James Jesus Angleton was not only a master spy in the CIA, he was the most remarkable intellectual I ever knew in the U.S. government. His subject was deception. He founded the counterintelligence staff in the CIA in 1955, which raised a question: Is the U.S. government vulnerable to deception by a foreign adversary?
It is a question that is just as relevant today. It was also a question that many of his peers in the CIA did not want to hear, much less answer, as it undermined much of the intelligence they were eliciting from sources in Russia. So Angleton was fired in 1975, and, through well-placed "leaks" to the press, discredited as a paranoid man pursuing nonexistent KGB moles in the CIA and FBI, and ridiculed as a modern Captain Ahab willing to wreck his ship to hunt a figment of his imagination.
This legend soon became the stuff of fiction, and provided the basis for the obsessed spy hunter in movies such as The Good Shepherd (in which Angleton is played by Matt Damon), TV mini-series such as The Company (in which Angleton is played by Michael Keaton), and novels such as Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost.
All these depictions in both fact and fiction evade the central fact that, as it turns out, Angleton was right. After Angleton died, the CIA and FBI discovered that they had been penetrated by KGB moles and that, according to the CIA Inspector General, deceptive information from at least six KGB-controlled double agents made its way to the desk of three Presidents. The discrediting of Angleton provides a much-needed lesson in how the government rejects what it prefers not to hear or address when it comes to the vulnerability of its intelligence.
P.S. It is very sad news that Tennent Bagley died last week. The day before he died, he sent me his last testament to the lingering ghosts of the spy war. I will post the 35-page memo on my website next week.