Tennent “Pete” Bagley seemed destined for great things. His father was a distinguished admiral, as were two of his brothers. His uncles included Josephus Daniels, a secretary of the Navy during World War I, and William Leahy, fleet admiral during World War II. After serving in the Marines, Pete graduated from Princeton and, assisted by Leahy, joined the CIA in 1949, just two years after its formation.
Tall, amiable, good-looking, and intellectually curious (he later earned a Ph.D.), Bagley was both an effective field agent facing danger in encounters with Soviet intelligence in Europe and an executive at headquarters in Langley. He helped to spirit Soviet KGB Major Peter Deriabin out of Vienna and participated in running GRU Major Petr Popov. As head of the Soviet Russia Division’s counterintelligence section, Bagley had a hand in cases involving such important informants as Michael Goleniewski and Oleg Penkovsky, and the debriefings of defectors Anatoly Golitsyin and Yuri Nosenko. By the early 1960s, he was thought of as a future CIA director.
Within a few years, however, his career stalled. Bagley found himself immersed in a brutal internecine struggle at the CIA that destroyed careers, disrupted operations, and led to accusations of disloyalty. Posted to Brussels in 1967 as the agency’s station chief, he retired in 1972 at the age of 46 and lived in Belgium for the rest of his life, making regular trips to the United States, estranged from many of his former colleagues.
His downfall, and the resulting turmoil that rattled the CIA for decades, was linked to the problematic defection of Yuri Nosenko, a KGB officer who first approached Bagley in Switzerland in 1962 and defected in 1964. Bagley himself wrote about the Nosenko affair in Spy Wars (2007). So have numerous writers on American intelligence. It remains a controversial topic. Sources in the American intelligence community denounced Bagley’s book as “radioactive poison,” and Oleg Kalugin, a former high-ranking KGB officer who relocated to the United States after the collapse of the USSR, called it “absurd … trash.”
Howard Blum, a former New York Times reporter, has written an exciting, page-turning account of this internecine warfare, why Bagley persisted in fighting it, and the conclusions he finally reached. Unfortunately, by the time it reaches its denoument, Blum’s The Spy Who Knew Too Much has sacrificed careful evaluation of the incredibly complex and ambiguous world of intelligence for dramatic, unsourced speculation.
The dispute about the bona fides of Nosenko touched on whether he was a genuine defector or a Soviet plant who was sent into the belly of the enemy beast to spread disinformation. The stakes went far beyond one defector. They involved whether the Soviet Union might have had a hand in the assassination of President Kennedy and whether several productive American spies in the USSR had been betrayed by a high-ranking mole in the CIA.
The arrest of Popov inside the Soviet Union in 1959 was “a shattering blow” to American intelligence. In 1960, Michael Goleniewski was forced to flee Poland after learning he had been exposed. Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, often considered the most valuable source ever recruited by the CIA, was arrested by the Soviets in October 1962, and tried and executed the following year. It became crucial for the CIA to figure out whether these sources had been exposed by accident, poor tradecraft, or, more worrisome, by a mole in the CIA itself.
That question seemed to be answered in 1962 when Nosenko met Bagley. Disclaiming any intention to defect, Nosenko asked only for $250 to pay for a drunken spree. He claimed that Soviet surveillance of American Embassy personnel in Moscow had led to Popov’s arrest. He provided hints about American code clerks recruited by the KGB. But he refused to allow the CIA to contact him in Moscow. While initially elated by Nosenko’s revelations, Bagley soon began to develop doubts about the Russian’s motives and information.
Nosenko resurfaced in January 1964 in Geneva, insisting on being relocated to the U.S. Not even two months after the assassination of JFK by Lee Harvey Oswald, an avowed Marxist-Leninist who had deserted from the Marines to live in the USSR and then returned to America, Nosenko claimed that he had investigated Oswald immediately after he arrived in the USSR and had read his file after November 1963. He improbably insisted that the KGB had never even interrogated Oswald and that when Oswald had gone to the Soviet consulate in Mexico City asking to be allowed to return to the USSR, the KGB had abruptly refused his request.
Bagley was flabbergasted and deeply suspicious of this fortuitous defection. The Oswald story seemed outlandish. Would the KGB have ignored a military defector who had worked on a base in Japan involved in U-2 surveillance flights? Had Oswald been sent back to the United States on some sort of mission? If the USSR had in any way been involved in the assassination, the consequences would have been dire. The CIA informed the Warren Commission about Nosenko but admitted it was suspicious about his veracity. His name and information were kept out of the report.
As Nosenko was debriefed, it became apparent that he had lied about his life and his career in the KGB. He could not have held the jobs he did at the times he claimed. He was ignorant of KGB practices he should have known about. Several polygraphs confirmed his deceptions. Determined to get the truth, Bagley and his superiors decided to isolate him at a remote part of a Virginia military base for nearly three years. Although subjected to intense and hostile interrogation and cut off from most human contact, Nosenko continued to insist he was a genuine defector.
Increasingly, Bagley suspected that Nosenko had also lied about Popov and Penkovsky to protect a CIA mole who had betrayed them both. James Angleton, then the chief of the CIA’s counterintelligence staff, launched a mole hunt that focused on the Soviet Russia division. Several officers were put under a microscope; some retired and others had their careers blighted. Angleton’s chief investigator eventually suggested that “severe attention” be placed on Bagley himself. And when Angleton cleared Bagley, the prober concocted a theory that Angleton himself was likely the mole.
As paranoia, paralysis, and concerns about the legality and morality of Nosenko’s detention spread, Richard Helms, then the CIA director, gave Bagley a deadline to make the case that Nosenko had been dispatched to protect a high-level mole. Bagley produced a nearly 1,000-page report but admitted, “he had not, with certitude, got at the truth that lay hidden behind the lie.” The CIA decided to clear Nosenko. A final report suggested that Bagley and the advocates for the “Master Plot” were zealots who had concocted a “Monster Plot.” By 1975, Angleton had been fired. This came after the New York Times published a story revealing a CIA mail-intercept program. Bagley had retired and Nosenko was rehabilitated.
Bagley refused to give up. In 1981, he tried to get the CIA to reopen the case but was rebuffed. In 1984, he reengaged after the arrest of Karl Koecher, a Czech émigré dispatched to the United States posing as a political dissident who had gotten a degree from Columbia and who had worked for the CIA from 1973 to 1977 and for several years thereafter as a contract employee. Koecher was part of a prisoner exchange in 1986 that included Natan Sharansky. But Koecher could not have been responsible for the betrayals of the early 1960s.
Much of the suspense in the book revolves around Blum’s claim that Bagley had concluded that the major Soviet mole in the CIA was John Paisley, whose badly decomposed body was allegedly found in Chesapeake Bay in 1979, a week after his sailboat, loaded with sophisticated electronics equipment and some secret documents, had been found adrift. The boat showed no sign of blood or a struggle, but the body had been wrapped with two chains and there was a bullet hole in the skull. Almost from the moment the body was found, there was speculation in the press that Paisley had been a mole—and that the body was not his.
According to Blum, Bagley was suspicious that Paisley was reported to have visited Nosenko after the latter had been cleared and to have become friendly with him. He also allegedly connected Paisley with Koecher as fellow participants in swinger parties in Washington that afforded the two of them an opportunity to confer. And he believed that Paisley had been in positions where he could have gotten information about those CIA assets who been exposed.
But allowing or encouraging two moles in the CIA to meet at swinger parties would have violated the most basic standards of tradecraft. Could Bagley, an experienced counterintelligence officer, have believed that the KGB would have allowed a valuable source like Paisley to expose himself to Nosenko and Koecher?
Blum’s style of writing and sourcing raises major issues when it comes to his account of Bagley’s alleged investigation of Koecher and Paisley. Although he provides a summary list of sources for each of his chapters, and he notes that he interviewed 83 people, he does not identify the source of any particular quotation or description of events. Bagley and most of the other main characters, including Paisley’s widow, were dead before Blum began his research. Many of the quotations that purport to come from Bagley are attributed to anonymous “interviews with Bagley Family Sources.” A claim by Mrs. Paisley that her husband was still alive and an account of her receiving regular postcards from abroad that might have come from him is sourced to unnamed friends.
I became especially concerned once I learned that Bagley’s closest family members refused to speak with Blum after he contacted them for an initial introductory discussion, during which they told him that Bagley had not been fixated on Paisley and hadn’t thought he was a mole. Moreover, Bagley’s papers at Boston University—which Blum consulted—barely mention Paisley.
After the end of the Cold War, Bagley met a number of former Soviet intelligence operatives and developed a friendship with Lieutenant General Sergei Kondrashev, a one-time high-ranking KGB official who had asked Bagley to help prepare his memoirs for publication in English (Spymaster, 2013). Blum breathlessly recounts a meeting in Moscow at which Bagley pressed him about whether Paisley was a mole. Kondrashev was very uncomfortable and refused to answer. But the next day, he took Bagley to Novodevichy Cemetery and implied that Paisley was buried there under an assumed name.
Blum notes that Bagley recounted this conversation with an unnamed friend. But neither of Bagley’s two books—written in 2007 and 2013—mentions either Paisley or Koecher. And these friends and close relatives insist that apart from one trip to Moscow with Kondrashev after the two were in Sochi in 1996 to film a documentary, Bagley never returned there: All his other meetings with Kondrashev during their collaboration were in Brussels or Western Europe. Would someone convinced that Paisley was the mole he had long hunted never mention it even after his source for the information (Kondrashev) had died?
John Paisley may have been a mole, but there is no persuasive evidence that he had been exfiltrated by the KGB, that a body had been substituted for his, or that he had been buried in Moscow. Bagley even told relatives that this was “a crackpot theory.” There is no persuasive evidence that Paisley and Koecher collaborated. And the verdict on Nosenko remains murky. He was a deeply troubled man who exaggerated and lied. Some former KGB officers insist he was a genuine defector, others that he was dispatched. Pete Bagley and his superiors, despite all their virtues and abilities, may have mishandled his debriefing and interrogation and been wrong about KGB penetration of the CIA. Not for nothing did James Angleton call the world of counterintelligence a “wilderness of mirrors.” That is why factual evidence with all its ambiguity must trump fictional re-creations if we are to get it right.
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