Jacob Heilbrunn

The Tortured History of the CIA

One of the most turbulent chapters in the history of the CIA ended when James J. Angleton, its counterintelligence chief, was ousted in 1974. Director William E. Colby, who spilled the beans to Congress about the CIA's secret history of assassinations, was Angleton's mortal enemy. A fresh reminder of the saga comes with the death of Clare Edward Petty, who was a close associate of Angleton's, before he accused his boss, Angleton himself, of being a Soviet mole. The Washington Post features an obituary today, which is not yet online, of Petty's remarkable career by Emma Brown.

Perhaps Petty himself simply succumbed to the miasma of paranoia that can envelop anyone working in counterintelligence. A distinguished veteran of World War II, he belonged to the founding generation of the CIA and did manage to nab a high-ranking West German traitor named Heinz Felfe. But then came the Angleton episode.

The relations betwen Angleton and Petty are probably one of the best examples of the wilderness of mirrors, to use a favorite phrase of Angleton's, produced by the spy world. Angleton, famed for his habit of growing orchids and his penchant for byzantine theories about KGB infiltration of the CIA, saw KGB agents everywhere. Angleton's paranoia stemmed, at least in part, from his close friendship with Kim Philby who had been stationed in Washington, DC at the British embassy in 1949 as an operative for MI6. Angleton and Philby whooped it up at fancy and highly alcoholic lunches. When Philby was exposed as a spy, Angleton was shocked. He tried to deny it for at least a decade. In 1963 Philby defected to the Soviet Union. Then the outing of Anthony Blunt by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979 completed the exposure of the Cambridge Five spy ring.

For his part Angleton became obsessed with the allegations of a Russian defector named Anatoly M. Golitsyn who claimed that there was a top KGB mole in the CIA. Angleton, who had not only failed to unmask Philby but had related numerous secrets to him, went on a rampage. Numerous careers inside the CIA were ruined. A number of books about the era and about Angleton were published, including Norman Mailer's sprawiling Harlot's Ghost. There is a kind of poetic justice in the fact that Petty turned on Angleton. The Post reports,

 

According to his unpublished memoir, Mr. Petty spent more than two years working secretly to investigate his supervisor. He gathered intricate details about Angleton's movements and close associates through the years, looking for--and finding, he thought--evidence that Angleton could have collaborated with the Soviets.

 

The truth is that Angleton had already given Moscow more than it could ever have hoped for when he divulged closely held secrets to Philby. He was an unwitting collaborator. And, in a perverse way, he was assisting the Soviet Union by running amok at the CIA afterwards.

But Petty was too late on the scene. You could argue that Petty had been infected by Angleton's own suspicions, or that he was himself courageous, or both, in gunning for his own boss. Petty quickly lost his job and apparently remains a controversial figure inside the CIA. But the episode provides another reminder of the perils of running, or working for, a spy agency. What is fact? And what is fiction? The border was, and remains, a hazy one. To truly comprehend the world of espionage it even may be more profitable to read novels about it than standard histories.