in?

It seems a pretty poor bet compared to turning individuals already in relevant positions.

You can provide them with covert help. If they have a team of 10 people helping them out, they will seem like a 10x performer...

Any help the Soviets would have provided those agents would have also increased the risk of detection due to the unavoidable contacts with the helpers.

You can shortcut that process, waiting 20 years to get your agent promoted to a senior position is slow and relies on a lot of luck.

Much easier to get your person into an IT position. Edward Snowden gained access to more secret documents than almost any individual person in the NSA. Get your infiltrator into the IT department and then help them with hacker tools and zero day exploits needed to extract data. Who knows how often this technique has already been used already.

Bear in mind that was also part of his job. Profiling people they could potentially turn.

> What are the chances of an agent being hired and then promoted to have access to an SCI file you're interested in?

I think the chances are higher if you expand the realm of interest to industrial espionage.

Statistically, this seems like a better bet for using the agents.

Right. For instance, if you are China.. odds are you have agents in Google and Facebook, right now.

Maybe not full-time spies but Chinese intelligence almost certainly targets such organizations with their “thousand grains of sand” approach.


Working in defense and talking to candidates who applied from China (graduated from M.S. programs at some US universities), I sometimes wondered if some who applied would be agents working for Chinese Intelligence services...

I can relate to that. I had my doubts about a former Chinese exchange student we hired. I was relieved when he made a very public display of anger against this 3d/globe thing we had to illustrate user activity because it happened to show Taiwan as a separate entity from China.

So I guess I can recommend that as a trigger... (Someone with a mission would have kept quiet, I think.)

From what I read, initially the Soviet "illegals" programs were successful. This was before the Cold War and during the early parts. After that, it was less successful and often viewed as a waste of resources.

If interested, I recommend "The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB". There was a post-Cold War defection of an individual (Mitrokhin) who worked for the KGB in their archives and provided a large trove of intelligence. A researcher (Christopher Andrew) collaborated with him to produce 2 books, which included a large amount of data about the Soviet "illegals" programs.

It's often going to just be more effective to bribe and blackmail people with access, rather than hope your illegals have successful careers and gain the right access.

> There was a post-Cold War defection of an individual (Mitrokhin) who worked for the KGB in their archives and provided a large trove of intelligence.

The article refers to that; in fact it's how this agent was identified:

    Barsky had in fact been trailed for several years
    by the FBI. His name had been discovered in files
    copied from KGB archives by Vasili Mitrokin, an 
    archivist who walked into the British embassy in 
    Riga in 1991 to offer up his secrets.

For people who like this sort of thing: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v10/n16/paul-foot/the-great-times-they... (on the British Royal family being infiltrated by fascists).

The TV series Deutchland 83 is also well worth watching for a snappy spy drama about a young man from East Germany being coerced into being a double agent.

There was also a great four part BBC comedy-drama in 1991 called Sleepers (not to be confused with the completely different 1996 movie of the same name).


Lovely series, but first thing I thought of when reading the article was The Americans, it's about two spies in the Soviet illegals program living in a DC suburb.

Would definitely recommend it if you liked Deutschland 83.

Jack Barsky was interviewed for the behind-the-scenes podcast for The Americans. I think he might work as a consultant for the show, but I'm not sure.


In the end, it all seems so mundane. Secretive to be sure, but a talented life accomplishing nothing. Well, maybe an improvement on East Germany in the 80s but that's it.

I remember reading a book about Gunther Guillaume, an east-german spy in Germany. The same feeling resonated throughout the book, the job is, as you said, secretive, but mundane. Interestingly, I would expect people that choose to go into this line of work to know this, since most all realistic books and media leave show how utterly lonely and boring it is. On the other hand, I guess there are spy handlers ane their life might be more... exciting?

Being a spymaster sounds far more fun and interesting than being a spy.

It seems worse to me. Just sorting through all these memos trying to figure out which people are and aren't important, and which data may be relevant. id the business is mundane, middle management isn't exciting.

I don't know, I'd find that kind of analysis a lot more fun than living a mundane line for decades just for a chance of learning some interest info.

The guy looks happy now, though. His kids tracked each other down, he spends his time dead-dropping cookies for later.

I wonder what might have become of him had he become a chemist. Nothing remarkable, maybe. Might have been even more mundane than the reality of spycraft.

> but a talented life accomplishing nothing'.

For what it's worth, he managed to accomplish several 'lifes' in just one lifetime.

Article says he wrote software for a living becoming director of IT. Although nothing in React Native.

60 minutes produced a segment about him. Here is the transcript: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/former-kgb-spy-jack-barsky-steve...

This sounds true and similar to what I thought it would be, based on how laughably bad were the Russian "illegals" caught in 2010. It is virtually impossible to fit in having been born and raised in a different culture. Even simply the accent is almost impossible to overcome (women seem to have better luck defeating the accent than men and you have a chance up to the age of 17 or so).

The Americans is a cool show, but the real life illegals could not fool anyone.

These days Russia probably has no need for this type of presence, since there are enough Russians living in the US and enough of them support Putin that a small percentage may choose to work as spies. Same for China.

Another interesting detail that came out of the 2010 illegal bust was that America is so diverse and people are so respectful of privacy, that one of the spies was doing just fine with an American name ("Jack Ryan" or "Patric Foley" or something like), fully American "legend" and a heavy Russian accent. People wondered but nobody asked any questions.

P.S. And who needs spies when you can have a whole administration? :)

> Even simply the accent is almost impossible to overcome (women seem to have better luck defeating the accent than men and you have a chance up to the age of 17 or so).

Accent reduction does not work for everyone (see e.g. Bela Lugosi), but its success rate is much better than what your post would suggest.

Three of the 2010 illegals (Chapman, Mills and Zottoli) had Russian accents. Their neighbors knew that they were Russian, and said that they never tried to conceal their national background. On the other hand, nobody could tell that Heathfield and Foley weren't real Americans.

Crazy story. It's amazing what a state power can get individuals to do for it.

Amazing story!

I had some level of respect for The Guardian vis a vis Glenn Greenwald. But wow, the brazen seed on current events "Might Trump have been recruited by Putin?" and "right wingers are easier to convert". First class journalism right there folks, way to be taken hook line and sinker by the intelligence community while doing an article on the intelligence community. Pretty comical.

With the Guardian I think more about the individual writer rather than paper as a whole, as it is run rather differently from most news outlets [0].

And of course a journo is going to try and use current events to shoehorn in a half written story they have had for a while. A bit like how almost every piece of software now has a cloud version.

But the Guardian is critical to the landscape of UK news. It is one of very few newspapers not controlled by a press baron like Murdoch or the 'Weird Twins'. The UK press as a whole is much much more right wing (notably on immigration and the EU) than properly fits the UK IMHO and the Guardian is an important antidote. As well as Snowden, it also broke the important 'phone hacking' scandal, where some tabloids were getting their stories with very questionable ethics. It was also the only newspaper to cover the 'Snoopers Charter' legislation, that allows random parts of the UK government to look at users browsing history (and share it with the US gov).

It shows up so much on HN for its other important trait, no paywall.

[0] : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Guardian

Greenwald has been at the Intercept for quite some time now: https://theintercept.com/staff/glenn-greenwald/

I lost my respect for the Guardian a while back. They were reporting on hostilities in Israel.

They had a side-bar for "Related Articles", which were one after the other - critical of Israel as being an unprovoked aggressor. Fine, if that's the truth, except:

Every article I opened had a long lead-in about Israeli aggression, its consequences, etc. Every article had buried in the last paragraph, practically mumbling under its breath, "The IDF moved in because they were repeatedly being attacked by RPGs &tc." Nothing was provided to suggest the IDF was lying or incorrect about being provoked - so why was one headline after the other all about characterizing unprovoked unilateral aggression?

I was done. It's fine to be critical of Israeli policies and military posturing; it's another to essentially lie through your teeth and then cover your ass in postscript.

I was born and raised in Spain, and now live in the US. In my experience, the coverage of news about Israel in the US and Spain are about as different as black and white. What you describe about The Guardian seems like normal coverage in Spain.

The experience mase me understand that, in practice, all sources have major amounts of spin where you might not expect it, and that it is very difficult to figure out which spin, if any, is closer to reality. It's not about fake news, but about how wide the journalist's sources are, and how much did they care about digging for what is real.

> why was one headline after the other all about characterizing unprovoked unilateral aggression?

That's hard to say, since you haven't provided any examples of it.

Israel is occupying Palestine. When Palestinians fight back, Israelis can't claim to have been provoked, when their occupation is the original provocation.

It's like claiming Hitler just justified in killing 6 million jews because after he killed 1 million, a few jews tried to fight back, and he had to kill another 5 million because he was provoked.

I think "original provocation" is a little hard to claim when we are talking about Jerusalem. Even in recent history, the '48 Arab-Israeli war, pan-Arab forces attempted to crush the nascent Jewish enclave.

Also, I find your Holocaust allusion extremely tasteless.

> Even in recent history, the '48 Arab-Israeli war, pan-Arab forces attempted to crush the nascent Jewish enclave.

If you're going that far back, why not just a handful of years earlier? Palestine getting flooded with immigrants whose sole purpose was to replace the incumbent population and establish their own state.

The American far right is terrified that muslims are going to take over an establish sharia law... all based on nonsense. The Palestinians actually had that happen to them, and you don't think they were justified in feeling invaded?

> Also, I find your Holocaust allusion extremely tasteless.

Of course it was. That was why it was said. I find your defence of the Israeli apartheid and their continued occupation of Palestine and brutal oppression of a hopeless people to be just as tasteless.

EDIT: In any case, thank you for explaining the original downvote, unlike the others.

The Jewish flight from Europe and concurrent Zionism is significantly different is character to the current Israeli behaviour, which is undoubtedly seeking to illegally expel Palestinians from the West Bank. But to say that the Palestinians and their allies had no role in this process is also absurd. The plight of the Palestinians is dire, but their actions must also be weighted. In many ways they have the Israelis they deserve, and the Israelis have the Hamas they deserve.

The American far right is so disconnected from reality and humanity as to render their arguments null and void. I am not arguing their positions.

I don't think though that any mass migration of a persecuted people is an invasion, no matter how much the current inhabitants don't like them.

When the state of Israel was attacked by an existential threat it defended itself, and it now occupies the terrain required to defend itself. The continual threat from Syria more than justifies holding the Golan Heights. The rocket attacks from Gaza on heavily populated areas (and control by Hamas) certainly justify some blockade. The West Bank territory squeezes so close to Tel Aviv that ceding it to a regime that might rocket them is impossible.

The Israelis use of heavy weapons on Gaza is indefensible, as are the continued growth of West Bank settlements. But they fall short of being comparable in any way with the Holocaust.

Well argued. Thank you for sharing your opinions on what is obviously a very complex issue.

Unlike the American press, which generally tries to promote a naive concept of objectivity, the UK press is not shy about taking a side. It's the reader's job to decide what to believe, and that's true in the US as well -- even though many Americans want to believe in an objective press, that's clearly not the case. At least the Brits are honest about it. You can't outsource your critical thinking to journalists.

I didn't see anything in the article text that references what you are talking about. Did I miss it?


I ask what he thinks of the unverified allegations that President Trump was compromised during visits to Russia. The dossier of claims, compiled by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, was published just a day before we meet. “Clearly, blackmail is a weapon in the KGB arsenal,” Barsky shrugs. “If they could use it, they would. The only question is whether our new president was foolish enough to do any of that stuff.” Today’s Russian security services seem to think in much the same way as his old handlers in the KGB, he says. “That’s the thing with big organisations anywhere: they’re very resistant to change.”


In the 1980s, Barsky’s most interesting potential recruits were radical rightwing ideologues; here, Soviet agents would pose as activists from the radical right. “There was one individual I reported on who I’m convinced would have fallen for that, because he was so strongly rightwing,” he says.

I think it would be unusual not to have asked at least the first (and I don't think Trump is a Russian agent).

> I had some level of respect for The Guardian vis a vis Glenn Greenwald

Are you familiar with Sam Harris' objections to his character?

Or that he continues to claim that his PRISM reporting was correct, despite lacking any evidence to support his claims and having seen irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

I don't know much about him or his work but he does seem to be a very polarizing figure.

What do you think of the american intelligence agencies who say the same thing?

Just like engineers, they think they are smart and they are changing the world and blablabla but it is actually all about billions and power going to the big guys

This comment comes across as small minded and pessimistic without real evidence. Scientists and engineers typically help the world, with or without money. See Gates, Stallman, Page & Brin, Clair Cameron Patterson, etc

Page and Brin have repetitively again and again compromised their stated moral positions in pursuit of money. They are billionaires that put thousands of smaller businesses out of business on a regular basis. The company they operate has paid off a large number of government officials to protect them from prosecution, and they have a level of power and influence that rivals oil companies.

If you were trying to show altruistic examples of scientists and engineers, you fell very far astray.

Please be specific about this payment of govt officials to protect them from prosecution. I have never heard any whisper of such a thing, I think that's BS. They have influence in that people use google.com. You can argue they compromoised to keep their power, but you need to be specific. They don't like NSLs, they just have to obey them.

I'd like to strongly present these two points in particular to answer your queries. I could go into the number of Congressmen Google has paid for, but I'll just refer you to opensecrets.org there.

1. Google had a previous FTC Commissioner in their pocket under Obama (named Joshua Wright). The same former FTC Commissioner is now part of Trump's transition team for the FTC. The FTC is charged with regulating companies like Google. The best source I can give you is The Intercept, which not only describes his quadruple-revolving-door, but links to the various stages of it. And yes, an investigation of Google by the FTC was quietly closed during his tenure.


> "Joshua Wright has been put in charge of transition efforts at the influential Federal Trade Commission after pulling off the rare revolving-door quadruple-play, moving from Google-supported academic work to government – as an FTC commissioner – back to the Google gravy train and now back to the government."

2. In their original paper, Sergey Brin and Larry Page argued that advertising had a fundamentally corruptive influence on search. If you compare the quote from their paper below, which indicates a strong need for an uncorrupted academic search engine, with their multibillion dollar advertising empire, the only logical conclusion is that Sergey Brin and Larry Page value money and power over any sort of highminded desire to benefit society. You'll also notice that Google displays paid ads for websites that should naturally be the top result, like showing a paid Best Buy link above the official Best Buy website search result when searching for "best buy", just as they originally indicated was a trait of a "worse" search engine.


> "Furthermore, advertising income often provides an incentive to provide poor quality search results. For example, we noticed a major search engine would not return a large airline's homepage when the airline's name was given as a query. It so happened that the airline had placed an expensive ad, linked to the query that was its name. A better search engine would not have required this ad, and possibly resulted in the loss of the revenue from the airline to the search engine. In general, it could be argued from the consumer point of view that the better the search engine is, the fewer advertisements will be needed for the consumer to find what they want. This of course erodes the advertising supported business model of the existing search engines. However, there will always be money from advertisers who want a customer to switch products, or have something that is genuinely new. But we believe the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm."

Income inequality, labor arbitrage, job loss to industrial automation, exponential increases in the surveillance state, healthcare cost increases, this list could go on indefinitely. Scientists and engineers intentions are largely moot as long as their inventions and innovations are consistently used to further concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a vanishingly small minority of the world population.

You life in the Middle Ages definitely would have been way much better. /s

Don't get too nostalgic about the middle ages: the landed gentry who will own the AI/fully automated factories will occasionally require mechanical-turk-type work done by the serfs. Which side will you be on when your job gets automated?

That's an interesting twist. So my job that requires knowledge and brainwork gets fully automated, but mechanical-turk-type work somehow is not?

To expand, Oppenheimer, Turing, Feynman and even Gauss come to mind. Really stupid comment.

Those weren't engineers. Mathematicians and physicists, really.

The KGB spy from the article itself wasn't even an engineer, but a chemist.

Those people are about as atypical as they come.

Scientists and engineers are just people. They can be moved to good or evil or anything in between just like anyone else.

> Scientists and engineers typically help the world, with or without money

Of course they do, the actual change has always been done by engineers and scientists, however, history only remembers the rulers and recently entrepreneurs

You're right, no one remembers Galileo or Copernicus or Mozart or Bach or Archimedes or Aristotle. Just the rulers....

> Of course they do, the actual change has always been done by engineers and scientists

That is demonstrably false. Caesar brought lasting change around him, just like Napoleon did. Alexander the Great, though his empire crumbled after his death, brought Hellenic culture to many areas in the world. And I would like to know how the work of "scientists and engineers" triggered the Arab spring.

Please stop throwing around Gates as an example of "working for humankind". His charitable work begun only very recently. Before that, he was a cold and ruthless money making machine.

He set up his foundation 20 years ago. Still too recent?

I can start a foundation tomorrow. Your point?

In any case, he was a billionaire several times over by then. The MS IPO was over 30 years ago.

Edit: Now that I re-read my comment, I come off as an arrogant prick. Sorry about that.

All I really meant to say was that setting up a foundation != charitable work. Any poor guy - like me for example - can setup a foundation, but it will only exist on paper.

Maybe you should start your foundation today rather than complaining that others don't do enough on an internet forum. One of those is more productive than the other.

What I meant by starting a "foundation" is setting up a non-profit company on paper. I have nowhere near the financials to fund it though.

But yes, I agree, this is not productive at all. My bad.

"His charitable work begun only very recently."

Oh you mean his tax deduction schemes?

"Before that, he was a cold and ruthless money making machine."

The world is going to suffer for decades under the proprietary NSA infected umbrella of his software. His ruthless machine lives on without him, he never turned it off.

Just wait and see, all this open sourcing from MS will increase and many will fall for the trap (embrace/extend), and then when the days of extenquish come around those of us who took the effort to transition to FOSS ecosystems will be far ahead of the game.

RMS is right. You either control the program or the program controls you.

Please don't post unsubstantive comments.

I'm an EE, and you are totally correct.

Change isn't always for the better.

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