Monday, April 13, 2009

Reads like a good le Carré novel, but it is true

Tennent Bagley's Spy Wars is the rarest of books. It is a well-told, gripping story about a vitally important subject.

At the heart of Spy Wars is Yuri Nosenko-a KGB officer who defected to the U.S. in 1964. The Nosenko case is one of the enduring puzzles of the Cold War. For years, CIA suspected that he was a fake turncoat who was dispatched by the KGB. Later, CIA accepted him as a bona fide defector who provided a treasure trove of valuable intelligence.

Bagley was the first American to debrief Nosenko. He was also one of the first officers to question the Russian's honesty and motives. After forty years, he still has grave doubts and questions about Nosenko and his rehabilitation by CIA.

The book lays out the lies and omissions that came to light as CIA and the FBI debriefed Nosenko. Bagley makes a strong, perhaps irrefutable case that the Russian was untrustworthy from day one and held fast to his lies for years. This in itself is not unusual in the spy world. Intelligence agencies frequently baby-sit pathological liars who claim to have valuable information. The Nosenko case, in contrast, triggered a long series of earthquakes inside CIA and the rest of the US Intelligence community.


The first problem for CIA was that Nosenko claimed that he had reviewed Lee Harvey Oswald's KGB file. The Warren Commission was still investigating the JFK assassination when Nosenko defected. CIA, thus, found itself in a quandary. On one hand, they had a source who could lay to rest the fears that Moscow played a role in the murder of the President. On the other, they had grave doubts about the credibility of that source. This gave unique urgency to the counter-intelligence investigation of Nosenko and forced CIA to rush what was normally a slow, methodical process. Further complicating matters the FBI was the lead agency in the assassination investigation and the Bureau believed Nosenko implicitly.

Adding to the slow-motion crisis was the evidence that Nosenko was not just a lone wolf serial fabricator, but part of a Soviet deception operation. KGB sources "confirmed" several of Nosenko's flagrant lies. This raised an obvious and troubling question: Why should the KGB lend credence to a defector they had sworn to kill?

The frightening implication of that question was two-fold. First, KGB was trying to use Nosenko to divert CIA attention: his "revelations" were part of an organized deception campaign. Second, one of the secrets KGB was trying to hide via misdirection was the presence of one or more high-ranking moles in CIA.

Bagley makes clear that this was not paranoid "sick think". He provides concise and and useful descriptions of other Soviet deception operations. In addition, he offers tantalizing suggestions about the "crown jewels" the KGB was trying to protect.


A forty year old spy story would normally be of interest only to aficionados of espionage history. What makes the Nosenko case important today is the manner in which it was resolved, the consequent damage to CIA's intellectual foundations, and the related distortion of the historical record.

For three years, Nosenko stalemated his CIA interrogators. While they shredded his story and caught him in numerous lies, the defector refused to admit that he was lying. Eventually CIA had no choice but to accept his defection and buy him off with a pension and a consultancy. (They dared not turn their back on him for fear that he would create PR problems by returning to Moscow or talking to the American press).

In itself, this might have been a benign solution. Other forces, however, came into play.

In the 1970s, CIA was torn apart by an internal civil war. Directors William Colby and Stansfield Turner were eager to downplay counter-intelligence and covert operations. They used the public disclosures of questionable CIA activities to purge men like James Jesus Angleton. Yuri Nosenko was tailor-made for their purposes. He became one of their prime examples of the "harm" done to the Agency by the old hands.

The Colby-Turner faction proved adept bureaucratic fighters. On one hand, they used selective disclosure to create public support for their reforms. On the other, they could use the secrecy of the intelligence world to hide inconvenient facts. In Nosenko's case, they assured credulous journalists that the Russian was a bona fide and valuable defector who was badly treated by Angleton

Bagley shows how this happened and he details the many ways it hurt U.S. intelligence.

The pro-Nosenko side never refuted the case that the defector was a dispatched disinformation agent. They simply glossed over the most damning evidence, grasped at straws to bolster their case, and then pronounced him bona fide. They shut down debate by purging the nay-sayers and destroying evidence. When disturbing facts about Nosenko became public, his advocates replied with ad hominen attacks and outright lies-Angleton was a drunken paranoid, Bagley was an inexperienced agent conned by Angleton and Golitsyn, "sick think" was the inevitable consequence of counter-intelligence, etc. etc.


Their tactics had ramifications far beyond the handling of Nosenko.

First, a key result of the Colby Turner purge was the destruction of CIA's counter-intelligence capabilities. No surprise, then, that the US was plagued with moles and fell for Soviet deceptions in the years that followed.

Second, the refusal to deal with the questions honestly inside CIA created a climate of group think that is antithetical to good intelligence.

Third, the pro-Nosenko side promulgated a false history which they fed to gulliable journalists like Tom Mangold (Cold Warrior). This distorted account of Angleton, Nosenko, and Colby now is the Standard Version that other writers and historians repeat unknowingly and ad nauseum. (E.g. Nina Burleigh in her biography of Mary Pinchot Meyer.)

One of the most crucial outcomes of the Colby-Turner regime was that CIA deemphasized human intelligence which was difficult, messy and rife with ambiguities. In its place they elevated technical intelligence like satellite pictures and communication intercepts.

When we look at CIA's performance before 9/11, we can see how many of these by-products contributed to the intelligence failure: group think, bureaucratic self-preservation, clumsy counter-intelligence, poor human intelligence, and antagonistic relations with the FBI.


We should be grateful that Mr. Bagley wrote this extraordinary book to set the record straight.

After reading it, I'm still bothered by the same question that haunted the US government in 1964: Why did the KGB dispatch a disinformation agent to lie about its relationship with Lee Harvey Oswald?

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