Deception: The Invisible War Between the KGB and the CIA
“The threat” was James Jesus Angleton’s preferred term for the Soviet Union during his twenty years as chief of the CIA’s Counterintelligence Staff. He did not distinguish between the country itself and the Soviet Union’s Committee for State Security, the KGB and its allied intelligence services in Eastern Europe. Angleton was a convinced man, and for a dozen years, until his forced retirement in 1974, he had the intelligence services of the West tied up in knots trying to prove that the chief instrument of “the threat” was deception on the grand scale. This deception consisted of a twin effort to penetrate and ultimately to control Western intelligence services, and to divide and disarm the West politically through agents of influence and the artful manipulation of events and appearances. For years, to take a notorious example, Angleton claimed that the apparent split between the Soviet Union and China was a brilliantly conceived act of deception. How the Soviets planned to exploit this deception was something Angleton never spelled out exactly; he never spelled out anything so far as I know. But he suspected the worst—not surprise attack and nuclear war, but a kind of slow chipping away at the independence of Soviet neighbors in everwidening circles.
That puts it more baldly than Edward Jay Epstein does in his new book Deception: The Invisible War Between the KGB and the CIA, a richly suggestive but ultimately inconclusive work, which comes closer than Angleton himself ever did to laying out his case for the dark view of Soviet intentions. The book is important in two ways: as a contribution to the biography of Angleton, perhaps the most interesting and certainly the most divisive figure in the history of American intelligence; and as an argument for thinking twice before accepting Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost as evidence that the cold war is over. It is the result of ten years of the author’s elliptical conversations with Angleton before his death in May 1987, of Epstein’s exceptional lay expertise in the history of postwar counter-intelligence, and of much reflection on Sun Tzu’s fifth-century BC classic, The Art of War. It was Angleton who suggested Sun Tzu’s book to Epstein when he wanted to know what use KGB deception could be in a world armed with nuclear weapons—a characteristically circuitous answer.
But it is a very good suggestion. Unlike Angleton, Sun Tzu is very much to the point. “All warfare is based on deception,” he says.
Therefore, when capable, feign incapacity; when active, inactivity, When near, make it appear that you are far away…. Anger his general and confuse him. Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance. Keep him under a strain and wear him down.
Epstein implies, but does not quite say, that this is a good description of the strategy that may lie behind the face Russia is presenting to the world under Gorbachev—a weak country at the end of its economic tether, eager to renounce its dark past, ending political repression at home, experimenting with democracy, pulling back from foreign adventures, weary of the burden of arms, anxious for trade, ready to join the family of nations. In a remarkable speech in London in April Gorbachev shared his concerns with the world: the environment, drugs, AIDS, terrorism, human rights, the danger of nuclear war—it was all there, everything the West has been longing to hear. “The world community stands at the crossroads of two policies,” he said. “One…is a policy of force. It is rooted in the past. The other policy…(is based upon) the world’s integrity and interdependence. The priority of universal human interests is its imperative.” It is hard to argue with that. Is it all an elaborate trick?
Epstein has been thinking about counterintelligence for so long that he has learned to answer broad historical questions the way the professionals do—with a chain of evidence based on intelligence cases. This is not the way scholars of the Soviet Union would traditionally go about it, but Epstein’s book, like Angleton’s career, must stand or fall on his reading of these cases. The problem for a layman like Epstein is that the raw data for the solution—accepting for the moment that there is or can be a solution—lies in two vast collections of information, one in the files of the CIA, the other in Moscow. What Angleton knew came mainly from Soviet-bloc intelligence services and what Epstein knows comes mainly from Angleton and other American intelligence officers. It comes down in the end to what people say, and how we judge what they say. What Angleton says, and how we judge what he says, are central to the argument for grand deception.
Angleton’s career in the intelligence business began during the Second World War, when he joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and was assigned to the X-2 or counterintelligence branch of the OSS in London. The best account of these early years is to be found in Robin Winks’s Cloak and Gown, a fascinating and useful omnium-gatherum of information about intelligence built around short accounts of the careers of four Yale men who worked for the OSS, including Angleton, class of 1941, and the literature professor who recruited him, Norman Holmes Pearson, who also worked for X-2 in London. There Pearson was privy to the dramatically successful British “deception operation,” which controlled all German agents in Britain under the direction of the “XX” or “Double-Cross” Committee. Pearson referred afterward to counterintelligence as “the Queen on the board” in the great intelligence game. In London for a time Angleton worked alongside and got to know H.A.R. (“Kim”) Philby, the Soviet agent who crossed his path on later occasions, to Angleton’s subsequent embarrassment.
Winks provides a good portrait of the young Angleton in London and later in Italy where he was chief of X-2 by the end of the war. (Before attending Yale, Angleton had spent much of his youth in Italy, where his father was the representative of the National Cash Register Company.) When the OSS was disbanded in the fall of 1945 Angleton stayed on in Italy with a caretaker unit, and then transferred to the newly created CIA in Washington in 1948.
Any history of Angleton’s obsession with the deeper strategems of Soviet intelligence must begin with Philby’s two-year tour of duty in Washington from late 1949 until his abrupt recall, demanded by the CIA, after the disappearance of the British diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean in May 1951. After Philby’s own defection in 1963, Angleton sometimes hinted he had known Philby’s true allegiance all along, but the truth is that Angleton was late to catch on. In Paris in 1952 he assured an American diplomat, James McCargar, that there was no reason he shouldn’t see Philby in London, adding, “I am still convinced that Philby will one day be the head of the SIS”—the British Secret Intelligence Service. During Philby’s tour in Washington Angleton, like many other CIA officers, had lunch with him often and shared secrets. He knew nothing of Philby’s most important task in the United States—to be the liaison with the FBI and Army Security Agency officers handling the super-secret interception of encoded Soviet messages, called VENONA.
These messages, and especially a sheaf of cables from September 1945, painstakingly read with the aid of a partially destroyed Soviet code book picked up on a battlefield of the Finnish-Russo war of 1939–1940, were studded with the cryptonyms of many Soviet agents, some still unidentified. Among them were references to “Homer,” soon established as Maclean, and “Stanley,” Philby’s own code name. Philby showed astonishing aplomb as the investigation closed in, but what impressed Angleton most, when he reflected on it later, was the deft Soviet exploitation of a perfect intelligence loop, allowing them to monitor a dangerous investigation day-by-day through an agent on the inside. VENONA pretty much unraveled the Soviet intelligence nets that had been established between the wars, but Philby’s position at the closing of the loop allowed the Soviets to minimize the unraveling’s effect.
Angleton’s chief rival for control of counterintelligence in the CIA in the early 1950s was William King Harvey, a former FBI agent, who wrote a memo to the agency’s director, General Walter Bedell Smith, shortly after Burgess and Maclean disappeared arguing that Philby was also a spy—the basis for Smith’s demand to the British that Philby be recalled. But Harvey was transferred to Berlin in 1953, and a year later Angleton was appointed to run the new Counterintelligence Staff, the position he held for the rest of his career. It was the job of the CI Staff to protect the integrity of CIA intelligence operations by serving as a kind of internal guidance module, keeping track of who’s who and what’s what in espionage activities in order to insure that information gathered from spies had not been poisoned at the source—in short, that it was not the product of deliberate Soviet attempts to deceive. Keeping spies out of the CIA was the job of the Office of Security.
Angleton eventually built a staff of three hundred, but he had no agents in the field, had no authority to place bugs or telephone taps, ran no foreign operations. What he did have was unparalleled access—copies of all cables to and from the CIA’s Deputy Directorate of Plans (DDP), of intercepted communications of exchanges with the counterintelligence staffs of allied services, of the debriefings of Soviet defectors. His main activity was to analyze this ocean of information about Soviet intelligence operations for the telltale signs of manipulation and interference that would betray Soviet control. He concluded that nearly but not quite all Soviet defectors were “dispatched”—sent to deceive—and that in most cases defectors generated by CIA officers in the field were “bad,” or run by the other side.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. All intelligence services attempt to “muddy the waters” through the use of deception, double agents, the release of importantly false information concealed within a bouquet of the trivial but true, and so on. Angleton convinced himself that Soviet intelligence revealed a deeper plot to send defectors who would support each other’s bona fides and back up “bad cases” generated in the field. A penetration agent or mole within the targeted service—an undiscovered Philby, say—would then “close the feedback loop,” allowing the Soviets to monitor and adjust their operations, and gradually gain control of what the target service “knew” about the Soviets. The enterprise would be a replay of Britain’s “Double-Cross” operation during World War II. But this time around, control of intelligence would be used by the Soviets for a broader purpose—to color what Western governments “knew” about Soviet political intentions, and thereby manipulate the Western response.
This fearful vision didn’t come to Angleton all at once. It dawned on him slowly, over a period of years, as he watched cases unfold from his position of unparalleled access. Perhaps the very first seed of suspicion was planted by the extraordinary case of Michal Goleniewsky, an intelligence officer in the Polish Urad Bezpieczenstaw (UB) who sent an anonymous letter to the American embassy in Switzerland in March 1958. Goleniewsky sent fourteen letters to his CIA contact before defecting in Berlin in December 1960, and many Soviet spies in Britain and Germany were arrested as a direct result of his leads. But of the fourteen letters the one with the deepest consequences reported Soviet knowledge of a West German plan to “pitch,” or attempt to recruit, the Polish intelligence officer Jan Switala in Berne.