In the Hall of Mirrors: The Cold War’s Distorted Images : CIA: Counterintelligence chief James Angleton, certain that the Soviets were intent on destroying the West, tried to keep superpower rivalry hot.
The game of Cold War is pretty much over now, and up and down the Soviet bloc the losers are throwing in what’s left of their hands. From inside the security services, secrets are spilling into public view, from depredations by East Germany’s detested Stasi to confirmation, after half a century, that Josef Stalin ordered the mass execution of the Polish officers’ corps in 1940.
We are leaving behind 50 years of propaganda and counterpropaganda, of calculated disinformation and faulty analysis, and conspiracy mongering on both sides that at times approached the level of mass hallucination. Abetted by perestroika inside the KGB camp and the recognition by a great many CIA veterans that it is time to declassify--if informally, in interviews--many historic operations, a consensus is emerging as to what really happened, and when and why.
Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, both sides played out a gruesome global comedy of missed connections and wasted resources. Soviet fears of encirclement and assault prompted a policy of adventurism throughout the Third World and a debilitating arms buildup at home. In Washington, an equally profound misunderstanding delayed initiatives that well might have ended the Cold War shortly after it began.
It would prove one of the saddest paradoxes that the Central Intelligence Agency, created to keep the executive branch informed about the details and outlook of the Soviet camp, would distort the recognition of much that was afoot. Throughout this period, on the CIA’s analysis side, acute and often prescient work kept coming through. But on the dominant operations side--especially where conclusions were influenced by the powerful counterintelligence branch--an unbending militancy prevailed.
Until 1975, the absolute honcho of counterintelligence was its compelling founder, James J. Angleton. Since much of what we knew about the intentions of the Soviet leaders came from defectors, and Angleton validated them, he shaped Washington’s perception of the enemy. For many policy-makers, the Soviets were what Angleton said they were. Others disagreed. Well before he retired, and certainly by the early 1980s, Angleton was perceived as a kind of softly fluttering but lethal manta ray, tirelessly working the depths of the agency, mysterious and dangerous of approach. The adjective sinister was often applied, and much was made of Angleton’s middle name, “Jesus,” as if to point up his purported mission as savior of the West.
The first major study of Angleton--"Cold Warrior” by Thomas Mangold--has just been published. Mangold’s meticulously researched book offers case studies of Angleton’s efforts to run down an ever-increasing list of suspected moles and turned spies and high-level agents of influence identified by the sole defector Angleton trusted--Anatoly M. Golitsin.
At Angleton’s urging, the security services of Britain and Canada surrendered their files to Golitsin, and senior intelligence officers throughout the West were squeezed out to satisfy Angleton’s scattershot apprehensions.
According to the book of Golitsin, Moscow intended to flood the West with people calculated to confuse Western analysts. When fellow CIA professionals seemed tempted to credit “false” defectors, like Yuri Nosenko, Angleton and his intimates would abrogate their careers.
But no certifiable moles surfaced. Angleton’s branch began feeding on itself: Even key “Fundamentalists,” as Mangold dubs Angleton’s devotees, fell victim to the witch hunt. One counterintelligence study concluded that Angleton himself was the mole. Characteristically, Angleton shrugged that off.
I knew Angleton the last five years of his life. He’d been, in effect, fired in 1975, and, although he had given up drinking, he still chain-smoked, ate enough for two and appeared almost cadaverous. His views hadn’t moderated. He was still convinced that China and the Soviet Union were together running a game on the West, that Josip Tito was Stalin’s Trojan horse, that elder statesman W. Averill Harriman was in cahoots with Moscow. His affection for Israel--Angleton founded the CIA’s Israeli desk--transcended the rational. Along with the cultivation of orchids, fly-fishing and jewelry making, Angleton was amusing himself just then with a vendetta against Lyndon LaRouche.
Up close and personal, Angleton was engaging. His sense of humor was quick and unpredictable. Virtually until the day he died he returned telephone calls promptly, interested in helping out wherever he could. Very often, he followed up with a letter in his precise, crabbed hand.
This was the secret of Angleton’s power: his boys'-club congeniality with insiders, his evocation of loyalty, his talent for networking. He identified so closely with people and causes that his sincerity was hard to resist. Once Angleton accepted you, he’d stand behind you no matter what the evidence suggested.
All this was wonderful for Angleton’s anointed--but a problem for everyone else. One example of how far back many of these conflicts went is the story of Robert Amory, a suave Yankee patrician who ran the CIA’s intelligence (analysis) side during the Allen Dulles era. Picking up signs of a military call-up in Israel, as the 1956 Suez Crisis sharpened, Amory approached apoplexy at Angleton’s insistence that the Israelis had no intention of invading the Sinai. Angleton’s friends at the Israeli Embassy had assured him. The official CIA prediction went to Dwight D. Eisenhower, informing the President that Israel would not move. Within days, the CIA was looking foolish and the outraged Amory was accusing Angleton of functioning as a “co-opted Israeli agent.” The opportunity for preventive U.S. diplomacy had irreversibly slipped away.
Angleton’s penchant for insisting that reality accommodate his prejudices would tincture policy again and again after Golitsin appeared in 1962. “We never had a successful Soviet operation that Angleton and his crowd didn’t cast some doubt on,” one chief of the operations directorate’s Soviet Union division, John Maury, complained to me, in 1982. “In house, it was all right to raise doubts. But Jim and a few of his close colleagues allowed his suspicions to be widely known around the Hill. He even distrusted Penkovsky.” GRU Col. Oleg V. Penkovsky had sneaked some 10,000 pages of technical overlays and weaponry documents out of Moscow and into the hands of Western intelligence experts; this bonanza permitted the identification of Nikita S. Khrushchev’s missiles in Cuba and strengthened John F. Kennedy’s hand throughout the subsequent crisis.
Stultified by Angleton’s vision, sympathizers throughout the government perceived the Soviet Union as locked in Stalinism, and reacted accordingly. As early as 1956, with the uneasy Khrushchev attempting to ease political conditions in the Soviet bloc, like-minded emigres on the CIA payroll sowed the confusion that pushed the Hungarians too far. In 1968, Golitsin’s misreading of the Prague Spring--as another put-up crisis to fool the West--helped spike any hope of effective U.S. involvement.
One message frustrated defectors were attempting to smuggle out of the Soviet Union was confirmation of a restless, evolving nation behind the Iron Curtain. From Dulles through James R. Schlesinger, officials who ran the CIA understood this. One after the next, they heard out Angleton’s familiar warning about the “nature of the threat,” dismissed it privately and kept the feverish counterintelligence pioneer in place to ward off Angleton’s influential right-wing constituency. It would await Angleton’s forced retirement--and Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s rise--before reality started catching up.