Spy wars: Moles, mysteries and deadly games

Spy Wars book coverWhen it first came out in hardback in 2007 Tennent H Bagley’s book immediately caused a storm in intelligence circles for its detailed dissection of the Yuri Nosenko defection case.

Controversies over Nosenko’s defection in 1963 – was he a genuine defector or was he a KGB plant? – have always had a wider significance, for two primary reasons. Nosenko presented evidence about what JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald got up to in Russia. In addition, the Nosenko case was central to the beliefs of a group of CIA officers, led by James Jesus Angleton, the long-serving head of the CIA’s counter-intelligence department, that the CIA and other Western intelligence services were riddled with KGB infiltration and frequently misled by false information planted by the KGB. Subsequent senior CIA staff, along with most of the published accounts of the time, have been highly critical of Angleton and his supporters, painting them as people who became paralysed by paranoia as they saw treachery everywhere.

By focusing in so heavily on the Nosenko case, Bagley’s book avoids these wider questions. A reader unacquainted with the wider contest would not realise from the book that, for example, one of the molehunters Angleton set to work ended up concluding (possibly tongue-in-cheek) in a written report that Angleton himself must be a KGB mole because of the disruption that all his suspicions had caused. Nor would such a reader be aware of just how paranoid and inaccurate another KGB defector, Anatoli Golitsyn, became. Golitsyn’s credibility is important because Golitsyn did not believe Nosenko was genuine, whilst Nosenko’s evidence often contradicted that of Golitsyn.

However, the strength of Bagley’s book is that by concentrating in on a narrow argument – that Nosenko was a fake because of the errors and contradictions in his evidence – he makes a persuasive case. He also, to his credit, makes some effort to explain why so many people took a contrary view, though these arguments are not always convincing thanks to the silence about the wider context. The one piece of context Bagley does provide – and convincingly – is the record of the KGB and its predecessors at running large scale disinformation campaigns, particularly during the Second World War. Added to what we know about the successful disinformation campaigns around D-Day, Bagley rightly makes the point that apparently complex and paranoid concerns about being the victim of a sophisticated disinformation campaign are sometimes well-founded.

The heart of the book is a long and detailed examination of many claims that Nosenko made which Bagley, the CIA case officer who initially handled him, was intimately involved in checking. Bagley does this in a well-written and fast-paced account that, though detailed, reads more like a spy novel for long periods rather than a detailed academic examination.

The difficulty for the reader is in evaluating the claims he makes without knowing in full the reasons others had for dismissing them. It is notable, for example, that Christopher Andrews – a regular historian of intelligence matters and who has had extensive access to official British records and to prominent defectors – was not convinced by this book, even if his review for the Sunday Times was light on detail.

For those interested in the assassination of Oswald, the book implies that the truth over Nosenko does not really matter – either he was genuinely telling the truth about the lack of KGB contact with Oswald when he was in the USSR, or he was sent with a false story – but a false story to reassure the Americans of the truth that the KGB had indeed not been involved with Oswald.

A note if you get the audio version of this book: it is read by the author who has a voice well suited to tales of mysterious intrigue. He also has a habit of pausing at odd places in sentences, so you need to quickly adjust to his way of speaking if you are not to find that style irritating.

You can buy Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games by TH Bagley from Amazon here.

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