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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 246


This is the grave of James Angleton.

Born in 1917 in Boise, James Jesus Angleton (his parents really gave him the middle name of Jesus? Which is common enough in Latin America, but not in early 20th century Idaho), his father was a military man and then corporate guy who spent a lot of time in Italy. His son didn’t seem like the hard-edged type; the young Angleton was a poet and co-edited the main poetry magazine at Yale that published the likes of Pound and Cummings and he knew many of those people, at least by correspondence.

But World War II put him on a very different career path. He worked in the OSS doing counterintelligence and that would change his life. By 1945, he was the head of the counterintelligence branch of OSS in Italy. He stayed in Italy after the war, working on the nation’s early efforts to defeat communism in that country. So it was natural that when the CIA formed in 1947, it would draft Angleton into counterintelligence. The fact that Angleton was close to the Italian mafia, which I assume went back to his father’s work in that country, helped his career quite a bit and those were the kind of allies the U.S. was fostering in nations around the world.

Now, when you were working high-level counterintelligence in the Cold War, you were involved in some nasty, nasty, horrible stuff. You can argue that it was worth it to counter the Soviets, but I’m not prepared to make that argument, at least once we get into the weeds. The CIA was deeply committed to regime change and while Angleton was more cautious than a lot of agents, he was by nature involved in some bad stuff, such as finding ways to overthrow the Hoxha regime in Albania and the Polish communist government. Well, maybe that would have been good for those nations, but it wasn’t going to happen. He developed close relationships with Mossad that would remain the rest of his career and played an important role in the Middle East policy and the rise of Israel as a strong military state.

In 1954, Allen Dulles named Angleton the head of all counterintelligence in the CIA. He would use the literary theory he learned as a poet to understand KGB operations and texts, among other new techniques. Angleton was involved in many of the big spy stories of the era, including being good friends with Kim Philby, the British spy who managed to escape the U.S. upon being discovered. Angleton managed to survive this and brought in some of the biggest name defectors from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, such as Yuri Nosenko, who he became convinced by another defector was actually still a KGB agent, which led to Nosenko being placed in solitary confinement for four years and force fed LSD, largely on Angleton’s orders. During the Vietnam War, Angleton was convinced that Henry Kissinger was influenced by KGB agents for promoting detente with the Soviets and Chinese. So, yeah, hmmmm. In fact, Angleton started believing that basically everyone was a Soviet spy: Pierre Trudeau, Harold Wilson, Swedish prime minister Olof Palme, the counterintelligence chief for the Canadian Mounties (!), and Willy Brandt, although at least in this case one of Brandt’s top aides actually was. In any case, Angleton is the prime example of a spy who thinks everyone else is a spy and does some bad things based on that belief. He would often target CIA agents as likely spies and in fact, the agency later basically paid reparations to agents whose career Angleton had destroyed.

Moreover, Angleton was heavily involved in the many ratfucking operations of the United States against nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, such as undermining democratically elected regimes and using CIA money to buy off military men to rule in anti-communist ways, which in reality meant horrible dictatorships with maximum violence against thought to be “communist,” which meant in reality anyone exercising civil rights that Americans think of as a daily act. Of course this included the ridiculous attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro. Basically, Angleton saw the entire world as one big interconnected communist conspiracy that only he could stop. Some considered Angleton a drunk, others mad, but he was certainly powerful. This is a pretty complete discussion of the man and what he did and how scary he was.

In the end, what finally forced Angleton out was his domestic spying–operations against anti-war protestors. Seymour Hersh published a New York Times story revealing all of this and in the aftermath of Watergate, Angleton became a big political liability. He had a ton of enemies in the CIA anyway, largely because of his obsession that everyone was a spy. Gerald Ford had CIA director Richard Helms force Angleton into retirement at the end of 1974 and the CIA was basically purged of all his acolytes in the aftermath; in fact, counterintelligence staffing fell from 300 to around 80.

The Church Committee, headed by his fellow Idahoan buried in the same cemetery, Senator Frank Church, uncovered the extent to which Angleton had been involved in very bad things. That included confirming all the suspicions about Operation CHAOS, the CIA’s effort to undermine the civil rights and anti-war movements that LBJ requested in 1965 as the agency’s version of COINTELPRO that Angleton was wrapped up in very closely.

In the end, everything you hate about American foreign policy and treatment of other nations and domestic protestors during the Cold War is embodied in the figure of James Angleton.

James Angleton is buried, hopefully 100 feet below the ground in a lead container and covered with concrete, in Morris Hill Cemetery, Boise, Idaho.

If you would like this series to cover more of the terrible, no good, awful people of the Cold War era, you can donate to cover the necessary travel expenses here. Who knows, maybe the CIA won’t even put you on a counterintelligence watchlist. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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