Nosenko, Cold War-Era Russian Defector, Dies

Yuri Nosenko, who died earlier this month at the age of 81, was a Soviet intelligence officer who defected to the U.S. in the 1960s. Author Peter Earley recounts Nosenko's story, including his secret incarceration and interrogation for three years.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

The name of Yuri Nosenko, who died a few days ago, may not ring a bell. But even so, you may very well know his story. That's because Nosenko, an officer of the Soviet spy agency, the KGB, who defected to the U.S., inspired a tremendous number of spy stories, some are fiction, some are non-fiction, and a lot of them are in that murky zone of spy story that straddles both shores of the truth. Among the stories that Nosenko told his CIA handlers was this, as a KGB officer, he had reviewed the case of Lee Harvey Oswald, the American who had lived in the Soviet Union, returned to U.S., and was arrested for shooting President John F. Kennedy. Nosenko said the KGB had nothing to do with Oswald.

Writer Pete Earley tried for years to get an interview with Nosenko, and it's through him that we learned of Yuri Nosenko's death. And he joins us now. Welcome to the program once again, Pete.

PETE EARLEY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And I'd like you to describe the interrogation by the CIA of Yuri Nosenko that began, I gather, after his defection in 1964.

EARLEY: That's correct. He defected and he thought, wow, you know, I've made it to the United States. I'm going to be this valuable defector. And instead, he was taken to a house, it was in Maryland, he was locked in it for more than three years. And during that time he was interrogated under the harshest, at the time, techniques allowed. The lights were turned off and on, intentionally to give him no concept of whether it was day or night. In other words, the lights may be on for three hours one day and they would say that was a day. And then the next time, it would be 12 or 14.

He claimed he was given drugs. But most of all, he was treated extremely harshly. He was told that he was failing lie detector's tests. He was accused of being a liar. He was told that he was going to be sent back to his country, knowing that he would be executed.

At one point, there was one story that they connected wires to his head and claimed that they could read his mind through these wires, and he endured this for more than 1,200 days without breaking, with sticking with his story even though he was told repeatedly, you're a liar. You're a liar. You're a liar.

SIEGEL: Why? What was it that the CIA was trying to get out of Nosenko?

EARLEY: Well, when Nosenko first appeared, he made a mistake in, as many defectors do, overselling himself. He wanted to make sure the United States would tell him that they wanted him. And so, he lied a little about his bona fides - you know, what he really had to tell.

Secondly, James Jesus Angleton, the famous mole hunter at the CIA...

SIEGEL: Head of counterintelligence.

EARLEY: That's correct - was absolutely convinced that a defector before Nosenko, a fellow named Golitsyn, was telling the truth and he had warned them that the Russians will send someone to deny what I'm saying. And then Nosenko had shown up. And so, Angleton was always suspicious, and then his underlings decided that Nosenko was a plant, a double agent. And they set out to break him and to make him admit it.

SIEGEL: So, one of the suspicions surrounding Nusenko was that he had been dispatched by the KGB to pretend to be a defector to tell the CIA that Lee Harvey Oswald had nothing to do with the KGB, ergo, they really did have something to do with Lee Harvey Oswald.

EARLEY: That's exactly right. This was considered valuable information. And of course, if they had proven that he was in fact a plant, then they would have opened the door to more speculation about Lee Harvey Oswald.

SIEGEL: The interrogation, frankly the incarceration of Yuri Nusenko for three years was - this was one of the family jewels, as they said. This was one of the dark secrets of the CIA. It came out the 1970s.

EARLEY: Right.

SIEGEL: After that, what became of Nusenko?

EARLEY: Well, the controversy remained, and it - for an outsider, it's hard to understand this, but it basically tore the CIA apart. It tore it into two warring camps. And there were still people who believe Nusenko was, in fact, a double agent and that we had been buffoons in believing him. But eventually, the CIA comes around and says, you are a bona fide defector. We apologize for how we treat you. They relocate him and give him a new life. And he kind of disappears off the grid for a while.

And the thing that fascinated me about Nusenko in my dealings with him and with his handler was there was no anger. There was no resentment. There was no hatred toward this country. He still thought that the United States was the best place, the best hope for Democracy.

SIEGEL: On the other hand, for you, there was no interview.

EARLEY: That's correct.

SIEGEL: Despite all of these years of pursuing him.

EARLEY: It was press training. The mystery remains. But, you know, that's his - I've done a lot of work with the CIA and it's a wilderness of mirrors.

SIEGEL: Pete Earley, thanks a lot for talking with us.

EARLEY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Pete Earley has written about spies for many years, most recently, the book "Comrade J," the story of Sergei Tretyakov, the highest-ranking Russian defector to the West after the end of the Cold War.

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