But was Nosenko telling the truth? Was he genuinely defecting or was he really a Soviet double agent trying to penetrate Langley? The CIA wasn’t sure. So, the agency detained Nosenko for three years, subjecting him to relentless interrogation, before eventually releasing him.
Last month, the National Archives and Records Administration made one of its final releases of previously withheld papers related to Kennedy’s assassination. And although there are no major bombshells about the shooting itself, the latest document dump does include a transcript of a CIA interrogation of Nosenko from summer 1965.
John Prados, a senior fellow at the National Security Archive at George Washington, called the Nosenko transcripts among “the most important I’ve seen” in the new JFK document release.
In the transcripts of Nosenko’s interrogation, the Russian defector’s questioner was another Russian defector: Peter Deriabin, who’d begun working for the CIA years earlier, and gave the agency some of it’s first broad knowledge on the Soviet intelligence complex. Deriabin wanted to test Nosenko’s willingness to cough up crucial facts about KGB operations, but he also needed to determine whether he was actually a former Russian operative in the first place. For his part, Nosenko knew the score. He understood the CIA viewed him as a Soviet plant. James Angleton, the CIA’s legendary chief of counterintelligence at the time, suspected Nosenko was a false defector, a trickster sent to confuse the agency’s Soviet division, and didn’t trust anything he had to say about Oswald.
In July 1965, Deriabin kicked off the interrogation bluntly stating his purpose:
“[A]s you already have been told during the discussions and the investigation, a large part of what you have said cannot be accepted as true,” Deriabin said at the outset. “I am here … in order to clear up all of these misunderstandings which have arisen and existed.”
“I am wholly at your disposal,” Nosenko said. “I am ready to answer all questions. … [I]t already [has been] a long time: 479 days today. Here [there is] quite simply … the deliberate desire of the people to make a case, ‘Well, here a double agent sits before us.’ ”
But over the course of the interrogation, Nosenko constantly kept saying he couldn’t remember certain procedures or the ranks of specific officers within the Soviet intelligence and security service.
“How are things today?” he asked. “In general; condition; mood?”
“What kind of good mood can I be in?” Nosenko replied. “I have been sitting here 481 days — that is, 16 months; one year plus four months of a second year.”
Nosenko delivered a soliloquy full of despair.
“One can serve time in different ways,” Nosenko said. “I understand it thus: a person is doing time; he knows why; let us say — a criminal, he has killed someone, or he has robbed a bank, he has robbed a person, he has raped someone; he knows why he is doing time. …While I do not know why I am doing time, absolutely; when on the basis of suspicion alone, when precisely only in my position, a person who has lost absolutely, absolutely everything; I have absolutely nothing and I do not have anyone, neither friends nor, well, I absolutely am alone, quite alone. There am I — a finished foul traitor, the most foul who certainly has already been sentenced to death; here I sit.”
“What are you thinking — that the hangman’s rope has been waiting for you for a long time?” he asked.
“I do not doubt this; of this, I have no doubt,” Nosenko said.
“Oh, do you remember, in the beginning … when you had just established contact with us, how [you said] you had worked against the journalists, against military attaches, and that you had recruited dozens of Americans, and so forth?” Deriabin asked.
“Not at all, not at all; you do not have to … you do not have to paint things that way … .” Nosenko said.
“Anyway, let us think about where the bones lie hidden,” Deriabin said, pushing him.
“I do not know, I do not know. What kind of bones. Where. I do not know. I do not know. What kind of bones,” Nosenko said. “I do not know anything. I never said that I was an ideal and outstanding worker. I worked as I could and as I had to. I never said that I had recruited dozens.”
At one point, Nosenko worried he’d suffer the same fate in Russia as one of the greatest KGB turncoats of all time, Anatoly M. Golitsyn, who defected in 1961 and became one of the CIA’s most trusted assets.
“I think, I know, that, of course, a decision already has been made about me, and they have sentenced me to death; and some kind of case has been opened against me, just as a case was opened against Golitsyn, as I heard,” Nosenko said.
But Deriabin offered little sympathy. He wanted information. Names and ranks. And Nosenko couldn’t or wouldn’t provide them.
“When you were there, did you ever have occasion to meet counterintelligence officers?” Deriabin asked.
“[W]hen you were in the Baltic, while working in Navy intelligence, did you have any connection with counterintelligence?” Deriabin asked.
“Absolutely none; and in the Far East, where I worked for a long time, I had absolutely no connections.”
“Well, if you did not, you did not have; but I think it would be logical for you to remember the name of the Chief of Intelligence.”
“I do not remember,” Nosenko said. “I do not remember.”
“And what about the Deputy Chief?”
“I also do not remember.”
By 1966, Richard Helms, then the agency’s director of operations, ordered the CIA to make a call on Nosenko’s truthfulness. The KGB agent wound up passing multiple polygraphs and, by 1969, was released. Finally, the CIA believed him. He even became a consultant to the agency, but was given a new identity and home somewhere in the South.
Still, Nosenko could never convince everyone. In 1986, HBO aired a movie about Nosenko’s ordeal, starring Tommy Lee Jones as a CIA officer in charge of sussing out Nosenko’s true goals. It was called, “Yuri Nosenko: Double Agent.”
Check out the trailer. (No, really. You should.)
Several old-hands at Langley never quite got over Nosenko. In 2007, Tennent H. “Pete” Bagley, a CIA counterintelligence officer who worked as Nosenko’s handler when he defected, wrote a book, “Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games,” raising serious questions about Nosenko’s truthfulness. David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist who has written extensively about spycraft, praised the book as a “stunner” that will persuade many that Nosenko was a “phony” dispatched to “deceive a gullible CIA.” Ignatius said Bagley’s book should compel the CIA to reopen Nosenko’s case — that Bagley had furnished enough evidence to cast doubt on Nosenko’s claims about his past and that he’d reviewed Oswald’s file.
In the end, the CIA did its best to honor him. In July 2008, several CIA officials visited him and gave him a ceremonial flag and a letter from then-agency Director Michael Hayden, thanking him for his service. The next month, Nosenko died. He was 81.