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The doomsday clock of thermonuclear war moved closer to midnight on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, when the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated by an avowed communist, Lee Harvey Oswald, who had once defected to the Soviet Union. To make matters worse, as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency knew, two months before the assassination, Oswald had traveled to Mexico City and encountered Vladimir Kostikov, an agent in Department 13 of the Soviet KGB spy agency, specializing in assassination. God forbid, if, as these facts suggested, the Soviets were responsible. Miraculously, three months to the day after the assassination, a KGB officer named Yuri Nosenko contacted the CIA for the purpose of defecting to the United States. Once here, Nosenko assured the agency that the KGB had nothing to do with Oswald — and the hand of the doomsday clock moved back. Tennent “Pete” Bagley was Nosenko’s CIA case officer and later head of the Soviet Russia division of CIA counterintelligence. In his new book, Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games, he delves into the defection and controversial interrogation of Nosenko and weighs in on the 45-year debate over whether Nosenko was a genuine defector or a KGB plant. Spy Wars is three books woven into one. The first deals with spy craft. Bagley was an honest-to-goodness spy-catcher who spins real-life tales of how it is done. For example, he not only describes the meetings with Nosenko at a safe house in Vienna but he also tells of a Keystone Cops-style incident at a bar that began as a confrontation between KGB and CIA agents. As the agents argued, Soviet Army troops armed with submachine guns rushed in, followed minutes later by the Austrian police. He also writes of how the KGB wrangled a train seat for its agent next to an American code clerk to recruit him and of the KGB’s penchant for using sexual encounters for blackmail. The second book is about Nosenko. Was he what he claimed to be: a truthful, mid-level KGB officer who had access to Oswald’s KGB file? Or was he, as Bagley believes, an agent provocateur who was purposefully given access to Oswald’s file to make him alluring to the CIA and who was dispatched to confuse and prevent it from discovering “moles,” employees spying for the Soviets? Or was Nosenko a low-level self-promoter who knew little of significance to the CIA and who tried unsuccessfully to bluff his way through years of incarceration and interrogation? And the third book is about the “Cheka,” the original Russian secret police, and its successors that, according to Bagley, aim to deceive and subvert their adversaries both within and outside Russia. BLOW INTO THE MOUTHPIECE A book on the first of these three subjects would be a good read. The public hears too much of the successes of the fictional James Bond and not enough of the difficulties of Pete Bagleys. For example, Bagley writes that in case of trouble, the CIA spy Col. Oleg Penkovsky “was given two phone numbers of America Embassy personnel, either of which he could ring. When a man answered the phone, Penkovsky was to blow into the mouthpiece three times, then wait one minute and repeat the procedure.” Unfortunately, one time when this system was supposed to be working and the phone rang at the embassy, the wife of an American military attach� was the only one there to answer. She “received two voiceless calls in succession. She could not hear any blowing into the phone, and she counted three minutes between the calls instead of one.” Bagley believes that Penkovsky had already been arrested by the time these calls were made and that it was the KGB calling. Penkovsky, one of the CIA’s most important spies inside the Soviet Union, was executed. The second subject, the mystery of Yuri Nosenko, is treated less successfully. Bagley argues that Nosenko wildly exaggerated his importance and knowledge of KGB operations and was a plant. But the point is bogged down with details. When he was working on the Nosenko case at the CIA, Bagley prepared a “1,000-page summary” of Nosenko’s misstatements. He squeezes many of these into the book. And, as for long-standing allegations that the CIA’s detention of Nosenko on a farm in Virginia was illegal and perhaps a precursor to Abu Ghraib, Bagley dismisses critics, saying, “Nosenko’s supporters in CIA later attacked it as a �torture vault’ or �dungeon’ whereas the [CIA] Office of Security designed it simply to permit a minimum guard force to prevent escape.” The third subject presents Bagley’s side (and that of his former boss, the late James Angleton, head of the CIA’s counterintelligence staff) of the debate over how much of the CIA’s resources should be devoted to worrying about the spy agencies of the Soviet Union and its successors. The Cheka, Bagley argues, mastered the art of making white look black, enemies look like friends, and opposing spy agencies blind to penetration by moles. Thus, he sees signs that the CIA was penetrated in the 1950s and 1960s by an undetected mole, just as it was in the 1980s and 1990s by Aldrich Ames and as it may be today. One trouble with Bagley’s approach of combining three books in one is that the first and most interesting, about spy craft, gets short shrift. Another is that Bagley devotes the rest of the book to arguing a terribly complicated case that has already and repeatedly been debated within the CIA. Although Bagley strongly disagrees, the critique of Angleton’s theories, levied more than 30 years ago by then-CIA Director William Colby, whom Bagley quotes, rings as true for Bagley’s book today: “I spent several long sessions doing my best to follow tortuous theories about the long arm of a powerful and wily KGB at work, over decades, placing its agents in the heart of allied and neutral nations and sending its false defectors to influence and undermine American policy. I confess that I couldn’t absorb it, possibly because I did not have the requisite grasp of this labyrinthine subject, possibly because Angleton’s explanations were impossible to follow, or possibly because the evidence just didn’t add up to his conclusions.” For those willing to devote the time and attention required, Spy Wars is a chance to judge for themselves if Colby’s take was right. But whether the question is as relevant today as Bagley suggests is dubious. Today, the Cheka and KGB pale in comparison to international terrorist organizations like al-Qaida. The only thing the KGB had that al-Qaida doesn’t — yet — was an atomic bomb.
James H. Johnston is a D.C. lawyer and a frequent contributor to Legal Times . He served on the staff of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from 1975 to 1976, where he had the opportunity to hear James Angleton expound on the Nosenko case.

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