The Monster Plot
- The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton by Jefferson Morley
Scribe, 336 pp, £20.00, December 2017, ISBN 978 1 911344 73 5
James Angleton, chief of counterintelligence at the CIA for twenty years, was not the ideal spy. The ideal spy is a mouse-coloured blur in the crowd, someone like George Smiley, described by his wife as ‘breathtakingly ordinary’. There was nothing ordinary about Angleton. Once experienced, his history, his appearance, his manner, and his stubborn refusal to be clear were all indelible. I spent an afternoon with him once in the old Army and Navy Club in Washington. Everything about him held my attention, starting with his history as a counterintelligence officer in London during the Second World War, fresh out of Yale. But it was the man himself, sitting on the edge of an overstuffed club chair, pulling a Virginia Slim from a cigarette packet, that really left an impression. No man was ever more deliberate, from the way he lit and held that cigarette, and followed it with another, to the cock of his head and the play of his eyebrows and his wide mouth, which said much that he declined to put into words. But the thing I carried away at the end of two hours was the way his person, so focused and unhurried, and his style of thinking had fused over the previous thirty years.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 40 No. 14 · 19 July 2018
Thomas Powers pays close attention to what I have to say about James Angleton’s part in the assassination of President Kennedy in my book The Ghost, but scants what I have to say about other important aspects of Angleton’s career (LRB, 10 May). First, I say that Angleton’s molehunt was misguided and damaged the CIA. Powers says I should have pondered the question at greater length but I argue the evidence we have is sufficient. Old questions should not detain us from considering new evidence about Angleton’s lesser-known deeds.
Second, Angleton sponsored the illicit Lingual mail surveillance programme, which spied on hundreds of thousands of Americans. The 1977 decision of the US Justice Department not to prosecute Angleton paved the legal path to the mass surveillance programmes set up in the Bush-Cheney presidency. Lingual, I note, is the forerunner of Prism, the NSA’s mass email surveillance programme, exposed by Edward Snowden.
Third, I say that Angleton was a chief architect of the powerful US-Israeli strategic relationship, basing my claim on an extensive interview with a former Mossad chief and the private papers of a former CIA station chief in Tel Aviv.
Fourth, I credit Angleton with a major achievement: the agency was never penetrated by a foreign intelligence agency on his watch. His paranoia about the Monster Plot may have been misplaced but it was effective.
As for the Kennedy assassination, Powers takes me to task for carefully unpacking the story of the exchange of cables about Lee Harvey Oswald between CIA operations officers in October 1963. My book adds two previously unknown facts. First, that Angleton’s staff had been monitoring Oswald’s movements since November 1959. Second, that Angleton identified Mexico City as a locus of Cuban intelligence activity that exploited American travellers to Cuba. So when Oswald showed up at the Soviet and Cuban consulates in Mexico City in September 1963 seeking permission to travel to Cuba, Angleton was notified.
How dare I ask if Angleton was running Oswald as an agent, Powers wants to know. Serious historians wouldn’t ask such a question, he says. Why not? Given Angleton’s interest in Oswald and in Mexico City, it’s plausible to think he might have used him for operational purposes. I didn’t dream up the idea. I got it from Angleton’s aide Jane Roman, who said the 10 October cable indicated a ‘keen interest’ held on ‘a need to know basis’.
Rather than address the new evidence, Powers turns to Max Holland, a JFK scholar who writes in CIA publications about ‘conspiracy theorists’ in ways pleasing to CIA officialdom. He is hardly a disinterested source. Powers unwisely embraces Holland’s claim that I misquoted Roman in a piece for the Washington Post. He quotes from an unpublished letter that Roman sent to the Assassination Records Review Board and later to Holland.
In fact, Roman sent me that letter long before she sent it to Holland. I urged her to write it, and I urged the Post to publish it. But when Roman put pen to paper, she did not – could not – disavow any of her tape-recorded comments. She couldn’t explain what was factually wrong about my piece. That’s why she never published her letter. Roman knew a great deal about Angleton’s abiding interest in Oswald while Kennedy was still alive. She just didn’t want to share it with the public.
Thomas Powers writes: Jefferson Morley merits a good scolding. His offence wasn’t daring to ask ‘if Angleton was running Oswald as an agent’ but the words that follow. Here is Morley’s full thought on page 265 of his book: ‘Was Angleton running Oswald as an agent as part of a plot to assassinate President Kennedy?’ The problem with that sentence, so close to the end of his book, is that it offers no evidence of any kind that Angleton intended to kill the president or played a material role in organising or setting into motion the events that led to the killing of the president. Nobody else has such evidence either. What then gives Morley a right to suggest that Angleton was part of a plot to kill the president? The subject here is a murder. To charge a person with murder requires evidence of intent and of material acts to carry out the intent. By evidence is meant witnesses, documents, recorded conversations and the like. Morley has no such evidence and he knows he does not have it. With his decision to make the charge anyway he forfeits all claim to be taken seriously as a historian.
Auden, Seamus Perry writes on p. 9 of the LRB of 10 May, ‘professed to deplore Shelley for saying that poets were the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”, a label he thought better described the secret police’. Thomas Powers writes of James Angleton as counterintelligence chief at the CIA for twenty years on p. 19 of the same issue, that his ‘fascination with the power of close reading began when he was a student at Yale in the era of I.A. Richards and the New Criticism’.