WASHINGTON – John Barron, an investigative reporter whose meticulously researched articles and best-selling books helped unravel the mysteries of Soviet espionage and the Khmer Rouge’s mass killings in Cambodia, died Feb. 24 of pulmonary failure. He was 75.
Trained as a reporter, Barron began his career as a spy in Cold War Berlin, working as a clandestine naval intelligence officer in the mid-1950s. In 1957, he moved to the Washington Star and quickly became the paper’s top investigative reporter, honored, among other things, for revealing the financial and ethical scandals surrounding Bobby Baker, a close adviser of the vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson.
After moving to the Washington bureau of Reader’s Digest in 1965, Barron used the magazine’s ample resources to renew his interest in espionage. Fluent in Russian and with contacts in international spy agencies, he published six books from 1974 to 1996, most of them about the Cold War spy craft between the Soviet Union and the United States. He became an acknowledged authority on the subject.
He was sued, and Soviet agents carried out measures around the world to discredit Barron and his anti-communist message, but he never had to retract a single fact in his writings.
At times, Barron’s adventures rivaled those of the spies he wrote about. He often made multiple reservations to travel surreptitiously. In the 1970s, he was among the first Western journalists to cover the mass murders carried out by the regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia, detailing his findings in a 1977 book written with Anthony Paul, “Murder in a Gentle Land.”
More than once, former Soviet spies walked into the Reader’s Digest offices in downtown Washington to tell Barron their stories. He followed other leads across Europe and to Afghanistan, South Africa, Asia and Canada, and sometimes entertained KGB defectors in his home.
Barron wrote more than 100 articles for Reader’s Digest, including an investigation of the Internal Revenue Service and a detailed examination of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s 1969 car accident at Chappaquiddick that disputed Kennedy’s account. That story, published in February 1980, hastened the end of Kennedy’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Barron was best known for peeling away the layers of intrigue surrounding the KGB and international intelligence. A Christian Science Monitor review of his 1983 book, “KGB Today: The Hidden Hand,” said it “probes deeper into the secret Soviet agency than any other book yet written.”
His final book, “Operation Solo: The FBI’s Man in the Kremlin” (1996), detailed the story of Morris Childs, an American Communist Party member who spent 35 years spying for the FBI at the highest levels of Soviet leadership. Barron got his scoop about Childs and his wife, who assisted him, in the simplest way imaginable.
“One day,” said Barron’s wife, Patricia, “they just turned up in the Reader’s Digest office.”
As an expert on KGB practices, Barron testified in 10 trials about espionage, but never with such dramatic effectiveness as at the 1987 court-martial of Marine Sgt. Clayton Lonetree. Lonetree, a guard at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow – who had read all of Barron’s books – fell into the clutches of a sultry Soviet spy named Violetta. Barron testified that the case was a classic example of the KGB’s use of seduction to recruit spies.
“As Barron told of KGB use of sexual entrapment,” the Washington Post reported, “Lonetree was seen to wipe his eyes. Defense counsel William Kunstler said later that Lonetree had wept and whispered, ‘I thought she loved me.’”
John Daniel Barron was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, and as the son of a Methodist minister moved from town to town throughout West Texas. He graduated from the University of Missouri and received a master’s degree in journalism from Missouri in 1952. He was in Navy intelligence from 1953 to 1957.
At the Star from 1957 to 1965, he covered civil rights in the South and, in 1964, received the George Polk Award for exposing the ring of corruption around Baker. In 1987, he received an Attorney General’s Award for Meritorious Public Service.