The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

The FBI and ‘Fedora’

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.




15 Responses to “The FBI and ‘Fedora’”

  1. unclebryan
    July 28th, 2012 @ 6:25 am

    “Legend” is the best of the Kennedy assassination books of the era. Not like the other “conspiracy theory” books which are mostly hyperbole and heavy breathing. This book delves deeply into the mindset of Angleton and exposes Nosenko for the KGB plant that he was. I recommend it highly.

  2. Man Mountain Molehill
    July 28th, 2012 @ 7:52 am

    This book deserves more attention:
    Programmed to Kill: Lee Harvey Oswald, the Soviet KGB, and the Kennedy Assassination
    By Ion Mihai Pacepa, former head of Romanian intelligence.

    Short form: Oswald was recruited by the GRU, not KGB. Was trained as an assassin, but had gone rogue by the time of the assassination of Kennedy.  GRU is military intelligence, KGB is state security. The GRU zealously guards their operations from the KGB, so KGB was technically correct when they denied any connection.
    Khrushchev actively pursued an international policy of assassination.

    Amazon link:

  3. Shawny
    July 28th, 2012 @ 8:12 am

    Sounds like even as big a mistake as J Edgar and the FBI made back then, it doesn’t hold a candle to the deliberate misinformation agents in the mainstream media now and doesn’t nearly rise to the national security risks involved in appointments of this administration like Van Jones, Anita Dunn, Huma Abedin or the 80+ members of Congress who are members of the D.S.A.   Of course with Panetta, Patraeus and Napolitano, you know, the “Fedora’s” in charge of  “intelligence”,  we could have a Communist living right in the White House they’d be vouching for him……oh wait.

  4. Shawny
    July 28th, 2012 @ 8:31 am

    I find both RSM’s article and your additional information fascinating.  Makes me want to read both books in some time of leisure….I just can’t envision right now.  What kind of terrifyingly intriguing historical accounts will be written about this time in history when the common blogger was called upon to stand in for J.Edgar?   

  5. DaveO
    July 28th, 2012 @ 10:33 am

    Does that mean y’all will be switching to all-American Stetson instead of the girly-Euro Fedora?

  6. Dai Alanye
    July 28th, 2012 @ 10:36 am

    There is even reason to think Oswald’s marriage to Marina was phony. That is, that it was arranged with the connivance of her uncle, a GRU general. The question, of course, is why?

    As happy as the Soviets were to get Oswald, who knew the flight profile of the U-2s, it was obvious he was an unstable psych job. Dumping him back on the Americans was a way to rid themselves of an embarrassing loser.

    But was Marina sent with him to serve as his controller? Possibly, I suppose, but perhaps she was a dissatisfied Soviet citizen, and sending her away rid her uncle of the danger of a scandal within his family. Presumably she had an official role, however, perhaps surveillance of Oswald in minor spying tasks.

    All supposition on my part, but it’s a fascinating subject. One thing we can be fairly sure of, the assassination of Kennedy was no part of Soviet plans. But what about Castro’s plans, eh? He had a good excuse, for the Kennedys had earlier tried to assassinate him.

  7. Evilbloggerlady
    July 28th, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

    Of course JEH did not shed too many tears over JFK getting killed.  

  8. JeffS
    July 28th, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

     I imagine he celebrated.

  9. Bob Belvedere
    July 28th, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

    ‘Girly!!!”  I take umbridge!  And you can’t have it back until you apologize and kiss my Bogart.

  10. Bob Belvedere
    July 28th, 2012 @ 2:31 pm

    I think it safe to say that the main reason Hoover shed no tears was because he hoped it would rid him of Bobby.

  11. Bob Belvedere
    July 28th, 2012 @ 2:35 pm

    So…how about that book?

    Couldn’t Bob Tyrrell put in a good word for you over at Regnery?

  12. robertstacymccain
    July 28th, 2012 @ 3:28 pm

    Hoover was an interesting and sadly familiar type of bureaucrat: The guy who advances to a position of authority at a young age — he was only 29 years old when he became director of the institutional predecessor of the FBI — and retains his position by remorselessly destroying all potential rivals.

    The idea of a 29-year-old being placed in charge of a 600-man law-enforcement agency should frighten us. Such a man must naturally be quite ambitious and, having achieved such pre-eminence at such an early age, how can he possibly satisfy his ambition except through the remorseless expansion of his power?

    Grant that Hoover was a man of exceptional ability and patriotic idealism, dedicated to his nation’s best interests and still, the circumstances of his early advancement were fraught with peril.

    Human nature is such that those who achieve precocious success in any field — overleaping more experienced individuals — often become arrogant as a result. Furthermore, when we see this kind of early advancement occur in a bureaucratic organization, it is not unreasonable to suspect that the person has advanced mainly through their mastery of those social processes we call “office politics.” The upwardly-mobile bureaucrat is skilled at getting themselves assigned to duties that offer the best opportunity to gain positive attention from influential superiors; he is keen to take credit for success, and avoids blame for failure.

    Anyone who has much experience in large organizations understands how this game works, and recognizes the type of person who “wins” through superior gamesmanship. The thought that someone like that should exercise the kind of power Hoover exercised — yeah, “frightening” is a good word for it.

    Understand that I say this as someone who admires many things about J. Edgar Hoover, especially his ferocious anti-Communism. But I think his early ascent to such authority was the basic root of many of his bad tendencies.

  13. Mortimer Snerd
    July 28th, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

    Fascinating post!  Thanks.

  14. K-Bob
    July 29th, 2012 @ 5:31 am

    I think the best reason to research this topic (JFK/Oswald) is to figure out what parts of it you can ignore while writing your book.  I mean, this part has already been done to, well, death.

    I sure don’t want to read another rehash of it.  It lost fascination for me years ago.

    But the parts that relate to the period you’re intending to cover seem much more interesting.  I’ve seen some tantalizing international aspects of those years while reading Revel’s work. The pre-Casto cuban years (I would have loved to visit Havana then!), and the rebuilding of Japan and other sorts of things going on between the end of WWII and the beginning years (1962, I believe) of the Vietnam War… all of those seem to show a far more dynamic America in the world than the simple “soldiers came home and we started working again” theme of most schoolbooks.

    (…which only manage that much of a gloss-over so they can get to the 60’s, so they can teach our kids what horrible people the Americans must be.)

  15. Bob Belvedere
    July 29th, 2012 @ 6:50 pm

    Agree completely.

    Having worked for the government for over three decades has allowed me to see this up-close.