Wilderness of Mirrors


There is another backdrop to Oswald’s defection and redefection, and the Kennedy assassination, and that’s the bleeding edge of the Cold War, with secret agents from Western and Eastern power blocs spying on and deceiving one another, and infiltrating each other’s organizations. Oswald and the assassination may even have emerged from this world; they certainly had an effect upon it.

For reading material I suggest the classic Wilderness of Mirrors (1980) by David C. Martin, which includes an account of operations overseen by James Jesus Angleton (1917-1987), the head of Counterintelligence in the CIA from 1954 to ’74, a job that involved unearthing Soviet spies in the West.

Popov and Goleniewski

Michal Goleniewski

In 1953 Pyotr Popov, a colonel in Soviet military intelligence, began passing information to the CIA. As you may have read in earlier entries of this blog, in April ’58 Popov was the first to suggest to the CIA that they’d been penetrated by the KGB. This was only a suspicion at first.

Then in March ’59 the CIA began to receive information in the form of letters from ‘Sniper’, which seemed to prove it. Sniper later turned out to be Michal Goleniewski (1922-1993), ‘a high-ranking officer in Polish intelligence who had done double duty as a Soviet agent reporting to the KGB on anything his fellow Poles might try to hide from their Russian mentors. That explained why Sniper had been able to reveal so much about Soviet operations’ (p.98). One of Sniper’s letters definitely pointed towards the existence of a KGB mole in the CIA.

Martin quotes a CIA officer saying the letter ‘provided specific evidence that the Soviets knew of our intention to take a specific operational step’ and ‘For it to get into Goleniewski’s letter, the Russians had to have told him about it within two weeks of its formulation in Washington’ (p.106). Martin informs us that this operation was ‘a CIA plan to recruit a Polish intelligence officer in Switzerland’ (p.106).

On 16 October ’59 (coincidentally the day Lee Harvey Oswald arrived in Russia to defect), Popov was arrested while passing a note on a bus in Moscow to Russell Langelle, an American diplomat (really a CIA officer).

George Blake

The Americans’ other source, Sniper, continued to send letters until December 1960, when he came to West Berlin and defected. He had hidden documents for ‘the lone CIA man in Warsaw’ to find before anyone noticed he was gone, which would not be immediate as he had defected ‘at the start of the long Christmas holiday’ (p.98). Goleniewski, together with his documents, proved that the UK’s MI6 man in Berlin, George Blake,* was really working for the KGB, as was Heinz Felfe (1918-2008) of West Germany’s BND, ironically ‘the chief of counterintelligence operations against the Soviet Union’ (p.103). Also the network of Russian agents in London of Gordon Lonsdale (1922-1970) were rounded up.

*Born 1922; not part of the Cambridge spy ring; convicted for spying in ’61; escaped from Wormwood Scrubs in ’66; and still lives in Moscow.

Goleniewski had proven his bona fides, yet James Jesus Angleton didn’t trust him. ‘Angleton maintained that Goleniewski was a Soviet provocation, a KGB trick designed to lead the CIA into some devilish trap’, a trap ‘worth the loss of three such well-placed spies’ (p.104), although Angleton had no evidence to back up this belief. A counterintelligence officer thought there was ‘feedback’ in Sniper’s letters, that later letters corrected information given in earlier letters, as if Sniper had come under Soviet control at some point. But even if Goleniewski was a Soviet plant designed to protect something more important than the covers that had been blown, he was the ‘first and primary source on a mole’ as one CIA officer put it (p.105), so that wasn’t something that he didn’t want the CIA to know about. Later, the CIA seem to have thought Goleniewski developed psychological problems, drinking and listening to loud music and claiming to be ‘the last of the Romanovs’ (p.108), but perhaps his American handlers just didn’t know how to have a good time.

Penkovsky, Golitsin and Nosenko

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Oleg Penkovsky

On 20 April ’61, a few days after the Bay of Pigs, Oleg Penkovsky had his first meeting with MI6 and the CIA. He was a military intelligence officer who provided them with information and documents about Soviet nuclear missiles.

Then in December ’61 a KGB officer operating in Helsinki, Anatoli Golitsin, defected, his bona fides also backed up with documents. He wouldn’t deal with lower-level CIA officers, however. He was passed up to Angleton, and that suited him very well, as he made a career out of indulging Angleton’s paranoid worldview. Golitsin warned of a ‘KGB Disinformation Directorate’ (p.108) that had agents inside Western intelligence agencies and Western governments. Blake, Felfe and Lonsdale were only part of this pattern of penetration. Golitsin also said that now he’d defected, the Soviets would send false defectors after him, to ‘undermine his information’ (p112).

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Anatoli Golitsin

In June ’62, Yuri Nosenko, ‘a KGB officer with the Soviet delegation to disarmament talks in Geneva’ (p.111) contacted the CIA and began helping them. For instance he exposed a man in the British Admiralty whom the KGB were blackmailing, and he told the CIA about the ‘small, pencillike listening devices… in the wall behind each radiator at the American Embassy in Moscow’ (p.154). He also confirmed some of Golitsin’s information. However, he did not agree with Golitsin’s view that a KGB source in the CIA had blown Popov’s cover. He told the CIA ‘that the KGB had found out about Popov through its routine surveillance of American personnel in Moscow’ (p.112).

October ’62 brought the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Penkovsky’s information had been crucial in helping the CIA identify missiles in Cuba from U-2 photographs: Penkovsky had provided the CIA with the Soviets’ ‘maintenance and operations manuals’ (p.143). But on 2 November, Penkovsky was arrested (and later shot), and all his British and American contacts were deported from the USSR. Somehow, the Russians had found out about Penkovsky, and had put him under surveillance.

Golitsin, Nosenko and the Kennedy assassination

In January ’64, two months after the Kennedy assassination, Nosenko met CIA officers Pete Bagley and George Kisvalter in Geneva, and told them ‘that the KGB had never had anything to do with Lee Harvey Oswald and most especially had not recruited him to kill Kennedy. Nosenko said he had personally examined the case when Oswald defected’ (p.154), and that Oswald was ‘unstable’ (p.155) and had only been allowed stay in the USSR because he had made a suicide attempt. He reassured the CIA about Marina too, saying she was ‘stupid’ and of no interest to the KGB (p.155).

Yuri Nosenko

At another meeting the same month, Nosenko told the CIA he wanted to defect. They let him do this on 4 February. This was despite the fact that Bagley suspected Nosenko’s story about Oswald’s ’59 defection had been disinformation – why would the KGB not be interested in Oswald and interrogate him about the Marines, whom he had just left? Bagley was also suspicious when Nosenko said he reviewed the Oswald file ‘within hours of Kennedy’s assassination’ (p.173), yet was somehow not aware that Lee and Marina had applied in the summer of ’63 to the Soviet Embassy in Washington for visas to travel to the USSR. But the CIA accepted Nosenko because he was somebody the Warren Commission’s investigation could hardly turn down. As a KGB man from behind the iron curtain, he was a gift-horse.

Although they accepted his defection for this reason, they went as far as telling Warren Commission members that Nosenko was a ‘KGB plant’ (p.165). That did not mean Bagley thought Nosenko was covering up KGB complicity in the assassination: ‘After all, Bagley pointed out, the KGB could not have expected too much from an agent whose cover was so thin as to permit a Soviet wife’ (p.165). Nosenko could have said the reassuring things he said about Oswald as part of a KGB mission to prevent a nuclear war.

As for Nosenko’s assurances about how Popov’s cover was blown, that seemed designed to convince the CIA there was no KGB mole. Golitsin spoke against Nosenko, saying he must have been sent to undermine Golitsin’s information, and Angleton followed this line of reasoning, and encouraged Bagley’s doubts. And if the mole was real, the mole would have known Nosenko was meeting the CIA that first time in Geneva, and from then on Nosenko ‘would either be under KGB control or dead’ (p.175). So if the mole existed, Nosenko must be a plant. The CIA put Nosenko in solitary confinement and interrogated him for a considerable amount of time, but nothing was proven either way.

James Jesus Angleton

The hunt for the mole strangled the CIA, as gradually all officers fell under suspicion and had to be investigated. Bagley looked suspicious, for instance, because he ‘was the case officer who had been slated to make the recruitment pitch to the Polish officer in Switzerland, a gambit that Goleniewski’s letters revealed had leaked to the Russians almost as soon as it had been conceived’ (p.200). But as Martin points out, Bagley was ‘the chief accuser of Nosenko’ (p.200), and Nosenko undermined Golitsin’s assessment that there was a mole, so no-one undermining Nosenko could be the mole. But then there’s the theory that Nosenko ‘had been dispatched to be discovered as a disinformation agent and thereby advance the career of his principal accuser, Bagley’ (p.201). So the more Bagley pursued proof of Nosenko’s unreliability, the more he looked suspicious, instead of the other way around!

Martin summarizes the overall prevalent mentality: ‘Such was the quality of justice in the wilderness of mirrors. A man’s successes could be used against him by suggesting that he must have had help from the other side, while his failures could be brought forward as evidence of deliberately destructive behavior’ (p.201).

But when Bagley was exonerated of suspicion, the next obvious ‘person whose status had been noticeably enhanced by the discrediting of Nosenko was Golitisin, who had predicted that the KGB would attempt just such a ploy’ (p.201). On the one hand, enhancing the career of the defector who advanced the mole theory seems dangerous for the KGB, as it could expose their mole, but on the other hand, Golitsin’s mission could have been to make the CIA think there was a mole when there wasn’t one, and in that way undermine trust within the Agency.

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James Jesus Angleton?

There are problems with the notion of Golitsin and Nosenko being fake defectors and KGB plants. First of all, Martin quotes a ‘high-ranking’ CIA officer who points out that ‘no-one could have expected Angleton to buy’ Golitsin ‘lock, stock and barrel’ (p.204), and Martin adds that the KGB also couldn’t know for certain ‘that Nosenko would be fingered as a plant and thereby build up Golitsin’ (p.204). Then there is the bizarre notion of having Nosenko, with the ‘mission… to be discovered as a fraud’ (p.204), as the man telling the Americans the KGB weren’t involved in the Kennedy assassination!

Which is why suspicion fell on James Jesus Angleton himself. As the head of Counterintelligence, he was the one ‘championing Golitsin, denigrating Nosenko, yet stopping short of the conclusion that the KGB had ordered Kennedy shot’ (p.205). He was the one spreading through the CIA and Western intelligence ‘the fear of KGB provocation, disinformation and penetration’ (p.193). Senior counterintelligence officers in other Western countries had proven to be KGB (Kim Philby, Heinz Felfe), or were retired under suspicion of being KGB (Jim Bennett in Canada) – why not Angleton too?
He was forced to resign in ’74, ostensibly over the CIA’s illegal activities, but within the Agency there was a trace of suspicion of him too. And with its chief proponent gone, the mole hunt that led everyone to be suspicious of each other was now simply ended, so the quarry that he was after might as well have been himself.

Barry Kavanagh writes fiction, and has made music, formerly with Dacianos and presently with the forthcoming "voodoo project".

Contact him here.

1 comment

  1. While there’s probably no way of knowing now if Angelton was a mole, his relentless paranoia was surely bad for the CIA.

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