Dou­ble trou­ble

A flawed but fas­ci­nat­ing story of a Soviet spy sheds light on the KGB, writes Spy Wars: Moles, Mys­ter­ies, and Deadly Games By Ten­nent H. Ba­gley Yale Univer­sity Press, 336pp, $ 56

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Roger Uren

SPY Wars tells the in­tri­cate and dis­turb­ing story of a KGB oper­a­tive, Yuri Nosenko, who de­fected to the US in 1964 claim­ing he had ac­cess to Lee Har­vey Oswald’s KGB file and as­sur­ing Amer­i­cans the Soviet regime was not be­hind the Kennedy as­sas­si­na­tion.

The au­thor, Ten­nent ‘‘ Pete’’ Ba­gley, was the first CIA of­fi­cer to meet Nosenko when the lat­ter sought con­tact with the intelligence agency dur­ing a short- term mis­sion to Geneva in 1962.

Two years later in Wash­ing­ton, Ba­gley be­came the case of­fi­cer re­spon­si­ble for un­rav­el­ling the truth and lies in Nosenko’s claims about his work for the KGB, the cir­cum­stances of other de­fec­tors and agents, and Oswald’s time in the USSR. Ba­gley vividly por­trays the chal­leng­ing un­cer­tain­ties of coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence work — the task of pen­e­trat­ing for­eign intelligence agen­cies and as­sess­ing their op­er­a­tions — and pro­vides an in­sider’s per­spec­tive on the de­bates that raged within the CIA in the 1960s and 70s.

Ba­gley does not sug­gest the Sovi­ets were be­hind Kennedy’s death but fo­cuses on the nu­mer­ous in­con­sis­ten­cies in Nosenko’s story and con­cludes that he must have been a plant in­tended to con­ceal KGB pen­e­tra­tion of the CIA and the FBI. Ba­gley does not seem to con­sider, how­ever, the pos­si­bil­ity that Nosenko sim­ply may have been an al­co­holic wom­an­iser keen to es­cape to a much freer so­ci­ety.

Ba­gley and his CIA team held Nosenko pris­oner for three years, first in a safe house in sub­ur­ban Mary­land and then on a CIA base near Wil­liams­burg in Vir­ginia, and it is hard to avoid the con­clu­sion that Ba­gley is now mak­ing a sin­cere ef­fort to jus­tify his han­dling of Nosenko.

While the Nosenko case has lit­tle di­rect rel­e­vance to events to­day, Ba­gley’s anal­y­sis of the KGB and its tac­tics of de­cep­tion and vi­o­lence pro­vides a timely ac­count of the Rus­sian approach to the role of clan­des­tine op­er­a­tions in do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics. The as­sas­si­na­tion of Alexan­der Litvi­nenko in Lon­don last Novem­ber makes Ba­gley’s treat­ment of the KGB’s his­tory es­pe­cially rel­e­vant to un­der­stand­ing the Rus­sia of Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, a for­mer KGB of­fi­cer.

Ba­gley writes from per­sonal per­spec­tive, in­ter­spers­ing his rec­ol­lec­tion of Nosenko’s com­ments and drink­ing habits with long pas­sages on the his­tory of Rus­sian intelligence or­gan­i­sa­tions. In do­ing so he pro­duces a highly read­able his­tory of the Soviet approach to intelligence, se­cu­rity and dis­in­for­ma­tion, and un­cov­ers how key West­ern agents within the Soviet sys­tem, in­clud­ing Py­otr Popov and Oleg Penkovsky, were caught. But he tends to gloss over some of the key steps in the evo­lu­tion of the Soviet intelligence sys­tem, from the Cheka to the NKVD to the KGB, us­ing frus­trat­ing phrases such as ‘‘ KGB ( then called NKVD)’’ in­stead of ex­plor­ing the pol­i­tics be­hind each new phase. Ba­gley also over­looks the dif­fer­ences be­tween the tightly con­trolled Soviet bloc, where pol­i­tics per­me­ated ev­ery­thing, and the lib­eral West, and the ap­peal of a West­ern lifestyle to po­ten­tial Rus­sian de­fec­tors.

But al­though Ba­gley’s ac­count of KGB meth­ods is fas­ci­nat­ing, he is less per­sua­sive when track­ing de­vel­op­ments within the CIA. His anal­y­sis of the in­ter­nal his­tory of the CIA re­flects his role as the ad­vo­cate for the guilt of the most con­tro­ver­sial KGB de­fec­tor the agency re­ceived and this un­der­mines the sense of de­tached anal­y­sis. He is dis­mis­sive of William Colby, who took over the CIA in 1973. Colby in­tro­duced a new approach to coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence work and sacked James J. An­gle­ton, the CIA’s long­time coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence chief, who had sup­ported Ba­gley’s han­dling of the Nosenko case.

Ba­gley avoids dis­cussing at length the con­tro­ver­sies sur­round­ing An­gle­ton, who was known for his ec­cen­tric lifestyle and ar­cane the­o­ries about Soviet de­cep­tion and ma­nip­u­la­tion of West­ern gov­ern­ments. He per­haps cal­cu­lates that any at­tempt to re­ha­bil­i­tate An­gle­ton, whose prob­lems in­cluded a close friend­ship with Kim Philby — the most fa­mous KGB mole in Bri­tish intelligence — would jeop­ar­dise his own case.

Ba­gley does not at­tempt to dis­guise his per­sonal stake in the judg­ment his­tory makes of the Nosenko case. As a con­se­quence, al­lowances can be made for Ba­gley’s un­der­ly­ing as­sump­tions and Spy Wars can be read as a fas­ci­nat­ing ac­count of Soviet es­pi­onage with a rich sup­ply of foot­noted au­thor­i­ties and re­veal­ing ap­pen­dices.

The CIA ul­ti­mately ex­on­er­ated Nosenko, but Ba­gley still be­lieves he was a plant in­tended to mis­lead the US in the se­cret war with Rus­sia. Read­ers must de­cide who is right, but Spy Wars is an in­for­ma­tive and chal­leng­ing study of an ex­traor­di­nar­ily ob­scure bat­tle­field.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Eric Lobbecke

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.