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Yuri Nosenko, 1927 - 2008

KGB agent defected, then was imprisoned three years by the U.S.

September 01, 2008|Walter Pincus | The Washington Post

Yuri Nosenko, a KGB agent whose defection to the United States in 1964 and subsequent three-year harsh detention and hostile interrogation by CIA officials remain immensely controversial, died Aug. 23 under an assumed name in a Southern state, according to intelligence officials.

His death came after "a long illness." He was 81.

Nosenko, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet secret police and intelligence agency, interviewed Lee Harvey Oswald during his time in the Soviet Union from 1959 to 1962.

When Nosenko defected in 1964, he provided the first information that Oswald, the accused assassin of President Kennedy, was not a Soviet agent.

Senior CIA officers at the time, including James Jesus Angleton, the agency's counterintelligence chief, and David Murphy of the Soviet division, did not believe Nosenko was a real defector and ordered his imprisonment.

Nosenko initially had made inaccurate statements about his past, and some of his information conflicted with that of another KGB officer, Anatoly Golitsin, who had defected the year before.

As a result, agency officials considered him a plant sent by Moscow to confuse Washington about Oswald.

In 1966, Richard Helms, then CIA director of operations, ordered that a conclusion be reached in the Nosenko case. In 1967, after passing multiple polygraph tests, Nosenko was released, and in 1969 he was found to be a legitimate defector. He subsequently became a consultant to the agency, was given a new identity and was provided a home in an undisclosed location in the South.

Last month, several senior CIA officials presented him with a ceremonial flag and a letter from CIA Director Michael V. Hayden honoring his service to the United States, a senior intelligence official said.

Word of his death came from Pete Earley, who has written books on the CIA and had been trying for four years to get an interview with Nosenko.

Earley said Nosenko was bothered by a book released last year called "Spy Wars," written by Tennent Bagley, a key CIA player in Nosenko's defection and arrest.

The book continued to argue that Nosenko was not a bona fide defector and was sent to cover up the KGB's influence over Oswald.

"I was fascinated by Nosenko because in spite of the horrific things that the agency and government did to him -- the torture and mental deprivation -- in the only public speech that he ever gave at the CIA, he praised the United States as being the world's best hope for humanity, condemned Communism and Moscow, and said he never regretted his defection nor held a grudge against the officials who had persecuted him," Earley said.

During his incarceration, at Camp Perry, the CIA facility in Virginia, the agency kept Nosenko in solitary confinement in a small concrete cell. He often endured treatment involving body searches, verbal taunts, revolting food and denial of basic necessities.

Claire George, a former CIA deputy director of operations who worked in the Soviet division at the time of Nosenko's defection, said that the handling of Nosenko "was a terrible mistake" but "you can't be in the spy business without making mistakes."

Yuri Ivanovich Nosenko was born in 1927, in Nikolayev, a Ukrainian town on the Black Sea.

His father, a naval engineer, rose to minister for shipbuilding under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Private tutors schooled Nosenko in classical Western literature, and he developed an attraction to Western culture.

He served three years in naval intelligence after his 1950 graduation from the State Institute of International Relations in Moscow. He then became a leader within the KGB's Soviet internal security division.

According to Tom Mangold's "Cold Warrior" (1991), a book about Angleton, Nosenko's KGB career specialized in following U.S. agents posted in the Soviet Union and in recruiting turncoats from foreign intelligence services. The book said he also oversaw blackmail operations.

Mangold asserted that Nosenko eventually grew angry at what he considered the hypocrisies of the Soviet system and signaled to U.S. intelligence agents his wish to defect on ideological grounds.

He made his first successful contact with U.S. intelligence in 1962, pleading desperation after squandering KGB funds on alcohol.

He asked for $200 to repay the money. He later admitted this was a fabrication, and his request later raised doubts within the CIA about his intentions.

Would he really sell out his country for $200?

But his propensity to drink was not a lie, and he was drunk when he met CIA officials in Geneva, where he was accompanying a diplomatic mission. He revealed key information about Soviet moles working in the embassies of Western nations as well as Russian intelligence methods. According to Mangold, he pinpointed 52 microphones planted inside the U.S. embassy in Moscow and how the Soviets avoided detection of the listening devices.

But his most stunning revelations were about Oswald, notably how the Soviet agency felt Oswald was too unstable mentally to be of much service.

None of this saved Nosenko from a bitter fate. Golitsin stoked Angleton's increasing paranoia about double agents in the CIA and the veracity of defectors, and Nosenko soon began his 1,277 days in custody.

After Nosenko's rehabilitation, he looked up the disgraced Angleton's telephone number in 1975 to confront him. It was a brief and fruitless exchange, with Nosenko rising in his passions and Angleton cool and adamant about his judgment.

"I have nothing more to say to you," Angleton said.

"And Mr. Angleton," replied Nosenko, "I have nothing further to say to you."

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