The Lives of the Other: Interview with a former Soviet and Stasi Spy

“Our lives are a sum total of the choices we have made.”

On his seventeenth birthday, 1980, Karney (born Jeffrey Carney) joined the United States Air Force as a ‘cryptic linguist’ and was stationed at Tempelhof Central Airport in Berlin. A self-ascribed Reaganite, Karney’s staunch approbation for the president’s militaristic foreign policies are arguably the reason why he became quickly disillusioned with the Air Force and the assignments he was being given. Described as “lonely, isolated, and under severe psychological distress,” and having attempted to “turn in his badge and quit,” the twenty-year-old crossed the Berlin Wall and entered into East Berlin in an act of protest.

It would later prove to be an apostasy and a point of no return for Karney as he began an eight-year career of spying across two countries for both the KGB and the Stasi: one of the world’s most efficient intelligence and secret police agencies.

Karney was kidnapped by the United States and arrested in 1991. He was given a 36-year prison sentence, of which 11 years, seven months, twenty days and six hours were served. Far from broken, Karney emerged physically healthy and fantastically well read, with a newfound spiritual commitment that arose from living six of his years as a Jew (having taught himself Hebrew) before converting to Buddhism. Moreover his fierce productivity resulted in two manuscripts. The first was an extensive reading log that chronicled the pages he read and his noteworthy quotes. The second was his infamous biography.

There is very little about Jens Karney that could strike as odd. Nearing fifty, Karney mows yards, works at a factory, watches his grass grow, and maintains an active presence in his community. He is built average if not somewhat large, sports a casual goatee, wears wire-framed glasses with square lenses, and keeps his hair militaristically short. When he is silent he pinches his lips together in an inscrutable manner. When kept this way for too long, he begins to shift uncomfortably. The more he talks the more he shows himself to be a convivial and rambling interlocutor as well as a gifted, dramatic, and passionate storyteller, if one who regularly slips into biography and self-evaluation. Juxtaposing the image of the cold and enigmatic spy, Karney is gay and often came close to tears during the course of our conversation.

The interview was conducted in a single Skype session that lasted over four hours. I had drawn up and edited a series of approximately forty questions, however after our session had ended, I counted only nine of the questions that had been asked.  Karney’s views are difficult to surmise. In the 2003 Telegraph he admitted that his crimes were wrong although he remains far from apologetic. He has stated that he feels more at home in Germany with the addendum: “I don’t much like America,” although he insisted to me that America is still the greatest country on the earth.

Ostensibly these answers show haphazard notions and a capricious intellect, yet Karney’s persona is much more complex. He maintains his life, his opinions, and his spying as a contradiction that cannot and should not be resolved. “We are the sum total of all that we have done and experienced” Karney is fond of saying, and this extends to both morality and immorality. Although Karney’s reoccurring motifs of equality, irony, and goodness are easy to understand he nevertheless punctuates them with anecdotes and stories that are gripping and enthralling in ways that, at first, seem over-enforcing but which later culminate in a strengthened appreciation and wonder for the man himself.

Notwithstanding this arduously long interview none of Karney’s stories or comments appeared superfluous when they were read back over. In this interview I have endeavored to quote these stories in full. Although he philosophizes and rehashes stories and facts regularly, Karney manages to give them new perspectives and in return, a new power, through the stories of his own experiences. This is what “Against all Enemies” is really about.

Yet what has confused his captors and may confuse his readers is neither his own complexity nor the complexity of his decisions but the strength of these beliefs and how they withstand the pressure of opposing angles. It was this interviewer’s pleasure to have experienced such rare and stalwart conviction.

INTERVIEWER

You wrote on your Kickstarter profile that at a young age you wanted to “go out and see the world.” You were seventeen when you joined the Air Force. To what do you attribute this wanting of freedom? Did you have a sheltered life back in Ohio?

JEFF CARNEY

The desire to go out and see the world was less a desire to see the world than to get away from the one that you knew. When you’ve had a bunch of unpleasantness anything new is pleasant. Usually new things are not only new; they’re pleasant. When you’re seventeen you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow so you take it as an adventure. You’re sixteen one day and the next day you’re seventeen and at four in the morning, when you’re taking your oath, you feel like an adult at the beginning of an adventure. At the same time you’re leaving behind an entire landfill; of sadness and things you don’t want to think about. It’s easier to run away from them than to be forced to bury them.

INTERVIEWER

Could you go into more concrete details about your childhood before you joined the Air Force?

JEFF CARNEY

In the book I start out with my childhood. I mention it only because not everybody’s childhood is good. I’d probably say most peoples’ aren’t and we just don’t realize it. I was forced to grow up very early so one of the problems I had when I wrote my story was how much to tell, how much to leave out unintentionally, and how much is relevant for someone who doesn’t know me. I remember all the horrible things that happened in my childhood. Not to say that everything was horrible—everybody loves their parents and you accept them for who they are. But when you grow up loving a dysfunctional family, all of your milestones and guideposts in life are distorted. A child of seven or eight shouldn’t worry about lying to their parents about when the rent is due. When you’re fifteen or sixteen you shouldn’t find out that your dad is going out with the girl you turned down for the Prom. When you’re fourteen you shouldn’t be working for forty dollars a week and giving your mother thirty so that she has something to eat for lunch. Those are things a normal kid shouldn’t have to deal with.

My brother is reading the manuscript now, and he’s told me that he’s laughed, he’s cried, and he’s had to sit down and think—that’s what childhood is about. It’s happy; it’s sad; it makes you think. If I’ve achieved that by telling it like that then I’m going to leave it that way.

INTERVIEWER

Is that how you would classify a ‘normal childhood?’

JEFF CARNEY

Absolutely. But looking back on it now I don’t know how we made it. There’s no shortage of pain and suffering in the world.

INTERVIEWER

Although you consider yourself an idealist?

JEFF CARNEY

If you’re not an idealist then you’re just slogging your way through the mud. An idealist is a person who has hope even in the face of adversity. To not be an idealist shows a lack of apprehension of what the world is about. The world is about hope; if it isn’t about hope then it’s about existence. There’s a difference between living and surviving. If I’m just surviving then it’s like what Solzhenitsyn said in The Gulag: “if life is just about surviving then what’s the point?” You have to have a goal. An idealist has goals. An idealist says: “that’s not going to work but I’ll try it.” That’s what separates people who survive and those who live. But does it take you going to prison and being kidnapped to realize it? No it doesn’t, but it certainly helps.

INTERVIEWER

Does the process of writing help get rid of the ‘landfill?’

JEFF CARNEY

Yes. When I write or when I read I can make myself cry because the emotion is that authentic. ‘Authentic’ is a very important word. I would rather have an authentic person in front of me, a person I may not agree with, than a phony person or someone who is pretending to be something. That approach to life is important when you deal with your own emotions. You have to have authentic emotions. And there’s no point to do otherwise if that’s what the emotion calls for. You have to look at events the way they are. To live we have to survive, but we have to get beyond the survival.

INTERVIEWER

What made you choose the Air Force and not another division?

JEFF CARNEY

Nothing goes the way we want it to go. That’s what makes life interesting. When I was fourteen I started hanging out with the recruiters in our neighborhood. We had a station where all the different services were represented. I hung out with the army because I always thought that was where I was going to go and no one ever disabused me from that idea so I went with it. I had Army on my mind for about three years. When I went down to the Federal Building in Cincinnati I went to speak to the Army Recruiter, and as fate would have it they were out when I walked in. Nobody was there and I went across the hallway to the Air Force recruiter to ask if the Army recruiters were going to be back anytime soon. He asked if I had listed with them or if I was just talking with them, and I said I haven’t enlisted. By the time he got finished talking to me I had decided to join the Air Force.

INTERVIEWER

Is there a story that goes along with your nickname “The Kid?’

JEFF CARNEY

You’re not allowed to pick your own code name for security reasons. One of the reasons I still use it now is because it’s easy to remember. Once I had been recruited successfully for the Ministry of State Security, my handler told me that one of his favorite movies was “Cincinnati Kid.” He said it’s kind of funny because I was from Cincinnati, and I was only nineteen. That was his choice, not mine.

INTERVIEWER

You were a ‘cryptic linguist’ in the Air Force. Did you have any experience with linguistics before?

JEFF CARNEY

My interest in German came from an interest in Germany. My affinity began at a very early age. I can’t explain it. I was absolutely locked on to the language and the culture and I’m not sure why. I knew at a very early age I was going to go to Germany. I believed in that.

I had an intense interest in the ‘why’ of German culture rather than the ‘what.’ As I started looking behind the scenes I found that German culture was much more complicated. The Japanese say that if you’re not a complicated person then you’re just boring. I think contradictions make you a complex person. Complex cultures are often more interesting. I was interested in how a culture that had brought us Goethe and Emmanuel Kant and engineering feats could push six million people into the ovens. I wanted to know ‘why’ and I wanted to know ‘how.’ That was the test for me when I looked at Germany.

Then I started dealing with the reality that cultures are made up of people, and in the end it’s individual. When I ask myself the questions, it boiled down to individuals. In the end an individual decided if the order was given, or if a bullet was put through somebody’s head. Is there collective responsibility or individual responsibility? What is my responsibility? Do I have a responsibility? My infatuation with German culture led me to the dichotomy of moral and immoral; how you can have Schiller, Goethe, Kant on the one hand and then Himmler, Hertz, Göring and Rudolph Häussler and Adolf Hitler on the other.

The questions that I had in my mind were really the things that made me uncomfortable, and you see this total contradiction. That continues today. When you live the contradiction or create a contradiction you have to decide how you feel about it and that isn’t the good or bad part of the journey; it is the journey. That’s the interesting part of life. I have to live with one event in my life and the consequences. I’m not allowed to step out of that.

That’s what I saw in Germany. On a personal level I was going through what the Germans did. I didn’t have an epiphany about it and I don’t think you’re supposed to. You do good and you do wrong and you move on and that’s all you can do.

INTERVIEWER

Couldn’t you describe your acceptance as an epiphany?

JEFF CARNEY

I think you come to the realization that you are not one thing that you’ve done, but everything that you’ve done in your life. Everything I’ve done in my life isn’t bad. If we all went through our closets and threw out the proverbial skeletons, none of us would be too thrilled with what we found. Some of us don’t have the luxury of privacy.

I’m a public person so I’m forced to deal with it. But I’m not forced to hate myself. And for every person who doesn’t like what I did, I can find one who does. Does that make it right? That’s moral relativism and that’s not what I’m getting at. I don’t judge my self-worth by how many critics or trackers I have. I judge myself by what I’ve affected in life. One of my favorite quotes is from a book about Louis XIV; “in big things and in great things, people show themselves as they wish to be seen. But it is in the little things that people show themselves for who they are.” People tend to judge by the big things, be they good or bad.

America’s the land of injustice? It’s not. The United States of America is the greatest nation on earth. No doubt in my mind. But that doesn’t give this country the right to do anything it wants at anytime it wants as long as it suits it.

Those were the thoughts in my mind when I went to Berlin in 1982. I was a young man in a blue uniform at the forefront of the Cold War in a divided city. The ‘evil empire’ was across the Wall and I was doing my job with the thought: we’re better than they are. I was freedom, defending the world from the Red Menace.

Then suddenly I found out that it’s not that way. That same country would later kidnap and make me ashamed to be a young man in a blue uniform because we weren’t telling people the truth. That was my first real revelation. It wasn’t just the German conundrum. It was the same for every country and every culture on the earth.

INTERVIEWER

In 2003 you tried to reenter Germany, and renew your citizenship. Do you still feel more at home in East Germany than in America? Do you still believe those who tell you “we are all still here today,” despite the disestablishment of the Stasi?

JEFF CARNEY

I believe that the United States is the greatest country on the earth because we’re surrounded by people who really want to be free. But if we pause for a moment and think about Franklin and Jefferson and Washington, we realize that they were also traitors. They were criminals. Only due to the fact that we won the war made them heroes and not traitors. We have to be careful about how we place ourselves morally.

What makes the United States the greatest country is not the military or economy, but the Constitution. The Constitution is what we should pledge allegiance to because it’s everything. It’s a concept and it was a novel concept that changed the world.

The problem today is that the nation that gave birth to this concept has completely left the road that it was on in the beginning. We think we’re still on and that’s even worse. We’ve lost our freedom because we’re at war with a people we can’t even define. We kill people from the air with drones and we say it’s for freedom. We never ask ourselves how we got into these conflicts. We have this perception that we do no wrong and I think that’s the most disturbing.

I do not support the war in Afghanistan but I do support our soldiers and our Marines there. I don’t think it’s fair for them to be shot at and not be able to shoot back. I want our soldiers to be safe while they’re doing the job. But the problem is that we’re not doing the job because we’re nation building. We’ve outgrown ourselves and that’s the problem.

When I came to Berlin I was a Reaganite; I shook the man’s hand, and less than a year later I was giving secrets to the East Germans and the Russians to fight everything that he was about because I saw it for what it was, and not what I wanted it to do. Moral relativism is a very slippery slope.

INTERVIEWER

Would you then say that the only job of the Government should be to protect the Constitution or do you believe there’s a level that they need to establish military presence?

JEFF CARNEY

I’m not sure that nation building was something our forefathers thought we should be doing. They were isolationists and we wanted our independence. The concept is based on any country that rightfully fights for the object of self-determination, for the freedom to develop your ideas and culture. If enough of the culture decides that they want to wear the burka or that women can’t vote why can’t we accept that?

We think for some reason that we have the right to tell other people what freedom means. Our Constitution is a great document, although sometimes it doesn’t mean a whole lot. Freedom of Speech: only if you don’t say something uncomfortable. Freedom of Assembly: only if you’re not too close to the President. Freedom of the Press: only if you don’t want to write about Bradley Manning. Right to Bear Arms: only if you’re not doing anything radical. There’s an exception to everything. And when there’s an exception to every freedom in the Constitution then pretty soon every freedom is going to be exceptional.

INTERVIEWER

In your profile you refer to Bradley Manning as almost an avatar, someone who stood up in the way that you stood up. Do you believe that every citizen should do the same as you or Manning? Do you believe that the consequences that you suffered were right?

JEFF CARNEY

The difficulty in answering that question personally is: what keeps other people from doing it. The possibility of being executed or imprisoned for life is a great deterrent. What I’d like to say before I address Manning is that I don’t equate what he and I did on the same level.

I saw specific dangers from where I worked. Some things I didn’t have access to and some things I refused to give. Anything that I felt was detrimental to keeping the peace in Europe was fair game for me. I had a semi-rigid set of restrictions. I wasn’t going to give the East Germans information on defensive capabilities of a fighter unit in North Dakota because that had nothing to do with East German security.

What I would hand over was anything that I thought would push us into a war. Today people have not grown up with the daily threat of imminent death. That was very real in Europe in 1980. If we went to war in Europe the chance, that it would escalate from one bullet flying over the border, or one plane being shot down, to a nuclear exchange was not only possible; it was probable because the stakes were too high.

Neither side wanted to lose. They were wanted not to lose so badly that they were willing to make everyone lose. That was the problem. We were playing pranks. That’s something that you just don’t do. Someone had to do something. Did I have to do it? No—absolutely not. Could I live with myself today had I not done it? Probably. Can I live with myself because I did do it? Absolutely. I know I made a difference.

INTERVIEWER

As an eighteen/nineteen year old kid, how were you able to keep so calm about handing these documents over?

JEFF CARNEY

That’s the contradiction again. I didn’t always know what the results were going to be and that’s why I kept myself within semi-rigid boundaries. I didn’t want to do things that I didn’t understand.

INTERVIEWER

Going with your gut.

JEFF CARNEY

That’s the most honest part of you. Your brain sees and not your eyes. You sense danger and fear not through your eyes. Sometimes you have to think the same way. There were moments when I was sitting there, with only so many documents that I could smuggle out. I had duffle bags full and had to decide what I was going to hand over. But when I was sitting there, deciding, I was thinking: “who am I to make this decision?”

People have asked the same about Bradley Manning but I can’t speak for him. We had different catalysts. But mine were no less disturbing. The Russians and the United States lie. Ronald Reagan didn’t understand that his plan risked annihilating the entire world.

I was reading the intelligence reports and listening to the news reporters the day after the invasion of Granada, and I couldn’t recognize one from the other. That’s the world that we live in. If everything was as it was, the government wouldn’t be blacking it out today. I don’t see any reason to keep the movements and the ‘navigational’ mistakes a secret today. Even today in 2012, we still cannot talk about what happened in 1983, because when the ‘good’ government gets caught being bad, it can’t defend itself.

INTERVIEWER

If people don’t want to know, do you believe still that they have the duty to know the truth?

JEFF CARNEY

A functioning democracy requires a well-informed population. If you don’t know what your government does in your name, you’re still responsible for what they do.

INTERVIEWER

But it’s like going back to your childhood. If you were as sensitive as to what you were doing then, now, then you’d likely have had a much worse childhood. Is that not the same for the American public? Would it not be much more disturbed?

JEFF CARNEY

My ‘horrible’ childhood wasn’t just horrible and I had lots of good moments in my childhood. On a biological tract, I have a notoriously good memory.

INTERVIEWER

‘Good listener’ is what I read.

JEFF CARNEY

You have to be a good listener when you can’t write things down.

Trauma is probably the single-most important element in establishing lasting memories. That’s a survival mechanism. If we didn’t remember the bad things then we might drink the poison or touch the snake in the water. It’s important that trauma leave us with an indelible memory. The problem with trauma is that it leaves you with lots of memories; too many, and you have to suppress them. We have good memories but it’s the bad memories that keep us alive. That bad childhood has allowed me to survive things today. Everything I experienced in my childhood: being in the military, and being a spy, prepared me for prison. And I came out of prison in excellent shape, in full control of my senses, in the best health of my life, and the best educated I’ve ever been.

I have a friend who’s told me that everybody could go to prison because it makes you learn to appreciate things. I appreciate things. I appreciate being able to look back and see how I got to where I am. Prison is just part of my life. Not everything that happened was bad and I met a lot of amazing people.

They ask if I regret what I did and I say “absolutely not.” They say that I haven’t learned anything. The fact is that I have learned everything. I’ve learned that you can’t regret but you have to understand what that means. We are everything that we’ve ever done, and to take one thing out of that equation then it changes us entirely. That requires me to accept the pain, the disappointments, and the abuse that I’ve experienced. That’s life. Life is suffering, but once you accept it, it’s just life.

People tell me: “Jeff, it’s a quarter of a century ago and we need to move on.” That’s the healthy way to look at it and I’m not trying to minimalize what I did because I think what I did was significant. I think we have to move on as well. This is part of why I wrote the book. Everyone else got to write the story but I never got to say anything. The history has already been written.

INTERVIEWER

The book is moving on for you as well.

JEFF CARNEY

People still don’t want me to tell my version of the story. But it’s a catharsis. I have to get it out of my system. I can’t move forward and look back for 25 years I’ve been looking back. They still talk about me in the past tense. They don’t know.

It’s a lonely life. But do I regret it? No—it doesn’t stop me from being a good person. But that’s not what people want to accept. They’re still looking at “The Kid:” the nineteen year old who climbed over the Berlin Wall. I think they see something in me that is very uncomfortable for them.

That’s the way it is. But it’s not easy. When I went back to work and looked my friend in the eye, I was thinking on the fact that I had just written a two-page document about him because he might be a good target for approach.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned before that it was easier for the NSA to grant you amnesty than the Air Force. Do you feel that the Air Force feels more personally betrayed than these other organizations?

JEFF CARNEY

Familiarity breeds contempt. I broke the family rules and I understand that. All I’m asking for is to be heard. But for a spy you’re limited in how many ways you can say you’re sorry; we constitute less than one half of all offenders. We don’t even register on the charts. We can’t say that we’re sorry. And we always hate those the worst that we’ve injured. I think a lot of damage was done to me.

Prison is a crucible; it burns you alive or it purifies you. I’m much purer in my thoughts now then I was back in 1985. I think it’s unfortunate that if you’re going to be imprisoned, you’re not even given the opportunity to say, “I’m sorry” in a way that’s meaningful.

I gave briefings in the CIA, NSA, and the OSI. I talked about why I did what I did and while I was answering my own questions, I found that every once in a while someone was listening, but the vast majority of people wanted to see me punished. People came to me in the middle of the night after taking my book away, telling me that they could make me disappear. That’s scary. Those are the things that most people think they can watch in a movie or on cable. That’s my life.

I have a brother who was in the Marine Core when I was arrested; he was on the Silent Drill Team, on White House Duty. How do you look your brother in the eye when he tells you: “Jeff—the reason I joined the Marine Core was because I always wanted to be like you.” How do you respond to that? Every time people ask me what I think my betrayal meant I look at my brother.

INTERVIEWER

When you apologized and said your betrayal was wrong, what were you referring to?

JEFF CARNEY

I betrayed my brother. But in the end I have to say that I still did the right thing. That’s contradictory. I don’t accept the fact that people want to ignore the fact that we almost went to war in 1983 precisely for the things that I tried to prevent. I don’t think that’s happenstance.

INTERVIEWER

In the “Able Archer” exercise, how much influence do you know you have?

JEFF CARNEY

In one instance specifically I did have an influence. It’s so secret that the Government confiscated my manuscript in 1997 and they still don’t want me to talk about it. In 1985 I received a medal from the East German State Security, from a recommendation from the Community of State Security, the KGB, for specific things I had done; amongst them the one operation that I completely betrayed. I said I received this medal for something that didn’t happen because the United States denies it.

INTEVIEWER

This is the Waffenbrüdershaft?

JEFF CARNEY

I don’t say it with pride but I’m the only active Western military member in the history of the Warsaw Pact to get that medal. They gave it to me as a Sergeant of the United States Air Force. That didn’t go well in trial. But the Germans said that they gave it to me as a sergeant in the Air Force, and as a Comrade in Arms because even soldiers on opposing sides can agree that they don’t want war.

Today I tried to write about it and it still gets blacked out. I know that this operation could have resulted in loss of life and much worse. It was probably one of the most dangerous, risky, and time-pressed things I’ve ever done and I’m happy I did it.

I remember it very clearly. I learned about it three and a half hours before, and I couldn’t make it to East Germany in three and a half hours because I had regularly scheduled meetings and I had to have notice at least 24 hours before. However I had one contact that I could burn for emergencies, so I went to the guy’s house at seven in the morning and he says to me “what are you doing here?” I said: “shut up, sit down and get a pencil and paper and write down what I’m going to tell you. You have to go to East Berlin, and then we have to get the information to the Russians. We only have three hours.”

He did it. The Russians got the information, and they didn’t react. They played stupid, but that was good. Nobody lost his life that day, and I’m proud of that. Why should I be embarrassed about that?

INTERVIEWER

You were described as “lonely, alienated, and under psychological distress” when you became disillusioned with the Air Force. Do you owe this all to disillusionment or are there other factors?

JEFF CARNEY

The whole emotional thing is a very difficult subject. The Air Force was a good life. But when I was sixteen and seventeen I didn’t know who I was going to be some day, and until I got to Berlin I didn’t know that I could be different; gay and happy, and that that was okay. All around me I saw people who were well adjusted, but it’s a different culture. I was confronted with people me you that I cannot associate with because I wear a uniform. And my thoughts were that maybe I’m not gay; maybe this is wrong. Aside from the medical core, the linguist field is very highly represented in homosexuals. We were disproportionally represented.

At some point I asked myself—before I stepped over the white line at Checkpoint Charlie—at what point is it okay for this country to expect me to put on a uniform in the name of the Constitution, whose rights and privileges do not extend to me? What rights am I protecting if my rights aren’t protected? That’s a disturbing moment. I could not express who I was when I was and was not wearing this uniform.

INTERVIEWER

This is what you’d call the disillusionment.

JEFF CARNEY

John le Carre wrote in one of his books: “all that remains is what you can betray, and all that you can betray is what you love.” The Air Force saved my life. I loved the Air Force. But I came to Germany, and then suddenly I was on the list to be hunted and hounded out of the military. I was an Enemy of the State, on the front line, doing a very important mission for the state, who had invested tons of money in me. And they were willing to throw me out because of who I chose to be intimate with. That’s the definition of disillusionment. People killed themselves over that. That’s not how your country thanks you.

What eighteen or nineteen year old person deserves to commit suicide because the country they’re serving tells them they’re unworthy? No person is unworthy to serve.

I don’t want to be tolerated; I want to be treated as an equal. Back then that’s what it was about and we didn’t have it back then. I’m glad we have it now. Berlin was supposed to be my Valhalla, and it was nothing but the personification of everything that I was afraid of. You might ask if that justifies becoming a spy. It doesn’t. But that’s not why I crossed the line, and that’s not a question people ask. Why don’t you ask that question.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you cross the line?

JEFF CARNEY

Because I wanted to leave all of that behind me. Just like I left Ohio for the Air Force, I left the Air Force for East Germany. I left in a way so that I wouldn’t be able to go back after Checkpoint Charlie. That line divided city districts; a city; a country, and the political systems that divided their way of life. If you crossed that line, you didn’t go back, and that was security for me.

INTERVIEWER

No backdrop meant security?

JEFF CARNEY

If you can’t go back you have to go forward. That was my way of saying goodbye. People ask when I decided to become a spy, but I never decided because the decision really was made for me; my intention in the beginning was just to leave. Now here’s the rub: the same people who said that I didn’t have the authority or knowledge or wisdom to hand over the documents are the same people who didn’t give me the same benefit of the doubt when I was dealing with the most effective intelligence agency on the earth. My handler was a trained psychologist. I was a scared kid sitting in the barracks, and when the question came: “why are you here?” I couldn’t even tell them why.

What American crosses the white line and goes to the other side? I did, so I needed a really good answer, and I said: ”‘I don’t agree with the policies of my government.”

Then they asked me the most important question: “where do you work?” When I told them, they asked me if I would like to go somewhere else and talk. But they talked. I listened. If anybody was clear about the consequences, it was the MFS (Ministry of State Security) on the first night that I spoke with them. They had a copy of my ID card. They said that no matter what I told my commander, he’s going to have a hard time believing what I said.

That’s a hell of a way to start a relationship.

INTERVIEWER

How did you find them?

JEFF CARNEY

I rang the doorbell at the border. But when I went over, East Germany was closed and I was locked out. Locked out of a Communist country. So I was standing there and I couldn’t turn around because there were cameras behind me and cameras in front of me.

A solider came up to me eventually and I said to him: “let me in. I need to speak to somebody.”  Then the guy takes out a pack, Wrigley’s gum or something, and asks me if I want a piece of gum. Here’s the enemy, and he’s offering me a piece of Communist gum. So I take the gum and I wait.

When the gate opened, I went through a doorway and met someone and I said: ‘I need to speak to a representative of your government.’ It sounded like a Humphrey Bogart movie. He made a phone call and about two hours later two gentlemen appeared, and they pulled chairs up front and sat down with their briefcases, and they said: “you asked to speak to representatives of our government. That’s who we are. Now tell us who you are.”

Later they smuggled me out of the border and into a safe house, and that’s when they talked to me about consequences. But then they patted me on the back and told me that I was going to be a good solider doing his part for socialism, on the Invisible Front.

INTERVIEWER

That’s the combination of ‘threats and praises’ that you wrote about.

JEFF CARNEY

Life is about choices, but the East Germans didn’t go by that. They gave me two choices and neither of them was good. They said: “if you want to live here someday we can help you do that, but you have to do your part for the government.”

INTERVIEWER

Are these government agents, or were these the Stasi?

JEFF CARNEY

They were spies.

INTERVIEWER

Would you describe your experience afterwards as surreal?

JEFF CARNEY

Surreal doesn’t even begin to cover it. The first thing I did when I got back was to sit on the bed and look at the ceiling, and I said out loud: “what the fuck did you just do?” But who’s going to answer you? I couldn’t tell anybody, and there was no way out. Now I had a secret life. I just went through a fire door into hell. So what did I do?

No one is going to turn himself in if there’s even a slimmer that he’ll get away. I didn’t either. I always had hope. That’s the human fallacy: we always have hope, even when there is none.

I would never tell people to do what I did. Everything is affected by it, not necessarily in a bad way, but every day is affected by something that happened in 1983. I can smell lignite and my body will shake because that’s the smell from East Germany. I watched an ABC special on German sports one time, and I sat down and I couldn’t stop my leg from twitching and I had to get up and leave. Watching the Berlin Wall come down was obviously traumatic for me because it meant the end of my safety. I loved the wall because it meant my safety, but to my neighbor it was a cage. How do you live your neighbor if your safety is their cage? You have those moments.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned the great human fallacy is hope, but you described yourself as a ‘valuable pawn’ in the hands of the Stasi. Was it just because of hope that you continued to work for them?

JEFF CARNEY

I have hope. I’m a pawn, but don’t forget that any pawn is a game-changer. Even if they didn’t appreciate what I did for them it didn’t change the nature of my work. Whether or not they appreciated it is irrelevant. I didn’t do it for them. I did it for everyone else.

I was never allowed into headquarters. I could only go after the Wall fell. And the people who extended their hands to me and supported me were probably the last people I’d have expected. They were regular people who hated the government: East German conscripts. They even told me “we would have melted in the trenches if we had gone, and you made that not happen.” They said it like that: melted in the trenches. How can you regret it then?

INTERVIEWER

Contradiction.

JEFF CARNEY

The balance, between the spies in the east and the spies in the west, kept us from annihilation; the fact that no one was strong enough to start a war kept us from war. Now the balance is gone, the Soviet Union is gone, the balance is gone and since the fall of the Wall we’ve had nothing but constant war. As long as the Wall stood, and the balance stood, there was peace. The United States and Russia kept each other at bay because they had a knife to each other’s throats; as aggressive and militant as that sounds, the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction kept us alive.

INTERVIEWER

Do you advocate world powers as a means of maintaining the peace?

JEFF CARNEY

I advocate a strong balance. The world is out of balance. We have a ‘good guy’ again, and unfortunately he’s not doing all the things that are incumbent on the ‘good guy.’ We can do better than that. My feelings are obviously a little distorted and I don’t have a country to be loyal to anymore, but I stand when the National Anthem is played and I’ve shown kids in school how to fold a flag. But I don’t think the United States wants my loyalty anymore. And the country that I’ve chosen is gone.

I came up with a good line when I was talking to kids in a Detention Center on Easter Sunday and one of the things I told them was that when I went to prison one of the first things you do is count the days; how many weeks, and months, and years and you mark them off every day. That’s psychotic. We can’t live our lives counting days. When you get to prison you learn to count days, and then at some point you get this moment that arrives when you say I need to stop counting the days and start make the days count.

I read every single book that I could in prison and I wrote it all down. That’s a part of my life. I’m not ashamed that I went and read all of Hemingway again even if I hated it.

INTERVIEWER

Who do you like the best?

JEFF CARNEY

Carry and Comfort is my favorite. I read it twice, when I was in isolation.  I lived as an Orthodox Jew in prison for six years as an experiment.

INTERVIEWER

The only depiction that I’ve seen of the Stasi was in the movie the Lives of Others, which you said was very dry. How closely does it mirror your own experiences?

JEFF CARNEY

It’s close because I used to wear headphones and my hair grows like the characters’. I listened to people as well and I could identify with the main character. The movie plays on stereotypes but it does portray the infiltration of the artist community well.

It wasn’t as dramatic as listening in the attic—we sat in a nice apartment and our tapes were delivered to us. The part that struck a nerve though was the conflict. When you look into your enemy’s eyes like that, you start to recognize yourself, but when you listen to people and hear their danger you get to know them.

It’s hard to hate someone you know. They start out as a name on a piece of paper and pretty soon they turn into a file, and that gets filled out, and then you get an imaginary picture. Not only did I listen to some of my former coworkers, but people in the US Embassy. I could even see the Embassy from where we worked.

When I listened to the tapes for years, it was like a soap opera. I began to know and then I saw the humanity. I saw that they were no different than me. And when I was an American listening to Americans and hearing things that I haven’t heard in years, there was a common thread that I was grasping. They were talking about things that I was never going to see again. Then I was identifying with my enemy, and I’d come full circle.

INTERVIEWER

Stockholm Syndrome.

JEFF CARNEY

There were things I did before the Wall collapsed for which I would have been heavily disciplined. At this time we all knew that our country was going down the tube; we saw that we were going to go down. We got a kind of bunker mentality, like the Romanovs of 1917, when we saw that it was all a façade: we were the palace guard, and the palace was all that was left of the country. We couldn’t even start making preparations for the end because we couldn’t talk about the end—if you talked about the end then you were considered despoiled. But we all saw it coming.

I remember that there was an East German who made his way into the Embassy. I heard him speaking with a Saxon dialect while I listened to him speak I thought he’s not just the subject of a conversation. Suddenly I was hearing that we wasn’t a German—he was an American, an officer of the People’s Police (of the GDR) who had been in Leipzig for a decade, and he wanted to go home. The only way he had even made it past the guard was because he wore an East German uniform. Then I was thinking I have an American in the Embassy who wants to go home… what am I going to do?

So I left out everything in the conversation that would make it difficult for that man to go home, and I added in everything that would make it easier for him to go home. A lot of that conversation disappeared—it never happened. I did the right thing and that man went home.

I met lots of Americans in East Germany. In Leningrad there was a woman named Barbara who was traveling by herself; she was a very big lady, 400+ pounds and she was being routinely abused by the Soviet Wait staff, although she didn’t know it. My friend and I were staying in the same hotel as her and I said to my friend: “mark my words, we’re going to get to know her, because that’s the way fate is.”

The next day she came over to our table because the Wait Staff had refused to feed her. She had a little container of instant coffee; and she tapped me on the shoulder and asked me: “is this yours?” And when I replied she said: “you speak English!” because I spoke with an accent and didn’t sound American.

She started telling us her story—and I thought what could I do to help this lady? I don’t want her to think that we’re all this way. We were on a leave tour through the Soviet Union and after awhile I told her that we had to leave tomorrow, and she said: “I want to do something for you guys,” because we hadn’t made her feel like an outcast, unlike the Soviets. And I liked rubbing elbows with her because she was an American and I missed the Americans!

She said that she wanted to give us something so she took us to her hotel room, and she said: “I have some very special things for you that are from Amer-ee-ca,” and that’s the way she pronounced it: Amer-ee-ca. “My son gave me these to give away on the trip. My son told me that I’m supposed to give these to some young Russians,” she said. “My son has just joined the Marine Core.” They were t-shirts, real good quality t-shirts: a red one and a black one and a green one, the kind that we couldn’t get in the Soviet Union.

They were folded the way that I remember from basic training and I thought this is getting weird. She took one and she unfolded it; it said “United States Air Force,” and that was the shirt I was wearing the day before I was kidnapped. Somebody saw me wearing that shirt in Alexanderplatz, and they reported me.

But people like Barbara reminded me of the good things in the United States. It reminded me that those people I betrayed were friends and neighbors. The real price to pay was the trust between people and I lost that with a lot of people. I’m not embarrassed to say it, but I took the Americans under my wing. I took them and I protected them. Was I trying to make up for what I did? Yes. The little people you met—those are the things that meant the most to me.

You would find people, almost as if someone choreographed it, to remind you where you came from. America always had a way of rearing its head—in good ways. Nothing made me prouder than to defend the United States in conversations with Russians and Germans.

INTERVIEWER

If Germany hadn’t collapsed on October 3, what would have happened with your relationship with the Stasi?

JEFF CARNEY

That was on a private level with coworkers, and they weren’t the best communists anyway. But the specter of America would always rear in the most inopportune places.

When I was in Yalta, I went to an army bar—and I was talking to an old pensioner and saying: “these Russian mafia boys are hogging all the slot machines.” Then I started asking if he was in the Red Air Force, he said: “Yes, I was a pilot.” We started talking and I asked him: “what is your favorite Air Craft?” “Officially” he asked. “Officially—I flew the Yak.” I told him “that’s not bad,” and he said: “It was good Air craft. Beautiful lines.” But I asked him again: “what’s your favorite aircraft;” he said, “Officially, it was the Yak. I flew the Yak. Unofficially: the Ae-ir Cobra. THAT was a good airplane! The Americans gave us those!”

Another time when I was still in Yalta, I was buying tickets to ride a boat. I asked for the boat that I was getting into, and the Russians are talking, and when I ask again what the boat is called they reply: “The Samantha Smith.”

The Americans don’t know who she is anymore but the Russians do. Every Russian knows who she is: the little girl who wrote to both presidents and said that she didn’t want to die in a nuclear war. Here we were; riding on a rusty boat in the middle of nowhere on a boat called the “Samantha Smith.” Those are the kinds of things you couldn’t write into a movie, you couldn’t plan it that way, because nobody could see it coming. How does that affect you then—as an American spy in Yalta? Is this really the evil empire? Are these really the enemies so much that we want to nuke them?

One more thing happened in Yalta. I don’t know why I went there but I did, and Yalta was a magical place. My last night I’m walking on the promenade and there were a lot of soldiers. This is 1990, Afghanistan, and Russia and Afghanistan are just like us today. There were a lot of soldiers recouping in Yalta from Afghanistan and there were also lots of drug addictions. While I was walking up and down the promenade, I saw a TV set on a table and I see a video recorder—as I got closer I saw Russian soldiers, and I told my friend to go back to the hotel and get a bottle of vodka.

So I find a Russian, this guy is missing an arm, and I tap him on the shoulder and I say to him “I’m also a soldier.” So he calls his friend over and we’re getting the vodka bottle open; this guy is missing an ear! And he calls his friend over, and this guy’s missing an eye! I hadn’t been paying attention to the television, but I look up now; what are we watching? “Rambo III.” And what’s happening? Rambo’s got the big gun and he’s killing all the Russians on the screen. And all the Russians are falling over on the ground and the table, every time he shoots.

What separates us so much that we want to kill each other? I’ll take the punishment. Because we didn’t go to war. And that’s a good thing. I can’t tell you my story without telling you the small things. Screw the big things. They’re not big things to me. I’m not a monster. What else can I say? I’ve done lots of good things since I’ve been in prison.

Everyone has the potential to do bad. Everyone has the potential to do good. But we’re never consistent.

INTERVIEWER

How would you classify “Against all Enemies?” As your memoirs, your story, the truth?

JEFF CARNEY

Like so many things in my life, it’s a compilation. It’s a memoir—it’s not a historical chronology and I don’t want it to be. It’s about my journey through and because of the Cold War. It’s not an obituary because the story isn’t over yet. The story is a marker. I want people to know what it’s like and I want them to see what it’s like to be faced with choices that aren’t good, and to see what it’s like to make very bad decisions and to have good things happen. I didn’t have to make anything up and I think that’s the best part about it.

INTERVIEWER

After your book is published, what are your plans?

JEFF CARNEY

Hopefully I will be able to keep my job. My real plan is to continue to watch my grass grow. Maybe I’ll rescue more dogs. I want to do a day-in-the-life of North Korea photo book, or something like that.

I’m an idealist and I can’t help it. I believe we have more in common as human beings than we don’t have in common. I believe if you take politics out of North Korea, the people won’t be any different from us. And I can help make a difference because I’m one of the few Americans who can make a difference. There’s hope. My hope is that I can use my position, if I have nothing else.

You don’t question good things; you just do them. That’s what I want to do. That’s what I want to be. I need to take advantage of the good things in my life; if I can make a difference in one life, then I will do it. One of my favorite Jewish quotes is: “if you save one person, you save the world.” We can’t limit ourselves to saving the entire world. We can just start with one person.

Interviewed by Brandon Cook

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