Sherry Feister’s recent blog post on James Angleton prompted me to do a post on some of the things that made Angleton and his era within the CIA quite unique – and which illustrate the fact that truly investigating the Agency on any particular subject can be virtually impossible . Well that and the issue of “soft file” plus the seemingly routine practice of project leaders to order their staff never to put certain subjects into official communications or at best obscure them even from headquarters with alternative terminology…but I digress.
Some of what made Angleton and his activities unique was the CIA Director level decision to totally compartmentalize counter intelligence from the rest of Agency operations. One can argue the logic of that all day long but during Angleton’s tenure, Agency directors seem to have consistently endorsed Angleton’s priority on hunting for Soviet penetrations of American intelligence – instead of the reverse. During the transition after his termination, senior officers were amazed to find that there had been no similar CI priority on penetrating the Soviets and that Angleton’s touted overseas contacts all had to do with searches for Soviet moles or assets within Western countries (and he thought he had found plenty) rather than efforts to penetrate the Soviets. That was largely left up to the Soviet desk and they had little good to say about Mr. Angleton. After an intensive debrief and internal inquirer, senior staff were also aghast at not turning up a single CI/CIA operation against the Soviets and even more so by being unable to determine a single real, active mole that his activities had every detected. I go into a lot of that in Chapter 14 of NEXUS but there is a huge amount of “legendary” material written on Angleton which is simply not true. For an anecdote I would strongly recommend Tom Mangold’s book Cold Warrior. If your view of Angleton is from material on the internet or in JFK books, it could well be very dated and very wrong.
So, from our perspective (rather than the Agencies’) what makes Mr. Angleton such problem. Well the first point is that Angleton was allowed to set up and maintain a completely separate filing system outside the main CIA system; all within his own offices and safes. Which means none of that was ever seen by any Congressional inquiry and indeed, after his departure when the Agency had to drill open his safes, no record of the content was ever made or released. The material was apparently just destroyed….? The second is that Angeleton was allowed to have his own communications network, his own CIA staff contacts in major overseas offices such as Mexico City and even to assign his own project code names outside the Agency system. Which means only his people could really tell you what was going on – and it appears that in many cases they really didn’t know either. When his subordinates were asked to list out active CIA/CIA projects at the time of his departure, they either could not or would not name any, none at all…..
As if that were not enough, due to the leeway given Angleton by the Directors, he had a great deal of operational freedom, much more than comparable senior officers. He could even use his own sources, foreign contacts or apparently certain crime connected individuals, at his own discretion. A significant illustration of that is the fact that Angleton used certain of his personal international assets to cover William Harvey’s back inside Cuba during the Castro assassination project – and was personally involved with Harvey on that effort, at least to some unknown extent.
Basically Angleton had the ability to insert himself into any operation which he found interesting and was required to give no formal reports or operate under any sort of oversight. That would include any domestic intelligence that he decided to conduct against either domestic political figures or foreign nationals. An example of that, other than the intelligence collection he seems to have been doing in regard to certain of JFK’s friends and associates, comes out of the domestic action which Johnson ordered against the anti Vietnam war effort. We have fairly extensive details of the dirty tricks the FBI played, but know relatively little about what Mr. Angleton did with his side of the assignment (and if you believe that he restricted himself to American students traveling overseas, I have a bridge for sale).
Bottom line, we all know how hard it is to find out what the Agency was doing at any point in time, Congress wrestled with that again and again. But if you thought that was a challenge, Angleton’s activities were truly similar to a black hole, nothing ever came out.