Jeff Carney: The lonely US airman turned Stasi spy

20.09.2013 16:15

Hundreds of spies betrayed their
countries during the Cold War, often
motivated by ideology, or financial
reward. Jeff Carney was different - he
was a lonely, gay US airman who
dreamed of a new life in East
Germany. Years later, he sees
parallels between his story and that
of Chelsea, formerly Bradley,
It was the middle of the night in April
1983, when Jeff Carney approached
Checkpoint Charlie. His steps grew shaky
and he began to sweat.
As he stepped across the painted white
line that separated East and West Berlin,
he thought he was safe. He thought he
was going to live in the east. He couldn't
have been more wrong.
East German border guards took him to
a small bare room with a cheap desk, a
couple of chairs and a German-English
"My intent when I went over that white
line that night was not in any way to
become a spy. My intent was simply to
get away," he says.
"I requested to
speak to
of the East
government and
when they came
to me they
weren't just any
they were the
men in the
leather jackets so
to speak. They
were spies."
This was not the reception he had
expected. Carney was 19 and had just
returned to his posting at Marienfelde in
Berlin after a trip home.
His family's problems depressed him - he
had joined the Air Force at the age of 17
just to get away - and he spent the
evening drinking alone in Berlin, ending
the night at one of the city's gay bars.
Carney also hated his job. He felt
unwanted and resented the military's
ban on homosexuality.
There was nothing ideological about his
decision to defect - it was an impulsive
move. He thought he would be
welcomed with open arms and given a
new home in the east.
"I was foolish enough to believe that
these people might actually be interested
in me as a person. We know today that
that's not correct - I was only worth
what I had access to," says Carney.
The East Germans ordered him to go
back to his job and become a spy. If he
didn't, his commander would be
informed where he had been that night.
"To say I was disappointed was an
understatement," he says. In his newly
published book, Against All Enemies, he
writes that he had "sold his soul and
now had to commit, for better or for
So Carney's life as a spy began.
The US Air Force had hired him because
of his language skills - his job was to
listen to East German communications
and translate what he heard. Although
Carney did not hold a high rank, as a
linguist he worked in an environment
where sensitive information was
He smuggled classified documents out of
the listening post in his boots and
trousers giving them to his handler
"Ralph", or leaving them in an
ammunition box by a tree in the forest
at Eiskeller, on the north-west edge of
His contacts called him Uwe - and gave
him a camera hidden in a can of Lipton
Iced Tea to photograph military papers.
Although he handed secrets to the East
German secret police, the Stasi, he
argues that he did not betray the
American people because "betraying
your country and betraying your
government are two different things".
He says he helped to maintain world
peace and that he never handed over
anything that would harm the US.
The US National Security Agency has
blacked out some parts of Carney's book
One day he heard about a US manoeuvre
designed to make Soviet forces think they
were being attacked. By monitoring the
Soviet response to the emergency, the US
would gather priceless information about
their electronic communications.
But Carney says it was possible that
"something could have gone wrong". If
the Soviets really believed they were
being attacked, lives could have been
"We know today that we were very close
to nuclear destruction in 1983, even if
people don't wish to talk about it. People
say, 'Yeah, well it didn't happen.' Well it
could have," he says.
He finished his shift, then hurried to send
a message of warning.
In all, he says his two years of spying cost
the US up to $15bn (£9.6bn), an
estimate mirrored in the Historical
Dictionary of Cold War
Suddenly, in 1984, he was told that his
Berlin posting was coming to an end and
he would be sent back to Texas, in the
For a while, he continued spying, making
trips to Mexico and Brazil to meet his
But Carney's bosses had begun to
question his mental health. In Berlin he
had been ordered to see a doctor who
diagnosed him with paranoia. Now his
superiors referred him to a mental health
unit and took away his access rights at
Carney decided it was time for drastic
action. He booked a plane ticket to
Mexico and turned up at the East
German embassy unannounced,
demanding they contact Berlin.
He still wanted the same thing he had
wanted on that spring night two years
earlier in Berlin - to live in East Germany.
He was smuggled out of Mexico and
taken to Cuba, then on to Prague and
finally to the German Democratic
Republic (GDR).
He was given a new name, Jens Karney,
an East German passport and somewhere
to live.
His first place was a one-room
apartment in a high-rise block with
nothing but a black-and-white television
and the complete works of Lenin
translated into German.
It was far from perfect and he later
realised the flat was bugged. In his
autobiography he writes, "I was often
lonely, but I was never alone".
He himself was given work listening to
bugged conversations.
But when the Berlin Wall came down,
things changed again. The Stasi
unravelled and he took a job as a train
driver on the Berlin subway.
In time, the Americans caught up with
him. They seized him in the middle of a
street in broad daylight in 1991, and
flew him back to the US, where he was
sentenced to 38 years in prison. That
was reduced to 20 years after he co-
operated in debriefings.
Carney served nearly 12 years behind
bars and now lives with an adopted son
in Ohio. He is unemployed and uses his
time to paint.
He sees echoes of his own story in that
of Chelsea, formerly Bradley, Manning -
the US soldier sentenced to 35 years for
leaking classified documents to Wikileaks.
Carney sees some similarities between his
story and that of Chelsea, formerly Bradley,
"When I look at Manning's case I see
some similarities - age, experience level,
first time overseas, faced with huge
responsibility, top secret security
clearance at a very young age," says
Both also struggled with their sexual
identities, and were obliged to keep this
part of their life secret from the military.
"The differences are, of course, that we
are now in the age of computers, while
then we lived in the age of paper and
pencil," says Carney.
Now approaching 50, he has had plenty
of time to think about what he describes
in his book as "a long, insane journey
that never seemed to stop".
He stands by his actions but "at an
emotional level there is a lot of regret
because I know what I did hurt people,"
he says - referring to his family and
former colleagues.
So, if he could go back 30 years would
he do it differently? No, he says.
"If I was faced with the exact same
constellation of events, then I would
probably make the same decisions."