Spook of Spooks

Deception: The Invisible War Between the KGB and the CIA

by Edward Jay Epstein
Simon and Schuster, 335 pp., $19.95

James Angleton
James Angleton; drawing by David Levine

“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…

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