How Spies Cope With A Pandemic
Jack Barsky was ready to go to prison. He was ready to face death.
But the idea of sitting on a couch for months watching Netflix really unsettled him.
"Boredom is anathema to me," he said. "We need action. We need to be busy."
It was the way people like him were wired, he told me. Barsky was a spy. And not just any spy - Barsky had what's known in the espionage trade as "non-official cover." He didn't work at a foreign embassy with a job in diplomacy and an interesting second job on his off hours. He actually had a false identity as an American citizen and spent more than a decade stealing secrets for the KGB and living a lie.
I asked him to walk me through his world to understand what the spies in Hampton Roads were thinking right now -- living in a community dominated by COVID-19 and a protest movement.
For a long time, Hampton Roads has been a target for foreign agents. This fall, the U.S. government expelled two Chinese nationals who gained access to a military base near Norfolk in a suspected espionage attempt. In 2015, a federal court sentenced a man for meeting an undercover FBI agent in a Hampton park and hatching a plan to send aircraft carrier plans to Egyptian intelligence. And in 1985, authorities uncovered the operation by John Walker, a Norfolk Navy man who helped give the Soviet Union one of its greatest intelligence triumphs. KGB Colonel Vitaly Yurchenko would tell American authorities that Walker ensured that "if there had been a war, we would have won it."
It's a safe bet that intelligence services are targeting southeastern Virginia.
But how have operations changed during these times? How does Hampton Roads look to foreign spies operating right now, right here?
Espionage is a complicated business, but this answer is actually fairly simple: Spies are facing a short-term challenge for an enormous long-term opportunity, according to former FBI counterintelligence agent Asha Rangappa.
Rangappa operated in New York City, focusing on the spies who worked in the diplomatic world around the United Nations. But she grew up in Hampton Roads, and she knew the area. There is a process that each intelligence officer must go through to recruit new agents. First, a spy spots a recruit, finding a person who fits a certain role, like a puzzle piece fits onto the board. Then the intelligence officer assesses the recruit, gauging strengths and weaknesses - the buttons to push and the topics to avoid. The COVID-19 lockdowns have made it difficult for spies to perform these first steps of the cycle. Defense contractors and government agencies aren't sending their people out to hotels and conference centers where people can watch them and make these initial moves.
However, the situation is creating the conditions that intelligence officers depend on to bring new agents into the fold. Money is one of the reasons people turn to spying, and the pandemic is creating exactly the kind of uncertainty that might push someone to do something drastic for an extra paycheck.
The anxiety makes people vulnerable, Rangappa explained, because intelligence officers "create a relationship and slowly over time seem as though they’re offering a way to be able solve the problems they’ve identified this person has and they are preoccupied with."
Part of the problem is that more companies are working remotely. The organizations that handle classified material have procedures to keep secrets from slipping out in a video conference, Rangappa said, but the "day to day" information people reveal is valuable too. It helps spies figure out how to motivate someone to flip, somewhere down the line. And everyone is sharing much more of that information - checking in from home on video to talk with coworkers.
Rangappa said if she were a manager in a company that handled secrets, she'd be checking in with her employees to see who had health or money problems. A spy’s job is to find you at your low point and become your new best friend. And right now, many of our coworkers are at that low point, waiting for help.