Over about four decades, an agent from Russia named Yuri Nosenko has turned into a great mythological beast roaring at the centre of U.S. intelligence. He presented himself to the CIA in the 1960s as a Soviet defector bearing vital secrets. He claimed to be a KGB lieutenant colonel and the CIA men who interviewed him were delighted with their new recruit. One of them said it was as if a gold brick had suddenly been placed in his lap.
But soon they lost their enthusiasm. Something was wrong. His stories weren't always consistent, he failed to know certain things that a senior KGB man would surely know, and eventually they began catching him in outright lies. He surprised them at one point by admitting he was only a captain. They decided he was a double agent, sent over by the KGB to confuse the Americans, perhaps to help cover up Soviet moles hiding in their own headquarters in Washington.
Others in the CIA passionately disagreed. James Angleton, the head of counter-intelligence, considered Nosenko a fraud, but Angleton was isolated and branded a paranoid. CIA people who found Nosenko useful began leaking stories about Angleton's craziness. Eventually he was dismissed from the agency.
As for Nosenko, he was fully accepted and even employed by the CIA. He sometimes gives lectures to young officers on how to deal with the Soviets.
Whatever the truth about him, he did more harm to the CIA and its related agencies than anyone before or since. CIA officers turned against each other. One faction called the other neurotic and they in turn were called incompetent. Richard Helms, appointed director not long after this internal controversy erupted, remarked that American intelligence was "a house divided against itself."
So far, Nosenko supporters have prevailed. Books on the CIA usually agree that Angleton was at least profoundly neurotic. The case has inspired (in addition to much journalism) at least two films, Yuri Nosenko, KGB (1986), made for HBO, with Tommy Lee Jones as a fictional CIA agent, and The Good Shepherd, which appeared last winter, directed by Robert De Niro and starring Matt Damon as a fictionalized and melodramatized version of Nosenko's chief handler. Both of them show the CIA mistreating Nosenko.
Like much intelligence and counterintelligence, the case is "a wilderness of mirrors," one of Angleton's favourite phrases. This season the wilderness is explored again, but now by Nosenko's main handler, Tennent H. Bagley, a retired CIA officer who spent 22 years in the service. His account, Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries and Deadly Games (Yale University Press), will be read eagerly by everyone who has followed the case.
Bagley may not change many minds, but among books by government officials it's exceptional. I can't remember a participant's book about espionage written with such confidence and clarity. When reading about spies I find it hard to avoid thinking about the many fictional models on the landscape of modern narrative. Bagley's detailed, unemotional writing, thoughtfully repetitious just when he knows repetition will keep us from losing our way, reads to me like the memoranda that John Le Carre's low-key spymaster, George Smiley, might have written. In The Spectator, Oleg Gordievsky (a defector from the KGB decorated by the British) has called Spy Wars "perhaps the most amazing nonfiction spy book that has ever appeared during or after the Cold War." So far as I can tell, that's not a wild exaggeration.
In the course of making his anti-Nosenko case, Bagley takes us some distance into the organization of espionage. When an agency tries to insert its own man into a rival agency, he must be backed by an elaborate campaign of disinformation. The Soviets provided their man Nosenko with subtly conveyed details. Little bits of apparent fact leaked slowly into the CIA from various unexpected sources, supporting fragments of his story. They created a network of interlocking illusions, tiny cover stories invented to reinforce the central lie. Bagley's account may leave readers brooding about Vladimir Putin, who learned his powers of manipulation in the KGB and, as he's said, never quite left it.
As for the CIA, most of the news about it has been bad for years. Stories of misjudgment and collaboration with politicians suggest that at some point the agency lost its poise and the belief in its own shrewdness. Ever since, it's been stumbling. Bagley, who was there when the rot set in, has added a new chapter to the history of the secret wars.