The Espionage Files: The “Spider” James Jesus Angleton

JJA

Long before Game of Thrones dubbed its spymaster The Spider, James Jesus Angleton earned that name. His internal witch hunts still leave us wondering—madman, genius, or both?

“Mr. Dickey? This is Jim Angleton.”

I looked at the phone. I wasn’t sure what to say. This was 1978. I was a 26-year-old reporter on the Metro desk of The Washington Post, and James Jesus Angleton was the most famous, or infamous, spy in America.

Angleton had been forced to resign from the Central Intelligence Agency more than three years earlier after two decades of running its counterintelligence operations. In news reports and in outright fiction, Angleton was portrayed as amazingly eccentric and wildly paranoid, the mastermind who kept American intelligence operations safe from Soviet “moles,” and the madman whose “sick-think” destroyed careers and paralyzed the agency with his obsessive hunt for traitors. Indeed, there were some who said he’d done so much damage that Angleton must be the mole.

His name became part of every enigmatic event of the 1960s, including the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the subsequent murder of one of his mistresses (the ex-wife of another CIA man).

What seemed to be certain was that over the years Angleton had come to believe there was a “monster plot” by Moscow to deceive the United States at many different levels, wheels turning in wheels, a “wilderness of mirrors,” as he would say, taking a line from T.S. Eliot’s poem “Gerontion.”

But what could he possibly want from me?

Angleton was interested, he said, in a story I’d been covering: the trial of an alleged Vietnamese spy named David Truong and his American accomplice, Ronald Humphrey, an employee of the United States Information Agency.

The Vietnam War had come to its messy, humiliating end three years before with the fall of Saigon, but the wounds of that defeat were still carved deep into the American psyche, and the Truong case seemed at the time an awkward, and rather pitiful, attempt to win something back. But this was pretty small potatoes. Why would that interest the man known around the agency as “Mother”?

In Eliot’s poem, the line after “the wilderness of mirrors” asks “What will the spider do…?” Of course, one wanted to know.

 And so, a few days later, I met the master-spy at one of his favorite haunts in D.C., the Army and Navy Club on Farragut Square, a sea of white tablecloths amid an opulent 19th century décor, with a bar, in those days, at the far end of the room.

His appearance was as it had been described in countless caricatures: gray on gray, with gray hair, grayish skin, a gray suit. His build was tall and lanky but slightly stooped, and he had long, thin fingers. He was, indeed, a little spidery. His glasses were heavy-framed, and they were worn, one might think, as much for their symbolic weight as for their optical correction.

The hour was, I believe, about 1 o’clock, and apparently Angleton had not made a reservation. All the tables were filled. So, we started drinking.

Angleton’s poison may have been whiskey. I know it was hard liquor, because I was trying to keep up with him and the afternoon grew rather foggy rather quickly. My poison was scotch on the rocks. A real mistake. The drinks kept coming; the food did not. I switched to scotch and soda. And glasses of water. I had a Coke. But it was too late.

Mother asked me about the spy case I was covering. What was interesting about Truong, the personable son of a former South Vietnamese presidential candidate who’d run on a peace platform in 1967, was that he’d positioned himself in Washington as a voice of sanity in an increasingly insane war. He seemed to know anybody who was anybody in D.C. who had an interest in Vietnam.

Angleton started talking about William Colby, who had been the Saigon station chief, head of the agency’s Far East Division, and director of the by-then infamous Phoenix Program “that sought to attack and destroy the political infrastructure of the Viet Cong,” as the CIA’s in-house history puts it. President Richard Nixon appointed Colby Director of Central Intelligence in 1973. In 1974, to end “the great mole hunt,” Colby fired Angleton before, he, too, left the agency in 1976.

Read the Remainder at The Daily Beast

World War II History: The Antonescu Paradox

hitler

Hitler’s Romanian ally led an utterly barbaric regime — that while often protecting Jews inside Romania’s borders, murdered them indiscriminately just outside those borders.

The Jewish cemetery of Jassy, in northeastern Romania, occupies one of the highest spots in the city. It is quite literally vast, crowded with graves for hundreds of yards in different directions.

This army of gravestones — wide rows and rows of them — marked the burial sites of local Jewish military heroes who died fighting for Romania in World War I. Adjacent were four long rows of massive cement slabs with Stars of David, symbolically marking the graves of the victims of the Jassy pogrom, which took place in late June 1941 and left thousands dead. As a plaque read: The victims were starved and suffocated in the “train of death” and elsewhere “butchered” by frenzied Iron Guardsmen and others: “… the moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed.” (Isaiah 24:23) Also nearby, amid the assemblage of mottled and weather-stained tombs of a whole Jewish civilization going back centuries here, was a monument of more recent vintage: to the 36 Jews — 15 men, nine women, and 12 children — murdered in the nearby Vulturi forest, during the same pogrom.

When I visited in late 2013, I was almost completely alone among the graves. An old woman with a dirty ball cap, who seemed a bit deranged, guarded the cemetery, helped out by a gang of dogs. It was so overgrown with weeds that, except for certain areas, it left a scandalously derelict and frightening impression. There are Jewish cemeteries, like the one in Prague, that are constantly celebrated and memorialized by virtue of them being on the international tourist circuit. Others, like the synagogues and Jewish graveyards of the Kazimierz district of Krakow in Poland, are now undergoing intensive restorations. But this towering and ruined city, at least at the time of my visit, still demanded its just recognition. With few survivors left, life in the once great Jewish magnet of Jassy had been reduced to silence.

Some basic facts about Jewish life in Jassy, as supplied by the small museum adjoining the city’s Jewish community center near downtown: Some 43,500 Jews lived in the city in 1921; 350 in 2013. Before World War II, Jassy had 137 synagogues; now there are two. In fact, though World War II was, to say the least, difficult for Jews in Romania, the end of Jewish life here came mainly during the Communist era, when the regime charged the West in hard currency to buy out the Jews who desired to go to Israel or elsewhere. And of course they wanted to go — who wouldn’t have wanted to leave the Romania of Communist tyrants Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and Nicolae Ceausescu?

“Antonescu was not as bad as Gheorghiu-Dej,” the elderly Jewish woman, who had opened the museum for me, offhandedly and flatly remarked. She was referring to Marshal Ion Antonescu, who ruled Romania from 1940 to 1944. It was an extraordinary statement on the face of it, given that Antonescu had killed hundreds of thousands of Jews during his World War II pro-Nazi dictatorship. Yet, the remark was also, in a certain sense, understandable: Antonescu was, as we shall see, among the most ambivalent central personalities of the Holocaust.

Read the Remainder at Foreign Policy