The secret life of CIA spymaster James Jesus Angleton

by Charlotte Grimshaw / 06 February, 2018
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James Angleton.

When it comes to interfering in other countries’ affairs, CIA high priest James Angleton led the way.

In an era when “meddling” is a hot issue and many of us have become obsessed with the secret machinations of the “deep state”, Jefferson Morley’s biography The Ghost portrays the Machiavellian affairs of a man who might once have been called the meddler-in-chief.

James Jesus Angleton was an intellectual, a Yale-educated poet who’d founded a literary magazine, Furioso, and published poetry by Ezra Pound. He was an intelligent reader and literary critic who turned his analytical eye on American society. Having assessed the zeitgeist and decided it needed shaping, he became a spy, rising to be the CIA’s most formidable head of counterintelligence, a high priest of the secret world who, by the end of his career, had amassed so much power and influence he was able to operate outside the control of elected officials and the President.

At Yale, Angleton had admired the poem Gerontion; TS Eliot’s “wilderness of mirrors” is an apt description of his life. He might have started out as averagely paranoid, but betrayal by his friend, the Cambridge spy Kim Philby, who was revealed to have spied for the Russians for years, was a shock that permanently altered his behaviour.

Blindsided by Philby’s duplicity and humiliated by his failure to detect it, Angleton projected his crisis of faith onto the organisation he was running, instigating a mole hunt within the CIA that ran for seven years, at times nearly paralysing the agency. Genuine defectors and credible sources of foreign intelligence were dismissed by a chief now convinced that every straight explanation was a distortion, trick or false flag. He hounded innocent CIA agents out of the service, stifling investigations. At his order, a real Russian defector, Yuri Nosenko, was imprisoned and interrogated, his intelligence ignored. It was a quest fuelled by a paranoia so intense that finally, in a supremely comic irony, one of the mole-hunters turned to investigating Angleton himself.

Cuban counter-revolutionaries after their capture in the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Photo/Getty Images

Cuban counter-revolutionaries after their capture in the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Photo/Getty Images

Angleton’s service spanned periods of turmoil, including the Kennedy assassinations, the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Morley’s account reveals that the counterintelligence chief was everywhere behind the scenes, meddling with fanatical intensity and purpose. He was a true ideologue, rigid and inflexible in his beliefs. His obsession was communism, and he was ruthless in his efforts to keep it at bay.

This is the book to read if you’ve ever doubted the extent to which powerful countries can meddle or if you’ve ever naively disbelieved that the CIA has a reprehensible record of interference, both domestically and internationally. Covert Russian involvement in the 2016 US election was a taste of America’s own medicine.

Under Angleton, the CIA financed multiple anti-communist entities. It plotted the overthrow of democratically elected left-wing governments. It sought to defeat Cuba’s Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs, and when that didn’t work, it drafted plans to assassinate him. Domestically, it waged “intellectual Cold War”, funding magazines, movies and books. It even funded the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Allen Ginsberg would describe how Angleton had turned literary criticism against the Beat writers.

Some of the most fascinating sections of The Ghost concern the surveillance of Lee Harvey Oswald, who was closely watched by the CIA for four years before he killed President John F Kennedy. Angleton concealed this serious failure (if not something more sinister), which occurred on his watch, from the Warren Commission that investigated the killing.

The shadowy and powerful chief, who had operated for so long outside proper oversight, was finally brought down by the journalist Seymour Hersh, who in 1974 wrote a New York Times piece detailing the CIA’s illegal spying on American citizens. Angleton was forced to resign, a victory for journalism, although not an indication that the world in which he’d operated would change.

THE GHOST: The Secret Life Of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton, by Jefferson Morley (Penguin, $40)

This article was first published in the January 27, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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