- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 2, 2007


By Tennent H. Bagley

Yale University Press, $28, 313 pages


A long-festering wound at the CIA is being ripped open by a new book concerning whether a Soviet KGB officer defected in the 1960s on his own accord or was dispatched by Moscow in a disinformation operation. The episode was important because the KGB man, Yuri Nosenko, claimed to have seen KGB files that showed the Soviets had no role in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The case against Mr. Nosenko’s legitimacy is argued strongly in “Spy Wars,” by Tennent H. Bagley, a 22-year agency veteran who rose to the rank of chief of Soviet bloc intelligence. He lost an intense in-house debate over Mr. Nosenko and went into retirement still bitter about the way he was treated.

An outsider who has not read the many thousands of pages in the Nosenko files would be daft to take sides in such a controversy. John Hart, one of the several officers assigned to review the matter, commented that the case “is as complex as it is outrageous, and thus may strain both one’s patience and one’s nerves.” Mr. Hart devoted a chapter to Mr. Nosenko in his 2003 book “The CIA’s Russians,” a study of defectors. His conclusion is the exact opposite of what Mr. Bagley argues. So, with those caveats, I shall cautiously dip a toe into turbulent waters.

As a stand-alone read, the book by “Pete” Bagley (as he was known to colleagues) makes a convincing case that Mr. Nosenko was a phony. The saga began in Geneva in 1962, when Mr. Nosenko approached an American diplomat and said he wished to speak with someone in CIA. He claimed to be an escort officer for a delegation attending a conference.

Mr. Bagley, a CIA case officer, did the initial debriefing, but given that his Russian was cursory, he was joined by George Kisevalter, a native of the USSR. Both men saw gaping holes in Mr. Nosenko’s story from the start. Mr. Nosenko said he did not wish to defect because his wife and children were in Moscow, and he did not want to abandon them. All he wanted was a swift infusion of cash. The previous evening, he sheepishly explained, he got roaring drunk and passed out in bed with a prostitute. When he awoke, his wallet, unsurprisingly, was light by about $250 in Swiss francs.

He claimed to hold the post of deputy chief of the KGB section that monitored the U.S. embassy in Moscow, and he gave information on several operations against American diplomats, including the use of so-called “spy dust”(a traceable chemical powder put outside a subject’s door) to make surveillance easer. Both Mr. Bagley and Kisevalter thought it odd that someone holding that post would draw duties as an escort officer.

And he could not answer basic questions about the KGB infrastructure in Moscow — for instance, the location of entrances to the headquarters building and elevators, and the style for writing reports. In the end, he was given enough money to square his accounts, and he returned to the USSR, agreeing to provide further information, but only when he was away from Moscow.

Mr. Nosenko suddenly reappeared in January 1964, and by pre-arranged signals, he met the CIA men in Geneva again. (Mr. Bagley’s description of agency tradecraft, here and elsewhere, makes fascinating reading.) This time Mr. Nosenko wished to defect, and he brushed aside questions about concerns for his family. And he had what both officers knew was bombshell information — should it be true: That he had seen KGB files on presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald that proved the USSR was not involved in the JFK murder.

The “why” of the JFK assassination gripped a grieving nation. Had Soviet complicity been proven, I suggest that war would have been difficult to avoid; recall that the Cuban missile crisis brought the United States and the USSR to the brink of nuclear conflict only months earlier. But could Mr. Nosenko be trusted?

Doubts piled atop doubts. Mr. Nosenko was fuzzy on details on how two important U.S. sources had been apprehended in Moscow. He gave three separate dates for his entry into the KGB. He claimed to hold the rank of lieutenant colonel, then major, and lastly, captain. As one agency officer recalled, there were times when interrogators felt Mr. Nosenko was not really a KGB officer, “just an empty receptacle into which the KGB had poured a very detailed legend.”

A complicating factor was the presence of yet another KGB officer, one Anatoliy Golitsyn, who offered some very unusual views when he defected in 1961. He contended, for instance, that the schism between the USSR and Communist China was a trick the KGB devised to trick the West. Any other defectors to CIA would have been sent to discredit him. And he cast doubts on Mr. Nosenko’s claim to know anything about Oswald.

At the request of David Murphy, chief of the Soviet Russia Division, and on approval of Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, the CIA Office of Security was given permission to hold Mr. Nosenko in solitary confinement for intensive interrogation. He was put into an isolation cell at a CIA facility outside of Washington, and the confinement lasted 1,277 days, approximately 42 months. Suffice to say that Mr. Nosenko suffered, mentally and physically. He clung to his story.

One valuable addition Mr. Bagley makes to intelligence literature is his debunking of the notion that the confinement was ordered by James J. Angleton, the nigh-mythical director of counterintelligence. In fact, Mr. Bagley writes, Angleton opposed such treatment of Mr. Nosenko. Mr. Bagley is particularly hard on writers and journalists who propagated the “myth,” especially the British author Tom Mangold for his “Cold Warrior,” a putative “biography” of Angleton.

Mr. Bagley eventually wrote a report listing “anomalies” in Mr. Nosenko’s accounts that came to be known as “The Thousand Pager” (actually, the document was 885 pages). He also warned that the arrest and execution of several spies working for CIA stemmed from a “mole” in the ranks of the agency. And in his book, he questions whether such infiltrators betray agency operations to this date. Strong stuff, to be sure, but Mr. Bagley buttresses his argument with a fact-laden history of Soviet deception and disinformation over the decades that is alone worth the price of the book.

Apart from the Hart book cited above, the best on-the-record rebuttal of the Bagley thesis is in a long article published in the internal agency publication Studies in Intelligence, in the fall of 1987. The article, “Nosenko: Five Paths to Judgment,” by longtime CIA officer Richards J. Heuer, Jr., is now declassified.

Mr. Heuer, who had access to the entire Nosenko file, tells why the ultimate decision was that Mr. Nosenko was a bona fide defector. Among other things, he writes, “Nosenko provided identification of, or leads to, some 238 Americans and about 200 foreign nationals in whom the KGB had expressed varying degrees of interest, and against whom they had enjoyed varying degrees of success.”

He gave personal information on some 2,000 KGB staff officers and detailed Soviet operations against foreign diplomats and visitors to Moscow. Mr. Heuer writes, “The Soviet Union suffered additional costs through the adverse publicity and deterrent effect of Nosenko’s defection and the arrest of several agents he identified.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Bagley remains bitter at the fact that Adm. Stansfield Turner, while director of central intelligence, formally endorsed Mr. Nosenko and denounced his detractors as a “group of agency paranoids.” Perhaps his lowest point came when Mr. Nosenko spoke at CIA headquarters and “the audience — all professional American intelligence offices — rose as one, eager-faced and thrilled, to give Yuri Nosenko a standing ovation.”

As of this writing, “Spy Wars” is a hotter topic among agency veterans than even the recent autobiography of former DCI George Tenet. Given the passions still raging at Langley, I doubt that Mr. Bagley is going to change any minds. But his book is a provocative addition to intelligence literature.

Joe Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is [email protected]

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