The Ghost: the secret life of CIA spymaster James Jesus Angleton.
In The Ghost, Jefferson Morley, an experienced Washington Post journalist, writes fluently and engagingly about the elusive spymaster James Angleton. He titles the first section of this biography, Poetry, and uses the space to build an image of an unusual young man. By the time he went to Yale Angleton spoke three languages and had been a resident of three different countries. He was not really a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) since his mother was Mexican and many of his formative years were spent in Milan. On meeting him in 1941 his future wife Cicely spoke of his El Greco face and later wrote poetically of his ‘hollow cheeks and auras sketched in lightning’.
At Yale, suggests Morley, Angleton’s career was parented by the partnership between poetry and literary criticism. Morley states that literary criticism, the analysis of the coded language of poetry, ‘ led him to the profession of secret intelligence’ and ‘gave birth to a spy’.
As the Second World War took its course Angleton was training under British auspices with the new American Office of Strategic Services (OSS). This included a stint with Kim Philby at Bletchley Park in the UK. Ironically Philby was one of two chief mentors teaching him ‘how to run double-agent operations, to intercept wireless and mail messages, and to feed false information to the enemy’.
The other important figure was his former literature professor, Norman Pearson, who had supported him into Harvard and then onto the OSS and who instructed him, at Bletchley, in the ‘poetry’ of counterintelligence. Morley describes Pearson as the founding spirit of the CIA.
A swift coda to the first section introduces both Guy Burgess and Mossad. In his efforts to strangle the influence of communism Angleton found some strange bedfellows. The Lavender Scare, initiated by Senator Joseph McCarthy alongside his Red Scare, sought to oust homosexuals, as well as communists, from all aspects of government. But Angleton and his friend Philby spent many happy hours smoking and drinking with the openly gay double-agent Burgess before he fled to the Soviet Union with Donald MacLean.
Philby, the ‘Third Man’ was a Russian spy par excellence but Angleton seems to have been in denial about this for as long as conceivably possible. Even when he acknowledged it he never recovered from a sense of betrayal.
Angleton worked closely with Mossad in Israel, a country tainted by the fact that the Soviet Union had been the first to recognise her sovereignty. But for Angleton the opportunity to become the specialist on a young country was a natural step from specialising on Italy, where his parents still lived. He eschewed his anti-Semitic prejudices in favour of fighting communism and its perceived threat to the United States of America. The Zionists would be his allies. Angleton, states Morley, ‘refused to rank ideologies of America’s adversaries in terms of morality’. Later Angleton would be branded the ‘greatest Zionist of them all’ and his memorial on a hillside west of Jerusalem is still tended by those who remember his contribution.
The second section of the book is called Power. By 1954 Angleton had manoeuvred himself into a position of unprecedented influence and control. He was chief of Counterintelligence and could see into every CIA file, including those of the Office of Security’s personnel. He was, says Morley ‘an invisible supervisor’ who ‘kept tabs on the entire intelligence establishment’. His secret empire grew as did the number of staff needed to run it.
Morley is not a writer to avoid a metaphor and after his success with the congruence between spying and the literary analysis of poems he pushes manfully on to the idea of the fly fisherman. Here he uses the memory of a friend of the family: ‘the patient way of waiting, silent, for the trusting quarry to expose itself, that is the game of fishing that Jim Angleton played in the summer; a fisherman unlike others’.
Quaintly his staff were still using a kettle and stick to open mail to and from the USSR. Unbelievably this illegal practice seems to have gone unnoticed by recipients or the authorities. In 1958, for example, Angleton may have read most of the 8000 letters opened!
In 1960 John F Kennedy was elected president of the USA. The Cuba crisis and the Bay of Pigs loomed over the Democrat government and its spies. Meanwhile, from 1959 to 1963 Angleton saw the SECRET EYES ONLY file on former marine Lee Harvey Oswald. He was being investigated as a mole who might be betraying US operatives in Moscow.
The chapters on the President’s assassination on November 22 1963 are presented as a series of unconnected silos. Could it be that Angleton did know more than he professed? He claimed that he knew little of Oswald, in spite of having read three secret reports on him in September and October.
Even now not everything is in the public domain. Files are still secreted or redacted and some have been destroyed. The investigative journalist, Morley, whose efforts are gargantuan, can only piece together likelihoods from fragments of conversations or obscure notes.
In later years Angleton stated that he had suspected a Communist conspiracy. But at the time the chief of the Cuba operation, Desmond Fitzgerald, regarded Angleton as ‘mentally unstable, drunken and conspiratorial’. And Morley sums up: ‘in the tragedy of Dallas, Angleton played a ghost’.
By this stage in the third section, Impunity, Morley rarely writes more than two paragraphs before returning to what he regards as Angleton’s insidious behaviour. He sees him as instigating the cover up of the details of the accused assassin’s actions. By having gained power over the bureaucratic structures of the CIA Angleton was able to withhold vital information from the investigating Warren Commission.
Morley rages on. He accuses Angleton of being a disastrous failure as counterintelligence chief and considers that he should have been sacked. Instead he remained in power for another decade. During this time Angleton’s prowess in Israeli affairs paid off when in 1967 his office advised Lyndon Johnson’s government on the Six-Day-War: when it would start, who would win it and why the Soviets would not intervene. Later Israel got hold of the necessary fissionable materials to construct nuclear weapons. How remains a mystery.
In Legend, the final part of The Ghost, Morley presents the end of Angleton’s regime. Trusted colleagues are retiring, being dismissed or even dying. The treacherous Philby publishes My Silent War in which he mocks Angleton as naïve. Eventually Angleton himself is edged out of office.
In an attempt to weigh his subject’s legacy Morley seems to feel complex emotions: those of admiration, derision, pity and anger. He is torn between his own idea of a good, law-abiding American and the very concept of a clandestine CIA. Angleton himself said that ‘it was inconceivable that a secret intelligence arm of the government has to comply with all the overt orders of government’.
In Trump’s America Angleton would be in the ascendant. Israel is a bosom pal and mass-surveillance has become mandatory and thus mundane.
Morley, J. The Ghost: the secret life of CIA spymaster James Jesus Angleton. Scribe. 2017.
A version of this review was first published on page 35 of the Weekend Section in the Irish Examiner on 7th July 2018.