My Australian counterpart, Greg Maybury, recently wrote a compelling blog about ex-CIA counterintellingence chief James Jesus Angleton, one of the most ruthless, paranoid, and admired spies in Coporations Invisible Army (CIA). I am reprinting a portion of the blog here, along with my reaction to it.
Maybury writes, “…the CIA’s legendary chief of counter-intelligence — its brain for years — was James Jesus Angleton (aka The Kingfisher)…the narrative of the CIA would not be complete without him to be sure.
“He began his career shortly after the formation of the CIA in 1947, and was the station chief in Italy just after the war ended. Here he was instrumental in the undermining of the bourgeoning communist movement taking root in the later 40s, and amongst the tactics he used was eliciting the support of Italy’s Mafia, thereby setting a long-time precedent for the agency that was to feature frequently in its clandestine operations for decades to come.
“He was amongst the most out-there of people, a TS Eliot quoting/loving, chain-smoking, hard-drinking, orchid-growing, fly-fishing, gem collecting, insomniac raconteur who burned the spy-candle at both ends. Exceedingly well read and (counter?) intelligent, he was something of a polymath. In his day many considered this dude the sharpest tool in the spy shed, bar none! JJ’s motto: ‘absolute security at any cost’, one that would prove to be his undoing, as we will see.
“The term ‘Angeltonian’ even entered the espionage vernacular to become a byword in spy circles for overly conspiratorial and/or obsessively paranoid behaviour. Angleton was like DCI Allen Dulles alter ego — he was the uber-counter-spy, the spookiest of spooks in the spookier end of the spook business.
“If his boss Dulles was the Dagger in the Cloak and Dagger business, JJ was the Cloak! His spycraft was apparently second to none in the non-communist world. Even the Soviets had a fan club going of sorts; he was that good at what he did, they even copied his methods, proving that even in the spy world, the ‘imitation as the sincerest form of flattery’ thing still applies. He was once quoted as saying that: ‘Deception is a state of mind and the mind of the state’.
“The origin of his nick-name The Kingfisher is uncertain, but interestingly they are a bird species that have evolved unique visual faculties whereby they can see equally well in polar opposite environments, in their case air and water. A nice metaphor one suspects given his line of work, especially if it was not intended.
“On a more mundane level his nick-name may have been because of his striking features, which were indeed bird-like, if not ‘kingfisherish’. He eventually rose to the position of chief of Counter-intelligence at The Company, and although it’s not known if he ever sought the position or was even offered it, he would have been a prime candidate for Director either way. He could even have interrogated/interviewed himself for the job, a bonus. The motherfucker was that good.
– Spy v Spy Redux –
“He served under Dulles, and then later on Dulles successors, firstly John McCone, then Richard Helms, and for a brief time William Colby. A cryptographer by training (and it has to be said) inclination, he was also very knowledgeable about nuclear technology, having worked on the Manhattan Project (of which more in a later episode), and was apparently involved in the breaking of the Germans’ Enigma code, which did so much to aid the allied effort in the latter part of the War.
“Both these skills were handy during a Cold War. If there is such a thing as spy heaven (a safe house or waiting room in the afterlife maybe?), most of them be coming up to the Kingfisher, high-fiving his avian-eyed ass and be saying how much they ‘love his work’.
As indicated he was as paranoid as they come, for the most part a truly valuable character trait in the counter-spy business, given that the counter espionage and counter intelligence business is all about stopping the targets of your spying from doing what you’re trying to do to them, which is to spy on them. By definition, this means being permanently paranoid.
“Or more accurately, the counter spy/espionage/intelligence ‘schtick’ is more about ensuring that the spies on the other side enjoy minimal success at recruiting your own spies to spy on you and not them as you’d prefer them to continue doing without you finding out about it until it is too late.
“However, like JJ often did, I digress!
“And if Angleton trusted anyone, it is not known whether it worked to their advantage or not, and we’re not even talking about the Soviets here. We’re talking his own — indeed, especially his own — CIA colleagues. He was one of the coldest and most calculating of the Langley Cold Warriors. A strong pro-war hawk on Vietnam, he was also notoriously known for his surveillance of anti-war protesters, political activists and domestic dissidents (of which there were no shortages) during the Vietnam War and throughout the 60’s and early 70’s. He has also been frequently mentioned as having involvement in, knowledge of, and/or connections to the JFK hit and the Norma Jean suicide/accidental death/murder.
– The Hollow Man –
“As good as Angleton was, he wasn’t good enough though to pick up on arguably the biggest spies in the West before they defected to the USSR, who were located in the UK, and operating out of the august Cambridge University.
“As CIA CI chief, part of his responsibility was liaison with foreign intelligence and security officials and spooks, including with Mossad, SAVAK and MI6. Although some say he had his suspicions about the Cambridge group before anyone else did including the British — yes, he was that paranoid — he failed to act on these in time to prevent their subsequent defection. This was an outcome from which he never recovered, and indeed amongst many other missteps, it brought about his downfall eventually, but not for a long time to come.
“After the belated discovery of the aforementioned Cambridge spies (one of whom — Philby — Angleton worked with closely in London during the war, and later got pissed with on a frequent basis, and with whom he shared secrets that got many Western agents killed), Angleton became even more paranoid, seeing spies all over the Langley complex, which began to irritate a lot of people, managing to piss off not only then DCI Richard Helms, but also J Edgar Hoover over at the FBI HQ as well, with Hoover pulling the pin on any further cooperation with the super-spook.
“To piss Edgar off, or to have him pull the pin on you as we’ve seen in an earlier episode, was not all that difficult and certainly not always a good career move to repeat it inside or outside of the FBI. And as for being paranoid, there were few more so than Edgar. But Angleton survived Edgar; he was that ‘good’! And that paranoid! History tells us that paranoia is often proven most justified when it is the most ignored, but many would argue the lessons of history don’t appear to have become a collective political wisdom in the West, and especially some might say in Washington D.C., or for that matter in Langley.
“Not even Angleton though could last forever in the CIA. The culture didn’t make allowances for that. His increasingly pathological paranoia eventually brought him unstuck.”
Maybury’s apt portrayal of JJ Angleton left me chilled and angry. To think that America was literally turned over, post-WWII, to rats like him and the Dulles brothers never stops infuriating me. Shrewd, ruthless, paranoid, warmongering sociopaths controlled our foreign and domestic policy for over half a century and still do. Of course, they could not have done it in a vacuum. When considering the sources and consequences of Corporation Invisible Army’s consolidation of power, one must remember that Operation MK-ULTRA (the covert experimentation with and drugging of innocent Americans) relied on Operation Mockingbird (the subversion of the free press); Operation PBSUCCESS (the overthrow of duly elected foreign governments) went hand in hand with Operation Paperclip (the secret recruitment of Nazi war criminals to serve in our intelligence, medicine, military and aerospace spheres). Angleton and Dulles made sure they could run roughshod over democracy in secret. In so doing, they amassed power unprecedented in our history. More power than presidents, legislative bodies, the Pentagon, and the media combined.
While I concur with most of the content, I take exception to three assertions–one) von Braun was a Nazi…his reputation was softened by a compliant press (which assiduously, and at Dulles’s insistence, referred to him as a “German” scientist) once he emigrated to America and his new position at NASA; two) ALL Nazis were war criminals because they either knew of the death camps or participated in the executions; three) Dulles was sympathetic to Hitler and the Reich because his Sullivan and Cromwell clients had big-time investments to protect. Dulles’s “Heil Hitler” salutation in correspondences with the Fuhrer is telling.
May Angleton and Dulles and all the other rats burn in hell for eternity.