Once-secret files reveal new details of CIA’s divisive defector dispute

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Once-secret government documents are revealing new, long-hidden details on one of the CIA’s biggest Cold War controversies, involving defecting Soviet intelligence agents and U.S. counterspy programs targeting the Kremlin’s strategic deception operations against the West.

Documents made public last month include formerly top-secret interviews with senior CIA counterintelligence officials, including legendary counterspy chief James Jesus Angleton, who was at the center of the bitter, long-running dispute within the agency over the reliability of two top Soviet defectors, Yuri Nosenko and Anatoli Golitsyn.

The controversy relates to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the role of Nosenko, a KGB agent who defected shortly after the murder in Dallas. Angleton and his staff believed Nosenko was a false defector dispatched by Moscow to mislead U.S. intelligence regarding Kennedy‘s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.

Angleton, who died in 1987, remains a towering figure in intelligence circles among both supporters and detractors, a shadowy master counterspy who became the subject of both novels and nonfiction for decades. David Robarge, an official CIA historian, described Angleton as “one of the most influential and divisive intelligence officers in U.S. history.”

“He shaped CIA counterintelligence for better or worse for 20 years from 1954 to 1974 — nearly half of the agency’s Cold War existence — and his eccentricities and excesses have been widely portrayed as paradigmatic of how not to conduct counterintelligence,” Mr. Robarge said.

But others credit Angleton with protecting CIA operations from spy penetration through the use of defectors from Moscow that helped roll up large numbers of Soviet spies and agents around the world.

Before leaving the CIA in December 1974, Angleton had sought to reorient the agency as a strategic counterintelligence service that would target the KGB and related spy agencies in seeking to take down the Soviet Union. Instead, the agency’s counterintelligence function after his departure was downgraded and removed as an independent function, an action critics say resulted in major failures at the agency years later.

A CIA spokeswoman declined to comment on Angleton and the defector controversy. The CIA is committed to “maximum transparency” in releasing government records on the Kennedy assassination, she said.

New details

Classified U.S. government documents released Dec. 15 related to the Kennedy assassination provide new details of Angleton and his efforts to find moles — Soviet penetration agents — and counter what he regarded as the major threat to U.S. security. A 1975 report to a presidential commission probing the agency’s domestic activities includes testimony by the former CIA counterspy chief who was forced out of his job in December 1974.

In the document, Angleton warned the commission headed by then-Vice President Nelson Rockefeller that U.S. anti-Soviet counterintelligence efforts had been severely weakened at CIA after his departure. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover considered the program a low priority, he said.

Angleton told the commission he regarded the defector Golitsyn as a superior source of intelligence, with intimate knowledge of a major Soviet strategic deception operation. The program, according to Angleton, involved the widespread use of false defectors such as Nosenko, and disinformation operations designed to fool and frustrate Western intelligence agencies, he said.

Golitsyn, according to Angleton, gained special access to Soviet secrets and alleged that U.S.-Soviet detente – the policy of easing of relations that began under President Nixon — was a strategic deception aimed at subverting the West.

“If there is validity to the information derived from Golitsyn, then it would follow that detente and estimates derived therefrom are misleading with regard to events in Portugal, Vietnam and other areas where we are in competition with the Soviets and the bloc,” he said. Most information provided from official Soviet contacts is “spurious,” Angleton added.

More accurate intelligence could be gleaned by intelligence analysts if they relied less on public or overt reporting on Soviet intentions in reports from diplomats, and instead turned to secret information from sources within the Soviet system “whose warnings regarding disinformation have been universally ignored,” he said.

The CIA counterspy chief told the commission that “several thousand man-hours” were spent by officials analyzing Nosenko’s information, and key elements of his testimony produced doubts that his defection was legitimate.

Nosenko, who was held in detention for three years after his defection in an unsuccessful effort to break him, asserted that while in the KGB internal security service he had read the case file on Oswald, a onetime Marine who had defected to Moscow and later returned to the U.S. and carried out the assassination. Oswald‘s time in Russia and his possible links to the Soviet government became a subject of intense scrutiny in the investigation.

Angleton said in the testimony that he blocked Nosenko’s information from being used by the Warren Commission investigating the assassination because of suspicions Nosenko was a plant who remained secretly loyal to the KGB.

Nosenko was regarded as a “dispatched agent” sent to provide false information about the assassination, as well as about the ring of Soviet agents in Britain such as senior MI-6 double agent Kim Philby and four confederates. Nosenko also was believed to have provided false information about KGB operations in France and double agents in the United States, Angleton testified.

“Given the timing of his defection, shortly after the assassination, his account – not borne out by the initial polygraph – may be viewed as exonerating the Soviets of any complicity with Oswald, thus supporting the flimsy documentation on Oswald handed over to the U.S. government by the USSR,” Angleton stated.

Angleton also doubted Nosenko’s claim that Soviet agents had not penetrated the U.S. government.

“This assertion flew in the face of the overview which Golitsyn gave to us regarding Soviet bloc penetrations of Western services and strategic deception,” he said. 

However, in 1978, then-Deputy Chief of CIA Counterintelligence Leonard McCoy wrote a 57-page assessment defending Nosenko and criticizing Golitsyn.

McCoy, who died in 2019, called Nosenko one of the CIA’s most important defectors, one who inflicted significant damage on the KGB despite showing signs, as did other defectors, of a personality disorder.

“The evidence shows that he has damaged the Soviet intelligence effort more than all the other KGB defectors combined,” McCoy stated in a memorandum released in December.

According to McCoy, Nosenko identified 73 past, present or potential American agents for the KGB and 97 other foreign spy suspects. He also supplied 200 leads and identified over 400 KGB officers and agents.

Former NSA counterintelligence official John Schindler said there is little doubt the defector debate over Golitsyn and Nosenko boiled down to Nosenko’s bona rides and created “churn and chaos” internally at the CIA.

“Although some of this has been overblown, particularly among anti-Angleton partisans, the debate was real and divisive,” he said, adding that Golitsyn became a “fantasist” yet Nosenko also told lies and fabrications.

“While I hold Angleton in high regard generally, nobody should head your counterintelligence office for 20 years as he did. It’s too much. It strains the senses,” Mr. Schindler said.

Seeking ‘Sasha’

The Golitsyn intelligence set off a major hunt within the CIA by Angleton in seeking to identify a high-level Soviet agent in the agency only identified as “Sasha.”

The mole hunt led to a backlash against Angleton and counterintelligence within the agency. CIA leaders beginning in 1975 dismantled the independent counterintelligence division and its scores of officials involved in both analysis and operations.

After Angleton and his top deputies left the CIA, the agency within two decades suffered some of its worst foreign spy penetrations, most spectacularly in the case of turncoat CIA counterintelligence officer Aldrich Ames, who gave Moscow the names of nearly all CIA recruited agents in Russia.

In 2010, the CIA suffered another major counterspy failure with the loss of a large number of recruited agents in China, according to U.S. officials. The CIA has not recovered from the intelligence losses at a time when Beijing has become the main national security challenge and key target of CIA spies.

On Nosenko, Angleton said there were many instances of his information being contradicted by Golitsyn.

“We have concluded on the basis of present evidence that Nosenko was dispatched to the West to mutilate counterintelligence leads which had been revealed by Golitsyn,” Angleton said. The Kremlin, to obscure any role in the assassination, insisted that Oswald was a tool of the U.S. military-industrial complex, he said.

Despite Angleton’s doubts, the CIA eventually declared Nosenko a bona fide defector, something that Angleton testified “astounded” him and prompted calls to the agency for clarification. None was given.

“The Nosenko case goes to the quick of the counterintelligence problem facing not only the FBI and the agency but all Western intelligence and security services, many of whom have received information derived from Nosenko,” he said.

Angleton warned that arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union could not be conducted effectively without better counterintelligence to identify strategic deception by the Soviets.

Golitsyn was the prized defector in what Angleton testified was “probably without any question the most major defection since World War II as far as Soviet intentions, Soviet organization and Soviet operations are concerned.”

The KGB agent planned his flight to the West years before his December 1961 defection. The years allowed him to break down the deepest KGB secrets and to obtain information valuable to the U.S. intelligence and its allies.

Golitsyn had maneuvered his way within the KGB bureaucracy by refusing foreign assignments and remaining within the spy service headquarters, Angleton said.

The most valuable intelligence provided by Golitsyn were KGB code names and circumstantial evidence of widespread burrowing of KGB agents into key positions in the West.

After Golitsyn defected, the Soviets reassigned some 300 people and conducted a damage assessment looking at information known by him, information that he did not have access to and information that he was uncertain about, Angleton said.

Another indicator of Golitsyn’s value to the CIA was revealed in letters found in the residence of recruited KGB agent Army Sgt. Jack Dunlap, a National Security Agency official who committed suicide in 1962 after being uncovered as a Soviet spy. The letters included notes from Angleton to the NSA related to information provided by Golitsyn.

Angleton testified that the CIA acted quickly to alert the other branches of the U.S. government as well as the French, and British governments, about Golitsyn’s details of Soviet penetrations.

“So the leads ran into the thousands from Golitsyn, and thousands and thousands of pages of transcript, interrogation, exhibiting photographs and identifications, which in turn would refresh his memory on other courses,” Angleton said.

The information helped bolster the case against Philby in Britain and the others known as the Cambridge spy ring, after the university where they were recruited by the Soviets as students.

Angleton testified that Golitsyn called him after the Kennedy assassination and said all defectors to the Soviet Union were sent through the KGB’s 13th Department, which conducts assassinations, sabotage, and spying. The former CIA counterspy chief testified that Soviet documents provided to the U.S. government on Oswald made no mention of his processing by the 13th Department, another clue that raised suspicions.

British historian Christopher Andrew, in his 1999 book on the KGB called “Sword and Shield,” revealed that Golitsyn ended up confusing the CIA by claiming the Sino-Soviet split was a deception, as was the Prague Spring uprising in Czechoslovakia against Soviet rule. The Andrew book is based on documents provided by yet another KGB defector, Vasili Mitrokhin, who worked in the KGB archives and brought out documents that shed light on the defector controversy at CIA.

One KGB document revealed that Golitsyn’s “treason” was very damaging to the KGB and was the result of careerism.

However, Mr. Andrew said KGB headquarters missed the value of Golitsyn’s confusing information. “It did not occur to [KGB] Centre that Golitsyn’s defection, by infecting a small but troublesome minority of CIA officers with his own paranoid tendencies, would ultimately do the agency more harm than good,” he wrote.

Mr. Andrew stated that the CIA made a serious error in doubting Nosenko‘s bona fides. Nosenko had worked with the CIA clandestinely beginning in 1962 but did not defect to the United States until November 1964 – a year after the Kennedy assassination.

“Unaware of the CIA’s horrendous misjudgment, the [KGB] regarded Nosenko’s defection as a serious setback,” he wrote.

The KGB damage assessment said Nosenko had been infected with the “virus of careerism,” just like Golitsyn, Mr. Andrew said.

Angleton and Oswald

In the newly declassified testimony to the Senate committee, Angleton was asked directly if he believed Oswald was a Soviet agent.

“Well, let me put it this way, I don’t think the Oswald case is dead,” he said. “There are too many leads that were never followed up.”

He went on to explain that the CIA had a double agent close to the KGB after the assassination who explained how Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev tipped off an American journalist during a visit to Cairo, telling the reporter that the conspiracy to kill Kennedy was a right-wing conspiracy of businesses to place Vice President Lyndon Johnson in the White House.

One new document released last month reveals that Nosenko’s CIA handler, Tennant Bagley, stated in a November 1963 memorandum that Oswald met in October 1963 with KGB officer Valeri Kostikov in Mexico City. The memo described Kostikov as part of the KGB 13th Department in charge of “sabotage and assassination.” The document follows a declassified report released several years ago linking Oswald to a KGB assassination official in Mexico.

Raymond Rocca, Angleton’s deputy in CIA counterintelligence in charge of research and analysis, also revealed in declassified testimony labeled “top secret” that the policy of detente coincided with a major increase in Soviet intelligence operations in the United States and abroad.

Rocca, who died in 1993, revealed that the CIA conducted a covert operation to spy on CIA defector Philip Agee in Paris. He testified that the surveillance was needed because Agee wrote a book “that is going to be a massive blow to the security and identity of our operations in Latin America.”

Agee would go on to identify CIA agents worldwide, including Richard Welch, who was assassinated in Greece in 1975 after his cover was blown.

Congress later passed the Intelligence Identities Protection Act making it illegal to disclose the identities of covert CIA officers.

Rocca also testified in support of the controversial secret CIA program launched in the 1950s and continued until 1973 to intercept mail from the Soviet Union to the U.S. in a search for spies. The domestic spying program was criticized in congressional investigations in the 1970s as a violation of Americans’ privacy rights.

The mail program based in New York City in cooperation with the U.S. postmaster general was a “source of strategic importance for counterintelligence,” Rocca told the Rockefeller commission.

“It was capable of bearing indications that would have given us the identifications not only of legals” — foreign spies using diplomatic cover — “but of [deep cover agents] and other interests that the Soviets had that we could get in no other way,” Rocca said.

The mail program was used along with intelligence from six or seven Soviet defectors from the 1950s, and three spy penetrations of the Soviet system until 1961.

The 1960s were a golden decade for counterintelligence, Mr. Rocca said, “because at no time in the history of Soviet intelligence and counterintelligence have they been hit so hard.”

The successes included neutralizing Soviet spies such as Britain’s MI-6 agent George Blake in 1961 and Philby in 1963,as well as British civil servant William Vassall and German intelligence official Heinz Felfe, in 1964, Rocca said.

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