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Yuri I. Nosenko, 81; KGB Agent Who Defected to the U.S.

Yuri I. Nosenko, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet secret police, once interviewed Lee Harvey Oswald.
Yuri I. Nosenko, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet secret police, once interviewed Lee Harvey Oswald. (Associated Press)
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By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Yuri I. Nosenko, 81, a Soviet KGB agent whose defection to the United States in 1964 and subsequent three-year harsh detention and hostile interrogation by CIA officials remains immensely controversial, died Aug. 23 under an assumed name in a Southern state, according to intelligence officials. No cause of death was reported other than "a long illness."

Mr. Nosenko, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet secret police and intelligence agency, personally interviewed Lee Harvey Oswald during his time in the Soviet Union from 1959 to 1962. When Mr. Nosenko defected in 1964, he provided the first information that Oswald, the accused assassin of President John F. Kennedy, was not a Soviet agent.

Senior CIA officers at the time, including James Jesus Angleton, the agency's counterintelligence chief, and David Murphy of the Soviet division, did not believe Mr. Nosenko was a real defector and ordered his imprisonment.

Mr. Nosenko had initially made inaccurate statements about his past, and some of his information conflicted with that provided by another KGB officer, Anatoly M. Golitsin, who had defected the year before. As a result, they considered him a plant sent by Moscow to confuse Washington about Oswald.

Richard Helms, then CIA director of operations, in 1966 ordered that a conclusion be reached in the Nosenko case. In 1967, after passing multiple polygraphs, Mr. Nosenko was released and in 1969 he was found to be a legitimate defector. He subsequently became a consultant to the agency, given a new identity and provided a home in an undisclosed location in the South.

Last month several senior CIA officials visited him and presented him with a ceremonial flag and a letter from CIA Director Michael Hayden honoring his service to the United States, a senior intelligence official said yesterday.

First word of his death came yesterday from Pete Earley, an author of books on the CIA who had been trying for four years to get an interview with Mr. Nosenko.

Earley said Mr. Nosenko was bothered by a book released last year called "Spy Wars," written by Tennent H. Bagley, a key CIA player in Mr. Nosenko's defection and arrest. The book continued to argue that Mr. Nosenko was not a bona fide defector, but in fact was sent to cover up the KGB's influence over Oswald.

"I was fascinated by Nosenko because in spite of the horrific things that the agency and government did to him -- the torture and mental deprivation -- in the only public speech that he ever gave at the CIA, he praised the United States as being the world's best hope for humanity, condemned Communism and Moscow, and said he never regretted his defection nor held a grudge against the officials who had persecuted him," Earley said.

During his incarceration, at Camp Perry, the CIA facility in Virginia, the agency kept Mr. Nosenko in solitary confinement in a small concrete cell. He often endured treatment involving body searches, verbal taunts, revolting food and denial of such basics as toothpaste and reading materials.

Last year, the International Spy Museum in Washington canceled a session during which Bagley was to speak, allegedly because CIA officials objected to having the Nosenko issue raised.

In his 1992 book "Molehunt," author David Wise wrote, "The 'war of defectors,' the conflict over Golitsin and Mr. Nosenko . . . split the Agency into two camps, creating scars that had yet to heal decades later."


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