David Henry Barnett: Selling Out A Nation
Updated: Jan 18
A Personal History
David Henry Barnett was raised in Robinson Township in Pennsylvania (Babcock and O’Toole, 1980). He was “detached…from the things that go on around him” and “lived in his own little world” growing up, according to childhood acquaintances (Babcock and O’Toole, 1980). He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1955, served for a brief time in the Army, and joined the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1960 (initially as a contract employee and later as a Staff Officer) (Babcock and O’Toole, 1980; 1980). Barnett met and married his wife, Sarah Blount, in Washington D.C. in 1964, with whom he had three children (Babcock and O’Toole, 1980; Gamarekian, 1982). With the CIA, he served in Jakarta on two occasions with a tour in Washington D.C. in between (Babcock and O’Toole, 1980; Gamarekian, 1982). Sensing his work in the CIA was complete after his tour as Chief of Base in Surabaya, Barnett left the CIA in 1970. Barnett briefly served as a teacher in his home state of Pennsylvania before leaving the U.S. with his family to start his furniture business in Jakarta (Babcock and O’Toole, 1980; 1980).
Unsolicited: “An Excellent American Spy”
Unlike most defectors, Barnett did not have a security clearance or access to classified information at the start of his espionage (Herbig, 2017). Instead, he “relied on his memory of classified information” and reported his knowledge of the CIA’s Operation HABRINK to the Committee on State Security (KGB) (Herbig, 2017). Operation HABRINK penetrated the Soviet-backed Indonesian military with no fewer than 30 Indonesian agents and resulted in the CIA recovery of Soviet weapons and training manuals (Babcock and O’Toole, 1980; 1980). During his tour in D.C., Barnett continued his work on HABRINK until his return to Indonesia (Babcock and O’Toole, 1980; 1980). Barnett betrayed all of this, along with information pertaining to U.S. submarines and knowledge of the SA-2 missile, to the KGB.
According to Oleg Kalugin, Barnett also “filled in gaps in [KGB] knowledge about the structure of the CIA, described in detail operations in South Korea, Indonesia, and other Asian countries, revealed the names of dozens of CIA officers, and disclosed the identifies of informants recruited by the CIA” (Kalugin, 1994). Because Barnett had departed the CIA on good terms, Kalugin assessed Barnett to be an excellent candidate for re-placement in the U.S. intelligence community as a penetration (Kalugin, 1994).
Motivation: American Secrets for Soviet Cash
Barnett’s post-CIA furniture business was unsuccessful and Barnett incurred a significant amount of debt (according to Kalugin, approximately $80,000; according to the official court filing, in excess of $100,000; according to Trahair, as little as $25,000) (Kalugin, 1994; 1980; Trahair, 2004). Paying his debts and “restor[ing] [his] social standing” were Barnett’s only objectives in his espionage; in his first meeting with Kalugin, Barnett threatened “if I don’t get the money…I don’t work with you at all” (Kalugin, 1994).
The Approach: Unsigned and In Person
Barnett identified the KGB as his financial solution. “He typed an unsigned note that he intended to give the Soviets when the occasion arose,” which it eventually did in 1976. Barnett approached the KGB Cultural Attaché in Jakarta and provided him the note (Barnett knew the attaché from his time in the CIA) (1980; Kalugin, 1994). Barnett met with the attaché and another KGB officer several times until they agreed to a KGB meeting in Vienna in 1977. Barnett met with Pavel (who Kalugin insinuates is himself), “completed [the] financial arrangements,” and received his taskings from the KGB: seek reemployment with the CIA or get a job on a congressional intelligence committee (1980; Kalugin, 1994).
Tradecraft: Phone Booths and Dead Drops
The KGB handled Barnett from its stations in Jakarta, Vienna, and the U.S, between which Barnett frequently travelled. In Jakarta, his encounters with the KGB were mundane: meetings at the Soviet embassy and the Cultural Attaché’s home (1980). In the U.S., Barnett’s D.C.-based KGB contact, Igor, later identified as Vladimir Popov, communicated with Barnett using dead drops at phone booths and in-person meetings (1980). Igor also used general phone lines at phone booths and public buildings on pre-scheduled days and times to communicate with Barnett (the FBI was present at one of these public phones after Barnett’s confession when Igor attempted contact to confirm the method) (1980). In Vienna, Barnett met with his KGB handlers at the Soviet Embassy and a hotel; his travels from Jakarta to Vienna routed him through several European countries where he miraculously never had his passport stamped (Kalugin, 1994; 1980). When Barnett’s information and access began to ween in 1979 the KGB began rotating case officers to Barnett in Jakarta, a clear indication that he was of degrading use to them and no longer warranted a single handler (1980).
The KGB also wanted to use Barnett as a penetration of U.S intelligence. The KGB repeatedly pressured Barnett to gain employment with the CIA or another organization (Kalugin, 1994; Taubman, 1980; 1980). When Barnett obtained a low-level contract position, the KGB informed him “his present position with the CIA was of no interest to the KGB and urged Barnett to pursue actively a full time position with the CIA” (1980). Barnett’s handlers pressed this upon him repeatedly; however, “failed to regain staff officer status with the CIA and thus had not attained access to the type of intelligence information that the KGB…would consider of major importance” (1980).
Caught! Penetration or Good Case Work?
The exact details of Barnett’s detection by U.S. agents remain unknown to this day. As a part of Barnett’s plea deal, prosecutors convinced the judge to place all documents under seal, partly to preserve sources and partly to save the public reputation of the intelligence community (Trahair, 2004). However, some indicators have steadily arisen over the years.
According to Kalugin, word of Barnett’s arrest in Vienna came “out of the blue” after “American agents had observed Barnett meeting the KBG in Vienna” in 1980 (which is the official story recalled by the Defense Human Resources Activity and, separately, Hasdetd.) (Kalugin, 1994; Hasdetd, 2011; 2020). However, Kalugin believes this was a cover story. Instead, Kalugin states that, according to Edward Lee Howard after his defection, a KGB defector in the Jakarta office tipped the FBI to Barnett’s KGB approaches several years earlier (Kalugin, 1994). In any case, the official court filing against Barnett simply records that the FBI “knew he had been in contact with the KGB;” given the details of the court record, it can be inferred that the FBI had surveilled Barnett for some time prior to his interview based on some prior, undisclosed, investigative lead (1980).
Barnett Today: Disappeared From Public Life
Barnett pleaded guilty to espionage in 1980 and was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison, of which he served ten in North Carolina before being paroled in 1990 (Gamarekian, 1982; 2020). Some publications claim that David Henry Barnett died on November 19, 1993, without giving details or citations (Goldman 2015; Smith, 2003). Open source records indicate that he is still alive and living in Pennsylvania; these same records indicate he has been separated from his wife since around 1996 (2020; 2020).
The key lesson learned for the U.S. is the importance of workplace counterintelligence for two reasons: his indebtedness and his second security screening Barnett’s financial situation post-CIA was known to his colleagues and family. His sudden repayment of $12,500, however, did not seem to raise any suspicions. Further, his travels to and from Jakarta did not cause alarm amongst those closest to him. Barnett’s dire, well-known indebtedness should have brought questions as to how he managed to travel overseas as often as he did (regardless of the destination or reason). Additionally, Barnett should never have been allowed to return to the CIA in 1979. His indebtedness alone should have caused concern in his security screening. His attempts to acquire positions in the intelligence arena which do not require a polygraph screening are additionally concerning. Barnett did not think he could have passed a polygraph. While the CIA and other organizations would not have known this, Barnett’s pattern of job solicitation, had it come up in a background screening, would have revealed he was avoiding this procedure. While Barnett’s rehiring did not result in a security compromise, it easily could have had he managed to continue without suspicion and gradually obtain more access.
There is also a lesson learned from the KGB operation: enforce operations security protocols. Barnett never used the phone booth dead drop established for him in D.C. and instead insisted on some sort of personal contact, be it over the phone or in person. In Jakarta, when these contacts fell through, Barnett simply went to the Cultural Attaché’s residence for meetings. This residence surely would have been under U.S. surveillance given the Attaché’s connection to the KGB. In one meeting, the KGB “urg[ed] [Barnett] to use the emergency contact…if a need arose” instead of personal contacts, but Barnett refused (1980). Despite Barnett providing critical information to the KGB, he became a steadily increasing risk as his espionage lengthened. The KGB should have either forced Barnett to abide by their security protocols or terminated his operation. If an agent thinks security protocols unsecure or is circumspect, it is the case officer who determines whether to review them or continue, not the agent. Circumventing security protocols out of convenience (as Barnett did with visiting the Attaché’s residence) or paranoia (as with his adamance with personal contact) must be avoided regardless of the agent’s value. This behaviour is an indicator that an agent may be a double agent or may give in to investigative pressure and expose the operation (as Barnett did rather unreluctantly).