Jefferson Morley, The Ghost:
The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton
James Jesus Angleton served as the Central Intelligence Agency’s head of counterintelligence — its top spy and effectively the number three person in the agency — from 1954 until he was forced into retirement in 1975. Although his name is a less familiar than that of the FBI’s original director, J. Edgar Hoover, I couldn’t help thinking of Hoover as I read Jefferson Morley’s trenchant biography, The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton. Both were immensely powerful, paranoid men who repeatedly broke or skirted the law to advance their often-idiosyncratic versions of what United States national security required. Throughout their careers, both were able to avoid almost all attempts to hold them accountable for their misdeeds. With the passage of four decades since Hoover’s death in 1972 and Angleton’s departure from the CIA three years later, we can see that the two men seem embodied what has recently come to be known as the “Deep State,” a nearly independent branch of government in which officials secretly manipulate government policy, as Morley puts it, “largely beyond the view of the Madisonian government and the voting public” (p.xi).
Morley demonstrates that the notorious COINTELPRO operation, associated today with Hoover and arguably his most dubious legacy, actually began as a joint FBI-CIA undertaking that Angleton concocted. COINTELPRO aimed to infiltrate and disrupt dissidents and included among its targets Dr. Martin Luther King, left leaning organizations, and Vietnam anti-war protestors. The original idea that Angleton sold to a skeptical Hoover, who considered the CIA a “nest of liberals, atheists, homosexuals, professors, and otherwise feminized men who specialized in wasting the taxpayer dollar” (p.71), was that the Bureau would target subjects within the United States while the Agency would take the lead in targeting subjects outside the United States.
From there, the CIA and FBI collaborated on LINGUAL, an elaborate and extensive program to read American citizens’ mail, which Morley terms perhaps Angleton’s “most flagrant violation of the law” (p.82); and on CHAOS, an operation designed to infiltrate the entire anti-Vietnam war movement, not just people or organizations that engaged in violence or contacted foreign governments. Post-Watergate hearings brought the existence and extent of COINTELPRO, LINGUAL and CHAOS to light, along with numerous other chilling exercises of authority attributed to the FBI and CIA, leading to Angleton’s involuntary retirement from the agency.
Morley, a freelance journalist and former Washington Post editor, does not make the Hoover comparison explicitly. He sees in Angleton a streak of Iago, Othello’s untrustworthy advisor: outwardly a “sympathetic counselor with his own agenda, which sometimes verged on the sinister” (p.158). Angleton served four American presidents with “seeming loyalty and sometimes devious intent” (p.159), he writes (of course, the same could be said of Hoover, who served eight presidents over the course of a career that began in the 1920s).
Writing in icy prose that pieces together short, punchy vignettes with one word titles, Morley undertakes to show how Angleton was able to elevate himself from a “staff functionary” at the CIA, a new agency created in 1947, to an “untouchable mandarin” who had an “all but transcendent influence on U.S. intelligence operations for two decades” (p.67). At the height of the Cold War, Morley writes, Angleton became an “unseen broker of American power” (p.158).
But Morley’s biography might better be viewed as a compendium of the misjudgments and misdeeds that punctuated Angleton’s career from beginning to end. Angleton’s judgment failed him repeatedly, most notoriously when his close friend and associate, British intelligence agent Kim Philby, was revealed to have been a Soviet spy from World War II onward (I reviewed Ben McIntyre’s biography of Philby here in 2016). The Philby revelation convinced Angleton that the KGB had also planted an agent within the CIA, precipitating a disastrous and abysmally unsuccessful “mole hunt” that paralyzed the CIA for years and damaged the careers of many innocent fellow employees, yet discovered no one.
The book’s most explosive conjuncture of questionable judgment and conduct involves Angleton’s relationship to Lee Harvey Oswald, President John F. Kennedy’s presumed assassin. Angleton followed Oswald closely from 1959, when he defected to the Soviet Union, to that fateful day in Dallas in 1963. Thereafter, Angleton tenaciously withheld his knowledge of Oswald from the Warren Commission, charged with investigating the circumstances of the Kennedy assassination, to the point where Morley suggests that Angleton should have been indicted for obstruction of justice. The full extent of Angleton’s knowledge of Oswald has yet to come out, leaving his work laden with fodder for those of a conspiratorial bent who insist that Oswald was something other than a lone gunman, acting alone, as the Warren Commission found (in 2015, I reviewed Peter Savodnik’s biography of Oswald here, in which Savodnik argues forcefully for the lone gunman view of Oswald).
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Born in 1917 in Boise, Idaho, Angleton was the son of a prosperous merchant father and a Mexican-American mother (hence the middle name “Jesus”). At age 16, the young Angleton moved with his family to Milan, where his father ran the Italian-American Chamber of Commerce and was friendly with many leaders in the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. For the remainder of his life, James retained a fondness for Italy, Italian culture and, it could be argued, the Italian brand of fascism.
Angleton attended boarding school in England, then went on to Yale as an undergraduate. At Yale, he demonstrated a keen interest in poetry and came under the influence of the poet Erza Pound, who later became notorious for his Nazi sympathies (after an investigation led by J. Edgar Hoover, Pound was jailed during World War II). Poetry constituted a powerful method for Angleton, Morley writes. He would come to value “coded language, textual analysis, ambiguity, and close control as the means to illuminate the amoral arts of spying that became his job. Literary criticism led him to the profession of secret intelligence. Poetry gave birth to a spy” (p.8).
During World War II, Angleton found his way to the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s predecessor agency. He spent the later portion of the war years in Rome, where he developed a friendship with Junio Valerio Borghese, “perhaps the most famous fascist military commander in Italy” (p.21). Angleton helped Borghese avoid execution at the hands of the same partisan forces that captured and executed Mussolini in 1945. Thanks to Angleton’s efforts, Borghese “survived to become titular and spiritual leader of postwar Italian fascism” (p.27), and one of the United States’ key partners in preventing a Communist takeover of postwar Italy.
Angleton prepared for his assignment in Rome at Bletchley Park in England, the center of Allied code-breaking operations during World War II. There, Angleton learned the craft of counter-intelligence under the tutelage of Kim Philby, who taught the young American “how to run double agent operations, to intercept wireless and mail messages, and to feed false information to the enemy. Angleton would prove to be his most trusting friend” (p.18). After the war, Philby and Angleton both found themselves in Washington, where they became inseparable buddies, the “closest of friends, soul mates in espionage” (p.41). Each saw in the other the qualities needed to succeed in espionage: ruthlessness, calculation, autonomy, and cleverness.
The news of Philby’s 1963 defection to Moscow iwas “almost incomprehensible” (p.123) to Angleton. What he had considered a deep and warm relationship had been a sham. Philby was “his friend, his mentor, his confidant, his boozy buddy,” Morley writes. And “through every meeting, conference, debriefing, confidential aside, and cocktail party, his friend had played him for a fool” (p.124). Philby’s defection does not appear to have damaged Angleton’s position within the CIA, but it set him off on a disastrous hunt for a KGB “mole” that would paralyze and divide the agency for years.
Angleton’s mole hunt hardened into a “fixed idea, which fueled an ideological crusade that more than a few of his colleagues denounced as a witch hunt” (p.86). Angleton’s operation was multi-faceted, “consisting of dozens of different mole hunts – some targeting individuals, others focused on components within the CIA (p.135). Angleton’s suspicions “effectively stunted or ended the career of colleagues who were guilty of nothing” (p.198). To this day, after the opening of significant portions of KGB archives in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, there is no indication it ever had a mole burrowed into the CIA. Angleton’s mole hunt, Morley concludes, “soaked in alcohol” and permeated by “convoluted certitudes,” brought Angleton to the “brink of being a fool” (p.126).
Just as Angleton never gave up his (witch) hunt for the KGB spy within the CIA, he became convinced that Harold Wilson, British Labor politician and for a while Prime Minister, was a Soviet Spy, and never relinquished this odd view either. And he argued almost until the day he departed from the CIA that the diplomatic sparring and occasional direct confrontation between the Soviet Union and China was an elaborate exercise in disinformation to deceive the West.
While head of counterintelligence at the CIA, Angleton served simultaneously as the agency’s desk officer for Israel, the direct link between Israeli and American intelligence services. Angleton was initially wary of the Israeli state that came into existence in 1948, in part the residue of the anti-Semitism he had entertained in his youth, in part the product of his view that too many Jews were communists. By the mid-1950s, however, Angleton had overcome his initial reticence to become an admirer of Israel and especially Mossad, its primary intelligence service.
But Angleton’s judgment in his relationship with Israel frequently failed him just as it failed him in his relationship with Philby. He did not foresee Israel’s role in the 1956 Anglo-French invasion of Suez (the subject of Ike’s Gamble, reviewed here in 2017), infuriating President Eisenhower. After winning President Johnson’s favor for calling the Israeli first strike that ignited the June 1967 Six Day War (“accurate almost down to the day and time,” p.181), he incurred the wrath of President Nixon for missing Egypt’s strike at Israel in the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, were of the view that Angleton had grown too close to Israel.
Angleton, moreover, was almost certainly involved behind the scenes in a 1968 Israeli heist of uranium enriched nuclear fuel to build its own nuclear reactor, lifted from a Pennsylvania power plant known as NUMEC. A CIA analyst later concluded that NUMEC had been a “front company deployed in an Israeli-American criminal conspiracy to evade U.S.. nonproliferation laws and supply the Israeli nuclear arsenal” (p.261-62). Angleton’s loyalty to Israel “betrayed U.S. policy on an epic scale” (p.261), Morley writes.
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Morley’s treatment of Angleton’s relationship to to Lee Harvey Oswald and Fidel Castro’s Cuba raises more questions that it answers. The CIA learned of Oswald’s attempt to defect to the Soviet Union in November 1959, and began monitoring him at that point. In this same timeframe, the CIA and FBI began jointly monitoring a pro-Castro group, the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which would later attract Oswald. Although Angleton was a contemporary and occasional friend of John Kennedy (the two were born the same year), when Kennedy assumed the presidency in 1961, Angleton’s view was that American policy toward Fidel Castro needed to be more aggressive. He viewed Cuba as still another Soviet satellite state, but one just 90 miles from United States shores.
The Kennedy administration’s Cuba policy got off to a miserable start with the infamous failure of the April 1961 Bay of Pigs operation to dislodge Castro. Kennedy was furious with the way the CIA and the military had presented the options to him and fired CIA Director Allen Dulles in the operation’s aftermath (Dulles’ demise is one of the subjects of Stephen Kinzer’s The Brothers, reviewed here in 2014). But elements within the CIA and the military held Kennedy responsible for the failure by refusing to order air support for the operation (Kennedy had been assured prior to the invasion that no additional military assistance would be necessary).
CIA and military distrust for Kennedy heightened after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union faced off in what threatened to be a nuclear confrontation over the placement of offensive Soviet missiles on the renegade island. Although Kennedy’s handling of that crisis was widely acclaimed as his finest moment as president, many within the military and the CIA, Angleton included, thought that Kennedy’s pledge to Soviet Premier Khrushchev of no invasion of Cuba in exchange for Soviet withdrawal of missiles had given Castro and his Soviet allies too much. Taking the invasion option off the table amounted in Angleton’s view to a cave in to Soviet aggression and a betrayal of the anti-Castro Cuban community in the United States.
In the 13 months that remained of the Kennedy presidency, the administration continued to obsess over Cuba, with a variety of operations under consideration to dislodge Castro. The CIA was also monitoring Soviet defector Oswald, who by this time had returned to the United States. Angleton placed Oswald’s’ name on the LINGUAL list to track his mail. By the fall of 1963, Oswald had become active in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, passing out FPCC leaflets in New Orleans. He was briefly arrested for disturbing the peace after an altercation with anti-Castro activists. In October of that year, a mere one month before the Kennedy assassination, the FBI and CIA received notice that Oswald had been in touch with the Soviet and Cuban embassies and consular sections in Mexico City. Angleton followed Oswald’s Mexico City visits intensely, yet withheld for the rest of his life precisely what he knew about them .
From the moment Kennedy was assassinated, Angleton “always sought to give the impression that he knew very little about Oswald before November 22, 1963” (p.140). But Angleton and his staff, Morley observes, had “monitored Oswald’s movements for four years. As the former marine moved from Moscow to Minsk to Fort Worth to New Orleans to Mexico City to Dallas,” the special group Angleton created to track defectors “received reports on him everywhere he went” (p.140-41). Angleton clearly knew that Oswald was in Dallas in November 1963. He hid his knowledge of Oswald from the Warren Commission, established by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the Kennedy assassination. What was Angleton’s motivation for obfuscation?
The most plausible – and most innocent – explanation is that Angleton was protecting his own rear end in an “epic counterintelligence failure” that had “culminated on Angleton’s watch. It was bigger than the Philby affair and bloodier” (p.140). Given this disastrous counterintelligence failure, Morley argues, Angleton “could have – and should have – lost his job after November 22 . Had the public, the Congress, and the Warren Commission known of his pre-assassination interest in Oswald or his post-assassination cover-up, he surely would have” (p.157).
But the range of possibilities Morley considers extends to speculation that Angleton may have been hiding his own involvement in a Deep State operation to assassinate the president. Was Angleton running Oswald as an agent in an assassination plot, Morley asks:
He certainly had the knowledge and ability to do so. Angleton and his staff had a granular knowledge of Oswald long before Kennedy was killed. Angleton had a penchant for running operations outside of reporting channels. He articulated a vigilant anti-communism that depicted the results of JFK’s liberal policies in apocalyptic terms. He participated in discussions of political assassination. And he worked in a penumbra of cunning that excluded few possibilities (p.265).
Whether Angleton manipulated Oswald as part of an assassination plot is a question Morley is not prepared to answer. But in Morley’s view, Angleton plainly “obstructed justice to hide interest in Oswald. He lied to veil his use of the ex-defector in later 1963 for intelligence purposes related to the Cuban consulate in Mexico City. . . Whoever killed JFK, Angleton protected them. He masterminded the JFK conspiracy and cover up” (p.265). To this day, no consensus exists as to why Angleton dodged all questions concerning his undisputed control over the CIA’s file on Oswald for four years, up to Oswald’s death in November 1963. Angleton’s relationship to Oswald remains “shrouded in deception and perjury, theories and disinformation, lies and legends” (p.87), Morley concludes. Even though a fuller story began to emerge when Congress ordered the declassification of long-secret JFK assassination records in the 1990s,” the full story has “yet to be disclosed” (p.87).
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The burglary at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in June 1972 proved to be Angleton’s professional undoing, just as it was for President Richard Nixon. The burglary involved three ex-CIA employees, all likely well known to Angleton. In 1973, in the middle of multiple Watergate investigations, Nixon appointed William Colby as agency director, a man determined to get to the bottom of what was flowing into the public record about the CIA and its possible involvement in Watergate-related activity.
Colby concluded that Angleton’s never-ending mole hunts were “seriously damaging the recruiting of Soviet officers and hurting CIA’s intelligence intake” (p.225). Colby suspended LINGUAL, finding the mail opening operation “legally questionable and operationally trivial,” having produced little “beyond vague generalities” (p.225). At the same time, New York Times investigative reporter Seymour Hersh published a story that described in great detail Operation CHAOS, the agency’s program aimed at anti-Vietnam activists, attributing ultimate responsibility to Angleton. Immediately after Christmas 1974. Colby moved to replace Angleton.
For the first and only time in his career, Angleton’s covert empire within the CIA stood exposed and he left the agency in 1975. When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, his Department of Justice elected not to prosecute Angleton, although Morley argues that it had ample basis to do so. In retirement, Angleton expounded his views to “any and all who cared to listen” (p.256). He took to running reporters “like he had once run agents in the field, and for the same purpose: to advance his geopolitical vision” (p.266).
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Angleton, a life-long smoker (as well as heavy drinker) was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1986 and died in May 1987. He was, Morley concludes “fortunate that so much of his legacy was unknown or classified at the time of his death..” Angleton not only “often acted outside the law and the Constitution,” but also, for the most part, “got away with it” (p.271).
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
June 10, 2020