Nov. 20, 2004 -- On the day President Kennedy was assassinated, Oleg Kalugin was in New York City working as the United Nations correspondent for Radio Moscow. But that job was a cover for his real profession: espionage.
From 1958 to 1990, Kalugin was an intelligence officer for the Soviet KGB. The youngest person to rise to a general's rank in KGB history, he defected to the United States in 1990. He is currently a professor at the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies.
The following is an excerpt of ABCNEWS' interview with Oleg Kalugin, who dismisses the notion of a Soviet plot to assassinate John F. Kennedy.
ABCNEWS: At the time of the assassination, the Soviet Union and the United States were enemies. Would the Soviets have had a reason to kill the president of the United States?
Kalugin: No, that is just absolutely absurd. First of all, to kill the president of the United States is tantamount to a declaration of war. And back then we did not practice the assassination of foreign leaders — I mean of Western nations. We would probably have loved to have killed Tito of Yugoslavia, but he was a maverick in the Communist movement who betrayed our ranks, and for that reason was targeted for assassination. Stalin wanted to get rid of him and he ordered the KGB to find ways to have him killed. Well, it failed.
But we in the Soviet Union had no reason to kill any Western leader, particularly the president of the United States. We never practiced assassination or even attempted to kill anyone in the West. Not one leader was targeted by Soviet intelligence.
ABCNEWS: In trying to understand the Soviet reaction to Kennedy's death, how important was the fear of war?
Kalugin: For the Russians, another war was just unthinkable. The Russians lost 27 million in World War II. And every family, including mine, had someone killed, on the front or died during the siege of Leningrad, for instance. So war as an idea was absolutely unacceptable to the nation as a whole and to the Soviet leadership. So to avoid war was truly the most important, paramount mission of the Soviet leadership.
And they tried their best, despite Khrushchev's attempt to bully the United States before the Cuban missile crisis. Khrushchev would never, never just go into war with the United States. First of all, he knew it would be suicidal, and Russia was not prepared actually to defeat the United States. I mean, militarily. Khrushchev boasted about it but we didn't have the capabilities at that time.
ABCNEWS: In 1959 Lee Harvey Oswald arrives in Russia, a former Marine who claims he's a Marxist, and says he wants to defect. Wouldn't the KGB want to recruit someone like him?
Kalugin: Oswald initially was viewed as a CIA agent. I mean, as a plant. Well, later, after covert investigation, we found out that it was unlikely that man would represent the CIA. He was no good for the CIA. We had better view of the CIA. That guy could not represent the CIA. Now, we thought, maybe he could be used by the KGB and indeed, we viewed him and considered him as a potential recruit.
Again we came to the same conclusion. He was no good for us either. And with that, we decided just to give up and let him live the way he wanted to. Of course, he was surrounded by our informers, but just to keep an eye. Because all foreigners had to be kept under observation. That was a standard Soviet practice. But the sense was we just gave up any plans to make him useful for us. It was obvious he would be of no use.
ABCNEWS: As an intelligence officer who came to know the qualities of a good agent, how would you describe Oswald's shortcomings?
Kalugin: Oswald looked after many, many months of investigation, like a misfit, an unhappy man. The man who did not know what to do, the man who was looking for something, and he did not know himself what he was looking for. I mean a kind of a type who is not focused on anything. A kind of a type which is not good for the intelligence, because he will just blunder. He will confuse things and will let everyone down. So he was no good.
ABCNEWS: Do you think Castro may have been supporting Oswald?
Kalugin: No, not at all. That would play against the best interest of Cuba. Absolutely. It would achieve no positive goals, because Cuba would be crushed, because the United States will not perish because of the assassination of one man. The United States will become angry and America is angry. You don't play jokes with America angry, no. Well, the Iraqis know now about that.
ABCNEWS: Who was Yuri Nosenko?
Kalugin: Yuri Nosenko was a defector from the Russian KGB. And he served in the domestic counter-intelligence service — the Second Chief Directorate, so called, in the KGB. They had to look after foreigners. Investigate their background. Follow them. Check whatever information they had prior to their arrival. So Nosenko, as I understand, had something to do with Oswald's case. And his knowledge, I understand, he shared it with the United States authorities when he came to the United States in 1964.
ABCNEWS: There were those in the CIA who said that Nosenko was a fake defector. Was he?
Kalugin: No. Nosenko was a genuine one. He obviously exaggerated his own role, and clout in the KGB. He was a captain, if I recall correctly. And he said he was deputy chief of the department, which was not true. And apparently some of the information that he provided did not match with what the CIA had at the time. So they had reasons to suspect him, that he was not a genuine one.
But from the KGB's standpoint, Nosenko's defection was real. And he was genuine. I mean, as a defector. Absolutely. We had no doubts about that. In fact, he was sentenced to death in absentia and I suffered as a result of Nosenko's defection. I was recalled from New York prematurely. And dozens of people, including some of my friends, were recalled from England, Australia, other countries, because Nosenko could finger them and identify them as KGB officers. And that was a major flaw. We had to operate under an assumption that they did not know in the West who we are. So I was recalled from my post. It was because of Nosenko's defection.
ABCNEWS: When news that Nosenko had defected to the West came through, what was your reaction at KGB?
Kalugin: Any defection by a KGB officer in my time was a major scandal. Because if the KGB defects to the West, that show that something is wrong in the Soviet kingdom. For the KGB, that's a sign of degeneration, or a sign of trouble inside. It was absolutely unacceptable.
ABCNEWS: Did the KGB try to exploit American suspicions about the Kennedy assassination?
Kalugin: Well, to dispel the notion that the Soviets stood behind the assassination was mission number one. The second one was to pinpoint the real culprits. Those who in our judgment were behind the assassination. Not that we believed it, but we wanted others to believe it. And of course we selected, as usual, the conservatives, the right wing, the CIA, and all the world would find out months or weeks later, that the plot against President Kennedy was headed by the CIA and the right wing forces. That was a Soviet idea and it found excellent reception across the world, including the United States.
ABCNEWS: Does an example come to mind?
Kalugin: When the Warren Commission published its final results of the investigation, we placed advertisements saying this is a fake. Don't believe the Commission. It's an attempt to cover up the crime committed by some of the enemies of President Kennedy, right wing and some conservatives, who have found nice warm seats in the U.S. government as well as outside the government.
ABCNEWS: In 1963, did the Soviet people believe that there was a conspiracy behind President Kennedy's assassination?
Kalugin: In my country, in the USSR, at the time, when Kennedy was assassinated, that conspiracy theory was accepted as the real reason, the real background of Kennedy's assassination. The Soviet propaganda was absolutely omnipotent. And people had no access to other information at the time. So they took at face value, all the theories spread by Soviet propaganda. And as you know, the KGB was the main, I would say, manufacturer and mastermind behind these propaganda efforts.
ABCNEWS: Who do you think killed President Kennedy? Was there a conspiracy?
Kalugin: Well I support and stick to the official explanation, the Warren Commission Report, that Kennedy was assassinated by a loner and misfit, by name Oswald. And I have no reason to distrust that. Of course, in history things happen. And something, some day, may surface, which would completely discard that belief in the Warren Commission's truthfulness. But as of today, I have no reason to doubt that's exactly what happened.
Oswald killed Kennedy because he was an unhappy guy. A guy who just wanted to make himself, perhaps a hero, or someone. He was a disgruntled misfit, and he committed that crime.