Those Old Spies Are Still Haunting Post 9/11 Debate

“I can only tell what the history is …. ” -C.I.A. head George Tenet, in the Feb. 13 New York Times , speaking of terror-alert intelligence.

1 The House of Secrets

Washington has a shiny new spy museum, and an expensive new spy establishment post-9/11, complete with a highly reassuring and informative orange, red and yellow color wheel to translate its “findings.” But a new book reminds us that there’s a hole in the shiny façade of the New Espionage establishment: a hole in its past, a gap that haunts its history and memory, that undermines the very foundation of its ability to look forward-not least because it lacks the clarity to look back.

It was something I couldn’t help thinking about when I happened to pay a visit to the Army and Navy Club down here, the longtime haunt of America’s most controversial, most literate, most paranoid spy master and mole-hunter, the late James Jesus Angleton. It was here that Angleton, one of the great enigmatic characters in American history, the C.I.A.’s chief mole-hunter from the 50′s to the 70′s, would spin his theories, spin the media, spin out the threads of his vast K.G.B.-within-the-K.G.B. theory for willing listeners. A vast K.G.B. conspiracy so complex and ingenious it made John Le Carré’s mole intrigue at its most complex seem childlike in its simplicity. A theory that paralyzed American intelligence during the most crucial years of the Cold War because of Angleton’s decree that virtually all information from Soviet sources, especially Soviet defectors, was disinformation and deception. A theory most now believe was mistaken. And yet, according to a totally astonishing conjecture in Thomas Powers’ new book Intelligence Wars , Angleton’s theory may have been-in its very mistakenness-the key to winning the Cold War.

It was only chance that brought me to the Army and Navy Club. A film crew making a documentary for the U.K.’s Channel Four (and the Discovery Channel here) had brought me down to D.C. to film an interview about the so-called “survival myth,” the deluded belief-promoted first by Josef Stalin and then by the proto-tabloid Police Gazette here in America-that Hitler had escaped to Argentina. A delusion which I argued, in my book Explaining Hitler , was a kind of metaphor for the way Hitler himself escaped explanation .

Anyway, they were looking for an appropriate location for the interview, and I suggested the Army and Navy Club, the haunt of historical phantoms. It’s a very formal, old-fashioned gentlemen’s club, founded for the comfort of admirals, generals and the officer class.

It was there, in the club chairs of the Army and Navy Club, that James Angleton sipped his Old Granddad and spun his web, casting a dazzling, dizzying, destabilizing spell over the media, the espionage establishment and, alas, himself, it seems. To those of us who have written about Angletonian mysteries and enigmas, the Army and Navy Club is, in effect, James Angleton’s haunted house.

So when I returned from Washington, I seized upon the newly arrived copy of Mr. Powers’ book, a collection of his essays on espionage enigmas “From Hitler to Al Qaeda,” as the subtitle has it. Several of them consider the civil war within U.S intelligence touched off in the 60′s and 70′s by Angleton’s suspicion that the C.I.A. was being manipulated by moles within it and “false defectors” sent by the K.G.B. to spread disinformation. And one of Mr. Powers’ essays turned out to contain that astonishing conjecture about the paradoxical effects of what appears to be one of Angleton’s biggest mistakes: the one involving the spies code-named “Top Hat” and “Fedora,” K.G.B. defectors branded by Angleton as agents of disinformation.

But first a word about the value of Tom Powers’ temperament and judgment in these matters. Mr. Powers is the kind of reporter not at all unaware of the metaphysical and melodramatic elements of his often arcane subject, but one who prefers a calm, just-the-facts-ma’am approach. He’s aware of the seven types of ambiguity in his analysis of spy enigmas, but is also content to spare his readers the seven times seven permutations they entail. It’s a discriminating thoughtfulness that Mr. Powers has developed in three decades of writing about American espionage, from his important 1979 biography of C.I.A. chief Richard Helms, The Man Who Kept the Secrets , to influential essays and reviews in The New York Review of Books (which published Intelligence Wars ) and The New York Times Book Review . (Full disclosure: A dozen years ago, Mr. Powers gave a generous quote for a collection of my work.) He writes calmly and thoughtfully about often incendiary matters with remarkable levelheadedness. (He won the Pulitzer Prize as a U.P.I. reporter for an account of Weather Underground “bomb factory” victim Diana Oughton). Mr. Powers possesses that very low-key but highly attuned sagacity of Le Carré’s George Smiley.

For instance, during my phone call to him in Vermont, where Mr. Powers now lives and serves as the publisher of a much-admired small publishing house (Steerforth Press), I told him how I practically fell out of my chair when I came upon the Top Hat conjecture, and he was sort of like, “Which one? Oh, that. Yes.”

This phlegmatic temperament belies a deeply penetrating, deeply skeptical reporter’s attitude. One that has at least a certain grounding in his own family history. His father, he told me, was a New York-based representative of Latin American newspapers and publishers who traveled extensively in South America and had the kind of relationship with the C.I.A. that involved providing cover for agents.

“It came to an end early in the Kennedy administration,” Mr. Powers told me. “My father was a typical Southwest kid-American down to his toes, happy to do his duty for the C.I.A. But when politics got involved, he couldn’t abide it.”

Politics got involved because around the time J.F.K. and Castro were beginning their face-off, “My father had a number of friends who were in the Mexican Communist Party, and they knew a lot about what was going on. And my father learned that the new Mexican president planned to break with American policy on Castro, and he reported this to whoever he was talking to in the C.I.A. And he got back a lot of very hostile questions … and they sent two guys to New York to grill him about his source, and he didn’t want to reveal the source. And in the middle of this, my father realized the reason he was getting this grilling was that they were basically trying to piss on his report. And it made him so angry he just would never have anything to do with them again.”

One of Mr. Powers’ strengths in his espionage reporting is his penetrating sense of how often “truth” in the intelligence realm is a pawn of politics-the lesson his father learned.

To single out Mr. Powers’ analysis of the ironies present in Angleton, the Top Hat case and the outcome of the entire Cold War is to choose just one glittering thread from the remarkable, twisted tapestry of intrigue one finds in Intelligence Wars .

Basically, it all starts when Angleton, an all-too-brilliant intellect (who, as a Wunderkind Yale undergraduate, published an influential literary magazine, Furioso, that featured original contributions from the likes of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot), comes under the influence of a charismatic K.G.B. defector named Anatoli Golitsyn. Actually, my belief is that it really starts at Yale, where Angleton learned the principles of close reading developed by William Empson, author of such books as Seven Types of Ambiguity. (My only personal contact with Angleton was a phone call in which the wily spy master somehow managed to divert my attempt to ask questions about the Mole Wars into a discussion about our mutual admiration for Empsonian ambiguity).

Anyway, after Yale, Angleton went into the wartime O.S.S. and learned to use the famous “Double Cross System” (turning captured enemy agents into controlled mouthpieces to play back disinformation to the Nazis). After the war, Angleton had the misfortune to become the liaison with British intelligence’s representative in Washington, who happened to be the notorious Soviet spy Kim Philby. Some say that Angleton never recovered from the humiliation of having been taken in by the polished British mole-and tried to spread stories afterward that he knew all the time, that he was playing Philby. (Note to buffs: Mr. Powers told me he believes that Angleton was not at that time privy to the VENONA intercepts of K.G.B. reports that made Philby a mole suspect). Some say Philby’s betrayal was the deep wound, the deep source of Angleton’s later mole mania.

Anyway, Angleton was promoted within the C.I.A. until he became chief of counterintelligence, in charge of discovering moles and traitors within the agency. Golitsyn, meanwhile, was a K.G.B. defector who came over to the West in 1961 with some valuable information about real Soviet moles in Western intelligence agencies. At first. But Golitsyn finally brought forth-and Angleton bought, hook, line and sinker-a super-complex theory of a secret K.G.B. within the K.G.B. that was running super-secret meta-deception operations that were confusing the West by using the tactic of “false defectors,” a double “double-cross” system-defectors who weren’t really defecting, but were sent over by the K.G.B. to manipulate us by posing as defectors. Soon, Golitsyn predicted, false defectors would be sent across to try to discredit him, because he was the only one who escaped alive from the Soviet Union with the truth about the Inner Truths, the secret K.G.B. Only he-and his compliant acolyte, Angleton-could decipher the inner truths, including the “disclosure” that the whole U.S.S.R.-China split was a put-up job, a Soviet “disinformation” operation to lull the West into a false feeling of security. In the end, by the time Angleton was fired in 1975, both he and Golitsyn came to believe that the C.I.A. had been turned inside out (in Edward Jay Epstein’s dramatic description of the Angletonian view) by the American moles and false defectors running the show for the K.G.B.’s disinformation purposes.

All of this was proven illusory (see Tom Mangold’s 1991 book on Angleton, Cold Warrior ). Even Mr. Epstein, the multifaceted journalist who first exposed the civil war in the C.I.A. over Angleton’s “Master Theory,” has now come to believe (as he told me in a recent phone call) that the evidence-or lack of it-from post-Soviet sources seems to have contradicted Angleton’s most cherished notion: that key K.G.B. defector Yuri Nosenko was a “false defector” sent to mislead us.

But back then, when Angleton and his Svengali ruled the roost, almost every defector was branded a plant. A couple of them first identified as such by Mr. Epstein in Legend were code-named Top Hat and Fedora, and their “false” defection had two purposes, according to the Angletonians: not just to discredit Golitsyn, the One True Defector, but to convey an extremely important piece of disinformation about the Soviet missile program.

In a 1995 piece for The New York Review included in Intelligence Wars , Mr. Powers writes: “The apparent goals of the KGB [under Angleton's "false defector" theory] … were … to convince the United States that the Soviet missile builders lagged behind in crucial kinds of technology, and especially missile guidance, while [in fact] the Soviets were surging ahead of the United States and well on their way to building a force of super-accurate, super-powerful missiles that might disarm the Americans in a single surprise attack. Believing that Fedora and Top Hat were false defectors, and that the Russians were really embarked on such a course, the Reagan administration began a huge new arms build-up of its own which soon bankrupted the Soviet Union.”

2′Deep Chrono’ and Clandestine Puking

It was here that I slapped my forehead, practically fell off my chair-you name the cliché. What Powers was conjecturing is a very different view of the secret springs of the American victory in the Cold War: one that saw it more the inadvertent result of a huge mistake by a paranoid spy master, a mistake which, when taken seriously by policymakers, resulted in the U.S. spending spree, or the threat of one (Star Wars, etc.), that led eventually to the collapse of the Soviet regime.

Which then caused me to reconsider: Was Angleton really mad? Or was he “but mad north northwest,” as Hamlet famously cautioned friends who might take his feigned madness to be his true face. Was Angleton just feigning paranoia while super-subtly manipulating the perceptions of his own government? (For its own good, of course). The Angleton affair, which I once thought I’d figured out, suddenly recaptures some of its fathomless mystery.

And what about the amazing historical irony? I mean, I’m glad the Soviet Union lost the Cold War, but I’m also kind of pleased by this version of why we won-one English major’s mistaken exegesis. I thought that Mr. Epstein might be pleased to hear my conjecture (based in turn on Mr. Powers’ conjecture) that Angleton had won the Cold War. But when I called him to check it out, he disputed the premise. The U.S. missile-development spending spree that brought the Soviet system crashing down, he said, could not be attributed solely to a putative misreading of Top Hat and Fedora and Angleton’s false-defection theory of their role. Mr. Epstein insisted to me that the Soviets were more advanced than we thought, that it wasn’t all an Angletonian “mistake.” Mr. Epstein is also sticking to the story that the controversial account of a meeting between 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and Iraqi intelligence hasn’t been disproved , despite recent doubts. His analysis (available in depth on his Web site, http://www.edwardjayepstein.com) was cited by Angleton partisan William Safire in a May 9, 2002, column in which he refers to Mr. Epstein as “my unfazed Angletonian friend.” And thus we see how Angleton’s name-and the unresolved hold on our espionage history he still possesses-is invoked to support an argument about 9/11 and the putative Iraqi-Al Qaeda connection. For the Angletonians, his theories are not discredited ancient history, but a guide to the dilemmas of war and peace we face today.

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Mr. Powers if he’d ever met with Angleton, and he said yes, twice-both times in the Army and Navy Club. The first time, he said, was particularly memorable because of the clandestine puking.

“It was a classic Angleton encounter, in some respects,” Mr. Powers recalled. The old spy master was ensconced on the top floor, “smoking long Virginia Slims, drinking, telling one dark, half-complete story after another. As in, ‘Do you know there are paid Soviet agents working for the major media in New York City?’ He mentioned [a major network]. And the Secretaries of State were all working for the Russians, of course.” (At one time or another, Angleton spread stories that both Averill Harriman and Henry Kissinger were Soviet moles.)

But one thing about Angleton’s behavior puzzled Mr. Powers: “After 10 minutes, he’d excuse himself to go to the men’s room; he’d talk some more, and excuse himself after 10 more minutes. And this went on for three or four hours, every 10 minutes or so, until he finally said, ‘I’ve got to cut this short-I’ve come down with a stomach virus, and if I throw up one more time, I’m afraid it will be blood.”

They don’t make ‘em like that any more. (Even his puking was clandestine). Should we be grateful for that? Mr. Powers discussed the Angleton rehabilitation campaign that arose in the wake of the discovery, long after Angleton’s 1975 firing, that there was a mole in the C.I.A., Aldrich Ames (who didn’t start working for the Soviets until 1985).

I mentioned to Mr. Powers the belief that, in fact, you could just as easily blame Angleton for Mr. Ames’ success : Angletonian paranoia discredited legitimate suspicion within the culture of the C.I.A. and allowed Mr. Ames to escape the attention he deserved.

“The Angletonians have misrepresented the argument,” Mr. Powers told me. “Nobody’s saying you shouldn’t be suspicious there’s someone inside; it was his way of doing it. It was the incredible extrapolation of tiny bits of evidence that came from highly suspect sources that only he could interpret and no one else could even see.

“It wasn’t that only he was concerned about a spy within the C.I.A.,” Mr. Powers continued. “In fact, if you used Angletonian techniques, you never would have found Ames.” (It’s my belief that Angleton did himself in by close reading-reading too closely.)

The last time Mr. Powers met Angleton, again at the Army and Navy Club, it was in the aftermath of his firing, during the Church committee hearings in the Senate, which exposed an enormous number of C.I.A. scandals, including the assassination plots against Castro and other foreign leaders, as well as Angleton’s own internal mole wars.

Angleton was bemoaning the damage he felt the Church committee would do to the C.I.A. vis-à-vis its political and theological foe, the K.G.B.

“He taught me one thing very useful,” Mr. Powers said. “He said, ‘The first thing [the Church committee's disclosures of C.I.A. secrets] will do is, it will allow them [the K.G.B.] to build a ‘deep chrono.’

“And I said, ‘ Deep chrono ?’ And he said it was all about what you could learn from chronology, the basic tool of intelligence, and the dates and the meanings of the comings and goings of agents, which all can disclose a pattern.”

Deep chrono: On another level, it’s truthful history -or should be. The true secret history, the history of lies and deceptions and double-dealing and disinformation, but also the deep truth, at the deepest level, beneath all the deception, disinformation and false-defector conjectures. (“But I will delve one yard below their mines,” Hamlet boasts.) With deep chrono, one’s enemies can be hoist by their own petard. But with false deep chrono-with deeply deceptive chrono, with chrono that doesn’t contextualize the true motives for all those comings and goings-one can be hoist by one’s own petard. As it appeared Angleton was.

We may never get the deep-the deepest-chrono of the Angleton episode, but perhaps my (also Hamlet -derived) “feigned madness” defense of Angleton will catch on as a fall-back position for the Angletonians. But before citing the master spy as our guidepost in the fog of war, we shouldn’t lose sight of the true history of the Angleton record as it stands, utterly unconfirmed by post-Soviet disclosures. I’ve written recently about the blurring of truth and fiction in feature-film “history” (see “Strange Triction” in the Dec. 23, 2002, Observer ). Before making judgments based on Angleton’s methodology, we should be sure we know the deep chrono of this greatest of all meta-Le Carré, phantom-mole dramas: the truth, and not the triction, about one of the most enigmatic characters in the secret history of our times.