The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW


Yuri Nosenko

Yuri Nosenko, the KGB counterintelligence officer who defected to the United States in February 1964 and was subjected to hostile interrogation for nearly four years, was the responsibility of the Soviet Division, not Angleton's Cl Staff. Senior executives of that division, who along with Angleton suspected Nosenko was a plant, recommended that the Russian be placed in increasingly harsh solitary confinement to force him to confess. The Office of Security took charge of the Spartan physical conditions under which Nosenko was kept. Had the case been his, Angleton would not have "sweated" the alleged provocateur. Instead, he would have tried to play Nosenko back against the Soviets, or at least would have let him go to find out whom he contacted in the United States. That said, Angleton did not object to N osenko' s treatment, and once the defector's confinement began, Angleton advised the Soviet Division about the interrogations (he did not question Nosenko directly).

Nosenko was the Agency's first source on the structure and personnel of the KGB's counterintelligence directorate who had actually worked in it. He first contacted the CIA in Geneva in June 1962 and was persuaded to work as an inplace asset. He next approached the CIA in January 1964 and, unlike before, said he wanted to defect. Between those encounters, serious doubts had arisen within the Soviet Division and the CI Staff about his bona fides, and extensive questioning following his defection seemed to support those suspicions. Nosenko created many problems for himself by repeatedly lying about his background and embellishing his information.

Many of his leads seemed to be "giveaways" - information that the KGB no longer valued or that it judged had already been compromised - or were too vague to be acted upon. An FBI tally of the leads Nosenko provided in his early debriefings showed that out of 157 cases (63 concerning American citizens and 94 involving foreigners), 104 (52 in each category) were already known or suspected. unproductive or not yet active. lacked access to classified information. or could not be investigated because Nosenko's knowledge was vague or ambiguous.

Nosenko's most startling disclosure - and the one that caused him (and the U.S. Government) the most grief was that he had been the "case officer" of Lee Harvey Oswald, who had defected to the Soviet Union from 1959 to 1962 before returning to the United States to kill President John F. Kennedy. The information Nosenko provided about the Soviets' reaction to and treatment of Oswald did not add up. Nosenko's contention that Soviet intelligence had had no operational interest in Oswald seemed implausible, considering that the American had been stationed at an airbase in Japan involved in U-2 missions. Oswald's comfortable living conditions in Minsk, his marriage to the niece of a Soviet army intelligence officer, and the circumstances of his return to the United States could be interpreted as suggesting that he had some tie to the KGB.

None of Nosenko's information about Oswald and the KGB could be confirmed independently; nor would Nosenko, a counterintelligence officer, necessarily be able to say without reservation whether the KGB's foreign intelligence component had or had not recruited a particular individual

Nosenko's surprise decision to defect only three months after the assassination with the news that Oswald was not a KGB hit man seemed contrived. Golitsyn claimed that Moscow would send provocateurs to discredit him and divert attention from the search for moles inside the CIA. Nosenko's reappearance with some information that contradicted Golitsyn turned an unusually snarled defector case into a counterintelligence contretemps with international import. The Agency had to determine whether the KGB had dispatched a false defector to hide the fact that Oswald was a Soviet-sponsored killer.

The Agency confined Nosenko to a safe house and a detention cell for three and a half years under very austere conditions and subject him to hostile interrogation. There were serious flaws in the Soviet Division's handling of Nosenko - the interrogations and polygraphs of Nosenko were egregiously administered (though "drug free") - and with its and Angleton's evaluation of his bona fides, beginning with their prejudgment that he was a controlled contact.

Deception was presumed. not proven. Because the Soviets had a reason to deceive and a record of penetration and deception, disinformation was inferred from any indication that it might be occurring through Nosenko. His small lies, exaggerations, and inconsistencies - typical of most defectors were all interpreted as big lies and part of the deception plot.

Nosenko could have been a false defector carrying a false story about Oswald and the KGB. This was Angleton's view and the conventional wisdom at the CIA until the late 1960s. Or Nosenko could have been a genuine defector with accurate information about the Soviets' non-role in the Kennedy assassination. The FBI initially believed that in 1964, and the CIA (but not Angleton) concluded a few years later that Nosenko's information about Oswald was accurate.

Tennent H. Bagley, the CIA operations officer who had the dubious fortune of handling Nosenko, wrote a combative and sometimes confusing rebuttal - Spy Wars - to the criticisms of how Angleton and others approached that case — the presumption that Nosenko was a false defector dispatched to discredit Golitsyn and assert that the KGB had nothing to do with the JFK assassination. Bagley insists that Nosenko’s first contact with CIA in 1962 was designed to conceal the presence of Soviet penetration agents who had been operating in US intelligence since at least the late 1950s and that his reappearance barely two months after the JFK murder was a risky change in the operation. Bagley unsparingly attacks the defector’s defenders.

Join the mailing list

One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias