The spookiest of the CIA’s spooks

DAVID WISE writes frequently about intelligence and espionage. He is the author of, among other books, "Molehunt: The Secret Search for Traitors that Shattered the CIA."

More than three decades after James Jesus Angleton was fired as the CIA’s chief of counterintelligence -- and 19 years after his death -- he remains a figure of intrigue who keeps popping up, in one guise or another, in novels, nonfiction books and movies. With the opening this weekend of the Robert De Niro film “The Good Shepherd,” he’s back again.

The film’s central character, played by Matt Damon, is at least partly Angletonian, a Yalie who joins the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, then the postwar CIA. But the real Angleton was closer to a bad shepherd who suspected all his sheep.

Angleton was the spookiest of spooks. As the CIA’s head counterspy for 20 years, his search for a Soviet mole inside the agency damaged or ended the careers of dozens of innocent officers and nearly destroyed the agency’s ability to spy on the Soviets -- the CIA’s main reason for existence during the Cold War. Angleton’s job was to discover any moles burrowing within the agency’s ranks -- a task that might leave anyone crazed -- and he came to trust no one, perhaps even himself.

A chain-smoker, dedicated grower of orchids and skilled fly-fisherman whose admirers insisted that he was brilliant, Angleton was a tall, stooped figure who dressed in black. His gaunt persona and rampant paranoia added to his legend. It is not surprising that Hollywood might make a film loosely based on a man who might have been invented by Central Casting.

Beguiled by the Scheherazade-like tales told to him by a Soviet defector, Anatoliy Golitsyn, Angleton became convinced that the agency was honeycombed with moles. There was a world-class mole in the CIA, but the mole -- Aldrich Ames -- did not begin spying until 1985, 11 years after Angleton was fired. To his great chagrin, Angleton failed to spot a real, live Soviet mole right under his nose. He dined often with Kim Philby, whom British intelligence had sent to Washington as liaison with the CIA. Philby, later unmasked as a notorious Soviet spy, fled to Moscow and died there.


Angleton’s obsessive mole hunt literally forced out one loyal officer because his name began with the letter K. Golitsyn, the defector, had persuaded Angleton that the traitor’s name began with that letter. Peter Karlow, the innocent victim of this trial-by-alphabet, finally won justice 26 years later when he was awarded a medal and close to $500,000 under a special act of Congress, known quaintly inside the CIA as the Mole Relief Act.

I remember interviewing William Colby, the CIA director who finally dismissed Angleton, as we sat one afternoon in the garden of Colby’s house in the Georgetown section of Washington. I pressed Colby, retired by then, on why he had fired Angleton.

“I determined a long time ago I had to get rid of him, and the question was how,” Colby replied. Angleton was “totally secretive” and his counterintelligence empire had grown. “I found several hundred people in there. I honestly couldn’t figure out what the devil they were doing.... I couldn’t find that we’d identified any penetrations. And I concluded his work had hampered our recruitment of real agents. We weren’t recruiting any because of the negative effect of the super-suspicion.”

In the end, Angleton never found a mole. But he did more harm to the CIA than even the most talented mole could ever have accomplished.