Former Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Richard Helms understandably referred to the matter of Yuri Nosenko as "the most frustrating of any single espionage case in my intelligence experience." The question of whether or not the KGB Defector was bona fide or not touched upon some of the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) most important cases, and ultimately led to a divisive mole hunt, great embarrassment to the Agency and may have paved the way for the betrayals of Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames.
Yuri Nosenko first contacted the CIA in 1962, offering information in exchange for the equivalent of approximately two hundred and fifty dollars. He was adamant about not wishing to defect, and refused to accept any larger sum of money. He identified himself as Major in the Second Chief Directorate, the counterintelligence branch of the Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti (KGB), and offered information about KGB connections to the Finnish president, and how several CIA assets had been identified and neutralized. While Tennent "Pete" Bagley, the CIA Officer handling Nosenko, was initially ecstatic about the walk-in, his excitement was quickly replaced with doubt after consulting James Jesus Angleton, the Chief of the Counterintelligence Staff.
These concerns were aptly summarized by DCI Richard Helms. "Even before the first rush of excitement subsided, doubts about Nosenko had developed. Some of the "inside" information that looked so promising in the field had, upon examination at headquarters, proved to duplicate the data supplied by another KGB defector six months before Nosenko volunteered his services. This might be seen as confirmation that Nosenko was speaking the truth and knew what he was talking about. Viewed skeptically, it could also mean that the KGB was attempting to convince us that Nosenko was a bona fide walk-in by slipping us material they knew had been compromised by the earlier defector. Doubts about Nosenko's alleged career pattern and background also flared."
Utilizing a combination law enforcement, intelligence and counterintelligence resources, the United States Government began an unprecedented investigation after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. As a result, Yuri Nosenko was whisked to the United States when he informed his handlers of his intention to defect and his intimate knowledge of Lee Harvey Oswald's stay in the Soviet Union. If Yuri Nosenko, now claiming to be a Lt. Col., had not claimed knowledge of the alleged assassin, the case would never have taken on the significance and controversy that developed in the following decades. Though the CIA eventually declared Yuri Nosenko a bona fide defector, more recent evidence excludes this possibility when using the same criteria to examine the issue.
Is the claimed KGB Career of Nosenko Plausible?
Yuri Nosenko claimed that in 1960 and 1961, he was the Deputy Chief of the American-Embassy section of the American department of Second Chief Directorate. This was contracted by other KGB Defectors, including Anatoli Golitsyn and Oleg Kalugin. His claimed position is also contradicted by his claimed assignments, such as operations compromising American tourists in homosexual situations. In addition, Nosenko changed crucial details about his career.
While meeting with his CIA handlers in Geneva, Nosenko wrote that he had joined the KGB in the spring of 1952. Later he claimed that he had joined the KGB in 1953, but was unable to remember whether he had joined the KGB before or after the death of Joseph Stalin, a claim no more credible than that an American could join the CIA and not remember whether it was before or after President Kennedy had been killed. Former KGB insiders have also rejected Nosenko's description of his entrance into the service.
According to Peter Deriabin, a SMERSH agent and KGB agent who later defected to the United States, "the way Nosenko claims to have entered the KGB is unthinkable to me as a personnel officer at that time. He admitted having been turned down as unsuitable in 1950. Then in 1953 (or 1952 or 1951) he was accepted. ... He had a bad school record. He had had a troublesome first marriage, and his father-in-law was in prison. .. His mother's noble family background would have been a negative factor, as would the fact that there was a KGB file of compromising material on his father and family. ... And at that time, as a rule, sons of ministers and generals were not accepted into the KGB. I can state, having at that time recently left KGB personnel work, that this story is impossible."
Additionally, Nosenko admitted to lying about his career and rank. In 1962 he claimed to be a Major, and a Lieutenant Colonel in 1964. Later, he admitted to being a only a Captain. Most disturbingly, he carried with him "official" papers that appeared to confirm his rank as a Lieutenant Colonel. Over time, he provided different explanations for this. Originally claiming it was to make himself seem more important to the CIA, he later claimed that he had been all but officially promoted and paperwork mistakenly represented this. Nosenko also admitted to lying about receiving a recall order to the Soviet Union.
Is the information furnished by Nosenko to CIA Concerning KGB Operations, Personalities, and Organization Reasonably Commensurate With His Claimed KGB Career?
According to Nosenko's account of his KGB career, he supervised operations against American Embassy personnel and that Vadim Kosolapov, alias "Kolosov" reported to him. However, Nosenko denied any knowledge of "Kolosov" traveling to Helsinki, contrary to a report from a previous KGB defector and independent records. Nosenko's accounts of other KGB operations contradict the known facts.
John F. Kennedy
President Kennedy speaks before a crowd of 35,000 people at Rice University in the football field. | Photo: Getty Images |
In 1964, Nosenko claimed that the American Embassy security officer, John Abidian, had been witnessed setting up a dead drop on Pushkin Street. However, CIA records proved that John Abidian never set up a dead drop on Pushkin Street, and that the only person to have ever done so was Oleg Penkovsky. While Nosenko falsely claimed that John Abidian "set up" the dead drop in 1960, he did check the dead drop. However, he did so in 1961. Following the Cold War, KGB insiders revealed that Oleg Penkovsky had been betrayed by a KGB source so sensitive that Penkovsky's spying was allowed to continue until a cover story could be established to explain his exposure.
Is there evidence of KGB Deception or "Give-Away" in Information Furnished by Nosenko?
Not only did Yuri Nosenko's account of the handling of Lee Harvey Oswald change over time, it is impossible to reconcile with the independently known facts. Nosenko originally claimed that no psychiatric testing had been done on Oswald, but he later contradicted this during his Congressional Testimony.
Nosenko also explained and contradicted himself when explaining why Oswald was not of interest to the KGB. "Any foreign tourist, let's say, an American tourist, if he had any connection with the intelligence community, he will be [a] very interesting target. This tourist will be given priority of interest by the KGB. Anyone who is working, any tourist working for the Federal Government of the United States is a very interesting target. Anyone who specializes in any field on the Soviet Union or Russia ... is interesting for the KGB, because KGB considers that they can be connected with the intelligence community in the United States. ... Oswald didn't belong to this category of people. That is why he wasn't paid attention." Later in his testimony, Nosenko contradicted this. "Oswald was suspected in connection with American intelligence."
In 1964, Nosenko told his CIA handlers that he had "thoroughly reviewed" the KGB's single file on Lee Harvey Oswald, though he later testified in 1978 that he had only lightly reviewed the first of eight large volumes. He also originally stated that there had been no surveillance in Minsk, though he later testified that there was extensive physical and technical surveillance. He falsely added that there was no surveillance of Marina Prusakova after she began involved with Lee Harvey Oswald. He also falsely claimed that Oswald had never been interviewed by a KGB officer, and left out numerous details later provided by KGB Colonel Nechiporenko.
Is there any evidence that the contacts of Nosenko in 1962 or 1964 with CIA were known to the KGB Prior to his defection or that Nosenko was ever briefed by the KGB during these contacts or after his defection?
When Yuri Nosenko claimed to be a Lieutenant Colonel and to have received recall orders to the Soviet Union, his claims were backed up by a source known to the FBI as FEDORA, and has since been identified as Aleksei Kulak. Nosenko later admitted to having lied about these facts, which makes Kulak's corrobration impossible to explain without some contact after Nosenko's "defection" or without advanced prepration. The FBI later concluded that FEDORA had been a Soviet plant all along. Other disinformation spread by Kulak included the claim that a copy of the Pentagon Papers had been acquired by the Soviet Embassy. Though false, the panic caused by this piece of disinformation helped prompt President Nixon to create the "White House Plumbers." Kulak also successfully returned to the Soviet Union, where he was treated as a hero. The Soviets were unable to identify him as a "source" of information for the United States, despite the CIA having been able to identify the FBI's source with less information.
Is there evidence of a political or any other type objective which could justify a dispatch of Nosenko by the KGB with permission to speak freely to CIA concerning his knowledge of the KGB?
It is not difficult to see that the Soviet Union and the KGB would place a priority on convincing the United States that it had no involvement with the assassination of the President of the United States, despite the assassin's defection and time in the United States.
Before his alleged defection, Nosenko mentioned the name "Zepp" to his CIA handlers. While at the time the name was the focus of KGB counterintelligence efforts, Nosenko claimed never to have heard the name later. His handler, Tennent Bagley, and the Chief of the CIA's Counterintelligence Staff both became convinced that Nosenko had originally been dispatched to divert leads provided by previous KGB defectors. Later investigators would also agree, "by your testimony you have led at least this member to wonder whether or not you are still working with the KGB."
It's impossible to reconcile the contradictions between Yuri Nosenko's various accounts, the accounts of others and the known facts. Given the evidence produced in the last several decades, it is impossible that Nosenko was truthful, unlikely that he was bona fide, and James Jesus Angleton's was most likely correct when he "constructed a probability distribution for the Oswald/Nosenko matter. At one end was belief in Nosenko's story: the KGB had nothing to do with Oswald and therefore nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination. On the other end was the belief that Nosenko was lying and that therefore the KGB had controlled Oswald and was responsible for the assassination. In between was the most probable interpretation: Nosenko was lying, the KGB had been in contact with Oswald, but about the U-2, not about the assassination, and it was concerned that if the U-2 matter were known, the United States would believe that the KGB had used Oswald to assassinate Kennedy."