Born in Boise in December 1917, James Angleton befriended poet and fellow Idahoan Ezra Pound in Italy before beginning what would be a legendary but checkered career in espionage. In his new book about Angleton, The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton (St. Martin's Press, Oct. 25), author Jefferson Morley reveals how during his nearly 30 years with the CIA, Angleton saw a beloved mentor unmasked as a traitor and was forced to hide his own puzzling role in what journalist Jefferson Morley calls an "epic counterintelligence failure." Angleton retired in 1974 after it was revealed he had been involved in a massive and illegal domestic surveillance program, much of it focused on Vietnam War protestors. In the wake of the revelation, Idaho (and Boise) native Senator Frank Church clashed publicly with Angleton over his questionable conduct.
During World War Two, Angleton served brilliantly in American intelligence thanks in large part to his friendship with British intelligence agent Kim Philby, who, he would later write, taught him "a great deal." He was also willing to protect Axis war criminals when he thought they might be useful in what he correctly foresaw as an impending struggle with Communism.
Angleton joined the newly created CIA in 1947 and in 1954, he became the chief of counterintelligence—the painstaking craft of thwarting enemy spying—and began building his own little empire. It was during this time (1953) that the CIA, under the directorship of Allen Dulles, helped overthrow the nationalist government of Iran, a shameful act known as Operation Ajax that continues to reverberate in headlines today.
Angleton had become an ardent champion of Israel after visiting the new nation in 1951 but, as the CIA "desk officer" for Israel, he was obligated to do everything possible to derail its alarming push for nuclear weapons. However, his normally keen eye turned blind as Israeli scientists, using enriched uranium purloined from a handily accessible facility in Pennsylvania, began developing a nuclear arsenal. As Morley points out, the effects of Angleton's negligence, if that's what it was, "will be felt for decades, if not centuries."
Dulles' reign as CIA director came to an end in 1961 when CIA-trained Cuban exiles were defeated by Fidel Castro's forces after landing at the Bay of Pigs. Believing he had been misled by assurances from the agency of a successful invasion, President John Kennedy refused to provide air support.
Morley writes that Kennedy, fuming, said, "I've got to do something about those CIA bastards," and threatened "to splinter" the agency into "a thousand pieces."
Angleton's downfall was slow and likely began in early 1963, when his old friend Philby showed up in Russia and acknowledged his decades-long role as a Soviet spy. He and Angleton had become serious drinking buddies and "soul mates in espionage" when Philby took over the American office of British intelligence in 1949. Angleton realized how thoroughly he had been played, and he became obsessed with the idea that one or more "moles"—spies embedded in enemy espionage services—had been placed in his agency. Apparently, there were none, which Morley attributes to Angleton, calling it his "greatest accomplishment." However, the increasingly paranoid Angleton never stopped believing moles were at work in the CIA, and he paralyzed his own counterintelligence operation with a fruitless search.
It was later in 1963 that Angleton and the CIA suffered that "epic counterintelligence failure"—Kennedy's assassination. The alleged perpetrator was Lee Harvey Oswald, a former Marine who had defected to the Soviet Union, only to return to the United States less than three years later. Angleton told the Warren Commission, which had been created to investigate the crime, that the CIA had just not paid much attention to the defector. That was an outright lie—probably the most revealing of his career.
As Morley makes clear, Oswald had been of "intense" interest to the agency, and Angleton had control of the growing file on him. The most charitable explanation for Angleton's actions is that he was hoping to catch one of those moles who, he was convinced, had infiltrated the agency. But was his involvement more sinister? Morley raises the possibility that Angleton "manipulated Oswald as part of an assassination plot," but admits we simply don't know. However, "he certainly abetted those who did. Whoever killed JFK, Angleton protected them. He masterminded the JFK conspiracy cover-up."
Preternaturally intelligent, ruthlessly amoral, intensely patriotic, destructively suspicious—what should be our final verdict on Angleton? Here his own words may provide the answer. "The founding fathers of U.S. intelligence were liars," he mused near the end of his life. "The better you lied and the more you betrayed, the more likely you were to be promoted." He called Dulles and a few others "grand masters," adding that "if you were in a room with them, you were in a room full of people that you had to believe would deservedly end up in hell. I guess I will see them there soon."