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
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.