WASHINGTON — Members of the House committee investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy had serious reservations about the testimony of a KGB defector who claimed the Soviet intelligence service made no attempt to recruit Lee Harvey Oswald during the time he defected to the Soviet Union, newly released documents show.
Several members of the House Select Committee on Assassinations challenged the June 20, 1978 testimony of Yuri Nosenko, a former KGB agent who defected to the United States in 1964. Kenneth Klein, one of the committee's chief lawyers who grilled Nosenko during the third day of his testimony before the panel, also expressed doubts.
The testimony was released Dec. 15 by the National Archives as part of a series of disclosures of documents related to the 1963 Kennedy assassination and the investigations into the people, organizations and nations connected murder and conspiracy theories associated with it.
A deposition by CIA agent David Murphy, a member of the team that interrogated Nosenko, was also released. So was a 1964 memo by CIA Director John McCone that detailed a meeting in which he told President Lyndon Johnson that the agency thought Nosenko was a KGB plant.
Members of the assassinations committee didn't believe that Oswald was considered so insignificant by the KGB that it did not try to either recruit him or send him back to the United States because the Soviets considered him mentally unstable.
If Oswald was considered mentally unstable, Klein asked Nosenko, couldn't the KGB have delivered Oswald to the U.S. embassy in Moscow and say "'You take care of him; we don't want him?'"
"It can be done, sure," Nosenko said. "It can be done, but it wasn't done."
"Instead they elected to allow him to stay indefinitely in the Soviet Union and they have to worry about him every single day, what an unstable American might do, is that correct?" a skeptical Klein asked.
Oswald's defection from the United States to the Soviet Union was considered rare. Only two other Americans had moved from the United States to the Soviet Union during the time Oswald lived in the Soviet Union from 1959 to 1962.
The seven-member commission led by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren that investigated the assassination concluded that Oswald acted on his own, but his defection to the Soviet Union and return has inspired numerous conspiracy theories in the 53 years since Kennedy's murder.
Committee members also could not believe that the Soviet government would allow Oswald, a former Marine sharpshooter, to move to the country, marry a Soviet woman and then move back to the United States without the KGB playing some kind of role.
"You said in your testimony American defection was very rare," said Rep. Floyd Fithian, D-Ind. "All the more reason, if it only happens once every year or a couple times a year, or three times between '56 and '59, it is totally incredible to me that he would not have been interrogated. No reasonable person can believe that story."
George Martin Rosnek
Nosenko's defection and subsequent years of harsh interrogation by the CIA was one of the main U.S. intelligence controversies of the 1960s and fueled an intense rivalry between the CIA and the FBI. The CIA's counterespionage chief, James Angleton, considered Nosenko a KGB plant meant to destabilize the CIA, while FBI officials believed Nosenko was probably legitimate.
"I told President Johnson that we continued our interrogation of Nosenko; our counterintelligence people were inclined to feel he was a plant but had not made up their minds," McCone wrote in a Feb. 20, 1964, memorandum for the record. "President said he thought he was probably legitimate and would give us some good information.
"I said I hoped this was true — that we certainly were taking advantage of everything that he did give us; that we were working closely with the FBI, however we could only conclude at the moment that the Soviet's performance and action were so different from any other defector case that our suspicions had been aroused," McCone wrote. "The President was to be kept informed."
By 1969, the agency concluded Nosenko was authentic. It hired him as a consultant to help analyze Soviet intelligence. A Sept. 19, 1969, agency report released for the first time in July said Nosenko went by the name George Martin Rosnek. Rosnek died at the age of 80 in 2008 in North Carolina.
Although Nosenko was eventually vindicated, his stories did not always find willing believers. Rep. Harold Sawyer, a Michigan Republican, told Nosenko that it was hard to believe the KGB rejected Oswald as a target without even asking to talk to him.
"I understand sir," Nosenko said, "but I am telling you he wasn't considered an interesting target."
"But they didn't have any facts to know whether he was interesting, and here is a guy that wants to talk to them," Sawyer said.
No interest in a radar operator?
Murphy, who worked on Nosenko's interrogation for the CIA, said the agency wondered about much of Nosenko's story.
"I did not believe that it would be possible for the Soviet intelligence services to have remained indifferent to the arrival in 1959 in Moscow of a former Marine radar operator who had served at what was an active U-2 base," Murphy said in his deposition. "I found that to be strange."
During the time of Nosenko's defection, Murphy was chief of the Soviet Russian division of the CIA. A U-2 is an American spy plane.
The Nosenko files released this month were part of an unveiling of more than 35,500 documents related to the JFK investigation that were required to be released under the provisions of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992. Many had nothing to do with the actual assassination but with people, agencies and countries implicated in the various investigations of the killing and related conspiracy theories.
The FBI documents about sources and informants had been released before, but with the key code names censored.
President Trump said he would release all of the documents without redactions, but FBI and CIA officials prevailed upon him to keep some still secret or to release others with key details blacked out.
Any information that is still redacted is subject to Trump's review and could be released in full in the coming months, the National Archives said.
The Dec.15 release was the last one this year, the National Archives said.