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.
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.
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