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« David Robarge’s Rejoinder | Main | Bombshell or Dud? Earle Cabell’s CIA Connections »

20 December 2017


Michael Holzman

James Angleton worked for the Central Intelligence Agency for thirty years, twenty of those in the same position.

Married, with three children, he lived in a rather ordinary house in suburban Arlington, Virginia, for nearly all that time. Unless traveling on business or on vacation, he drove to his office each morning, worked at his desk or attended meetings (including lunch meetings) and returned home, often rather late at night.

His non-work-related activities included fishing, breeding flowers, making jewelry from semi-precious stones, socializing and reading. It was a life not unlike those of hundreds of other governmental employees in Washington during the years after World War II.

But unlike most, perhaps any, of his peers three or four layers down in the vast federal bureaucracy, there have now been at least four full biographies written about James Angleton, as well as a large number of chapters in books, many magazine articles, and not a few fictionalized portrayals in novels, movies and television series. The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton, by journalist Jefferson Morley, is the most recent biography.

The Central Intelligence Agency is an instrument of government, or, more precisely, an instrument of the president. Its activities are ultimately those that the president has ordered it to undertake or those its staff believe necessary in order to achieve the goals the president has set out for it. Part of the CIA steals secrets and another mixes those with publicly-available information and analyzes the result for use in policy formation. A third section engages in activities ranging from quasi-military operations to assassinations. Supporting these three main divisions, the agency has groups ranging from tinkerers with bits of electronics to public relations, publications, security, and counterintelligence.

The purpose of the counterintelligence staff is to ensure that the agency’s own secrets are not discovered by similar, foreign, organizations. And, of course, there are “other duties as assigned.” Angleton was chief of the counterintelligence staff, reporting through two or three layers of the bureaucracy to the director of Central Intelligence. It seems that there were no complaints about Angleton as a supervisor from any of the two hundred members of his staff. Perhaps more importantly, as far as is known, there were no cases of foreign governmental organizations “penetrating,” as it is said, the CIA while he was chief of the counterintelligence staff. There were quite a few after he left the Agency.

Morley’s main interest in The Ghost, following on his book about Winston Scott, the CIA’s station chief in Mexico City at the time of the assassination of President Kennedy, is that traumatic event. Morley wants us to know what Angleton knew about Lee Harvey Oswald before November 22, 1963, what he did with that knowledge, and how he performed his assigned additional duties as CIA liaison to the Warren Commission. He makes the case that Angleton knew as much about Oswald as anyone in the CIA and that he told the Warren Commission for the public record as little as possible of that. Oswald was a defector, who re-defected. He was a Communist sympathizer during the waning years of the second Red Scare. He had made connections with the Cuban embassy in Mexico City and was a very public member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. As a US citizen who had lived in the Soviet Union, tracking his activities came within the remit of the CIA in partnership with the FBI. Oswald was likely a candidate, however minor, for the latter organization’s list of 10,000 Americans to be placed in concentration camps whenever J. Edgar Hoover could persuade the president to declare a national emergency.

As for Angleton’s role with the Warren Commission, he was a delegate, not an independent agent. He was carrying out an assignment given him by the director of Central Intelligence, an assignment given the director, presumably, by the president.

Morley has subsidiary interests in the usual list of Angleton’s more dramatic activities: the opening of international mail, the spying on and disruption of the anti-war movement, the assistance to the Israeli nuclear program. There were other activities, of less interest to Morley, such as Angleton’s pre-CIA involvement with Axis “rat-lines” conveying war criminals to quiet retirement in Argentina and Brazil and his later creation of the “Five Eyes” international network of secret intelligence services. All these, as well, were undertaken with the knowledge and largely at the bidding of his supervisors, with the probable exception of his role in the development of the Israeli atomic bomb, which Morley underestimates. It was activities like these that William Colby used to force Angleton’s retirement.

And then there is, as always with books about Angleton, the "mole hunt," David Wise’s phrase that clings to Angleton like a Homeric epithet. A “mole,” the term drifting into intelligence studies from popular fiction, is a spy who has gained access to, preferably employment in, a foreign intelligence service. The exemplar was H. A. R. “Kim” Philby, Jr., a Soviet agent who rose high in the British secret intelligence service, which seems to have been a particularly comfortable environment for such people.

If Angleton had a position description in CIA, as he most probably had, the first item on it was to prevent agents of foreign intelligence services from gaining employment or other access to the agency. His efforts along this line made him unpopular with those CIA officials who, because of the importance of their positions and the harm they might have done if they were foreign agents, attracted the attentions of the counterintelligence staff.

Angleton took the view that even if guilt could not be proven, the possibility of guilt was sufficient for the agency to exercise caution, leading from careful reviews to transfers from more to less delicate positions to forced retirement. Those closely watched, transferred, or retired early naturally resented this and eventually much of the agency was split between those who thought Angleton was overly zealous and those who thought he was professionally thorough. Each group enlisted allies, including journalists. Angleton’s career was reduced by many of the latter to the years and activities of “the great mole hunt.”

Was the mole hunt that important? A few years earlier the Red (Communist) and Lavender (homosexual) scares resulted in the firings of hundreds of American foreign service career officers, crippling the State Department for decades. Similar actions had similar results in American university science, humanities, and social science departments. Half a dozen damaged careers in the CIA are small beer by comparison and unlike those purged in other institutions, it was not a matter of public disgrace. They did not have to resort to selling stationery or encyclopedias for a living. One might say that all this fuss about the mole hunt is making a mountain of . . . something relatively unimportant in the great scheme of things.

Morley shares the tendency of other writers about Angleton for psychologizing comments about his subject. Angleton was “paranoid” or “haunted by his betrayal by Philby” and so forth. James Forrestal, the first secretary of Defense, was paranoid. We know this because he jumped out of a window in a mental hospital. Frank Wisner was mentally ill. We know this because he was diagnosed as a manic depressive and committed to a mental hospital. Apparently the government of the day was not reluctant to provide psychiatric services as needed by high officials. The only hospitalization provided to Angleton was for his recurrent tuberculosis. As for Philby, it is not unusual for a person who’s trust has been betrayed by a friend to feel badly about that, to take it as a lesson to be more careful in the future. There were others, much more seriously affected by Philby’s activities, such as Philby’s colleagues in MI6, who are not constantly described as “haunted” by the affair.

Jefferson Morley writes vividly and except for a penchant for tagging sensational, italicized labels on Angleton (Machiavelli! Svengali! Iago! Golem! Ghoul!) this well-researched book identifies many hitherto little known aspects of Angleton’s career. It is regrettable, however, that he follows many of his predecessors in failing to contextualize that career. Morley judges Angleton and finds him ethically flawed, excessively suspicious, and secretive. All probably true, as with many employees of the Central Intelligence Agency and its foreign equivalents. And yet . . .

Frances Stonor Saunders concluded her study of the Congress for Cultural Freedom by pointing out that “the same people who read Dante and went to Yale and were educated in civic virtue recruited Nazis, manipulated the outcome of democratic elections, gave LSD to unwitting subjects, opened the mail of thousands of American citizens, overthrew governments, supported dictatorships, plotted assassinations, and engineered the Bay of Pigs disaster . . . In the name of what? . . . Not civic virtue, but empire.”

So it was with James Jesus Angleton. His justification for the actions Morley condemns was the cause of the American empire. If that cause seems now unjustified, the prosecution must look beyond the chief of the counterintelligence staff of the Central Intelligence Agency for the chief culprits.

Michael Holzman

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