Conspiracy of Opportunity

Tennent H. Bagley
Tennent H. Bagley
Tennent H. ('Pete') Bagley served twenty-two years in the CIA, handling spies and defectors in Clandestine Services and rising to chief of Soviet bloc counterintelligence. He is now a writer and researcher based in Brussels, Belgium. | Tennent H. Bagley, Cia, Spy, Russia, Soviet, Counterintelligence,

How the United States undermined itself

It's said that good chess players think five move ahead, while great chess players think one move ahead. For some this is the setup for a boast, "it's always the right move." For others, its an acceptance that no plan survives contact with the enemy and that sometimes it's best to deal with the situation as it develops in real-time rather than get bogged down with hypotheticals. Similarly, not every deception operation is planned from the start, much less a series of deceptions. This post takes a brief look at one such opportunistic chain of deceptions which has, over a period of decades, undermined the United States and helped lead to the creation of super-conspiracy theories.

Immediately after the assassination of the President Kennedy, the government was simultaneously concerned with potential Soviet involvement, and desperate to stop such speculation, knowing that it could lead to WWIII, the US Government formed the Warren Commission to investigate and report on the assassination. Soon after the government's investigation was underway, CIA officers were recontacted by KGB Officer Yuri Nosenko, who informed them he had intimate knowledge of Lee Harvey Oswald's activities inside the Soviet Union.

Several years earlier one of Nosenko's handler's, Tennent H. ('Pete') Bagley, had developed doubts about Nosenko's bona fides when his information was compared to information previous provided by KGB defector Anatoli Golitsyn. Despite these doubts, when Nosenko contacted the CIA again in 1964 and declared his intention to defect, his offer of information on Lee Harvey Oswald was impossible to turn down. If the information was genuine, it would prove invaluable to understanding the assassination itself. If it could be revealed to be a disinformation attempt, it would provide a window into the intentions of the Soviet Union.

In some ways the Nosenko case seemed to confirm Golitsyn's assertions that there was a high ranking CIA mole operating as part of KGB deception. Some believed that Nosenko was one of the false defector's Golitsyn had predicted the KGB would send to discredit him, as as a great deal of information provided by Nosenko seemed to deflect leads provided by Golitsyn, while the information Nosenko provided about Lee Harvey Oswald seemed to defy all logic and understanding of the KGB's procedures. As a result of Angleton's mole hunt, at least forty officers were investigated, and at least fourteen were thoroughly investigated. Although they were all deemed innocent, their careers were irreparably damaged. The damage to their careers was severe enough, the so-called "Mole Relief Act" came about so that some of those affected could receive reparations for their damaged careers.

It would not prove as simple to repair the damage done to the morale of the Counterintelligence Staff and the rest of CIA. Decades later, the incident would still be openly mocked and referred to as a "witch hunt." Though Angleton's mole hunt would be perceived as paranoid and mad, "the mistake was not in pursuing the master plot theory, but in getting so locked into a position that one was unable to question basic assumptions or note the gradual accumulation of contrary evidence." This over reaction to Angleton's search for a mole played a part in creating the counterintelligence failures that resulted in the betrayals of Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames.

Pete Bagley's conclusion that the defection and reports on Lee Harvey Oswald were part of a KGB deception operation is not without precedent. A letter widely cited by conspiracy theorists, purportedly from Lee Harvey Oswald, addressed to a "Mr. Hunt" requested information about an upcoming job. This letter was a forgery and part of a KGB deception to implicate American industrialist H.L. Hunt, and later Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt. Interestingly, another false defector from the Soviet Union confirmed Nosenko's claimed rank in the KGB before it was revealed that Nosenko had lied about it. This was the same false defector also provided a piece false intelligence which, when it was believed by Howard Hunt, helped create the Watergate Scandal. A later post will examine the Nosenko case in detail, and another connection between Howard Hunt and disinformation efforts is explored below.


Voyeurism is the sexual interest in or practice of spying on people engaged in intimate behaviors, such as undressing, sexual activity, or other actions usually considered to be of a private nature. | Photo: Deviant Art |
Ultimately, attempts to counter Soviet propaganda and subversive elements exploiting the assassination of the POTUS proved counter productive. These attempts to counter propaganda is frequently cited by conspiracy theorists as proof of a government cover-up, and that the cover-up proves complicity. While this logic is faulty, it has resulted in a disturbingly large percentage of Americans doubting the United States Government's innocence in the assassination; a doubt that has been extensively exploited by Foreign Intelligence Services (FIS) for propaganda purposes.

As a result of the investigation into the assassination, millions of documents were reviewed and declassified, giving the words a new glimpse into historical American foreign policy, military doctrine, and intelligence operations and planning, including information on Operation Northwoods. The long lasting effects of declassifying so many documents can be seen in the frequent citing of Operation Northwoods by conspiracy theorists and propaganda outlets claiming United States Government was complicit in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. While this was not in anyway planned as part of the initial deception operation, it is a perfect example of this sort of opportunistic leveraging.

Many of the later investigations, conspiracy theories and mass declassification of documents resulted from yet another KGB deception operation. In 1967, the KGB planted a story in Paese Sera, an Italian left wing newspaper. The story alleged that Clay Shaw, recently arrested for conspiracy to assassination the President, was a board member for the Centro Mondiale Comerciale (CMC), which had been forced out of Italy for suspicion of being a front to launder money for the CIA. These claims ultimately led New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison to conclude the CIA had been responsible for the assassination. The ensuing trial, sensationalized in the press, ultimately resulted in Oliver Stone's film JFK. This film led to The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, the creation of the Assassination Records Review Board and the review and release of millions of documents. While transparency is good, it also can be, and has, exploited by foreign governments for propaganda and counter-intelligence purposes.

Even the investigation into the events surrounding the Watergate break-ins, itself an illegal counterintelligence operation, were effected by Jim Garrison's KGB inspired accusations. In 1968, Garrison alleged that "three tramps" may have been involved in the assassination, pointing to a photograph from November 22, 1963 in Dallas. In the immediate aftermath of the Watergate scandal, A.J. Weberman began to promote the theory that two of the "three tramps" were Watergate burglars Frank Sturgis and E. Howard Hunt. Today these theories are being exploited by two of Hunt's children. This continuation of disinformation, encouraged by the counterintelligence branches of hostile FIS, decreases the citizenry's trust in the United States Government. This distrust has recently hit new levels and coincided with mass protests within the United States, providing a weapon for political factions, subversive groups and hostile counterintelligence efforts.

These conspiracy theories, encouraged by propaganda released by foreign counterintelligence agencies, have been carefully woven together over several decades, creating the "super-conspiracy theory." It's disconcerting that these conspiracies are used as propaganda by anti-government elements and anti-semitic groups with terrorists ties; and that some American groups, having built a massive audience by promoting such super-conspiracies, celebrate acts of domestic terrorism. Additionally, these American groups and foreign backed groups have developed a mutually-supportive symbiotic relationship.

Through a carefully woven tapestry of foreign deception and propaganda efforts, as well as the unintentional consequences of the way the United States Government handled the investigation and counter-propaganda, the American people's faith in their government was carefully and extensively undermined. Over one thousand books have been published on the assassination of President Kennedy, the vast majority of them positing the United States Government was responsible for the assassination. The sheer volume of these materials is evidence of the success of foreign backed subversive groups and propaganda, and the failure of United States counterintelligence to neutralize these efforts. These effects are not only still felt today, but have developed a greater impact on American perceptions over time, is a testament to the potential of well exploited opportunities for propaganda and subversion even in the absence of a preexisting long-term plan.

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Updated Jan 2, 2019 12:27 PM EST | More details


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