The Spy Who Came in From Geneva: Nosenko, the K.G.B. Defector

I just got off the phone with a legendary spy. Well, let me amend that: a legendary counterspy. Legendary at

I just got off the phone with a legendary spy. Well, let me amend that: a legendary counterspy. Legendary at least to those who have followed the twists and turns of one of the great unresolved spy mysteries of the past century, one of the secret pivots in the clandestine history of the Cold War: the Nosenko affair.

The man on the phone, in Brussels, was Tennent (Pete) Bagley, for many years a key member of the counterintelligence staff of James Jesus Angleton, the mythical “Good Shepherd” of the highly fictionalized film of that name (allow me to point out that the real Angleton was never in Skull and Bones, although it makes a better story. Allow me also, in the interest of full disclosure, to mention that I’ve been working on a screenplay involving some of these matters for director Errol Morris).

Pete Bagley was present from the very beginning of the still baffling, still divisive Nosenko affair, an unfathomably complex Cold War spy case that caused a bitter, decades-long civil war within the C.I.A. and the entire national-security complex. And one that, according to some—myself included—had hidden repercussions that impacted the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

And Mr. Bagley’s new book, Spy Wars (out in March from Yale University Press), is likely to reopen the old wounds—the name-calling, the bitterness, the deep scars that the Nosenko question has left behind—and reawaken questions of why it is that the C.I.A. seems to have gotten just about everything wrong in its entire benighted history, from the Bay of Pigs to George (“W.M.D.’s are a slam-dunk”) Tenet.

I felt a rare thrill talking to Mr. Bagley, a primary player in the Nosenko affair, after years of reading conflicting versions of the case filtered through declassified C.I.A. historical reviews, Congressional testimony, and listening to certain spies’ and journalists’ accounts. It was a thrill despite the fact that, to my surprise, after reading Mr. Bagley’s book, I realized that I might have to rethink my view of the case. I hate when that happens. No, seriously, I’m grateful to Mr. Bagley for giving us a first-person, hands-on account of his side of the story, replete with a remarkable amount of previously unpublished details of the Nosenko interrogation.

I’ve always been drawn to clandestine spy-world disputes and fascinated by the deeply divisive, deeply ambiguous specter of Angleton, and the Nosenko affair that haunts his legacy. And there was no one more inside the inner sanctums of the case than Mr. Bagley.

Indeed, he was there in a Geneva safe house in 1962 for the first contact between Yuri Nosenko, professed K.G.B. defector, and the C.I.A.

And Mr. Bagley was part of the team that interrogated Mr. Nosenko when he arrived in America, and Angleton and others in the C.I.A. began to suspect that he was a K.G.B. plant, a “false defector.” (Of the lurid glimpse of the Nosenko interrogation in the trailer for The Good Shepherd, Mr. Bagley had this to say to me: “Pure horseshit.”)

The J.F.K. Hit, Again

Mr. Bagley’s book, Spy Wars, makes a meticulous case that the prevailing revisionist C.I.A. version of the Nosenko affair may need re-revision, although it may well be that Yuri Nosenko—still alive and living under another name somewhere in America—will take his secrets to the grave.

Why should we care? Well, let’s go back to the Kennedy assassination—yes, that can of worms. It was in the aftermath of the J.F.K. hit that Mr. Nosenko’s case assumed a special urgency, because he claimed to have been the K.G.B. agent most familiar with the Soviet spy agency’s contacts with Oswald during his sojourn in the U.S.S.R., before he re-defected to the U.S. and ended up in Dallas in November 1963.

In the aftermath of the assassination there was heated speculation about whether Oswald’s Russian stay might portend a Soviet hand behind the killer. What might have happened if it turned out that Oswald had killed Kennedy on behalf of the K.G.B.? Some—on both sides of the nuclear standoff—feared the worst.

Suddenly, in January 1964, Mr. Nosenko showed up in Geneva again, and, in return for safe passage to the U.S., offered to reveal all about the K.G.B.-Oswald connection, which he claimed was negligible and certainly not assassination-related. He was prepared to testify before the Warren Commission, but doubts arose about his story and his identity after he arrived in America, and he never testified.

It is here that the Nosenko case branches into two radically conflicting narratives, two conflicting Nosenkos.

There is one narrative—let’s call it Nosenko Narrative A—which is now the prevailing wisdom embedded in C.I.A. official histories of the case, a narrative to which I contributed a rationale: the “notional mole” theory (acknowledged in Professor Robin Winks’ study, Cloak and Gown).

In Nosenko Narrative A, Nosenko, a genuine defector, is suddenly and unjustly called into question by Angleton and his counterintelligence-based cabal because Angleton has come under the sway of a Svengali-like previous K.G.B. defector, Anatoliy Golitsyn. Golitsyn had convinced Angleton that the K.G.B. was going to be dispatching “false defectors” to follow him, discredit his leads and protect the Hidden Mole in the C.I.A. Mr. Nosenko—according to Golitsyn—was the first of the false.

In Nosenko Narrative A, Mr. Nosenko is subjected to increasingly harsh and inhuman interrogation and confinement, even locked up in a “dungeon” for three years, tortured by sensory deprivation and physical, psychological and pharmacological abuse, but still never concedes that he’s a K.G.B. plant. Instead, the holes in this narrative are attributed to the sort of innocent mistakes and memory lapses that may have resulted from his trying to build himself up to make himself seem more important.

Nonetheless, Mr. Nosenko becomes the rationale for an Angleton-led witch hunt that tears apart and paralyzes the C.I.A. in its hunt for the Hidden Mole, and results in destructive rebuffs of genuine defectors, because of a paranoid “sick think” mindset that imagined a K.G.B. Master Plan of Deception and Disinformation that succeeded in befuddling the West—all of which resulted in Angleton’s firing, Mr. Nosenko’s rehabilitation and the triumph of the K.G.B. mole in the C.I.A., who had succeeded in turning the C.I.A. “inside out.” Indeed, some of the cult-like Angletonians were so paranoid that they believed the man who fired Angleton, the one-time head of the C.I.A. itself, William Colby, was the mole. (Mr. Bagley, who doesn’t buy it, nonetheless conceded that he’s heard muttering to this effect.)

My “notional mole” theory posited that former Angleton confidante Kim Philby, his M.I.-6 counterpart in the U.K.—and a notorious Soviet mole himself—had gotten inside Angleton’s head and used a technique dating back to World War II’s “Double Cross System”: planting the false notion that there was a mole in the C.I.A. In my version of Nosenko Narrative A, the fear of this notional (i.e., nonexistent) mole had driven Angleton crazy.

Narrative B and ‘Team B’

Mr. Bagley’s book goes a long way, in my mind, toward rehabilitating Nosenko Narrative B: that Angleton was right in calling him a K.G.B. plant. For one thing, Mr. Bagley reprints—for the first time ever, he says—the Discrepancy List: the substantial objections, not minor memory lapses, that brought Mr. Nosenko under suspicion. (Edward Jay Epstein had previously outlined some of the problems in his book, Legend.) Mr. Bagley also disputes the “myth” that the Nosenko interrogation involved “torture.” He says there was no “dungeon,” and that yelling during the interrogation was as bad as it got. Of the scene in the trailer for The Good Shepherd, where water is thrown over the Nosenko figure’s head, he says, “I wish I’d thought of that”—jokingly, I believe.

In addition, Mr. Bagley has put in some investigative work, making it a point to meet informally with ex-K.G.B. operatives after the end of the Cold War. He believes that they cumulatively paint a different picture of the Nosenko case than my sense had been. Of course, the question of whether former K.G.B. officers can be trusted is open to doubt, particularly when, as Mr. Bagley noted in my phone call with him, “things are getting tighter again”—the U.S.-Russia standoff looks more and more like the old C.I.A./K.G.B. Cold War confrontation.

“‘We’re still working against you,’ one old Chekhist told me,” Mr. Bagley said over the phone, using the original name of Lenin’s secret police. According to Mr. Bagley, a recent study showed that the current Putin government is staffed at the highest levels by an overwhelming number of ex-K.G.B. men (like Mr. Putin himself). Which explains why the former Soviet Union is acting more and more like the former Soviet Union again.

The details in Mr. Bagley’s Discrepancy List that serve to cast doubt on Mr. Nosenko are the heart of his book—and, alas, are far too complex to go into here. But Mr. Bagley makes the best case for Nosenko Narrative B that I’ve seen, and I’ll be interested to see what the advocates of Nosenko Narrative A have to say in response.

Meanwhile, in terms of its effect on the actual history and the endgame of the Cold War, the import of Nosenko Narrative B cannot be underestimated—particularly the influence of Narrative B on “Team B.”

Team B, students of Cold War history will recall, was the array of outside experts on the Soviet Union’s military, economic and strategic intentions brought in by George H.W. Bush in 1976 when he became C.I.A. chief, in order to challenge the C.I.A.’s official estimates of the questions. (Sound familiar?)

I asked Mr. Bagley if I was correct to say that Team B had been influenced by the Angleton post-Nosenko analysis of Soviet capabilities, an analysis that focused on what the Angletonians believed was deceptively coded telemetry—data gleaned from Russian missile launches by long-range technical means.

“Deceptively coded telemetry”: It sounds arcane, but essentially it meant that the Russians were using their Angletonian “false defectors” in order to bolster the disguise of their aggressive, first-strike, surprise-attack nuclear-war-fighting capacity.

Which meant, Team B argued (relying at least in part on Nosenko Narrative B), that the U.S. had to respond by building the equivalent in counterforce attack capability and counterforce defense: ergo, huge defense increases, Star Wars. Sequel: the collapse of the Soviet economy—and the Soviet polity—as it attempted to keep up with us. Ergo: Nosenko Narrative B won the Cold War.

I had come to believe that there might be some truth to this, even though I disbelieved the essence of Narrative B: that we won the Cold War because of a paranoid mistake. Or maybe even a deliberately Machiavellian Angletonian strategy: a deliberate mistake. I have to rethink the whole thing now. I think a lot of people who read Mr. Bagley’s book will. I’ll get back to you when I’ve figured it all out. Again.

By the way, I ended my conversation with Mr. Bagley by asking what he’d say to Yuri Nosenko if he ever ran into him.

His answer: “Don’t shoot.”

The Spy Who Came in From Geneva:  Nosenko, the K.G.B. Defector