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How The Stories Of These Soviet Cold War Defectors Reveal The Intelligence Abyss pt. 6

Lee Harvey Oswald mugshot

In the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Central Intelligence Agency had internally declared Lee Harvey Oswald guilty within forty-eight hours.[i] The Federal Bureau of Investigation granted the alleged shooter seventy-two hours before its determination of guilt the same day Jack Ruby shot Oswald. American intelligence groups were desperate to find an expedient solution and their suspect’s inability to defend himself was ideal. However, some within the CIA’s leadership believed this had to be another Soviet plot and Oswald was cast in the role of Soviet agent. Such ideas endangered the US government’s allegations that Oswald acted by himself, but those not privately endorsing this idea became suspects in Central Intelligence Agency’s hunt for traitors.

Amongst the earliest targets of the CIA’s mole hunt to discover false agents was KGB defector Yuriy Ivanovich Nosenko. He was the son of a Russian government minister and following Nosenko’s time in the Soviet Navy he was assigned to the GRU Soviet intelligence organization. Yuriy was subsequently transferred to the KGB and provided information to Agency officers within Switzerland during the early 1960’s. The KGB officer had seemingly proved his bonafides and was accepted for a time by officials as reliable. Yet, Nosenko’s credibility two years later had been tarnished by the allegations of prior KGB defector Anatoliy Golitsyn.

Yuri Nosenko KGB photo 1957

Counterintelligence Staff Chief James Angleton had Soviet Russia Division officer Tennent Bagley review Anatoliy Golitsyn’s files. This inspection convinced Bagley that KGB defector Yuriy Nosenko was a Russian plant despite prior approving the Soviet defector’s credentials.[ii] When Nosenko reached out again to make contact, Bagley assumed it was a provocation, but case officer George Kisevalter supported the view that former Soviet official was genuine. Two months following the death of America’s president, Bagley and Kisevalter would travel to Switzerland amid a blustery winter night to meet Yuriy Nosenko. A seeming repetition of history, in 1964, brought all three men together again inside a Geneva safe house years after Nosenko’s first debriefing. As can be imagined, Lee Harvey Oswald was a highly discussed topic and the information the KGB officer provided would stun them.

Nosenko claimed that he personally observed regular notations within Oswald’s file and denied the KGB had ever attempted to use the dead man for operational purposes. His statements disturbed some at the Agency, who already had decided the Soviets used Oswald and the investigating President’s Commission disregarded Nosenko’s words. The defector would additionally provide the Agency with operational information and later that fall one lead provided would reveal a Soviet operative named “Sasha” in the US Army fitting Anatoliy Golitsyn’s mole description. Nosenko defected a month later while supposedly facing recall to Moscow and petitioned the CIA for relocation to the US. His request was sent to Agency headquarters and they agreed to protect and exfiltrate the defector from Europe to America. Kisevalter observed the situation as potentially useful for additional intelligence gathering, while Bagley seemingly believed this presented an opportunity to snare a Russian plant. Nosenko was accepted despite the varying motivations of those overseeing his case, but his new life in America would soon resemble a prison when that spring passed.

Scott Miller, 1964

The Counterintelligence Staff Special Investigations Group (CISIG) was still determined to find the presumed mole within the Agency’s ranks during this same period. Birch O’Neal was James Angleton’s direct subordinate overseeing CISIG’s secret review of government employees. He was one of many former Federal Bureau of Investigation agents that subsequently left its ranks for employment with the CIA. Under a cloud of mystery, O’Neal, supported by CISIG Deputy Chief Newton S. Miler, would undertake related investigations. “Scotty” Miler was recruited by US intelligence, in the course of 1946, and served the Agency in the role of case officer handling agents during the 1950’s. As the next decade passed, Miler was a station chief in Ethiopia and transferred at James Angleton’s request to CISIG. During his time working for the special investigations unit, Miler was drawn into the Golitsyn accusations while other members not adhering to a mole’s existence left the counterintelligence group.

A significant amount of the Agency counterintelligence staff’s attention was set upon examining mole hunt suspects within varying official groups. Officials did not consider how much of the CIA’s resources were spent elsewhere that should have been dedicated to assisting the President’s Commission investigation. The counterintelligence staff’s would oversee the Agency’s later Kennedy investigation and its preoccupation with hunting moles likely affected whatever support it offered the Commission. Angleton believed that Nosenko was lying about Lee Harvey Oswald, and thus Golitsyn’s alleged immense Deszinformatsiya (Disinformation) Plot was seemingly underway. The counterintelligence staff believed, as several in the Agency did, that President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was just another Soviet authored plot – a deed the KGB sought to distance themselves from by sending “false” defectors akin to Nosenko. 

CISIG was inspecting Soviet Division officer Richard Kovich, based on the parameters set by defector Anatoliy Golitsyn, during the summer of 1964. Kovich joined the Agency, and by the 1950’s, was assisting George Kisevalter in the handling of several valuable defectors that included Pyotr Popov and Mikhail Federov. He trained agents on defector procedures at headquarters and served in the role of recruitment agent for division sources abroad. Kovich, in the course of 1964, was returning from an extended assignment to the Agency’s Vienna Station, but no promotion awaited him. Despite his success undertaking oversees projects, he was placed in a proverbial employment limbo due to James Angleton blocking his promotion.[iii] The unfortunate Yuriy Nosenko was simultaneously entering a literal hellscape crafted by some of the CIA’s leadership.

Nosenko was in the beginning handled akin to other KGB defectors, but several internal official beliefs and suspicions would conspire to alter his circumstances. He was provided housing, a vacation, and spending money before they began hostile interrogations. Ironically, it was leaders in the eventually crippled Soviet Russia Division that supported early doubts regarding Nosenko and the need to break his will. The FBI would again inform the Agency that Nosenko appeared legitimate and his information was useful, but to no avail. The Soviet defector was captured and incarcerated within a cell following a fixed result polygraph.

Officials inspecting the polygraph would later attest the examination’s “conclusions…were a gross misinterpretation…in some instances the Subject was deemed to be lying when it is know he was telling the truth.”[iv]

Further review of Nosenko’s treatment states, “Although Nosenko had already contributed considerable intelligence of value…Nosenko was treated as one whose guilt had been established.” Yet, no trial occurred, contrary evidence was disregarded, and the Agency hunters did not bother to prove what they claimed. Yuriy was moved from one holding area to a cramped attic, with stifling heat, inside a CIA safe house under twenty-four hour observation. One related document states the only “break” the defector received from solitary confinement were his varying interrogations. In the course of these interrogations, Anatoliy Golitsyn began advising officials how to force Nosenko to confess, and they determined a policy of removing the scant freedoms he was permitted. If Nosenko did not conform to the requests of his interrogators, he would lose “cigarettes, table, chair, reading material, ruler, paper and pencil”. Yet, this seemingly nightmarish attic cell, with no human contact beyond accusation,s was heavenly compared to the years of captivity awaiting Nosenko.

Richard Kovich

The counterintelligence staff at Golitsyn’s suggestion began a deeper investigation of Kovich, as 1965 passed, and within two years had Kovich’s home phone under constant surveillance. Yet, the Federal Bureau of Investigation disputed that Golitsyn’s varying ideas would lead to a KGB mole, and by extension disagreed with the research of Agency counterintelligence staff. [v] [vi] James Angleton began to observe potential suspects at nearly each turn, and denied the promotion of useful officers, without any evidence of their guilt. Documents additionally show that the mole hunters focused on lower ranking division officers and staff for multiple strategic reasons. Angleton likely realized that accusations targeting leading Agency officers might damage his own power base and end the widespread search. CISIG’s quest had thus far weakened the ability of the CIA to conduct Soviet operations due to a presupposition that most sources would be disinformation agents. Peter Karlow, Richard Kovich, and Yuriy Nosenko were just the beginning of a growing list of the mole’s hunts victims.

C.A.A. Savastano

[i]. House Select Committee on Assassinations, Segregated Central Intelligence Agency File, Staff Notes, (n.d.), CIA Performance Study, Mary Ferrell Foundation, maryferrell.org, National Archives and Records Administration Number: 180-10147-10179

[ii]. Central Intelligence Agency, (n.d.), Study: “The Monster Plot” aka The “Hart Report”, MFF, maryferrell.org, pp. 13-15, NARA ID: 104-10534-10205

[iii]. Adam Bernstien, February 27, 2006, CIA Officer Richard Kovich, The Washington Post, washingtonpost.com

[iv]. CIA, Study: “The Monster Plot”, p. 36

[v]. Federal Bureau of Investigation, March 15, 1965, No Title, Interview…With Anatoliy M. Golitsyn, NARA ID: 124-10333-1007

[vi]. Central Intelligence Agency, Janaury 4, 1967, File Card Review, U.S. Citizens General Tab, Surveillance-Electronic- Kovich, R., NARA ID: 104-10096-10321