Obsession and Betrayal: A Review of ‘The Spy Who Knew Too Much’

BOOK REVIEW: The Spy Who Knew Too Much

By Howard Blum / Harper

Reviewed by Cipher Brief Expert John Sipher

The Reviewer — John Sipher retired in 2014, after a 28-year career in the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, which included serving in Moscow and running the CIA’s Russia operations. Sipher served multiple overseas tours as Chief of Station and Deputy Chief of Station, in Europe, the Balkans, Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia. He also ran Russian operations at headquarters. He retired as a member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service. He is the co-founder of Spycraft Entertainment.

REVIEW — The hunt for spies inside our intelligence agencies has been described as a wilderness of mirrors. The most recent book to delve into this arcane world is Howard Blum’s The Spy Who Knew Too Much.

Blum, an author, journalist and editor at Vanity Fair, has written previous best-sellers and well-received books about US intelligence including, In the Enemy’s House on the origins of the Venona project, and The Last Goodnight about OSS operative Betty Pack.

Blum’s latest is a re-telling of the espionage investigations stemming from the 1964 defection of Soviet intelligence officer Yuri Nosenko. It is told through the eyes of Nosenko’s interrogator, CIA officer Tennent “Pete” Bagley. The story is not new and is well known to those familiar with David Martin’s Wilderness of Mirrors, Tom Mangold’s Cold Warrior and William Corson and Susan and Joseph Trento’s Widows.

In The Spy Who Knew Too Much, Blum expands the narrative by proposing a direct link between the theory that Nosenko’s defection was a Russian deception operation to protect a well-placed CIA mole with the mysterious 1970s disappearance of CIA officer John Arthur Paisley, who Blum asserts was the Russian spy.

Blum is an excellent writer who tells a gripping story that will hopefully attract a new generation of interest in exploring this fascinating CIA history. However, if Blum’s objective was to close the door on ultimate innocence or guilt, he failed to make his case.

His failure is not surprising. The clutter of personalities, betrayal, deception, disinformation, and politics has confounded generations of intelligence professionals, ignited bureaucratic wars, destroyed careers and set the CIA and FBI against each other. Similar to the treachery of Kim Philby inside the British intelligence establishment, the outlines of the Nosenko case and the ensuing feuds, is the stuff of hundreds of espionage novels.

The Spy Who Knew Too Much is the story of Pete Bagley, a Princeton and USC educated CIA officer and former Marine from a prominent Naval family. An experienced spy handler, Bagley was brought to Geneva in 1962, to meet a visiting Soviet intelligence volunteer. At the initial debriefing of Yuri Nosenko, an officer from the KGB’s internal security Directorate, Nosenko provided details of US and western spies recruited by the KGB, and explanations behind the arrest of several key CIA sources inside Russia.

Nosenko defected to the US during a return trip to Geneva in 1964. This time, Nosenko came armed with explosive information related to the recent assassination of US President John F. Kennedy. Nosenko claimed that he had read a KGB file on Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, during the time that Oswald lived in the USSR. According to Nosenko, the KGB had little interest in Oswald due to his low-level access as a former Marine. The information fueled a heated debate over whether the Soviet Union was involved in Kennedy’s assassination, as well as speculation as to whether Nosenko was a provocateur seeking to send KGB-crafted messages to the US. Additionally, some of Nosenko’s information conflicted with information from an earlier Soviet defector, Anatoliy Golitsyn.

As Nosenko was debriefed and later interrogated, detained and even drugged, CIA officers split into two warring camps, arguing whether or not Nosenko was a bona fide defector. One side – which included J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI – believed that he was a flawed individual who nonetheless provided critical information. The opposing factionargued that Nosenko was dispatched by the Soviets to deflect US counterintelligence officials from uncovering an embedded mole — a spy who they believed had tipped off the Russians about high-level sources inside Russia.  One of those sources was Oleg Penkovsky, a Russian military officer whose information had helped Kennedy negotiate the Cuban missile crisis.

Over more than ten years, a revolving door of investigators, security officers and interrogators debriefed, interviewed, re-interviewed, interrogated, drugged, bullied, and polygraphed Nosenko. The back-and-forth assessments lead to a library full of reports and studies trying to determine once and for all, if Nosenko was who he said he was.

The official judgment was that Nosenko was genuine. Those who believed otherwise were dismissed as conspiracy theorists and labeled as adherents to a fictional “monster plot”. However, serious questions remain unanswered.

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As Nosenko’s primary interrogator and internal adversary, Bagley was convinced that he was a provocateur sent as part of a KGB plot to cover up the existence of a master spy deep in the heart of US intelligence. To Bagley and a committed group of CIA officers associated with famed CIA Counterintelligence Chief James Angleton, each new piece of information seemed to confirm the existence of a mole inside CIA. As the search continued, the Agency tied itself in knots searching for moles, and the careers of numerous innocent officers were destroyed.

Blum follows Bagley’s life-long quest to prove Nosenko was a provocateur. Bagley studied Russia’s doctrine of disinformation and deception to confuse its adversaries and probed the numerous inconsistencies in Nosenko’s story. While the theory was intriguing, the mystery surrounding the disappearance of senior CIA officer John Arthur Paisley finally seemed to offer a possible explanation.

Paisley, a senior Russian speaking CIA officer and expert on issues related to Soviet military and arms control issues, disappeared while sailing on the Chesapeake Bay in 1978. Eventually, a body with a gunshot to the head was found in the Bay and reported to be that of Paisley. However, there were serious questions as to whether the decomposed body really was Paisley’s, and the investigation was shot through with anomalies, suggesting a possible cover up. Classified papers and technical equipment were found on the sailboat.

Bagley – and Blum – construct a case that Paisley was the master spy that Nosenko was sent to protect, even arguing that Paisley escaped alive to resettle in Russia.

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Blum is an engaging writer and brings to life the difficult and fascinating issues surrounding an intelligence agency that is grappling with possible betrayal. He presents the building blocks to make a strong case that Paisley was a spy, and that the Russians used a variety of means to hide that fact.

Unfortunately, Blum and Bagley fall into the trap of constructing a narrative, then twisting all subsequent information to support their conclusion whether it seems to fit or not. They draw firm conclusions from complex and conflicting data. The connection between the Nosenko defection and Paisley’s presumed guilt is intriguing but not clear. It creates a riveting narrative to assume the two cases are intertwined, but ultimately, the connection between the two cases is manufactured. Nosenko may have been genuine or may have been a plant. Likewise, Paisley may have been a spy. However, the two cases do not rely on one another despite Bagley’s – and Blum’s – assertions. It is all possible – and certainly fascinating – but ultimately circumstantial.

As compelling as it is, Blum’s take is ultimately a prosecutorial case without a defense. He collects the pieces that fit his preferred narrative. Like a movie with accompanying nefarious music, Blum’s story is told with dramatic flair. It appeals to the emotions. Assumptions and hunches become fact. In their telling, the adroit ability of the Russian KGB to manipulate the US government never seems to face obstacles. All the KGB actions are “ingenious”, and the US never seems to catch a break. The danger, of course, is that one incorrect link in the spiderweb of speculation can make it all dissolve. The intricately built edifice becomes a house of cards.

Some of these links in the chain may sound plausible to a general reader but they leave an intelligence practitioner scratching their head. For example, Blum states that “it makes perfect sense” for a high-ranking Russian mole to be working directly with another mole also burrowed inside the CIA. Really? Why would a service risk losing two sources if even one came under scrutiny?

Similarly, Blum paints a Russian CIA source as a fabricator because he developed much better access to secrets when he transferred home to Moscow from an assignment in Latin America. Any professional would expect – in fact count on – a source having better access at home inside their headquarters than in a small country.

To be fair, even professional investigators fall into this trap. I worked with the FBI on the investigation that led to the arrest of FBI Special Agent Robert Hanssen. As described in Lis Wiehl’s new book, A Spy in Plain Sight, the FBI was so convinced that CIA officer Brian Kelley was a spy, that they discarded or distorted facts that did not fit their assumptions. It was not until a source provided clear evidence that the mole was in the FBI, not the CIA, that Hanssen was apprehended.

The presumption that Blum – or anybody – can solve these questions once and for all is problematic. Clear identification has challenged FBI and CIA investigators with access to far more details. Indeed, neither Blum nor Bagley had access to other sources that may have developed over the years (Bagley retired in 1972).

In this sense, The Spy Who Knew Too Much is a cautionary tale about the supposed simplicity of understanding the world of espionage and human motivation. Definitive answers are as scarce today as they were in 1964.

Counter-espionage investigators do critical work and have had notable successes – but in the wilderness of mirrors it is difficult to come to clear conclusions.

The Spy Who Knew Too Much earns 3.5 out of four trench coats.

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