James Jesus Angleton embodied the inevitable trajectory of a person committed
to counterintelligence. Maybe he got a little crazy at the end but that might
explain why we are all getting a little crazy too.
Angleton was director of counterintelligence for the CIA from 1954 until 1974.
Fans of spy fiction might think of him as John Le Carre's George Smiley, but
that portrait puts a benign and smiling face on the grimace that
counterintelligence practitioners can't completely hide.
For twenty years, Angleton's job was to doubt everything. This enigmatic
figure presented puzzles for people to solve in every conversation, stitched
designer lies into every narrative, trusted no one.
The task of counterintelligence is to figure out what the other side is doing,
how they are deceiving us, what double agents they have planted in our midst.
CI is predicated on double deceiving and triple deceiving the other side into
believing fictions nested within fictions, always leavened with some facts,
just enough to seem real.
Counterintelligence is a dangerous game. You have to be willing to sacrifice
pawns to save queens. Those pawns may be loyal agents but nothing you have
told them, no promises or pledges, can stand in the way of letting them go
when you have to, letting them be tortured or killed or imprisoned for life to
protect a plan of action.
Angleton came to suspect everyone. Whenever a mole was uncovered in our ranks,
he believed that he had been allowed to discover that mole to protect a bigger
one, higher up.
You see how the moebius strip twists back onto itself. Every successful
operation is suspect. If you discover double agents in your own ranks, it is
because the other side wanted you to find them. The more important the agent
you uncover, that is how much more important must be the one you have not yet
Example. The Americans built a tunnel under the Berlin wall so they could tap
Soviet military traffic. In fact, a mole working for the Soviets told them
about the taps. But he told the KGB, not the military whose traffic was
tapped. The KGB did not tell the military because then they might alter the
traffic which would signal that the Soviets knew about the taps. That in turn
would mean there was a mole. So to protect the mole, the traffic was allowed
to continue unimpeded.
The Americans, once they knew about the mole, concluded that the intercepted
traffic had been bogus because the operation had been compromised from the
beginning when in fact the Soviets had let the Americans tap the traffic,
saving their mole for future operations.
You get the idea. It's not that we know that they know that we know but
whether or not they know that we know that they know that we know.
It takes a particular kind of person to do this sort of work. Not everyone is
cut out for distrusting everybody and everything, for thinking that whatever
they accomplish, they were allowed to do it to protect something more
important. Daily life for most people means accepting the facts of life at
face value and trusting the transactions in which we are engaged, trusting the
meaning of words, trusting that there is firm ground under our feet.
Otherwise we inevitably tend where Angleton tended. Every defector considered
a plant, every double agent considered a triple agent, everyone in the
American network considered compromised. Angleton tore the agency apart,
looking for the mole he was sure the moles he found were protecting.
I am struck lately by how many plain people, mainstream folks uninvolved in
intelligence work, volunteer that they distrust every word uttered by the
government or the media. How many treat all the news as leaks or designer lies
that must be deconstructed to find a motive, plan or hidden agenda. Daily life
has become an exercise in counterintelligence just to figure out what's going
It's not a question of party politics. This is deeper than that. It's about
trying to find our balance as we teeter precariously on the moebius strip of
cover and deception that cloaks our public life, that governs the selling of
the latest war, that called the air in New York clean instead of lethal, that
has darkened the life of a formerly free people who enjoyed constitutional
rights as if there's a mid-day eclipse. We see our own civil affairs through a
glass darkly and nobody really knows what's what.
As the envelope of secrecy within which our government works has become less
and less transparent, the projection of wild scenarios onto that blank space
where the truth was once written has become more evident. But that only makes
sense. The inability to know what is true unless you are a specialist in
investigative work makes our feelings of dissonance, our craziness
We are all getting a little crazy about now. We are becoming the confused and
confusing person of James Jesus Angleton in a vast undifferentiated mass, a
citizenry treated as if we are the enemy of our own government. We spend too
much time trying to find that coherent story that makes sense of the
contradictory narratives fed to us day and night by an immense iron-dark
machine riding loud in our lives.
It got to be too much and at last they let Angleton go into that good night in
which he had long lived where nothing was what it seemed and everyone was
suspect. So he retired and went fishing. But where can we go? On what serene
lake should we go fish, listening to the cry of the loons, trailing our hands
in the cold water because cold is at least a fact we can feel, one of the few
in a world gone dark and very liquid?
Richard Thieme (email@example.com) speaks, writes and consults on the human dimensions of life and work, the impact of technology, and "life on the edge." He is a contributing editor for Information Security Magazine. Articles in Wired, Salon, Information Security, CISO, Forbes, Secure Business Quarterly, Village Voice, Asia Times Online, Counter Punch, others. Work taught in universities around the world.