Jeffrey Martin Carney: An AF deserter turned spy

  • Published
  • By Dr. Deborah Kidwell
  • OSI Command Historian

In 1982, Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Carney served in Germany as a linguist and cryptographer. He studied the German language, culture and history and became fascinated with the Nazi era. His sympathies stemmed partially from seeing himself as an unfortunate underdog, much as many Germans had done before the war.

His criticism of the U.S. Government sealed his decision to defect to East Germany. A border guard stopped him to speak with an agent from the East German Intelligence Service (EGIS), who convinced him to return to his job and feed classified information to the EGIS. Carney agreed, as long as he would be paid and could eventually resettle in Berlin, where he believed he would feel at home. 

He was later assigned to Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, where he decided it was time to collect on his defection promises. The timing was influenced by a doctor’s recommendation to see a psychiatrist, and he was afraid the psychiatrist would prescribe medications that might cause him to divulge his espionage activities.

Since he had a high security clearance, OSI opened a desertion case to determine his whereabouts. The agents discovered he had fled to Mexico City, but they received no other information and assumed he had died in an earthquake that devastated the city shortly after his arrival.

His desertion case was closed until the fall of the Berlin Wall. At that time, OSI agents began receiving an overwhelming amount of information about military personnel in Europe and Asia. One report mentioned military personnel who had cooperated with the EGIS.

In March 1990, the Berlin detachment received information about the activities of a suspected defector. OSI worked with the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency and U.S. Army to identify Carney. By November, the Department of Justice decided to let OSI carry out the arrest instead of the FBI.

Once case-building investigations started, an agent began interviewing Carney’s co-workers to gather background information, while another agent performed a similar task in Berlin. After collecting enough background information to better understand Carney’s personality, the investigators worked with a command psychologist to develop interviewing strategies. The psychologist believed that showing the subject photographs of something he enjoyed would place Carney at ease and encourage him to talk during the interview process.

In order to conduct the interview, the Air Force had to return the former service man and defector to active duty, and then issue warrants for his arrest. Once placed on active duty, the Air Force transferred the subject to an assignment at Tempelhof Airport. This complicated process almost backfired for agents, when surveillance showed no signs of the suspected spy.

OSI decided to go ahead with the arrest in April 1991, despite receiving no indication he still lived at his last known address. Agents spent four cold days in a van outside his apartment, but eventually spotted his car parked on a side street and photographed the subject on his balcony. When Carney left his building the next day, an agent followed him, and after a few blocks called his name in English. He responded in German and pretended not to understand. The agent recalled the subject looked very concerned and then quickly surrendered. He later admitted he was relieved the Americans got to him first instead of the Russians.

He was transferred to the U.S. Marshall’s facility in Quantico, Va., for further questioning. Agents then learned he had divulged approximately 150 classified programs, some of which were extremely sensitive to NSA efforts. The subject cooperated with agents at Andrews AFB, Md., to assess the damage done. His attorneys negotiated a pre-trial agreement and Carney pled guilty to the charges of espionage, conspiracy and desertion in exchange for a 25-year sentence. After his release from prison, he continued to live in the United States.

This case illustrates the current work of OSI’s Cold Case Team. In bringing resolution to long-standing unsolved cases, they are proving the benefits of finally bringing criminals to justice, closure to families and finding the truth.