Lee Harvey Oswald in Russia
An Unauthorized History from the Kennedy Assassination 

HOW COULD THE KGB NOT BE INTERESTED IN OSWALD?

Copyright © Peter Vronsky 1991-2004




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One of the most baffling mysteries about Oswald's journey to the USSR is the apparent lack of interest in him from the KGB. The Soviets have consistently maintained that they did not debrief or question Oswald on his military experience in the Pacific, despite the fact that he served as a radar operator in Japan from where U-2 spyplanes were launched, nor did they consider recruiting him as an agent.  Many intelligence critics insist that the Soviets would be happy to question a former Marine like Oswald on close-order drill if that was all he knew.  But Oswald knew much more.  According to the testimony of his Marine crew commander at El Toro, Lt. John Donovan, :

"Oswald had access to the location of all bases in the west coast areas, all radio frequencies for all squadrons, all tactical call signs, and the relative strength of all squadrons, number and type of aircraft in a squadron, who was the commanding officer, the authentication code of entering and exiting the ADIZ, which stand for Air Defense Identification Zone. He knew the range of our radar. He knew the range of our radio. And he knew the range of surrounding units' radio and radar...  There are some things which he knew on which he received instructions that there is no way of changing, such as the MPS 16 height-finder radar gear... He had also been schooled on a piece of machinery call a TPX-1, which is used to transfer radio--radar and radio signals over a great distance. Radar is very susceptible to homing missiles, and this piece of equipment is used to put your radar antenna several miles away, and relay the information back to your site which you hope is relatively safe. He had been schooled on this."
[WC Vol. 8 p.298]  

The problem is that we give the KGB more credit than they deserve. Like any other government bureaucracy, the KGB was frequently riddled with jurisdictional disputes, laziness, departmental rivalry, and miscommunication where one hand did not know what the other was doing.  One of the most frequent comments heard from the KGB officials on the issue of Oswald is:  if only they had known the details of Oswald's military experience, they would have taken a greater interest in him.  But they did not know, or at least, not the right KGB people knew. The KGB was no more efficient than any other Cold War superpower intelligence service - which is saying that largely they were incompetent.

Secondly, there is a popular misperception of the KGB's primary function.  The KGB is not an intelligence agency, but an internal security organization. Its principal mandate was the suppression of dissent and counterespionage and not traditional intelligence gathering. Its foreign intelligence operations, although very extensive, were frequently focused on augmenting its internal security function. The form that foreign KGB operations often took were disinformation, sabotage, influence, assassination (primarily of its own citizens and ex-citizens abroad or citizens of Warsaw Pact nations), and penetration of émigré groups and foreign intelligence services with the objective of identifying spies back home. Traditional intelligence gathering was only one of many items on the KGB's operational list and compartmentalized within the KGB away from its internal security division.  In 1991 when the KGB was split up into separate agencies, the new foreign intelligence component consisted of only 12,000 employees out of a total estimated 400,000 - 700,000 KGB officers, operatives, and uniformed troops.  Somebody else was engaged in traditional intelligence gathering.

The active pursuit of traditional military intelligence such as nuclear weapon secrets, chain of commands, troop dispositions, military technological secrets, and the kind of data that Oswald might have yielded was and remains today the mandate of the GRU - the Main Intelligence Administration (Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravlenie.) The GRU has been running strong under the same name and command structure for eighty-two years! An agency of the Defense Ministry, the GRU is headquartered in an inaccessible high-rise complex known as the "Aquarium" located on the Khodinka airfield tucked away in the middle of the city ten minutes from downtown Moscow. It is estimated that the GRU has personnel equal to all the US military intelligence agencies combined. Very often what we perceived as arrests or expulsions of KGB spies in the West, were in fact exposed GRU operatives.

While the KGB in the new Russia has been renamed, split up into separate agencies, sanitized, and is now offering FBI-like tours of its headquarters and peddling its JFK "secrets" to Norman Mailer and the Learning Channel, the GRU on the other hand is is not returning any calls -- not that there is a number to call.  You can buy KGB patches and badges on E-Bay; there is no such thing as a GRU badge.  Most Russians have never heard of the GRU despite of its uninterrupted eight decade existence. When you say "GRU" in Russia most people think you are saying "CIA" which in Russian is pronounced as the "TsRU." If the GRU had gotten to Lee Harvey Oswald, and they very much would have liked to, it will be a very long time before we learn anything about it, if ever.

In 1959, when Oswald arrived in the USSR, the KGB - Committee for State Security (Comitet Gosudarstvenoy Bezopastnosti) - was in its heyday. It had been first known as the Cheka, then the OGPU, GPU, NKVD, MVD, and MGB (not necessarily in that order) before it became the KGB in 1954.  Its main function had been the suppression of threats within the borders of the USSR -- it is estimated that some 20 to 60 million Soviet citizens were put to death between 1918 and 1953 by the secret police apparatus.

When the KGB came into contact with Lee Harvey Oswald, it was divided into several Chief Directorates.  The First Chief Directorate was responsible for the KGB's foreign operations, including intelligence gathering.  The First Directorate was almost as separate from the KGB as the CIA is from the FBI. In fact, the KGB's foreign intelligence service was even headquartered away from infamous Lubyanka complex and based in Yasenevo in the southwest district of Moscow.  First Directorate KGB officers looked down on their internal security fellow employees and often attempted to disassociate themselves from their excesses.

The larger more powerful division of the KGB was the Second Chief Directorate - counterintelligence and internal security.  Evaluating Oswald as he popped up in the Intourist hotel system, would have been in the jealously guarded jurisdiction of the KGB's Second Directorate.  Thus in assessing Oswald, the KGB would first have been concerned as to whether he was a threat to the Soviet Union by his presence there.  His potential value as an agent or as a source of intelligence was of absolutely no interest to the Second Directorate field officers evaluating Oswald.  Imagine an FBI agent while interviewing a suspected Russian agent, concerning himself with the possibility of turning that individual and sending him back to Russia or attempting to extract intelligence on Russian troop strength or chain-of-command.  It is not what the FBI does.  Likewise for the KGB Second Directorate in 1959.

Nechiporenko does state in his book, Passport to Assassination, that the First Directorate had a Department Fifteen responsible for the recruitment of foreign visitors to the USSR as Soviet agents. However it relied on information forwarded from the Second Directorate and did not have an operational presence inside the tourist system. Why?  Because the Second Directorate was trying to take that function on itself and would do so successfully:  in later years  Department Fifteen was disbanded and its functions transferred to the Second Directorate.   Furthermore, at first glance, Oswald was not an ideal candidate for recruitment as an agent anyway.  He had openly journeyed to the USSR, thus making himself visible to US security. He was a low ranking Marine no longer on active duty and had no access to classified material.  He was uneducated and  held no promise of future access to information or influence. At closer scrutiny the Russians would have noted his youth, immaturity, and unconventional and erratic behavior. He would have been judged too unreliable as a potential agent. All that is assuming that the First Directorate - Department Fifteen had even learned of his presence. Once Oswald staged his "suicide" and then attempted to renounce his citizenship at the US Embassy, any lingering and remote considerations for his use as a Soviet agent would have vanished forever.

It was the Second Directorate, which jealously guarded its operational zone in the Intourist hotel system, that was dealing directly with the problem of Oswald. But the Second Directorate was not concerned with gathering intelligence - only with assessing Oswald's presence as a potential danger to the USSR. Any idea of "recruiting" Oswald, or even extracting intelligence out of him would not have been the concern of the KGB officers evaluating Oswald. Perhaps a young, zealous and highly motivated counterintelligence officer upon encountering Oswald would have phoned around or cabled another branch of the KGB informing them of his existence. But such individuals are scarce in any bureaucracy, Soviet or other. At the end of the day, the KGB officer handling Oswald decided to go home for the night rather than risk putting in more work without overtime. We know that the KGB official who initially met with Oswald on October 20 to assess his request for asylum in the USSR was a veteran secret police officer who had joined the service in the 1920's - Abram Shaknazarov. [Nicheporenko, pp. 33-34] After having participated in and survived three decades of Stalinist shot-to-the-nape-of-the-neck policing, Shaknazarov was very close to his pension.  The KGB's recommendation that Oswald be put on the next train out of the country was a "safe" recommendation that any long careered intelligence bureaucrat could feel secure in.
 

History shows that the KGB's First Directorate - Department Fifteen's function of recruiting agents among tourists and visitors was eventually transferred to the Second Directorate. There obviously was a clash between the two Directorates over operations inside the territory of the USSR, almost akin to the highly defined division between the CIA's and FBI's jurisdictions. It is possible that interdepartmental politics even led to the Second Directorate deliberately keeping the First in the dark as to the existence of Oswald and his potential intelligence yield. In any case, the moment it became clear that Oswald was not leaving the USSR, he was drawn inescapably into the Second Directorate's orbit whose only concern was that Oswald not pose a threat inside the USSR.

The GRU would have been interested in questioning Oswald on anything  he might have learned in his USMC tour of duty.  But the GRU was very far removed from the Intourist hotel system.  US military personnel were not staying in Moscow's hotels in any abundance.  Again, the GRU would have depended upon a call from the Second Directorate to learn of Oswald's presence.  This is unlikely, as the KGB had always maintained a hungry eye on the GRU and had attempted a takeover several times previously.  The two agencies cooperated no more than was necessary.  In the end, when in 1962 is was discovered that a senior GRU officer Oleg Penkovsky was a spy run jointly by the US-UK, the KGB made its move, securing the right to approve the appointment of the GRU command. 

Nicheporenko reports that an unknown Russian intelligence officer interviewed Oswald on November 4 and that he was not from the Second Directorate. It is very likely that this was somebody from the First Directorate or perhaps from the GRU, taking a look for themselves as to what Oswald was about. They were not impressed because Oswald angrily pursued a promised further meeting only discover that nobody existed under the name that was given him. Oswald also notes testily in his diary that he is called to a meeting with three officials in late November, and they appear to ask him questions as if they knew nothing of his case.

In 1959 the KGB was all geared up for extracting intelligence from US targets abroad, but not from targets inside its own backyard. When Oswald arrived in Russia, there was no highly developed tourist industry. Foreign business, cultural, and scientific visitors were only starting to arrive in any significant number. Furthermore, Oswald was what is known in the intelligence craft as a "walk-in" - somebody who makes the first approach. All intelligence agencies regard walk- ins with nothing but the deepest suspicion. The Russians could have very easily made the deliberate decision not to attempt to debrief Oswald.


Lee Harvey Oswald in Russia
An Unauthorized History from the Kennedy Assassination 

HOW COULD THE KGB NOT BE INTERESTED IN OSWALD?

Copyright © Vronsky 1991-2004


MAIN PAGE