Tuesday, May 6, 2008

SPY WARS by Tennent H. Bagley

... this week marks the paperback publication of Tennent H. Bagley's SPY WARS, an extraordinary book urged upon me by a journalist friend. Last year the book was selected by NYT's William Safire (who called it a "bombshell") as "sleeper book of the year." I've read the book twice, and am still digesting the implications of this complex story.

An old-school espionage story from the early Cold War, “Pete” Bagley was the counter-intelligence officer who handled the noted case of the defector Yuri Nosenko. The question of whether Nosenko was a bona fide defector, or had been dispatched as part of a deception plot, tore the CIA apart for the better part of a decade. Some forty years later Bagley finally makes public his report, and it diverges considerably from the comfortable version of events the agency has long presented.

In The Spectator last year, Oleg Gordievsky described the author, one-time head of Soviet Block Counter-Intelligence for the CIA, as "one of the most respected and knowledgeable experts on Soviet espionage." The book, he said, was "perhaps the most amazing non-fiction spy book that has ever appeared during or after the Cold War."

After my second reading I turned to a series of "twenty unavoidable questions" posed by Bagley (to be found on the Yale Press website, at the bottom of the page HERE).

Bagley's questions are indeed unavoidable. What's more, his account was persuasive that the Russian defector was not who he said he was; that Nosenko could not have, as he’d claimed, reviewed the complete file of Lee Harvey Oswald; and that Nosenko's stories of how the KGB discovered the identities of two CIA moles in Moscow was unlikely to have been true.   David Ignatius in the Washington Post wrote, "It's impossible to read this book without developing doubts about Nosenko's bona fides. Spy Wars should reopen the Nosenko case." I don't know what it would mean to "open" a case forty years old, but perhaps a new generation of analysts and historians will examine the case. The account Bagley offers in the book of the long history of deception operations, stretching back to Peter the Great, is alone worth the price of the tome.