Day I Was Stopped From C.I.A. Approach Now Appears Karmic

I know that my recent near-arrest in front of C.I.A. headquarters will not go down as one of the landmark

I know that my recent near-arrest in front of C.I.A. headquarters will not go down as one of the landmark events in the history of espionage. Certainly it pales into insignificance next to recent developments: the warrantless N.S.A. surveillance, George Tenet’s W.M.D. “slam dunk.” But there may be a metaphorical connection, however remote.

True, it’s more a comic episode, a mix-up, an Eric Ambler opening rather than a le Carré. Nonetheless, when heavily armed cops poured out of state-police cruisers to detain me at the approach to the C.I.A. in Langley, Va., on suspicion of … something, I guess, the comedy didn’t make itself immediately apparent. Maybe you have a better sense of humor. I’m still processing it.

Really, it was all a big misunderstanding, you see, but one that required some explaining. I wasn’t on an espionage mission, I tried to convince the state troopers. Ultimately, they believed me, though it took what seemed like a long time being told to remain motionless in the car to check my extensive rap sheet. (I kid, I kid.) I think maybe I just look guilty; I’d suspect me. It didn’t surprise me that a friend wrote me last week to say he was looking up “transgress” in the online and found my name cited as “the authoritative source.” (Well, it was a citation from my work. Still, I’m kinda proud of it—I’m BAD, look it up.)

Or maybe it was the Curse of Angleton—the long-ago warning the C.I.A.’s notorious counterintelligence chief gave me when he was still in a position to put a chill on you with a warning. Angleton—James Jesus Angleton, feared mole-hunter—was, after all, the reason I was down there on the road that passes in front of C.I.A. headquarters, taking certain photographs that certain heavily armed state cops took exception to—and confiscated.

You know the Angleton legend, right? I’ve written about him enough over the years (see The Observer, Feb. 24, 2003, for instance). A legendary C.I.A. figure, educated (like many fellow spies) at Yale, steeped in the culture of modernist literary criticism before he joined the O.S.S.—criticism exemplified by William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, the sort of ambiguity-riddled analysis he applied to espionage questions.

That and Angleton’s involvement with the legendary British “double-cross system,” which was the high modernist peak of espionage deception operations (the disinformation operation that may have made the difference between success and failure on D-Day), gave Angleton a reputation as a savant (if you don’t count the fact that he was double-crossed by double-cross-system genius and British mole Kim Philby).

Angleton’s career is all the more relevant now, since Angleton was responsible for the C.I.A.’s warrantless mail-intercept program at the height of the Cold War and was eventually forced to resign for it in 1974 (no one claimed it was legal back then). Or was he fired because insidious moles and “false defectors” had taken over the C.I.A., as the Angletonians persist in believing? (Check out the full flower of this persistent theory in William F. Buckley Jr.’s 2000 novel Spytime.)

And it’s perhaps not irrelevant that the leading journalistic advocate of Angletonian thinking, Edward Jay Epstein, has been the most persistent pursuer of “the Prague connection” theory of 9/11: the belief that lead hijacker Mohammed Atta met with Iraqi intelligence in Prague in April 2001, a belief that persists despite widespread claims that it’s been discredited. (You be the judge:

In any case, Angleton is best known as the mole-hunter counterspy extraordinaire whose rampant suspicions of Soviet “penetration” virtually paralyzed the entire Soviet intelligence capability of the U.S. for two crucial decades of the Cold War. It’s one of the great intelligence scandals of the century—whoever was right—because the C.I.A. essentially failed to resolve it definitively when it counted most. (I’m inclined to accept British journalist Tom Mangold’s conclusion in his 1991 Cold Warrior that Angleton’s Philby-induced mole paranoia in the 60’s and 70’s was largely baseless—this was long before such paranoia discredited legitimate suspicion and allowed real moles like Aldrich Ames to flourish. But it’s not a “slam dunk.”)

In any case, it wasn’t surprising that Angleton would warn me away from pursuing my “notional mole” theory of the entire contretemps when I was writing about it for Harper’s back in 1983. But I took his warning seriously; I realized I had wandered into somewhere I was not welcome, the way I had stumbled into that near-bust in Langley a little while ago.

After all, when the man who was once the most feared spy in the C.I.A., certainly the most feared spy within the C.I.A.—feared for the ruin he could bring to lives with a mole accusation against an innocent agency operative or a hapless Soviet defector—gives you a warning, you listen. And this was a particularly cryptic, resonant Angletonian warning.

“The danger,” Angleton told me several years after his resignation, with disclosing, even acknowledging, anything about the past, is that “the past telescopes into the future.”

The past telescopes into the future! The superb historian of the espionage wars, Tom Powers, once told me Angleton’s phrase—for the past, for history, the actual truth— was “deep chrono.” The past telescopes into the future …. Stop and try to visualize that. It’s kind of … well, trippy, no? Had the most feared spy hunter been dipping into the C.I.A.’s overstock of MK-ULTRA mind-altering drugs?

No, there was a logic about it, too—the telescoping of “deep chrono.” It had to do with intelligence operations that unfold over years, usually involving disinformation and deception—operations that may have been begun while Angleton was in power, and whose “deep chrono” continued to unfold after he was officially out.

The logic of Angleton’s warning against exposing “deep chrono” didn’t escape me, though it also didn’t prevent me from speculating, as far back as 1983 (in Harper’s), that Angleton’s mole paranoia had been the product of the “notional mole” ploy developed within the “double-cross” system he himself had worked on during World War II. A ploy in which the suspicion of a highly placed mole—one who doesn’t exist—is planted to sow confusion and paranoia. “Notional” is a term from medieval logic referring to entities that can be conceived but don’t exist. Thus, I suggested that Angleton had been hoist by his own petard, so to speak.

The Cop Stop

So perhaps I was being punished in my scary brush with the law by the specter of Angleton, still lingering around his old haunt. For ignoring the Angleton warning. Indeed, Angleton (dead now since ’87) and the deep chrono of Angletonian mysteries were the reason I was down there outside of C.I.A. headquarters in the first place.

I had been working on a screenplay for the filmmaker Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line, etc.) that involved Angleton, the spy with the rep as grandmaster of the three-dimensional chess of counterintelligence. One that involved concepts that all three of us, Errol, Angleton and I, shared a fascination with: ambiguity, epistemology and the often-tragic impossibility of ever knowing the truth—the deepest of deep chrono. The script focuses on one emblematic moment in Angleton’s career of master-spy ambiguity, a moment which shall be nameless for the time being.

But I thought it would help the writing if I went down to D.C. and refreshed my mind with visuals, various official and unofficial spy haunts of the Angleton era—not just C.I.A. HQ but hangouts like Rocco’s and the bar at the Key Bridge Marriott.

I’d brought down my trusty spy camera, a bulky Polaroid Spectravision that had served me well in some tight spots in Moscow (kidding!). And I’d asked a friend to drive so that I could take some photos to refresh my memory as we cruised through the neighborhood around C.I.A. headquarters.

It didn’t work out that way. There we were, proceeding along the highway in Langley, when we passed a giganto sign that read:


(Sorry, I might not have it exactly, because this photo has been CONFISCATED. But that’s the official name of C.I.A. headquarters these days. It didn’t seem they were making too much of a secret of it.)

And then there was another C.I.A.-related sign that said something like “C.I.A. Offloading” or something. (Sorry, I don’t want to give away any of the sensitive national-security information on that photo of the huge public road sign, a photo which was also CONFISCATED.)

Then it seemed, just seconds later, that we were passing an unmarked dirt-road-like driveway that led off the highway. I wondered if it was an entrance. It could easily have been a horse trail or a jogging path. With no criminal intent, I aimed the Polaroid and set off a flash—which set off a siren-wailing, light-flashing posse of state-police cars, with us as the center of well-armed attention. I don’t know where they’d been lurking, those state-police cruisers, but when the sirens and the flashing lights brought us to a stop, we wondered how much trouble we were in.

The officer on my side of the car asked me what we were doing there. I tried to explain I was working on a script for a filmmaker about C.I.A. history. “Old history,” I lamely tried to explain. I was just taking location shots to “help the writing process,” I said. It was true, but it didn’t sound immediately, intrinsically convincing, I’ll admit.

“Who are you working on this film for?” the state trooper asked me skeptically.

“This guy Errol Morris—he won an Oscar for Fog of War?” I said.

Mistake! It turns out the state trooper was more of a fan of the earlier, more frankly metaphysical Errol Morris films such as the underrated Vernon, Florida. Kidding! He hadn’t seen Errol’s work. That wasn’t working any magic. Nor was my extremely impressive Observer business card.

Didn’t I know, the trooper said, that the C.I.A. cooperated with people making films involving them. I did vaguely know this, but (although I didn’t think it was a good time to express it) the reporter side of me didn’t feel comfortable cooperating closely with (thus potentially being co-opted by) an intelligence agency.

I didn’t want to get into a discussion of the philosophical and ethical questions involved. Neither did the cop. No photographing C.I.A. headquarters, he said. In fact, the headquarters was invisible from the highway; I was just taking a photo of some dirt driveway, as far as I knew. (And, in fact, as far as I know, maybe it was just a horse trail; they just wanted me to THINK it was the entrance to C.I.A. headquarters, thus throwing me off the trail, so to speak).

The state trooper examined the photos on my dashboard of the “GEORGE H.W. BUSH CENTER FOR CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE” sign, and of the other C.I.A. sign, and confiscated them. And eventually let us off with a warning.

Later, I checked with two local ACLU people, who said they knew of no law against taking pictures from a public highway, although one had heard of incidents of people being pulled over in front of C.I.A.

If what I was doing wasn’t illegal, this is not to say that I wasn’t being, let’s say, unwise in cruising past the C.I.A. snapping pictures in the current climate. This is not to say that I wasn’t needlessly asking for trouble, some might say. And I’d agree. Still, there was something puzzling about the incident.

A Pizza Hut Ploy?

In fact, as we drove off, I got into a, well, discussion with my companion, whom I’d needlessly put through a scare without thinking things through. Why don’t they put up a sign saying “NO PHOTOGRAPHS”? I asked.

My friend said there was a sign saying “NO PHOTOGRAPHS,” which is why my photographing had come as much a surprise to her as the state troopers. I hadn’t seen any such sign and, in fact, when she went back the next day, she couldn’t find one. It’s unlikely it was removed overnight.

So we sought to analyze the intelligence purpose of not having a sign. Then the people taking photographs would be either terrorists or tourists, and you’d have the right to pull anyone over to find out—I guess that could be the rationale.

True, but wouldn’t it be smarter to put up a sign? Then you’d filter out the tourists and could identify the true suspects by their surreptitious attempts to violate the signage.

But if you put up a sign saying “NO PHOTOGRAPHS,” wouldn’t you be drawing attention to the place you didn’t want photographed?

But didn’t everyone in the world know where C.I.A. headquarters was anyway? And why put up giganto signs announcing where it was on the open roadside, and then make it (apparently) illegal to photograph the signs?

There must be some Angletonian double-think going on behind this, right? A double-super-secret logic that we aren’t meant to grasp.

I mean, in intelligence matters, there almost always is. Maybe trying to figure out the logic of my near-arrest sensitized me in an Angletonian-ambiguity way to the deep-chrono questions raised by the N.S.A. intercept leaks.

In particular, I found the stories that appeared after the N.S.A. surveillance story broke, the ones about how the N.S.A. intercepts didn’t turn up anything useful but “calls to Pizza Hut” and like trivia, just the kind of thing they’d want everyone to believe, don’t you think?

It could be that the pizza-delivery story is true, but it also could be a deliberate leak of disinformation to disguise the fact that they were getting lots of stuff they just don’t want to tell us about. Or it could mean they want to lull the foe into thinking our data-mining intercepts were NOT able to compromise their plans and communications (when they really are).

Or if the targets are doing Angleton double-think themselves, the “calls to Pizza Hut” leak could convince them that we want them to think we’ve failed when we’ve actually succeeded, and thus that their plans are compromised (when they’re not). Then the false fear of compromised communications—“notional compromise,” let’s call it—would be just as good as actual compromise, because it would have the same result: in one stroke paralyzing the targets’ confidence in their ability to make plans using any electronic devices.

And it would mean that the plans they’ve already made would have to be abandoned. And for fear of compromised communications, they’d have to disable themselves from all real-time electronic relatedness. You might as well have burned every wire and chip in their possession. Could the pizza-delivery leak accomplish all this? Who’s the real Angleton in this game? What’s the real deep chrono?

ANGLETON AND I ONCE HAD A BRIEF PHILOSOPHICAL discussion of Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, a work we both admired. There are more than seven types of ambiguity, if you want to know the truth, but only 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights. Sacrificing my blurry Polaroids of the “GEORGE H.W. BUSH” highway sign and that horse trail or whatever it is for whatever national-security purpose their confiscation represented may not be a big deal. It was, as I’ve said, unwise on my part to be so blithe in the current climate.

But I’m not ready to sacrifice the Fourth Amendment for a mess of cold pizza, notional or otherwise. It doesn’t seem blurry on this issue. The Bush administration hasn’t convinced me that the only way to accomplish legitimate security and intelligence objectives requires lawlessly dismissing the Bill of Rights as an irrelevant anachronism.

Someone said the ACLU’s lawsuit against the N.S.A. warrantless intercepts was “litigate first, ask questions later”—but in intelligence matters, alas, you rarely get the chance to ask questions until you sue. Indeed, you often don’t know what questions to ask even if you do get to ask. The lesson of Angleton is that intelligence agencies can be too clever by half and have often deceived themselves as well as us. I’m on the side of the people who want to know the deep chrono.

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Day I Was Stopped  From C.I.A. Approach  Now Appears Karmic