Tennent H. Bagley, Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)

[From Journal of Cold War Studies 11, no. 2 (Spring 2009): 137-139]

[Reviewed by J. Ransom Clark, Muskingum College]

To a reviewer whose knowledge of the controversy that has swirled around Soviet State Security (KGB) defector Yuri Nosenko for nearly five decades comes only through the extensive open literature—including Gordon Brook-Shepard, The Storm Birds: Soviet Post-War Defectors (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989); Edward Jay Epstein, Deception: The Invisible War between the KGB and the CIA (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1989); Edward Jay Epstein, Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald (New York: Reader's Digest/McGraw Hill, 1978); John Limond Hart, The CIA's Russians (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2003); Tom Mangold, Cold Warrior: James Jesus Angleton, The CIA's Master Spy Hunter (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991); David C. Martin, Wilderness of Mirrors (New York: Harper & Row, 1980); and David Wise, Molehunt: The Secret Search for Traitors That Shattered the CIA (New York: Random House, 1992)—an initial question is whether the subject warrants another retelling. If the author were anyone but Tennent ("Pete") Bagley, the answer is probably not. However, Bagley is one of the individuals most closely associated with the Nosenko case in its earliest phases, from Nosenko's initial contacts with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1962 to his defection in 1964 and the CIA's decision to interrogate him in isolation for a period that eventually lasted over three years.

The centerpiece around which Spy Wars revolves is Bagley's argument that Nosenko was not what he said he was—a legitimate KGB defector—and that he was part of a KGB deception scheme designed to provide cover for Soviet penetrations of U.S. intelligence agencies and the country's secure communications systems. Bagley provides brief outlines of other Russian/Soviet deception operations over time (beginning with the Tsarist-era Okhrana). However, these vignettes seem to exist primarily to illustrate the extent of the Soviet Union’s commitment to deception activities and to lay a foundation for his argument against Nosenko.

Counterintelligence work has been variously described as a maze, a labyrinth, and a wilderness of mirrors. Bagley's theory of the Nosenko case fits any of these characterizations. The Nosenko saga really begins with an earlier defection—that of KGB Major Anatolii Golitsyn—in late 1961. Golitsyn's ideas about Soviet penetrations and deception activities became the touchstone for a group of CIA ofacers in both the agency's Soviet operations division and its counterintelligence staff. Golitsyn's warning that his defection would be followed by false defections intended to divert attention from his uncovering of Soviet spies formed a backdrop for assessing Nosenko and his information.

When Bagley returned to CIA headquarters in June 1962 after multiple meetings in Geneva with Nosenko, who claimed to need money to replenish funds spent on high living, he believed he had important information from a serving KGB ofacer. Disillusionment began when James Angleton, head of CIA counterintelligence, showed him Golitsyn's file. The parallel yet conflicting reporting of the two defectors raised concerns that Nosenko might be a KGB plant dispensing disinformation. When Nosenko resurfaced in January 1964, Bagley returned to Geneva. Nosenko promptly announced his intention to defect and dropped another bombshell. He claimed to have personally handled Lee Harvey Oswald's KGB ale. Even more, Nosenko stated flatly that the KGB had had no interest in the future assassin while he was living in the Soviet Union. Over time, even Nosenko's supporters have tended to downplay, rather than to defend, his claims with regard to Oswald.

After Nosenko was moved to the United States, the debriefing of the defector increasingly became a hostile interrogation. Contradictions and anomalies in his statements created new levels of concern for Bagley and the Soviet division leadership. Bagley's recitation of events makes it plain that the driver of the handling of Nosenko was the CIA's Soviet division and not James Angleton, as is often argued. In April 1964 the CIA received consent from Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to continue to hold Nosenko for questioning. This extrajudicial imprisonment eventually stretched not just weeks, as the attorney general presumably assumed, but into months and then years. Even under these conditions, Nosenko never broke and told his jailers what they wanted to hear.

Changes in CIA management within the division and at higher levels led to multiple reviews of Nosenko's situation. He was finally released after more than three years of confinement, officially rehabilitated, and even given a CIA contract as a consultant. Bagley's disparagement of the CIA officers who performed these reviews is one of the uglier aspects of Spy Wars. Calling into question in the harshest possible language the motives and honesty of CIA colleagues who did not accept his analysis of Nosenko does not serve Bagley well.

Given Bagley's direct participation until reassignment overseas in 1967, it is good for the record to have his firsthand version of this long-standing dispute. He writes well and marshals his arguments tellingly. However, he has essentially prepared a brief against Nosenko as a false defector sent by the KGB to divert the CIA's attention from "moles" within its ranks. He makes little acknowledgment of alternative explanations for the events he depicts. He leaves room for asking whether some of the dots he connects even belong in the picture. In the end, whether Bagley moves us any closer to the "truth" is as much in doubt as his view of Nosenko's bona fides. Even accepting that Bagley clearly believes he has been badly portrayed in other renditions of the Nosenko story, the depth of his bitterness is jarringly evident throughout his narrative. The most likely outcome from publication of Bagley's work is a reheating of the rhetoric from both sides of the dispute as CIA officers long retired seek to argue the correctness of decisions made a long time ago.

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