Sarah Barnett
May 18, 1981 12:00 PM

It was one of the strangest espionage cases in U.S. history. Last October CIA agent David H. Barnett, 47, shockingly pleaded guilty to a charge of selling U.S. intelligence secrets to the Soviet Union. Barnett, the highest-ranking CIA officer ever convicted of spying, admitted receiving $92,000 from Russian KGB agents for disclosing the identity of undercover CIA agents in Indonesia and providing information that revealed U.S. knowledge of Soviet weapons systems. In January be was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his crime. But the ordeal continues for Sarah Blunt Barnett, his wife of 13 years, and their three children. The confession brought both public humiliation and personal agony to the family and contributed to Sarah’s hospitalization for a near-fatal cerebral aneurysm. Now recovering, she is dealing with her subsequent decision to divorce David and is struggling to protect and provide for her shattered family. In her first interview since her husband’s arrest, she spoke to PEOPLE’s Clare Crawford-Mason about her troubled days as the wife of a man convicted of betraying his country.

David was always secretive and for some years I worried that maybe I wanted more closeness from marriage than other people did. Now I know that I was normal. As I look back, I can see that we were not a close couple. I guess ours is the story of a marriage with no communication and naive expectations. I was a woman who didn’t stop and question or keep asking questions when things didn’t jibe. I was too easily put off by David’s assurances. I had so much faith that he could be successful. I believed in the chauvinistic myth—I’d take care of the kids and he’d take care of the world. The sad thing, I guess, is that he believed it too.

David had first resigned from the CIA in 1969, and in Indonesia he started an antique business, a furniture business and managed a fish factory. He was not a good businessman. When we returned from Indonesia in 1978, I knew things were financially tight, and that David was having great difficulty getting a full-time job. When he finally got one as a consultant, the company bought out his contract when they found he had been a CIA agent. Then the CIA offered him this part-time job. He said he would be training agents. I was so against it; it would mean the whole secrecy thing again.

It was a complete surprise to me when his check from the CIA didn’t arrive in April 1980. I had been paying the family bills since we returned. There had been a number of fights over the checkbook because David would write checks and not record them, and then mine would bounce. He would never answer my questions and wouldn’t explain what had happened to the check. He said, “Well, there’s some mix-up,” but I was very agitated and kept asking where his CIA check was. Finally he told me that he was in serious trouble and that the FBI was questioning him.

I was horrified. I didn’t know what to say to David. I had been doing volunteer work on New Jersey Congressman Andrew Maguire’s reelection campaign, and I knew I had to tell him. It could have meant trouble for Andy. He asked if I would mind if he checked with the FBI, and I said, “Of course not.” Then agents came to his office within 10 minutes. It was the first feeling I had that there could be serious trouble.

Andy called me that night at home and said, “Sarah, David is not telling you the truth. You must make him tell you the truth.” I was finishing dinner and asked David again and again, and he said he had told me the truth. He was angry and mortified that I had told Andy. “I wish you hadn’t done that,” he said. I couldn’t understand what was happening. I wanted desperately to believe David. The next morning I asked him again. This time he said, “Wait until the children leave for school.” After the children left, we sat down at the dining room table and he said, “Do you remember in Indonesia in 1976 when I owed all that money?” Then he went on, “Do you remember when I went to the soccer match with Igor Kazmadze? Remember when I told you that I’d done that?” And true to form, I, the outspoken Sarah, said it for him: “You went to the KGB!”

I felt like there was a death in the family. I went into the living room. Then I said, “How could you do this to our children? You’ve ruined their lives. You’ve ruined their future.” He said, “No, I haven’t,” or something like that, and I was just incredulous. I called my mother and father and asked if I could come home that weekend. They were calm and helpful. When I came back, I questioned David more and more, but it has been impossible to get the whole story out of him.

About two weeks later I was washing the car, and I felt very faint. I thought, “I am having a nervous breakdown.” I said to myself, “I can’t cope.” I got this terrible pain in my head, and I just sank to the ground. I had a cerebral aneurysm, and my head hemorrhaged. The doctor says it could have been caused by stress and anger, and I made a miraculous recovery after neurosurgery.

My parents stayed with us when I returned from the hospital in May, and I was so angry with David I couldn’t stand to have him around. He kept insisting that he had really not done anything wrong, that he had pulled a scam on the Russians and had given them old and useless information. In October he pleaded guilty, and the story came out in the papers. The children were asleep at 7:15 a.m., and David was with his relatives in Pennsylvania. I went upstairs and told them to get up, that something quite awful had happened and that people from NBC were in front of the house. Charles went white and asked, “What’s wrong with Daddy? Is he hurt?” I told them no, that their father did something terribly, terribly wrong. The two older ones kept asking, “What did Daddy do?” I said that when they were small in Indonesia, David had talked to the Russians about the CIA. The whole time the telephone was ringing, and the older children were asking why and looking out the window at reporters. I think now they understand what he did, but it will be eons before they understand the reasons why. The children are still sad and miss David terribly. The two older ones write to him, and the youngest sends his school papers. David answers their letters and sends them word games and puzzles.

That day we moved in with friends to avoid the reporters on our lawn. I knew then that I would have to face divorcing David. I didn’t have any more mental or physical energy left in me, and so I just kept crying and crying. I didn’t actually tell David that I had decided to divorce him until he was in jail. It was the hardest decision of my life.

I ask myself how I’ve been able to keep going since. My lawyer, who is trying to unravel the lawsuits from the fish factory owners in Indonesia, hasn’t charged me anything for more than a year. His wife took me shopping my first time after the operation in September. I suddenly panicked in the vegetable section because there were so many people, and she came immediately to help me. She scolded at me when I became frustrated because I couldn’t pick up my grocery bags. She told me to shut up and be grateful I was alive, that soon I would be able to do all those things.

My friends, neighbors and teachers have taken care of the children and fed us when I was upset, and one has offered to pay for the children’s education. Friends I grew up with have said, “Call collect if you need anything, Sarah.” The vegetable man at the grocery store gives me a wonderful bear hug whenever he sees me shopping and always checks to see I’m getting the best buy. Sometimes I go there just because I really need that big hug. The mortgage woman said I couldn’t sell the house and move the children away from their friends; they’d been through enough already. She said I could pay on the mortgage when I got straightened out.

One friend’s husband who has a high security clearance went to his boss to ask if they could help me and the children. The immediate answer from the FBI was to please give us all the support they could, that I was not involved. Also I’m getting food stamps, and I will qualify for public assistance of $340 a month until I get a job. I am trying to keep things going for the kids but right now there is no income. I am writing an account of my story. It’s the only asset I have.

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