Report — From the January 2017 issue

The Trouble with Defectors

What informants taught an intelligence officer

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I was introduced to the complexities of defections a long time ago. In the fall of 1985, while serving as a Marine Corps intelligence officer, I attended the Soviet Military Power Conference, held at the headquarters of the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington. Since 1981, the DIA had been publishing an annual booklet with the same title. The 1985 edition, with its ominous red cover, was distributed to all who attended the conference, where DIA staff preached to junior officers the gospel of Soviet malevolence.

The highlight of the event came when we entered an auditorium and saw a man onstage wearing a wig, a fake beard and mustache, and makeup designed to alter the angles of his face — either for his own protection or to heighten the Reagan-era theatrics, we couldn’t be sure. He was introduced as Yuri Nosenko, a defector from the KGB. Nosenko proceeded to regale us with tales of the wicked and bellicose Soviet Union, whose details coincidentally matched almost every talking point in the latest edition of Soviet Military Power. This was exciting stuff. For the better part of a week, we had been the recipients of dull presentations from DIA staff. Now we were listening to an actual acolyte of evil, whose indictment included not only the military elite but also the common people, and we soaked it up.

HA032__03HL0-1Fast-forward three years. I was serving as a weapons inspector at a Soviet missile factory outside the city of Votkinsk, in the foothills of the Ural Mountains. I had expected a nation of hard-line Communist automatons. Yet the Soviet people, even in a city closed off from all outside contact, exhibited no xenophobic tendencies; they were as normal, friendly, and desiring of peace as Americans. The same could be said for the staff and directors at the missile factory, Party members all.

Nosenko, in other words, had been dead wrong. In retrospect, I should have been suspicious. He had defected in 1964 — some twenty-one years before his presentation at the conference. He was from the age of Stalin and Khrushchev, and knew nothing about the Brezhnev era, or about the succession of leaders that followed, including Mikhail Gorbachev and his policies of glasnost and perestroika. How could Nosenko possibly have any viable insight into the current state of affairs inside the Soviet Union?

I should have been even more skeptical about my own government’s motivations for showcasing Nosenko. His defection, it turned out, had been marred by concerns that he was actually a double agent, dispatched by the KGB to discredit an earlier defector named Anatoliy Golitsyn. The CIA eventually deemed Nosenko to be legitimate, paid him, and hired him for speaking gigs like the DIA conference. Yet his CIA handler, Tennent “Pete” Bagley, remained convinced that he was a Soviet plant.

Lucky for Nosenko, it almost didn’t matter. The message he was selling during the mid-1980s was very much in vogue; he could be used as a pawn in a propaganda campaign, or presented to unsuspecting audiences as authoritative despite the fact that his information was out of date. But quality control was (and is) an ongoing problem. The trouble with defectors is that even with their obvious shortcomings, they are frequently the only players available in a game that is desperate for new moves.

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is the author of Deal of the Century: How Iran Blocked the West’s Road to War, which will be published in March by Clarity Press.

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