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James Jesus Angleton interview

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To wrap things up, I read my father an excerpt from Joseph Trento’s magisterial Secret History of the CIA. This extraordinary book is a history of American intelligence since World War II and, in many respects, of American foreign and domestic affairs as well. James Jesus Angleton ’41, Yale’s second most famous spy (the first being Nathan Hale), is a central figure in this book. Appointed by CIA founder Allen Dulles (a Princeton alum), Angleton was the founding Director of CIA Counterintelligence. It was his job to protect the CIA from penetration by Soviet spies.

At Yale, Angleton had majored in English. My father recalled his name and said he had taught him. Angleton, I said, was a true aesthete. He edited a poetry magazine that he himself hand-delivered to subscribers at all hours of the night. O­n a visit to Harvard, he had heard a lecture by the English literary critic William Empson and taken it upon himself to bring Empson to lecture at Yale. Not bad for an undergraduate, we agreed.

In 1974, CIA Director William Colby dismissed Angleton for his failed attempt to expose a Soviet mole who, Angleton was convinced, had totally penetrated the CIA. Angleton’s obsessive witch hunt had destroyed the careers of dozens of wrongly accused agents and demoralized the entire agency.

But time confirmed his worst fears. As Trento and David Wise before him have shown, CIA counterintelligence and FBI counterintelligence as well were indeed totally compromised by Soviet agent Igor Orlov, a “man with the soul of a sociopath” yet supremely disciplined and loyal to Stalin. Angleton missed nabbing Orlov by a hairsbreadth. Under scrutiny for years - CIA and FBI agents openly visited Gallery Orlov, the quaint art and picture-framing store that Igor and his wife Eleanore managed in Alexandria, Virginia - Orlov managed to pass two polygraph tests and got away clean.

Angleton, “written off as a crank and a madman by his critics”, and dying of cancer, granted Trento an interview two years before his death in 1987. I read my father the following excerpt:

Within the confines of [Angleton’s] remarkable life were most of America’s secrets. “You know how I got to be in charge of counterintelligence? I agreed not to polygraph or require detailed background checks o­n Allen Dulles and 60 of his closest friends . . . They were afraid that their own business dealings with Hitler’s pals would come out. They were too arrogant to believe that the Russians would discover it all. . . . You know, the CIA got tens of thousands of brave people killed. . . We played with lives as if we owned them. We gave false hope. We - I - so misjudged what happened."

I asked the dying man how it all went so wrong.

With no emotion in his voice, but with his hand trembling, Angleton replied: “Fundamentally, the founding fathers of U.S. intelligence were liars. The better you lied and the more you betrayed, the more likely you would be promoted. These people attracted and promoted each other. Outside of their duplicity, the o­nly thing they had in common was a desire for absolute power. I did things that, in looking back o­n my life, I regret. But I was part of it and I loved being in it. . . Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, Carmel Offie, and Frank Wisner were the grand masters. If you were in a room with them you were in a room full of people that you had to believe would deservedly end up in hell.” Angleton slowly sipped his tea and then said, “I guess I will see them there soon.”

I read the last paragraph aloud twice. Then I paused. My father was still with me. Shifting gears, I said, "Who can say whether Dulles and his pals were liars? But Angleton sure doesn't sound like a madman."

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Possibly Scott Armstrong can add something, as he appears to also have had the opportunity to interview James Jesus Angleton.

As per A Very Private Woman, Nina Burleigh, Bantam Books, 1998, pgs 298 -299:

"Angleton greatly amused himself in retirement playing cat and mouse with Journalists. Scott Armstrong, a reporter hired by Bill Bradlee [rumored to have been 'DeepThroat' and very connected to the CIA] at the Washington post in the year just after Watergate, received a dangerous dose of Angleton's mischief.....he went to James Angleton's suburban house...He told Armstrong that Jim Truitt and Phil Graham had done LSD together and that Mary Meyer had an affair with Phil Graham, among other men. He claimed her diary had been destroyed [people that 'knew' him claimed that he would never destroyed anything - most likely he would have catalogued and documented every page]. He also told Armstrong that Truitt had been paid "hush money" by the Post not to tell stories such as the one he had just sold to the National Enquirer [JFK dropped acid, had mistress Mary Meyer]. He talked of other Washington affairs and dirty laundry, piling on so much that Armstrong could barely keep it straight....

When he finally stumbled back to the Post, drunk, dazed and dazzled, his editor called him into a private meeting...Leonard Downie Jr. had just received a call from the publisher, Katherine Graham, who had just received a call from James Angleton. Angleton told Graham that Armstrong had come to his door asking questions about the very embarrassing and private things Angleton had just divulged to the reporter. Armstrong's job was barely saved by the editors."

This came from a private interview Nina Burleigh had with Scott Armstrong in 1996. No details provided by Angleton that day were ever published - at least, not by the Post.

- lee

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