Posted on | July 28, 2012 | 15 Comments
Wow. OK, I just finished reading Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald, a 1978 book by Edward Jay Epstein, and as soon as I finished it, I got on Google to solve the mystery.
This is complicated. The mystery at the heart of Epstein’s book is this: Why did Oswald defect to the Soviet Union in 1959, and then re-defect to the United States in 1962? What did Oswald do while in the Soviet Union and what was his relationship with the KGB?
There is no evidence that Oswald’s assassination of John F. Kennedy was part of a conspiracy. We have no reason to believe that the Soviets (or anyone else) ordered Oswald to commit the assassination. The evidence clearly shows Oswald’s motives were idiosyncratic, the product of a defective personality exhibiting a hostility to authority, profoundly alienated from society and thus adopting an anti-American ideology.
However, we do have good reason to believe that the Soviets were worried that they would be blamed for Oswald’s act, and that in order to prejudice the conclusions of the Warren Commission, the KGB deployed an elaborate deception: They assigned a KGB officer to defect to the U.S. in early 1964, claiming to have been in charge of Oswald’s case at the KGB, and to deny that Oswald had been of any value to Soviet intelligence.
The story told by the defecting KGB agent, Yuri Nosenko, aroused suspicion among Soviet experts at the CIA, in part because Nosenko falsified elements of his own biography. However, Nosenko’s description of his handling of Oswald’s case was also highly dubious.
Oswald had been a Marine radar operator whose unit had worked with top-secret U-2 spy aircraft. Surely the Soviets would have debriefed Oswald on that highly valuable information. Nosenko denied this, claiming that at no time during Oswald’s nearly three-year stay had Soviet intelligence sought or received any such information from the avowed Marxist.
Oswald defected to the Soviets in October 1959. Barely six months later, in May 1960, the Soviets shot down a U-2. Just a coincidence, I’m sure.
CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton shared the suspicions of the agency’s Soviet experts that Nosenko was a KGB plant. Nosenko was confined and subjected to hostile interrogation. Although repeatedly caught in lies, Nosenko never “broke.”
Meanwhile, the FBI got involved. The FBI had its own Soviet source, code-named “Fedora,” who worked in the Soviet U.N. mission in New York and was so highly valued by J. Edgar Hoover that the FBI director sometimes sent information from “Fedora” directly to the president, without even attempting to verify it with other sources.
“Fedora” vouched for Nosenko’s authenticity as a sincere defector.
Well, that raised eyebrows at the CIA, for obvious reasons: They had solid circumstantial evidence that Nosenko was actually a KGB spy, and if “Fedora” said Nosenko was legit, this was a pretty big clue that “Fedora” was also a KGB agent, feeding disinformation to the FBI.
So the CIA didn’t trust Nosenko, and they believed his mission was to cover up whatever connections there had been between Oswald and Soviet intelligence. But the FBI’s source “Fedora” said Nosenko was legit, and J. Edgar Hoover had a special reason to want to keep the Warren Commission from getting too curious about a possible KGB-Oswald connection.
The FBI had badly mishandled Oswald’s case. As a former defector to the Soviet Union and an avowed Marxist, Oswald should have been under surveillance as a security risk from the time he returned to the United States in June 1962. Beyond that, Oswald’s wife Marina — who was in fact the niece of a Soviet official — should have been viewed as a security risk in her own right. Oswald subsequently engaged in numerous suspicious activities, staging pro-Castro protests on behalf of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and traveling to Mexico to visit the Cuban and Soviet embassies, seeking to immigrate to Cuba. Yet the FBI never created a “Security Index” on either Oswald or his wife.
Hoover was furious about the failures of his agency, remarking at one point that “no one in full possession of all his faculties” could have failed to see that Oswald was a security risk. For their failures in the Oswald case, Hoover censured five field agents, one field supervisor, three special agents in charge, four headquarters supervisors, two headquarters section chiefs, one inspector and the assistant director of the FBI.
However, Hoover took these unprecedented disciplinary actions secretly, because he feared that if the full extent of the FBI’s mishandling of the Oswald case became public, the bureau would be entirely discredited. Therefore, Hoover was very happy to learn that the KGB defector Nosenko said that Oswald wasn’t a Soviet agent or of any serious interest to the KGB — and was glad that the FBI’s own Soviet source, “Fedora,” vouched for Nosenko.
Espstein’s book was published in 1978, when no one outside the FBI knew who “Fedora” was. So when I finished the book, I immediately did a Google search and learned that “Fedora” was Victor Mechislavich Lesovski and was — you guessed, didn’t you? — “among the most successful Soviet KGB agents of the Cold War.”
“Fedora” was feeding the FBI disinformation, which means Nosenko was almost certainly also providing disinformation on behalf of the KGB, in order to cover up . . . what? We still don’t know.
This is one of those Cold War mysteries that may never be solved. It’s possible, as Epstein clearly suspected, that Oswald did provide classified military information to the Soviets, but once he returned to the United States, there is nothing to indicate the Oswald was acting under the control of the KGB. As a repatriated defector, he would have been a very risky “asset.” Nosenko’s mission seems to have been to act as sort of an insurance policy to undermine any official suspicion that Oswald was a Soviet agent.
And whatever became of “Fedora”? There’s an ironic denouement because it was “Fedora” who, in 1971, told J. Edgar Hoover that a copy of the so-called “Pentagon Papers” had been sent to the Soviet embassy in Washington. Hoover reported this to President Nixon, resulting in a national-security panic that ultimately helped lead to the Watergate scandal.
The aftermath of the Watergate scandal, of course, devastated the ability of both the FBI and the CIA to conduct domestic surveillance against suspected national security risks, and you can blame it all on J. Edgar Hoover, who trusted the wrong Russian.