Yuri Nosenko

Yuri Nosenko

Yuri Nosenko was born in Mykolaiv, Russia (now Ukraine), on 30th October 1927. His father, Ivan Nosenko, served under Joseph Stalin for nearly 20 years as the Soviet minister of shipbuilding.

While he was at the Frunze Higher Naval School he had deliberately shot himself in the foot to avoid military service. Despite this poor start to his military career, his father managed to arrange for him to enter the KGB in 1953. "There, he soon developed a reputation as a womanizer and drinker, and wore out his welcome among his father's old cronies. It took his mother's plea to the wives of the Kremlin powers, in particular the wife of Aleksei N. Kosygin, to save his career." (1)

Nosenko became deputy chief of the Seventh Department of the KGB. His main responsibility was the recruitment of foreign spies. In 1961 Nosenko was a member of the Soviet delegation to disarmament talks in Geneva. While in the city he was robbed of $200 by a prostitute. In an attempt to repay the money he approached a US official he knew to sell secrets. Nosenko was put into contact with Tennant H. Bagley, a member of the CIA. He revealed that he served in the Far East and specialized in the recruitment of tourists in Tokyo and other cities. Nosenko also told Bagley about listening devices at the US embassy in Moscow, and confirmed the identities of British Admiralty clerk John Vassall, the Canadian ambassador John Watkins and the CIA agent Edward Ellis Smith, all compromised in KGB "honeytrap" stings". (2)

Yuri Nosenko & Anatoli Golitsin

Some of this information had been revealed by an earlier defector, Anatoli Golitsin. But Nosenko denied Golitsin's claim of another Soviet mole higher up in the Admiralty, and refused to defect on the grounds he would not leave his wife and children behind. Golitsyn had been interviewed by James Jesus Angleton. A fellow officer, Edward Perry, later recalled: "With the single exception of Golitsyn, Angleton was inclined to assume that any defector or operational asset in place was controlled by the KGB." Angleton and his staff began debriefing Golitsyn. He told Angleton: "Your CIA has been the subject of continuous penetration... A contact agent who served in Germany was the major recruiter. His code name was SASHA. He served in Berlin... He was responsible for many agents being taken by the KGB." (3) In these interviews Golitsyn argued that as the KGB would be so concerned about his defection, they would attempt to convince the CIA that the information he was giving them would be completely unreliable. He predicted that the KGB would send false defectors with information that contradicted what he was saying. The CIA were now uncertain whether to believe Golitsin or Nosenko.

Lee Harvey Oswald

In January 1964 Nosenko contacted the CIA and said he had changed his mind and was now willing to defect to the United States. He claimed that he had been recalled to Moscow to be interrogated. Nosenko feared that the KGB had discovered he was a double-agent and once back in the Soviet Union would be executed. He claimed that he had been put in charge of the KGB investigation into Lee Harvey Oswald. He denied the Oswald had any connection with KGB. After interviewing Oswald it was decided that he was not intelligent enough to work as a KGB agent. They were also concerned that he was "too mentally unstable" to be of any use to them. Nosenko added that the KGB had never questioned Oswald about information he had acquired while a member of the U.S. Marines. This surprised the CIA as Oswald had worked as a Aviation Electronics Operator at the Atsugi Air Base in Japan. (4)

J. Edgar Hoover welcomed the information from Nosenko: "Nosenko's assurances that Yekaterina Furtseva herself had stopped the KGB from recruiting Oswald gave Hoover the evidence he needed to clear the Soviets of complicity in the Kennedy murder - and, even more from Hoover's point of view, clear the FBI of gross negligence. Hoover took this raw, unverified, and untested intelligence and leaked it to members of the Warren Commission and to President Johnson." (5) Members of the Warren Commission were pleased to hear this information as it helped to confirm the idea that Oswald had acted alone and was not part of a Soviet conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy.

CIA and Yuri Nosenko

Richard Helms, the CIA's Deputy Director of Plans, was not convinced that Yuri Nosenko was telling the truth: "Since Nosenko was in the agency's hands this became one of the most difficult issues to face that the agency had ever faced. Here a President of the United States had been murdered and a man had come from the Soviet Union, an acknowledged Soviet intelligence officer, and said his service had never been in touch with Oswald and knew nothing about him. This strained credulity at the time. It strains it to this day." (6)

Evan Thomas, the author of The Very Best Men (1995), points out that James Jesus Angleton also did not believe Nosenko. "Angleton never got over suspecting that the Russians or Cubans plotted to kill Kennedy. He thought that the Russians or Cubans plotted to kill Kennedy. He thought the Russian defector, Yuri Nosenko, who claimed that the Kremlin was innocent, was a KGB plant to throw the CIA off the trail. But most reputable students of the Kennedy assassination have concluded that Khrushchev and Castro did not kill Kennedy, if only because neither man wanted to start World War III." (7)

Anatoli Golitsin provided information that supported Angleton's view. He had worked in some of the same departments as Nosenko but had never met him. After being interviewed for several days Nosenko admitted that some aspects of his story were not true. For example, Nosenko had previously said he was a lieutenant colonel in the KGB. Nosenko confessed that he had exaggerated his rank to make himself attractive to the CIA. However, initially he had provided KGB documents that said Nosenko was a lieutenant colonel. (8)

The story was further complicated by the fact that another Soviet KGB defector under FBI control (code name Fedora) corroborated Nosenko's story. Therefore, if Nosenko was lying, it meant that Fedora was also a disinformation agent sent to the United States to confuse the security agencies. Nosenko was given two lie detector tests by the CIA. Both suggested he was lying about Lee Harvey Oswald.


The CIA now decided to put Nosenko under intense physical physical and psychological pressure. This involved him being kept in solitary confinement for 1,277 days. A light was left burning in his unheated cell for twenty-four hours a day and he was given nothing to read and his guards were ordered not to speak to him. However, Nosenko did not crack and insisted that Oswald was not a KGB agent. (9)

James Jesus Angleton believed that Anatoli Golitsin was a genuine double-agent but argued that Nosenko was part of a disinformation campaign. However, Richard Helms (CIA) and J. Edgar Hoover (FBI) believed Nosenko and considered Golitsin was a fake. In 1969 Nosenko was released and given a false identity. He became an adviser to the CIA and the FBI on a salary of more than $35,000 a year. He was also given a lump sum of $150,000 as payment for his ordeal. (10)

Yuri Nosenko died on 23rd August 2008.

Primary Sources

(1) Stansfield Turner, Secrecy and Democracy (1985)

Exactly one year after these hearings on drug experimentation, the CIA was back in the press for another error of the past. This time it was the prolonged incarceration of a Soviet defector, Yuri Nosenko, who came to the United States in 1964, a few months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Nosenko came to public attention in 1978, when a special committee was set up in the House of Representatives to study the assassination again. Nosenko had been a KGB officer during the time that Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had lived in the Soviet Union, from 1959 to 1962. When Nosenko first arrived in the United States, he was extensively debriefed by the intelligence agencies. He was especially interrogated about any connection between Oswald and the KGB. He contended that the KGB had paid no attention to Oswald. Now, in 1978, this special House committee wanted to review Nosenko's testimony on that issue. This led to an airing of the disgraceful way the CIA had attempted to determine whether Nosenko was telling the truth.

It was the job of the counterintelligence branch under James Jesus Angleton (whom Schlesinger had mentioned to me warily) to check on whether a defector was truly defecting or pretending to defect in order to spy on the United States. Angleton concluded that since Oswald had worked on the U2 spy plane when he was in the U.S. Marine Corps, it was unlikely that the KGB would have overlooked him entirely when he was in the Soviet Union. There was, then, cause to be suspicious of Nosenko's story about Oswald. It appeared to Angleton that the Soviets might have sent Nosenko to plant a story that would absolve them of any complicity with Oswald in the Kennedy assassination. Angleton's suspicions were heightened by an earlier Soviet defector, Anatoli Golitsyn, who claimed he knew Nosenko was a double agent. In Nosenko's favor, if he were a genuine defector, was that his knowledge of Soviet intelligence operations would have been more current than Golitsyn's, making him more valuable to us than Golitsyn.

(2) Edward Jay Epstein, Who Killed the CIA? The Confessions of Stansfield Turner (October, 1985)

Although Turner had had little previous experience in intelligence, he viewed it simply as a problem of assessing data, or, as he described it to his son, nothing more than "bean' counting." Accepting the position of "chief bean counter," he assumed that he could bring the CIA, and American intelligence, to the same standard of operational efficiency he had brought the ships under his command. The four-year effort to achieve this goal is the subject of his book, Secrecy and Democracy: The CIA in Transition.'

He quickly found, however, that the CIA was a far more complex and elusive entity than he had expected. To begin with, the acting CIA Director, Henry Knoche, rather than behaving like a ship's "executive officer," surprised Turner by refusing his "captain's" first order: a request that Knoche accompany him to meetings with congressional leaders. As far as Turner was concerned, this was insubordination (and Knoche's days were numbered). When he met with other senior executives of the CIA at a series of dinners, he found "a disturbing lack of specificity and clarity" in their answers. On the other hand, he found the written CIA reports presented to him "too long and detailed to be useful." He notes that "my first encounters with the CIA did not convey either the feeling of a warm welcome or a sense of great competence."- This assessment that led to the retirement of many of these senior officers.

Turner was further frustrated by the system of Secrecy that kept vital intelligence hermetically contained in bureaucratic "compartments" within the CIA. Not only did he view such secrecy as irrational, he began to suspect that it cloaked a wide range of unethical activities. He became especially concerned with abuses in the espionage division, which he discovered was heavily overstaffed with case officers-some of whom, on the pretext of seeing agents abroad, were disbursing large sums in "expenses" to themselves, keeping mistresses, and doing business with international arms dealers. Aside from such petty corruption, Turner feared that these compartmentalized espionage operations could enmesh the entire CIA in a devastating scandal. The potential for such a "disgrace," as he puts it, was made manifest to him by a single traumatic case that occurred in the 1960's, one which he harks back to throughout his book, and which he uses to justify eliminating the essential core of the CIA's espionage service.

The villain of this case, as Turner describes it, is James Jesus Angleton, who was chief of the CIA's counterintelligence staff from 1954 to 1974; the victim was Yuri Nosenko, a KGB officer who began collaborating, with the CIA in 1962 and then defected to the United States in 1964, and who claimed to have read all the KGB files on Lee Harvey Oswald. The crime was the imprisonment of Nosenko, -which, according to Turner, was "a travesty of the rights of the individual under the law." It all began in 1964, after Nosenko arrived in the United States. Turner states that Angleton "decided that Nosenko was a double agent, and set out to force him to confess. . . . When he would not give in to normal interrogation, Angleton's team set out to break the man psychologically. A small prison was built, expressly for him."

(3) Jim Marrs, Crossfire: The Plot that Killed Kennedy (1990)

In a remarkable attempt to resolve the issue, Nosenko underwent "hostile interrogation." He was kept in solitary confinement for 1,277 days under intense physical and psychological pressure.

He was put on a diet of weak tea, macaroni, and porridge, given nothing to read, a light was left burning in his unheated cell twenty-four hours a day, and his guards were forbidden to speak with him or even smile. His Isolation was so complete that Nosenko eventually began to hallucinate, according to CIA testimony before the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Toward the end of this ordeal, Nosenko was given at least two lie detector tests by the CIA. He failed both. But Nosenko did not crack.

The believers of Nosenko, headed by the CIA's Richard Helms and J. Edgar Hoover, took his intransigence to mean that he was telling the truth but the KGB having no interest in Oswald.

But doubts remained. So at the CIA's request, the Warren Commission obligingly made no reference to Nosenko. Angleton retired from the CIA and later wrote: "The ... exoneration or official decision that Nosenko is/was bona fide is a travesty. It is an indictment of the CIA and, if the FBI subscribes to it, of that bureau too. The ramifications for the U.S. intelligence community, and specifically the CIA, are tragic."

The counterintelligence faction, led by Angleton, still believes that Nosenko's defection was contrived by the KGB for two purposes: to allay suspicions that the Soviets had anything to do with the JFK assassination to cover for Soviet "moles," or agents deep within US intelligence.

(4) Arkady Shevchenko, Breaking With Moscow (1985)

In November 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Everyone in the (Soviet) mission was stunned and confused, particularly when there were rumors that the murder had been Soviet-inspired... Our leaders would not have been so upset by the assassination if they had planned it and the KGB would not have taken upon itself to venture such a move without Politburo approval. More important, Khrushchev's view of Kennedy had changed. After Cuba, Moscow perceived Kennedy as the one who had accelerated improvement of relations between the two countries. Kennedy was seen as a man of strength and determination, the one thing that Kremlin truly understands and respects. In addition, Moscow firmly believed that Kennedy's assassination was a scheme by "reactionary forces" within the United States seeking to damage the new trend in relations. The Kremlin ridiculed the Warren Commission's conclusion that Oswald had acted on his own as the sole assassin. There was in fact widespread speculation among Soviet diplomats that Lyndon Johnson, along with the CIA and the Mafia, had masterminded the plot. Perhaps one of the most potent reasons why the U.S.S.R. wished Kennedy well was that Johnson was anathema to Khrushchev. Because he was a southerner, Moscow considered him a racist (the stereotype of any American politician from below the Mason Dixon line), an anti-Soviet and anti-Communist to the core. Further, since Johnson was from Texas, a center of the most reactionary forces in the United States, according to the Soviets, he was associated with the big-time capitalism of the oil industry, also known to be anti-Soviet.

(5) James Scott Linville, review of Tennant H. Bagley's Spy Wars (24th July, 2008)

An old-school espionage story from the early Cold War, “Pete” Bagley was the counter-intelligence officer who handled the noted case of the defector Yuri Nosenko. The question of whether Nosenko was a bona fide defector, or had been dispatched as part of a deception plot, tore the CIA apart for the better part of a decade. Some forty years later Bagley finally makes public his report, and it diverges considerably from the comfortable version of events the agency has long presented.

In The Spectator, Oleg Gordievsky described the author, one-time head of Soviet Block Counter-Intelligence for the CIA, as "one of the most respected and knowledgeable experts on Soviet espionage." The book, he said, was "perhaps the most amazing non-fiction spy book that has ever appeared during or after the Cold War."

After my second reading I turned to a series of "twenty unavoidable questions" posed by Bagley. Bagley's questions are indeed unavoidable. What's more, his account was persuasive that the Russian defector could not have been who he said he was; that Nosenko could not have, as he’d claimed, reviewed the file of Lee Harvey Oswald; and that Nosenko's stories of how the KGB discovered the identities of two CIA moles in Moscow could not have been true. David Ignatius in the Washington Post wrote, "It's impossible to read this book without developing doubts about Nosenko's bona fides. Spy Wars should reopen the Nosenko case." I don't know what it would mean to "open" a case forty years old, but certainly a new generation of analysts and historians should examine the case. The account of the long history of deception operations, stretching back to Peter the Great, is alone worth the price of the book.

So, why did the Soviet's concoct such a deception? In the book Bagley argues that the KGB's real game was to steer the CIA away from realizing that the Russians had recruited an American code clerk in Moscow in 1949, and perhaps two others later on.

(6) The Daily Telegraph (28th August, 2008)

The controversy over Nosenko's bona fides was to continue for years, and had the effect of splitting the American counter-intelligence community. The central issue was the concept of the "dispatched defector": the idea that a professional intelligence agency would risk sending a well-informed staff officer directly and deliberately into the hands of an adversary.

On the one hand, the Counterintelligence Staff, led by James Angleton, found it impossible to reconcile the many inconsistencies in the defector's story; they pointed out that Nosenko's family was part of Moscow's elite and that he was therefore an improbable traitor. Furthermore, Nosenko's claim that he had had access to Oswald's file, a claim made just as the Warren Commission was investigating the background of the assassination, seemed a little too convenient – especially as Nosenko's essential message was that the KGB had been innocent of any plot.

The case against Nosenko was made in Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries and Deadly Games (2007), a book by Pete Bagley, a CIA officer stationed in Switzerland in the early 1960s who initially handled Nosenko's case.

The opposing view suggested that Nosenko was a hard-drinking womaniser who had found himself in financial difficulty in Geneva and, in turning to the CIA for help, had exaggerated his own status.

(7) Michael Carlson, The Guardian (1st September, 2008)

The argument about whether Nosenko was bona fide or a KGB plant would, according to David Wise's Molehunt (1992), "split the agency into two camps, creating scars that had yet to heal decades later". Indeed, just last year, in his book Spy Wars, Tennent "Pete" Bagley, Nosenko's original CIA handler, continued to argue that Nosenko was a KGB "provocateur and dissembler", which caused the CIA director Michael Hayden to visit Nosenko just a month before his death, bringing a ceremonial flag and official letter of thanks....

The arguments for Nosenko's being a plant are thin. He could not undo Golitsin, and if the KGB worried that Oswald was a clumsy attempt to frame them for Kennedy's assassination, it could be countered through back-channels. Yet Nosenko's crippling of American intelligence could not have been more effective had the KGB orchestrated it. The increasingly paranoid Angleton would suspect the likes of Pierre Trudeau, Olaf Palme and Willi Brandt of being Soviet agents. When he started suspecting his own superiors at the CIA, he was forced into retirement.

KGB assets within the agency, such as Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanson, would be exposed not by counter-intelligence, but by their own over-confidence. And Nosenko would die, under an assumed name after "a long illness".


(1) Joseph Trento, The Secret History of the CIA (2001) page 242

(2) Michael Carlson, The Guardian (1st September, 2008)

(3) Edward Perry, interviewed by Joseph Trento (21st July, 1988)

(4) Richard Helms, A Look Over My Shoulder (2003) page 240

(5) Joseph Trento, The Secret History of the CIA (2001) page 284

(6) John Ranelagh, The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA (1987) page 320

(7) Evan Thomas, The Very Best Men: The Early Years of the CIA (1995) page 308

(8) David Martin, Wilderness of Mirrors (1980) page 161

(9) Joseph Trento, The Secret History of the CIA (2001) page 285-286

(10) The Daily Telegraph (28th August, 2008)