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 found.
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 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 on.
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 understandable.
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?