The Imprisoned Defector

Hearty alpine thistles were in bloom in the rural lanes outside Geneva, Switzerland in the summer of 1962. Just beyond this scenic atmosphere "KGB officer Yuriy Ivanovich Nosenko contacted the CIA...Over the course of five meetings he provided sufficient information to enable the two officers from CIA's Soviet Russia establish that he was a bona fide source. The major information furnished by him at that time was the identification of a US code technician who had been recruited by the KGB, and the identification of the location of KGB microphones in the US Embassy in Moscow, 52 of which were later found." Nosenko's eventual defection and the drastic shift in his treatment would lead to years of solitary imprisonment.

Strident anti-Communist James Angleton was the Agency's Counterintelligence Chief for twenty years and was highly paranoid of potential Communist plots. This paranoia stemmed in part from Angleton's prior associations with Kim Philby. Philby was among the most famous Soviet moles in British intelligence history. His service to the Soviets compromised significant operational information held by British and American intelligence organizations.     

When Angleton's Counterintelligence Staff learned about Nosenko, Angleton "regarded this news within the context of what they had been hearing from a KGB defector whom they were debriefing Anatoliy Mikhaylovich Golitsyn. Golitsyn...was a counterintelligence officer who was obsessed with the subject of KGB deception operations. Even though Golitsyn was diagnosed in early 1962 as a 'paranoid personality,' the CI Staff had complete faith in the validity of his theories and analysis." The CI Staff offered a redacted version of Nosenko's offered comments to Golitsyn and he "...flatly concluded that Nosenko was acting under KGB control." Based on little beyond Golitsyn's assertions "The CI Staff accepted Golitsyn's analysis and persuaded the management of SR (Soviet Russia) Division also to accept it."

Angleton's staff members would eventually dismiss the proven circumstances and embrace speculations regarding Nosenko's statements. "By the time Nosenko was again heard from, in January 1964, again in Geneva, the management of SR and CI Staff was firmly committed to the position that Nosenko was part of a KGB deception operation."  After Nosenko's defection February 4, 1964 " matter what he would say, CI Staff and SR Division would twist it to prove that it was either already known and therefore worthless, or of little value and therefore a deception ploy designed to lead away from cases of real value. "  Some officials conspired to ignore the contending evidence for their predisposed beliefs.

One Agency review states, "Mr. Nosenko, like any other human source, has made some errors of fact and analysis, in addition he long admitted that in 1964 he embellished some aspects of his status to pressure us into granting him asylum...."   However, normal mistakes and unverifiable information was used to indict all of Nosenko's statements. Agency employee John Hart testified that "...Angleton had approved hostile interrogation of Nosenko, which he (Angleton) said was untrue...I do recall Hart saying to me there is little by way of records connecting Angleton with the handling of the case. Angleton described Hart's statements as slanderous and perjured."   

One Agency employee states "...Mr. Nosenko was interrogated on the basis of preconception prevalent in certain elements of the intelligence community at the time...He is not the only man, during that period, whose bona fides was suspect...Mr. Nosenko's interrogation as distinguished from methodical debriefing, was based  in significant respects on the transcripts of early questioning of him. The records of those early debriefings were put in transcripts form, translated to English.  They contained a number of mistranslations, which came to be used as the basis for testing the consistency of what he said."  These mistakes coupled with Golitsyn and Angleton's paranoia falsely brand Nosenko a loyal KGB agent. 

"It takes little imagination to understand how interrogation of a man, challenging such apparent inconsistencies, could compound initial distortions and build a record that could never wholly be righted. When the extended period of detention (three years) under the most spartan of living conditions is added to this, with recurring intensive interrogation, one must recognize the permanent harm risked to the record and to his unburdened memory."    

In 1964, Deputy Director for Plans Richard Helms conversed with Nicholas Katzenbach at the Department of Justice. They talked about disposal options for Nosenko. "We will soon feel compelled to begin hostile interrogation of (Nosenko) against his will for this purpose. Second, we would have to be deport him. We had thought of...Germany and transferring him to Soviet custody." The justification for Nosenko's enduring captivity relied upon his status as " exclusion and parole case". He was "paroled to the Agency which is responsible for him while he is in the country...if he said he wished to leave the country to return to the Soviet Union, technically we would not be able to detain him further." The memo concluded stating, "...Mr. Helms thanked Mr. Katzenbach for his assistance and we departed amid some jovial banter with respect to "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" about what we expected to happen to him when he started to climb over that "wall" in Berlin."  Unconsidered in the "jovial" banter was that if Soviets gained control of Nosenko, he likely would face torture and execution for his legitimate defection.

Agency employee Thomas Ryan debriefed Nosenko regarding knowledge of Lee Harvey Oswald in 1964.  Yet beyond this occasion almost no "...effort was made to debrief Nosenko systematically, and CI Staff members never even spoke to him. SR Division spent most of its efforts trying to make Nosenko confess that he was under KGB control; when these efforts were unsuccessful, Nosenko was simple left alone in his detention cell." Officials dismiss the information Nosenko offered until years after the President's Commission was over. Nosenko had prior told the Agency that Oswald was not a KGB agent or under Soviet influence, this did not agree with some Agency employees committed to implicating Oswald as a Communist operative.

"The problem at the time was real. There was little that could be done to clarify or verify the few things Nosenko had to say about Lee Harvey Oswald. As an officer in the KGB's Second Chief Directorate there is reason to assume he would not have known the details of Oswald's relationship with the First Chief Directorate, assuming that such existed. It seemed the case had to be resolved...The course chosen by those given responsibility for him was to break him...The steps taken were then, and are now, unacceptable...We now know that much of the record is built on him was founded on initial errors perpetuated and compounded by the unprofessional way in which he was handled. We have taken steps to ensure that such an occurrence will not be repeated."

"In 1967 Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms turned Nosenko's case over to the Office of Security for final resolution, and at the same time the FBI began a review of the information it had obtained from Nosenko. The results of these two very thorough investigations...both of which concluded that Nosenko was who he claimed to be and was a bona fide defector. Since that time this has been and is the position of CIA. Nosenko was probably the most valuable source of counterintelligence information that the US Government has ever had, and the enormous scope and value of his information attest conclusively to his bona fides as a defector. 

Nosenko identified some 2,000 KGB officers and 300 Soviets who were acting as KGB agents. He provided information on some 238 Americans in whom the KGB agents. He provided information on 238 Americans in whom the KGB had displayed some interest, including many who had been recruited."  The CIA mistreated and for years imprisoned perhaps their best source from within the KGB. In one unnamed Agency official's assessment, "...former U.S. Government employees contesting current Agency views on Mr. Nosenko are essentially defending the conduct of their own stewardship...The cries of outrage of these former employees cannot be judged as wholly objective. Certainly, their brutal abuse of Mr. Nosenko remains a blot on the Agency, as their conduct, which cannot be retrieved by shrill denunciations. The fact remains that Mr. Nosenko was accorded inexcusable treatment. The intelligence record of his a further dark aspect of the matter"   

"While the Office of Security files do document the rationale for the original confinement of (Nosenko), they do not document the rationale for his continued confinement over so long a period of time..." many officials were unaware of the internal Agency wrangling over Nosenko's defector status. In 1969, the Agency grants Nosenko a Florida vacation during which Central Intelligence Agency "...personnel, with apparent Headquarters approval, obtained the services of prostitutes. This apparently occurred on at least two occasions." It seems the Agency felt so remorseful for its prior vile treatment of Nosenko it disregarded normal laws. Nosenko eventually was "...ultimately released to private life, as a result, and since then has proven a valuable asset of the American Government." Declassification eventually reveals Nosenko's harsh treatment and possibly limits future useful defections. The operational details of the matter are a warning to officials seeking to utilize a foreign defector; its occurrence is a warning to Americans concerned with secret actions undertaken in the public's name.  
C.A.A. Savastano
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i. House Select Committee on Assassinations, Segregated Central Intelligence Agency file, The Bona Fides of Yuriy Ivanovich Nosenko, (n.d.)

ii. HSCA, Seg. CIA file, The Bona Fides of Y. Nosenko, (n.d.)
iii. HSCA, Seg. CIA file, "Letter Concerning the CIA's handling of Yuri Nosenko", Box 12, (n.d.)
iv. HSCA, Seg. CIA file, Inquiry from James Angleton, Box 11, p. 2

v. HSCA, Seg. CIA file, "Letter Concerning the CIA's handling of Yuri Nosenko", Box 12, (n.d.)
vi. Central Intelligence Agency, Russ Holmes Work file, Memorandum: This folder relates to questions #20 in your letter of 30 January 1975, Discussion with Deputy Attorney General on Iden 1 Case, April 2, 1964
vii. HSCA, Seg. CIA file, Deposition for the HSCA (Thomas A. Ryan), pp. 1-3
viii. HSCA, Seg. CIA file, The Bona Fides of Y. Nosenko, (n.d.)
ix. HSCA, Seg. CIA, "Letter Concerning the CIA's handling..." p.2
x. CIA, Russ Holmes Work file, Memorandum: This folder relates to questions #20 in your letter of 30 January 1975, KGB Officer, (n.d.)

xi. CIA, Russ Holmes Work file, Memo: Discussion with Deputy Attorney General on Nosenko Case,  Defectors-Nosenko, p. 1