- Jack Barsky is a former sleeper agent of the KGB who spied on the US from 1978 to 1988.
- After being exposed, he turned FBI informant and has since stayed in the United States, becoming a published author of “Deep Undercover.”
- Barsky rates the realism of Russian spy movies such as “From Russia With Love” (1963), “Anna” (2019), “Bridge of Spies” (2015), “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011), “Red Sparrow” (2018) and “Salt” (2010).
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Following is a transcript of the video.
Philip: My wife, Elizabeth.
Philip: And what do you do, Stan?
Stan: I’m an FBI agent.
Jack Barsky: This scene is very realistic. Hello, my name is Jack Barsky. I spied on behalf of the KGB for 10 years, 1978 to 1988. And in 2014, I became a US citizen. Today, I’m gonna play movie critic based on my experience, my actual experience in espionage.
“Bridge of Spies” (2015)
This is something that could have happened in real life. How you clear a dead drop. Those kinds of false coins existed. The way he then opens the coin by using tools that are readily available, and the fact that there was a little piece of paper with some information on it, it’s quite realistic because, you know, I got bits and pieces of information through shortwave radio, and I transmitted information in a film cartridge where I photographed the stuff that I wrote down on paper. I would occasionally wander around in a park, and oh, boy, here’s an oil can, it was a crushed oil can. I’d take that, take it home, and then use some pliers and screwdrivers to open this thing up, and voilà, there was a passport and money in there.
I know this story quite well. Abel was considered a hero in the KGB while I was in training. I don’t know if he was still alive when I was in Moscow. It has been documented from both sides with a lot of exaggeration. Both the Americans and the Soviets played up his worth, what he actually did and what he accomplished. What happens in situations like that; you can use agents once they’re caught for propaganda services. I doubt that the FBI stormed his apartment the way that they did. It looks unprofessional. Why are you running? What you do, if you wanna search somebody’s apartment, you wait until they’re out, and then you do that in secret. That’s the way my house was searched. While I was on vacation.
The FBI made a mistake: once they’re in there, to allow Abel to touch anything. I would give it probably an eight. Does disservice to the professionalism of the FBI. Everything else is really very realistic.
Alex: Your profile interests us. You have talents and skills that we can help you develop.
Anna: You’re offering me a job?
Alex: I’m offering you a fresh start. One year’s military training; four years operational in the field.
Jack: The recruitment and training of people who would do things like, you know, go to another country and do bad things to good people. I only know about this from secondhand reports. The KGB had a very, very murderous history, particularly in the beginning. After Stalin died, they became a little more civilized, but they were still doing bad things. My recruitment was completely different. It was a very, very soft approach, and it took a long time, about almost two years, to finally ask me if I was willing and ready to join them. I was a third-year student at university when somebody introduced himself. His cover was, at the time, he said, “I’m a representative from a local business.” And he wanted to just know, because he told me, “We know that you’re a good student. What are your plans after you graduate from college?” In those days in East Germany, you were assigned to a post once you graduated from college. At that point, when he said that, I thought he was Stasi, East German secret police. To me, it was a great honour, ’cause, you know, in those days the Soviet Union was, strength-wise, at least the way we perceived it, the equal to the United States, and the KGB probably was the most powerful secret service in the entire world. I would still think it’s highly unrealistic. I would give that a zero.
“The Americans” (2013-2018)
Philip: Phil Jennings.
Stan: How you doing? Stan Beeman.
Philip: My wife, Elizabeth.
Philip: What do you do, Stan?
Stan: I’m an FBI agent. [laughs]
Jack: This scene is very realistic. There were 10 of us. We were supposed to live a life of ordinary Americans. Now, how the two kids fit into there, especially already at that age, there were some agents that had children. I know a friend of mine who was an undercover agent for the KGB at the same time I was there, and he was there with his wife, actually. They had a kid who was born in Brooklyn.
My own experience was a little bit different in that the FBI, when they started investigating me, they managed to buy the house next door. Agents occupied this house for a number of months to just watch me, but they never really did introduce themselves. This was just for purposes of observation, which, when I became a public persona, the producers of “The Americans” were, like, really giddy in that it appeared that life was imitating art in that respect.
Spies are people too. You do form relationships. There wasn’t even a hint of something like that ever being considered.
Philip: Nothing. You get nothing from us. She’s trained for this. So am I.
Elizabeth: We’ll die before we’ll talk.
Philip: And we know how to do that.
Jack: The Americans are quite civilized. This is a quote I remember. One of the guys told me, “They will not torture you. The worst thing they might do to you is slap you on the face a couple of times.” All right? So, therefore, this scene is unrealistic from both ends. This is not how US counterintelligence operates, and this is not how a trained agent would respond. That’s over-the-top insane. The way these two agents supposedly operated, running a travel agency full time, being full-time parents, and then doing all kinds of, being involved in all kinds of operations that require a lot of work, a lot of preparation, that require you to be in three different places at the same time, all of this is totally unrealistic. I told him, every time I see one of those main characters running around with a wig, I wince, because that’s the last thing that you wanna do, because God forbid somebody spots you and says, “Wait a minute, I know this guy. He looks different. What? That’s odd.” Wigs, I mean, that’s a total no-no. With one exception. The people that work surveillance, they sometimes change the way they dress. They change a jacket or they put a scarf on. But that’s not ever recommended for somebody who was supposed to be a long-term operational undercover agent. On content I would give “The Americans” a five.
“From Russia With Love” (1963)
[shouting] [fire blasting]
Rosa: Training is useful, but there is no substitute for experience.
Morzeny: I agree; we use live targets as well. [laughs]
Jack: This was very entertaining. I laughed, particularly at the sentence, “We use live targets.” This whole training setup, even from a fictional aspect, it doesn’t make any sense. The KGB clearly had bad guys, but this fellow with a leather jacket; I never met a KGB officer with a leather jacket. If you met them today the way they were then, you would think they were just normal everyday people. That’s the whole point of being a spy. You don’t wanna look like one. This guy looks like a commissar, based on the way they were dressed during the revolutionary times in Russia. The KGB was too compartmentalized. You know, I met nothing but gentlemen; gentlemen who operated on behalf of the Soviet Union for a cause, and we were all committed communists. But if they had tried to make a military unit out of the folks that I worked with, [laughs] we would have lost the first battle. All of a sudden, she has a weapon in her shoe. [laughs] There’s a KGB museum in New York City, and they have some real gadgets that were used by the KGB. They would be given to, most likely, only very special people who were executing a particular, very special assignment. Just, like, go out and kill somebody or poison somebody. But this was not standard equipment. Any of these gadgets are evidence if counterintelligence goes through your home and they find even one thing with a secret compartment. I was operating within the universe of what’s normal, and you can find a whole lot of things that you can use for tools and toys that you can buy in any store. It’s a minus one. [laughs]
“Iron Man 2” (2010)
Happy: Rule No. 1, never take your eye off your–
Pepper: Oh, my God!
Jack: Yeah, I like the acting. It’s interesting. My training in self-defence was significantly less aggressive. I learned a handful of moves. I did get some self-defence training, not to attack FBI or, you know, counterintelligence, but to defend myself in case I wind up at one point in a dangerous neighbourhood with some stuff on me, like money or compromising materials. That’s all the weapons training I got. This is killer training here, what we’re looking at. KGB contingent was called Spetsnaz. The special forces, like the Marines. They were trained for these special type of operations. We’re jumping ahead of ourselves to think that anything that’s out in the media and in movies and podcasts and whatever will get really close to the absolute truth. I’ll even…a five. It’s well filmed. These are first-rate actors.
Orlov: The name of the Russian agent is Salt. Evelyn Salt.
Salt: My name is Evelyn Salt. Orlov: Then you are a Russian spy.
Lie detector: Truthful.
Agent: So far, the fMRI scan registers truthful on everything he said.
Jack: This is pure fiction on a number of levels. First of all, sleepers were completely isolated. In other words, I couldn’t betray anybody even if I wanted to. The Russians did this very well; we call this compartmentalisation. There is no such thing as a brain scan that will help you discover the truth. I was still subjected to a lie-detector test, which the FBI still likes a lot, but it can be defeated. You have to really, really believe in the lie and be a congenital liar. Double agents existed, and there was a couple of cases where the KGB had a mole within the FBI and within the CIA who did a lot of damage. If I may, I give it a double zero.
“Red Sparrow” (2018)
Interrogator: Are you working for the Americans?
Dominika: I love my country.
Jack: This is taking KGB practices of the ’30s, ’40s, into the early ’50s and moving them forward into sort of a contemporary scene, and that’s invalid. The KGB was absolutely brutal in interrogating people, shooting them in the back of the head and using all kinds of brutality, which is unimaginable. It was very similar to what the Nazis did. This is one of the torture methods. You put a board or something to prevent real injuries, bruises, and stuff like that. But to the head? Interrogator: Last time. Did you give Boucher to the Americans?
Jack: Means are much more subtle and much more psychological than this kind of stuff. You threaten somebody with a gun, if they get out of it, they will hate you forever. There’s a number of ways to make somebody switch. A threat to your family; that’s a very, very strong incentive. When you have somebody who is like I, I lived in the United States for 10 years, and I had gotten used to some… a significant improved lifestyle. I had become an American in many respects. I think sexpionage, that’s reality. I’d be surprised if there are any major intelligence services that aren’t in some way recruiting women to do dirty work. I would not recommend this.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011)
[typewriter whirring] Ricki: Then the message comes through. “We read you.”
Jack: This thing starts typing, and the fellow happens to be in the place where it starts typing. Well, how do we know that he’s there? There is no real way for somebody who was truly in isolation to give somebody an urgent message. The fastest way for me to have received an urgent message in those days was through signals. And that would be with a possible delay of about a day or at least a half a day. Let’s say in the evening the agent sends the signal. In the morning I read it. Is it possible to intercept a teletype message? I don’t know, because I think in those days, radio transmissions would have been preferable, and they wouldn’t just come on spontaneously. If you wanna hand over documentation about, say, a weapons system, how do you do this? The easiest way is to, if you can, you steal it and put it on electronic media. But if it’s just a real short message, such as, “Get out of here,” a phone call, but you have to be now aware that phone calls are traced. There’s also communication that the messages are compressed and transmitted in bursts, in short bursts, and then they get decompressed at the other end. But, again, that has to be scheduled. Numbers stations, if you go into a short radio receiver and you go and scan shortwaves, you will occasionally hear something when somebody says, “Five, eight, six, nine.” That’s a secret message for somebody to be decoded.
Ricki: I looked for her everywhere. I couldn’t find her at the airport, and I even looked through all the flight lists. I headed down to the harbour.
Jack: In this business, if you have an asset – and we’re talking about asset, it’s a human being who is working with you – you wanna do everything to protect them. You know, we’re talking an agent who was trying to protect a Russian who was working with him. I think that’s entirely realistic.
“The Fourth Protocol” (1987)
Tom: Hey, Jim, me and Eileen have been figuring you could use little entertainment.
Petrofsky: Yes, all right. Thank you, that would be lovely.
Jack: Well, the purported agent is way too good looking. We think that Brosnan is actually a Russian. He has no accent. There is no such thing as a Russian born in Russia, raised in Russia, can speak English without an accent. [pins clattering]
Eileen: You’re pretty good, Jimmy!
Tom: Yeah, too damn good.
Jack: You’ll be yourself. You know, if you’re good at something, you show off. You play along. That was the whole idea. You want to befriend a lot of people and you just wanna blend in the best you can. You don’t wanna stand out too much. You know, I made a big mistake. I went back to college in the US, and I aced the entire program. But, you know, showing off bowling skills, why not? If you’re a good golfer, somebody may wanna play golf with you, and then that’s how you get to know people that might be of interest.
This was very entertaining. I laughed, particularly at the sentence, “We use live targets.”
Jack Barsky is the author of “Deep Undercover“.
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