Friday, February 08, 2008

Children of the Cheka

These with a thousand small deliberations
Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,
Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,
With pungent sauces, multiply variety
In a wilderness of mirrors. What will the spider do . . . ?

--T.S. Eliot, Gerontion

The CIA's famously paranoid counterintelligence director James Jesus Angleton referred to his field as a "wilderness of mirrors." Former CIA Soviet division agent Tennant Bagley, a player in one of the oddest episodes of the Cold War, revisits that wilderness of mirrors in Spy Wars. Bagley was the first CIA handler for Russian defector Yuri Nosenko in the 1960s. Nosenko defected in early 1964, claiming to have reviewed Lee Harvey Oswald's KGB file. He assured the CIA that the Soviet Union had nothing to do with the Kennedy Assassination. The Americans accepted that the Soviets didn't kill JFK, but Bagley, Angleton, and others became convinced that Nosenko was lying about pretty much everything, though there was disagreement inside the Company.

Bagley wanted to get behind Nosenko's lies to determine what it was the Russians did not want the Americans to know, particularly the identities of any moles inside the United States Not that Nosenko would know them, but if his interrogators could discover what his lies were designed to cover, they could work from there. The Soviet division--and not Angleton's counterintelligence shop--detained Nosenko in a small house on a military base for a few years, but were unable to get anywhere with him. The higher-ups at the CIA intervened, freed Nosenko, then turned him into a hero. The official wisdom on the topic is that the paranoid Angleton, who saw Russian spies everywhere, had Nosenko incarcerated in a "torture vault," drugged him, and otherwise tortured him. The received knowledge is that Angleton's obsessive hunt for moles--when none ever existed--made the Company disinclined to search for them, allowing traitors like Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen to spy unimpeded for years. Angleton and his inner circle were pushed out of the CIA, and Bagley retired after an overseas posting in Belgium.

Bagley reviews the facts of the case and maintains his position that Nosenko was lying and in the service of the KGB. Bagley details the history of Soviet counterintelligence and places the Nosenko incident in the context of that history. The Russians were aggressive, creative, cynical, and ruthless, using "false flag" schemes, infiltrating other intelligence agencies, and, when necessary, sacrificing Russian agents and troops to protect their sources and operations. They were (and doubtless still are) playing 3-D chess on a large scale. Bagley's discussion of the KGB's operations alone is worth the price of the book.

Bagley's case against Nosenko is pretty compelling; the man knew nothing about day-to-day operations in the KGB, for instance, and his career history made no sense at all. If Nosenko was a KGB man, he was probably rushed into defecting because of the JFK assassination. Moreover, Bagley makes a good case for the proposition that there were Soviet moles inside American intelligence. Some Soviet discoveries defied explanation even after known traitors like Ames and Hanssen were taken into account.

It's obvious in the later chapters that Bagley remains angry, and he enjoys shredding the official version of events. Some of the reports setting out that official version have been declassified and put online by the CIA itself. I looked through a couple of them, and they did not look terribly impressive.

It is curious that Bagley fails to mention a now-declassified internal CIA article from 1987 by CIA analyst Richards Heuer, "Nosenko: Five Paths to Judgment," in which the author lays out five factors to determine whether a defector is legit, and concludes that Bagley and his team failed to apply those factors correctly. Heuer doesn't share the view that Bagley, Angleton, et al., were paranoid mole hunters; rather, he disagrees with their analysis and conclusions. He also disagrees with the importance they placed on Nosenko's inconsistencies. His notion that the KGB wouldn't risk exposing its own assets and operations by sending its own agents to infiltrate the CIA seems a little off, given the KGB's history.

All of that said, the Nosenko case is such a tangled web that I have no idea who is telling the truth about what. Also, Angleton's mole-hunting got wacko paranoid and ruined several careers.

Bagley discusses the phenomenon of confirmation bias, in which only the evidence opposing a hypothesis is given strict scrutiny, while evidence in favor of the hypothesis recieves what we lawyers call rational-basis scrutiny, meaning virtually no scrutiny at all. He is of the opinion that the higher-ups in the CIA simply did not want to believe that the Company could be infiltrated by the KGB. Bagley and Angleton, however, have been accused of having their own confirmation bias as to Nosenko. Bagley believes that the American intelligence community was again guilty of confirmation bias in the run up to the Iraq War, accepting intel. supporting the Administrations belief that Saddam had WMDs and rejecting intel. that did not support that view.

This is a fascinating read. It also makes one wonder about what kinds of international 3-D chessgames former KGB Agent Vladimir Putin might have in mind as he reasserts Russia's inflence and power.

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