This post looks at the CIA records on Yuri Nosenko in the JFK Assassination Records Collection (ARC) that were designated “not believed relevant” (NBR).
Over 2000 pages of these NBR documents on Nosenko were released by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in 2017-2018. For those interested in the Nosenko controversy, the release of these records provides much information previously unavailable. For those interested in the JFK assassination, however, the NBR designation seems to be an accurate appraisal (one question about this is raised at the end of this post).
The 2017-2018 NBR documents contrast with the CIA records on Nosenko released from the ARC in 1995-1998. These earlier documents are an important part of the story of the assassination investigation, detailing Nosenko’s claims about his knowledge of Lee Harvey Oswald’s KGB file, and the Warren Commission’s discussion of whether or not to incorporate these claims in their report.
Adding together the 1995-1998 Nosenko documents and the records released in 2017-2018, a total of 3000 plus pages of CIA documents on Nosenko have been released through the ARC. According to the Assassination Collection Reference System (ACRS), the online database of records in the ARC, this accounts for all CIA records on Nosenko in the ARC.
NBR records from CIA
To provide context for this post, a note on the NBR designation is in order. As described in previous posts, the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), an independent federal agency which oversaw the creation of the ARC and the release of information from the records in it, designated a number of CIA records as “not believed relevant” to the JFK assassination.
The release of NBR records was “postponed” until October 2017, when most of the material in the ARC was scheduled to be released. All NBR records from the CIA were indeed released in 2017-2018, but redactions were kept in some of them after President Trump certified that “continued withholdings are necessary to protect against identifiable harm to national security, law enforcement, or foreign affairs that is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in immediate disclosure.”
The Nosenko documents are one of the larger sets of ARC documents designated NBR. A close look at these documents allows us to better understand why the ARRB designated them NBR, and the chronology of when and how they were released.
Who was Yuri Nosenko?
Yuri Nosenko (1927-2008) was a KGB officer who defected to the United States in 1964. Nosenko claimed to have reviewed the KGB file on Lee Harvey Oswald, the ex-marine who assassinated President Kennedy. As a result, he was interviewed at least five times by the FBI during the Warren Commission’s investigation of the assassination. According to Nosenko, the KGB did not use Oswald as an agent.
The CIA’s Counter-Intelligence Division soon came to suspect that Nosenko was a dispatched agent, sent to conceal a high-ranking KGB agent in the CIA ranks. As a result, Nosenko was confined at CIA facilities for three and a half years, from April 1964 to October 1967, while it attempted to evaluate the truth of his claims. Ultimately, the CIA accepted Nosenko as a bona fide defector, and retained him as a consultant on KGB affairs for the remainder of his career.
ARRB handling of the Nosenko NBR records: Combs memo 1
The ARRB’s work on the Nosenko records is partially documented in the ARC record 104-10332-10009, which consists of CIA correspondence on the Nosenko records, dating from 1978 to 1998.
Included in 104-10332-10009 is an October 9, 1997 memo from ARRB staffer Michelle Combs describing 24 sets of Nosenko records which were designated NBR. The memo consists of a summary of the ARRB CIA team’s conclusion that the Nosenko records were NBR, and a five page list, describing each set of documents.
There is also an earlier memo dated August 5, 1997, which gives more background on Nosenko, and gives descriptions of 25, rather than 24, sets of documents.
The extra document in the August list is 104-10210-10009, which is the October 1968 Solie report on Nosenko’s bona fides. I do not know why this document was dropped from Combs’ October list. According to the Aug. 5 Combs memo, “A sanitized version of the Solie report has been released to the public.”
but I have not been able to find this in the ACRS In any case, for whatever reason, the ACRS listing for 104-10210-10009 does not mark it as NBR. Despite the lack of an NBR designation, 104-10210-10009 was apparently also withheld in full until 2017-2018.
Another puzzling document is what Combs describes as “a five page February 1964 memo from the Director of the Soviet Division (C/SR) David Murphy to the Deputy Director for Plans (DD/P) Richard Helms on plans to debrief Nosenko based on C/SR’s belief that Nosenko is a Soviet plant.” This seems to be record 104-10210-10155, but this was apparently released in full in 1999 and like 104-10210-10009 is also not marked as NBR.
At the time of Combs’ two memos, the RIF numbers now used to identify documents in the ARC had not yet been assigned to the Nosenko records. Instead, Combs identified the microfilm reels and “files” holding these records. Generally speaking, however, it is not difficult to identify which ARC documents came from which boxes and microfilm reels. These are all identified in the comments field of the document’s identification aid (its RIF sheet), which is attached to the top of each document in the ARC. In a few cases, some of the “volume/file” numbers may differ.
Based on Combs’ memo and descriptions, I have compiled a spreadsheet listing the RIF numbers and descriptions of the NBR Nosenko documents with links to the documents as posted at NARA, and in the Mary Ferrell collection. The spreadsheet is divided into three separate worksheets, covering the NBR documents in Combs’ memos discussed above, and two other sets of documents described below. The spreadsheet is available here.
Skipping the two questionable documents mentioned above, the total number of documents identified by Combs in her list is 36, and the total number of pages listed in the ACRS for these documents is 2,336. This is consistent with Combs’ estimate of 2,400 pages of NBR Nosenko records.
Combs memo 2
Record 104-10332-10009 also has a memo from Combs dated September 22, 1998, to then ARRB executive director Laura Denk. According to this memo, after the processing of the NBR Noskeno records, the ARRB’s CIA team reviewed two additional boxes of working files on Nosenko. These were all either copies or originals of previously reviewed material. Combs does not indicate reel or box numbers for these records, so I am not sure where they came from. I assume that they were discovered as part of later CIA records searches.
I have identified a number of records from this set that were also released in 2017-2018 and duplicate records from Combs’ earlier lists. All of these records have RIF numbers beginning 104-10534-10XXX. In fact, all of the 200 plus records with the disk number 104-10534 are labelled “Nosenko records.” The 10534 record set contains some of the last CIA records to be processed in the ARC; most of them were registered on the CIA system in January 2001, over two years after the closing of the ARRB. I attribute the late processing of these records both to the fact that they were among the last records reviewed by the ARRB, and that they were duplicates of previously released material.
I count 15 documents in the 10534 set that are duplicates (though sometimes with different redactions) of the microfilm NBR Nosenko documents. These were obviously not included in Combs original estimates of how many pages were in the Nosenko NBR documents. In my spreadsheet file of Nosenko documents listed above, I have a separate worksheet for the 10534 documents (titled “working file docs”). Note that the ACRS document page count is wrong for a number of these records, so the working file spreadsheet lists both the ACRS page count and my own page count for each document. My page count for these documents is 827. (Note that I exclude RIF sheets from the count, and that three records have two or more copies of a document, for which I counted only one of the copies.)
The Nosenko recordings
The 10534 disk also contains RIF metadata for the 17 Nosenko recordings that were released in July 2017. I have not found any sign that these were designated NBR, but, like the records that were NBR, these recordings were also withheld in full until the October 2017 deadline to release all eligible ARC documents. These recordings all date from 1964. Two are from the January 1964 interviews of Nosenko in Geneva, the remainder from interviews of Nosenko between February and July 1964. The ACRS also lists 6 recordings of John Hart interviewing Nosenko in September 1978. These recordings were not released on-line in 2017-2018, but pdf files for each of the recordings were released. These files are not, however, transcripts of the recordings. Instead, they appear to be just labels for the tapes. I have written to NARA to find out if copies of the tapes available, and will post on any response I get.
ARRB’s basic distinction between NBR Nosenko records and non-NBR records is clear: records concerning Nosenko’s account of the KGB file on Oswald are relevant, records concerning Nosenko’s bona fides, his confinement and treatment from 1965 to 1968, and his later relations with CIA, are NBR.
Thus transcripts of Peter Deryabin’s interrogation of Nosenko, a hitherto neglected aspect of the CIA’s attempt to determine Nosenko’s bona fides, are all designated NBR. This is reasonable; in close to 800 pages of interrogation, Kennedy and Oswald are not mentioned once.
The NBR records also include at least three of the major CIA studies of Nosenko’s bona fides: the Soviet Division’s 835-page rejection of Nosenko’s bona fides (104-10210-10037, 104-10210-10068, 104-10211-10001), written in February 1967; the Office of Security’s 263-page affirmation of Nosenko’s bona fides (104-10210-10009), written in October 1968 by Bruce Solie, and John Hart’s review of Nosenko’s bona fides (104-10211-10004, 104-10534-10205), written in June 1976.
Designating the bona fides studies NBR again makes sense for the reports of Solie and Hart, which have almost no mention of Nosenko’s claims about Oswald.
On the other hand, Bagley’s 835-page NBR report devotes close to 10 pages to Nosenko’s account of Oswald. Moreover, even in the most recent release (April 2018), there are still substantial redactions in precisely this section of the report. I don’t see how such material can be reasonably designated NBR.
In addition, other documents which relate to Nosenko’s bona fides were NOT designated NBR, and were released almost twenty years before October 2017. The most notable of these, perhaps, is the so-called “Green Book” report (104-10150-10136), written in February 1968. It seems that a consistent application of the NBR designation, in at least this case, is not as straightforward as one might hope.
Finally, for those who are interested in taking a closer look at these records, I have two caveats.
First, the 10534 duplicates should not be ignored. The 10534 version of the Hart report, for example, has significantly fewer redactions than the the NBR version. On the other hand, one cannot just read the 10534 version and ignore the NBR version: redactions remain in 10534 that are released in the NBR version. The ARRB made an effort to avoid this sort of confused, inconsistent redacting in the ARC records, but there are still many cases of this in the 2017-2018 releases.
Second, some of these documents have been released outside the ARC. If you are seriously interested in Nosenko, it would probably be wise to track down these releases. As an example, I initially believed that the Hart report remained unreleased until 2017-2018, but according to CIA historian David Robarge, the report had been released, in at least some form, by 2009. I have not been able to find this yet, but I see no reason to doubt Robarge. It would be interesting to know if other materials on Nosenko were also available elsewhere, perhaps in less redacted forms.