Years ago as a very young, very naive reporter, the boss handed me a piece of wire copy ripped straight off the teletype machine and told me to find a photographer and get an interview with James Jesus Angleton.
I should have said – who? But, of course, I was too inexperienced (too stupid) to ask that question and to pause for a moment to think what I might ask the man who had recently been forced out as the long-time chief of counterintelligence at the CIA. I headed for a local hotel to try and stick a microphone in the face of man who, since World War II, had been the intelligence service’s top expert on the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB.
I found Angleton, as I recall, in a hotel ballroom – I don’t remember what he was doing in Boise – and after my innocent, stumbling approach he conceded to answer a couple of questions, the substance of which is now lost of history or, in the days of 16mm film, the cutting room floor. I think I asked his reaction to the on-going Church Committee investigation of CIA abuses. Again, as I recall, not surprisingly the old CIA hand was dismissive of the efforts of Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church to expose assassination plots, domestic spying and such on the part of the Agency.
I’ve long been struck by the irony of an Idaho United States Senator leading the investigation of a CIA that had come to be so influenced by an Idaho-born spy. Would you call that a small world?
My long ago and very brief encounter with James Angleton, I believe it was in 1976, came back to me recently after watching the thoroughly enjoyable new film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the inspired performance of Gary Oldman in the lead role of spy catcher George Smiley.
The movie, based on the great espionage thriller by John la Carre, is, in many ways, a British version of the story James Angleton lived at the CIA; the story of an alleged “mole” at the very top of the nation’s intelligence service; a counter spy Angleton was determined to find and eliminate. The quest eventually took Angleton down instead.
The Republican politician and one-time ambassador to Italy, Clare Booth Luce, once told Angleton, who began his spy career organizing operations against Italian fascists, “There’s no doubt you are easily the most interesting and fascinating figure the intelligence world has produced, and a living legend.” Others were not so charitable.
Angleton was born in Boise, Idaho in 1917, as his New York Times obit noted the year of the Russian Revolution, the son of an employee of the National Cash Register Company. After spending summers in Italy, Angleton went to Yale where he developed his life-long love of literature and poetry and was recruited into the OSS, the agency that eventually became the CIA.
Angleton, in later years his posture stooped and his thick mane of hair streaked with gray, was, by all accounts, a Renaissance Man. He grew orchids and attended lectures on Joyce. One colleague said, ”He had a remarkable amount of knowledge about world events, art, literature.”
Former CIA officer David Atlee Phillips, who like Angleton was caught up in the whirlwind that surrounded the Agency in the 1970, wrote in his memoir, that “Angleton was CIA’s answer to the Delphic Oracle: seldom seen but with an awesome reputation nurtured over the years by word of mouth and intermediaries padding out of his office with pronouncements which we seldom professed to understand fully but accepted on faith anyway.”
It was Angleton’s zealous search for the CIA mole – the counter conspiracy theorists speculated that Angleton himself might have been the mole – that eventually lead then-director William Colby to show the counterintelligence chief the door. Angleton’s forced retirement from the CIA came in 1974. Unlike George Smiley, the fictional character in Tinker, Tailor, who was brought out of retirement to search out the mole in Britain’s MI6, Angleton was fired, in part, for too aggressively pursuing the CIA’s mole. In the process, some argue, he not only damaged the individual careers of many intelligence agents, but undermined the Agency’s efforts to run an effective intelligence program against the Soviets.
To detractors Angleton became the worst kind of paranoid operative, secretive and suspicious of everything all the time. To others he was the very personification of the dedicated intelligence agent. One magazine profile suggested that “If John le Carré and Graham Greene had collaborated on a superspy, the result might have been James Jesus Angleton.”
Angleton died of cancer in 1987 at age 69, as much a mystery in death as in life. What secrets he must have taken with him.
Old-time Boiseans will remember Angleton’s brother, Hugh, a diminutive, elegant man who owned a rather spectacular downtown gift store. Hugh Angleton, always impeccably dressed in suit and tie, served as a kind of showroom director at his store – Angleton’s. The store was filled to overflowing with rare and elegant china, jewelry and art objects. I often wondered if his more famous brother helped locate some of the exotic and expensive items that filled the display cases in Hugh’s store, which, sadly, passed out of existence years ago.
Years ago, it’s said, then-CIA Director James Schlesinger went to Capitol Hill to brief Senate Armed Services Chairman John Stennis on a major Agency operation. “No, no my boy,” responded Senator Stennis. “Don’t tell me. Just go ahead and do it, but I don’t want to know.”
So it is with the intelligence agencies. So secret is what they do, as the joke goes, they could tell us, but then would have to kill us. In trying to explain this shadowy world, novels and motion pictures are more satisfying than reality. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, George Smiley – sort of – got the mole. The spy from Boise never did.