Legendary CIA counterspy James Angleton was interviewed by federal investigators in 1973 about a reported meeting with Watergate burglar Howard Hunt, according to a declassified CIA history made public this week.
Angleton responded by dissembling about his relationship with Hunt and threatening legal action against the source of the story.
The report, first obtained by Judicial Watch, sheds new light on the agency’s role in the burglary that brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974 and changed the course of American politics.
James Jesus Angleton, chief of the agency’s Counterintelligence Staff, reached the peak of his powers during the Nixon’s presidency. But his backstage role in the Watergate affair has gone largely unnoticed.
Fox News correspondent James Rosen delivered the goods:
the document represents CIA’s fullest narrative treatment of the Watergate affair, which first surfaced publicly in the predawn hours of June 17, 1972.
The document is a long-suppressed report by the CIA Inspector General about the Watergate affair.
June 17, 1972 was the night Washington police, dressed in plain clothes and responding to a call from a private security guard, arrested at gunpoint five burglars inside the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington. The arrests led to a scandal that forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon two years later.
“This CIA Watergate report is an extraordinary historical document,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “Given that it disclosed direct CIA involvement in Watergate, it is no surprise it took forty-two years and a Judicial Watch lawsuit to force its release.”
Wilderness of Liars
Angleton’s conversation with the Watergate prosecutors is one of several previously unknown details in the 155-page history, which still contains significant redactions.
Angleton was fired in December 1974 after the New York Times revealed he had run an illegal mail surveillance program for close to 20 years. HIs dismissal was one of the final chapters in the Watergate scandal.
The CIA IG’s report on Watergate is a prototypical Washington document, alternately revealing, baffling, and self-serving. It illustrates how CIA officials came to make sense of the Watergate affair, which damaged and almost destroyed the CIA in the mid-1970s.
The Inspector General’s task in writing a Watergate history was not a simple one. The senior officials involved in the affair–led by Angleton and Director Richard Helms–lied repeatedly about their roles. As the report shows, discerning the truth in a wilderness of mirrors (and liars) is not easy.
The Inspector General was charged with answering an essential question: what was the agency’s institutional involvement in the burglary of the offices of the Democratic party?
Helms and Angleton insisted that the burglars, while former CIA operatives, had retired and gone into private life, so to speak. They were acting at the behest of the White House not the agency, when they broke into the Watergate, the CIA men said.
The truth about the burglars, as the IG report demonstrates, was slightly more complicated, thanks to the tradecraft of Angleton and Helms.
In 1972, James Jesus Angleton had served as chief of the agency’s super-secret Counterintelligence Staff for eighteen years and was virtually untouchable in his powers.
To say Angleton was a complex character is an understatement. He was a Machiavelli of the national security bureaucracy, a Svengali for anticommunist intellectuals, and an Iago to four U.S. presidents. He was notoriously ruthless about keeping colleagues and presidents in the dark about his actions.
The Watergate affair was no exception.
By November 1973, the scandal spawned by the arrest of the burglars was consuming Washington. President Nixon had been re-elected but ongoing federal investigations had revealed that while the burglars had been assisted by the CIA while working for the White House.
The CIA’s denials of involvement were wearing thin. Republican Senator Howard Baker famously said the CIA’s role deserved more scrutiny. He likened the role of CIA officers in the scandal to “animals crashing around in the forest–you can hear them, but you can’t see them.
A newly appointed Special Prosecutor started asking harder questions.
In November 1973 Angleton was confronted with the testimony of an unnamed grand jury witness.
The witness said that Angleton had once met with Howard Hunt, one of the accused burglars, in Hunt’s office, Room 16 of the Executive Office Building next to the White House.
Angleton said he did not know Hunt and had never been in his office. He demanded to know the source of the story. He insinuated the source was Seymour Hersh, the New York Times investigative reporter. Angleton said he was thinking about legal action.
From the IG report:
“Angleton posed a hypothetical question as to whether the American taxpayer did not have a cause of action or class action against those who destroyed the confidentiality of classified matters relating to national security.”
Angleton’s question could be interpreted to imply that Angleton believed his relationship with Hunt was a classified matter relating to national security.
Hunt himself told a different story about Angleton.
In a recorded conversation with his son late in life, Hunt said that he had one personal encounter with Angleton. It happened in when Hunt served as station chief in Uruguay in the 1950s Hunt complained about the FBI’s handling of one of his agents and was called on the proverbial carpet at CIA headquarters.
“About forty eight hour later I was on a plane heading back to Washington and it was Angleton who met me and he wanted to know all the details,” Hunt recalled. “He wasn’t very happy that I made this complaint, which surprised me. I said how could we have an agent who’s reporting in the Bureau and to me [the CIA]? … he knew me only really from that run-in.”[St. John Hunt recorded his father’s recollections in the mid-2000’s. Hunt’s friend, Eric Hamburg, producer of “Nixon” the movie, shared a transcript with me.]
Hunt’s story, if true, indicates that Angleton’s statement to the Special Prosecutor was untrue. In fact it was. Angleton did know Hunt, both from Hunt’s leading role in the Bay of Pigs operation and his work as as chief of operations in the Domestic Contacts Division in the mid-1960s.
By 1972 the two men had numerous common interests, including anti-communism, Cuba operations, domestic spying, and, most significantly, Pentagon whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. Hunt’s claim that Angleton only knew him from a single “run-in” is dubious.
Hunt said he knew Angleton personally and professionally.
“I thought he had created a sort of charismatic figure of himself,” Hunt told his son. “He didn’t want anybody to know what he was doing and he had enough heft with sitting directors of the CIA, including Allen Dulles… He was allowed to do pretty much what he chose ….”
Hunt admired Angleton’s anti-communist vigilance.
“If people had listened to him,” Hunt went on, “we would have been in better position because everything that Jim wanted to do was against the communist enemy.”
* Cuba Operations
In the early 1960s, both men worked on secret operations in the CIA’s Miami station. Hunt organized anti-Castro exiles mounting political action operations. Angleton bolstered counterintelligence activities in south Florida.
Angleton told Joan Didion he felt the United States owed “great debt” to the Miami Cubans who fought Castro. Hunt agreed. One of those Cubans, they admired the most was Hunt’s fellow burglar Eugenio Martinez.
The IG report confirms that Martinez was a paid CIA “agent” in 1972, indicating an active relationship at the time of the burglary The names of the case officers who handled Martinez at the time are still being
censored withheld from the public view by the CIA.
* Domestic Spying
Starting in the spring of 1970, both Angleton and Hunt became involved in President Nixon’s efforts to expand the collection of intelligence on domestic enemies engaged in terrorism or subversion.
Angleton lent his strong support to the so-called Huston Plan, Nixon’s abortive scheme to expand domestic surveillance of anti-war activists and black nationalists. At the same time, Angleton pushed for expanded domestic surveillance powers, Hunt went to work for the Nixon White House on the sort of operations proposed in the Huston Plan.
Most importantly in the Watergate context, both men were both obsessed with spying on Daniel Ellsberg.
* Pentagon Whistleblower
Ellsberg, a hawkish Pentagon policy planner turned radical critic, had blown the lid off a decade of government misstatements about the Vietnam war, by leaking the so-called Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in June 1971.
Angleton suspected Ellsberg might be a KGB agent and began looking for evidence.
In August 1971, Nixon’s aide John Ehrlichman approved of Hunt’s latest brainstorm: to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in search of personal information that could be used to discredit Ellsberg.
Angleton was thinking along similar lines.
At the same August 1971 meeting where burglary was approved, Hunt also asked the White House to get in touch with MI-5, the British equivalent of the FBI, to obtain a key piece of counterintelligence evidence against Ellsberg.
According to the notes of Nixon’s aides, Hunt proposed that “the FBI, through its London Legal Attache, [to] request MI-5 review their telephone taps, on Soviet KGB personnel in England for the years 1952-53 (while Ellsberg was a student at Cambridge) to see if Ellsberg was overheard.”
Where did Hunt get the idea for such a specific historical request? Hunt was not experienced in counterintelligence work. He was not expert in KGB recruiting practices. He was not knowledgable about the wiretapping capabilities of British intelligence.
Hunt’s suggestion almost certainly originated with Angleton, who was an expert in all three
No one in the U.S. government knew more or cared more about Soviet intelligence recruiting at Cambridge University than James Angleton. His friend turned nemesis, Kim Philby, had attended Cambridge in the 1930s. Philby, a senior British intelligence official, fooled Angleton for eighteen years before fleeing to Moscow in January 1963 and revealing himself as Soviet spy.
Angleton’s conspiratorial imagination focused on Ellsberg’s time as a student in Cambridge. He thought Ellsberg might be the second generation of the infamous Cambridge Spy Ring that included Philby.
Angleton had to have known of Hunt’s proposal. After Ehrlichman approved of Hunt’s proposal, the request went out. As CIA liaison to the FBI and MI-5, Angleton then oversaw delivery of the White House request to the Bureau and the British.
For Angleton, it was a typically adroit bureaucratic play. He used Hunt to get the White House to ask the British for the wiretap material he wanted.
The Hunt-Angleton campaign against Ellsberg failed spectacularly. Hunt broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in September 1971 and found nothing. The British found no incriminating wiretap material on Ellsberg. When Watergage investigators learned of the burglary in April 1973, they shared the information with judge overseeing Ellsberg’s trial for violating the Espionage Act. Citing governmental misconduct, the judge dismissed all charges, transforming Ellsberg from suspected spy to First Amendment hero.
The Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign in August 1974 and triggered Angleton’s firing four months later when the New York Times revealed that Angleton had run an illegal mail-surveillance program that opened the correspondence of hundreds of thousands of American citizens. Angleton was never charged with any criminal violations in connections with his actions. He died in 1987.
There’s no evidence Angleton knew in advance of Hunt’s plan to burglarize the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. But when Angleton denied he knew Hunt, he was almost certainly lying.
What does it mean?
The IG report doesn’t prove that Watergate was “a CIA conspiracy,” whatever that might mean. It does prove Angleton, one of the most powerful men in the CIA, was involved in the Watergate affair from the beginning, a fact not generally known in the Watergate literature. The CIA goes virtually unmentioned in the classic Watergate movie, All the President’s Men.
Angleton acted to protect the agency from allegations that it might have been involved in the Watergate burglary, he said.
From a memo written by the Special Prosecutor’s office.
Angleton said that shortly after the Watergate arrests he had conferred with Mr. Helms and that it was clearly evident that Mr. Helms had no prior knowledge but that Mr. Helms did surmise that the media, the Soviets and some politicians would attempt to exploit the affair to harm the agency.
The IG Report shows how the CIA played defense on Watergate. Helms and Company asserted the only people who could possibly think that the CIA was involved in Watergate burglary were newspaper reporters, communists, and craven politicians.
For a long time, it was an effective defense.
The Washington Post
The CIA’s denials were accepted by the Washington Post.
In August 1974 Washington Post editor Laurence Stern described the release of the White House tapes about Watergate as “vindication” for the CIA and its long-standing denials of any direct involvement in the Watergate burglary.
That conclusion proved premature.
Thirty three years later, in June 2007, the CIA declassified several hundred pages of a collection of documents known as “the Family Jewels.” These were long-suppressed documents related to Watergate-era abuses of power. The newly declassified records showed that Watergate burglar James McCord had coordinated his legal defense strategy in private communications with CIA director Richard Helms.
The documents offered new details about how the CIA supported Hunt, reported the Post’s Bob Woodward.
As another 1973 document released yesterday by the CIA shows, a month or two before the Watergate burglary, E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA official and then-White House consultant, called the agency’s External Employment Assistance Branch to see if a “retiree or resignee who was accomplished at picking locks” could be hired, for tasks unspecified in the memo but surely deeply hinted at.
In his front-page story, Woodward abandoned the Post’s previous confidence that the CIA wasn’t involved in Watergate. He concluded the Family Jewels documents revealed the agency to be “the perfect Watergate enabler.”
The 2017 IG report corroborates and amplifies that conclusion: The CIA was “the perfect Watergate enabler,” and one of the enablers was James Angleton.
Suspicions about the CIA’s involvement in the JFK assassination have been circulating for decades, but Jeff Morley has more than suspicions. He has dug through countless sheaves of once-secret documents and interviewed so many spooks I’m surprised he’s not haunted.
As editor of JFK Facts, Morley is the leader of JFK investigative journalism. He
–broke the story of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly’s JFK lie, which CNN picked up.
–successfully sued the CIA for long-secret JFK files–and the New York Times paid attention.
Morley’s new ebook CIA and JFK: The Secret Assassination Files, available on Amazon, provides the fullest account of the role of certain CIA operations officers in the events leading to the death of JFK.
Morley also reports what is known about the long-suppressed JFK files scheduled to be declassified in October 2017.