Angleton today: Smoke, mirrors, and mass surveillance

James Angleton
James Angleton

In the current issue of the New York Review of Books Max Hastings, conservative British journalist and pundit, contextualizes James Angleton in the history of U.S. intelligence. Hastings writes:

“The Ghost, Jefferson Morley’s shrewd account of Angleton’s career as Langley’s counterintelligence chief from 1954 to 1975, shows the harm that can be done by an energetic spook who is permitted grossly excessive latitude. The Ghost focuses on two manifestations of this.

“First, Angleton became so close to the Israelis that he provided them with assistance that Morley believes was ill-judged, especially in establishing their nuclear weapons program with fissile material almost certainly illegally shipped from a plant in Pennsylvania. He writes:

If he learned anything of the secret program at Dimona, he reported very little of it. If he didn’t ask questions about Israel’s actions, he wasn’t doing his job. Instead of supporting US nuclear security policy, he ignored it.

“Morley deplores the manner in which Angleton’s Zionism, in his view, distorted US strategy in the Middle East and bequeathed a nuclear legacy to the region of which “effects will be felt for decades, if not centuries.”

“The second and even more notorious aspect of Angleton’s career was his belief in traitors within the US and British security worlds, which destroyed scores of careers unjustly, and extended to a witch hunt against British prime minister Harold Wilson, who he became convinced was a Soviet agent of influence. Angleton’s obsession with alleged enemies within Western societies infected a faction of Britain’s MI5, with equally pernicious consequences. Much of it started with the treason of the “Cambridge Five,” most notably Kim Philby, who became Angleton’s inseparable buddy during his years in Washington in the early 1950s. Philby’s belated exposure wrecked Angleton’s judgment and equilibrium. If dear, lovely, boozy, wisecracking Kim was a traitor, then anybody could be—and probably was.

“Angleton did untold harm to public trust in US intelligence services when his excesses were revealed, most of them by a 1974 New York Times exposé. He also gave evidence to the Senate Intelligence Committee, in which he acknowledged presiding over a program of mail interception focused on civil rights activists and anti–Vietnam War protesters. He shared Richard Nixon’s view that “hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Americans, mostly under 30—are determined to destroy our society.”

“The public revelation of Angleton’s paranoia and his wholly nonaccountable abuse of the powers of America’s secret state inflicted damage on the reputation of the US intelligence community that has never been wholly repaired. A consequence of the apparently endless Western intelligence blunders and misdeeds—the Cambridge Five, Tenet’s and Dearlove’s espousal of the Iraqi WMD fantasy, Angleton’s assault on the civil rights of law-abiding Americans—is that it has become hard to persuade either the American or British people to take their intelligence services seriously, far less to trust their judgment.

“Morley concludes his book damningly: “Angleton’s most significant and enduring legacy was to legitimize mass surveillance of Americans.” Both John Hughes-Wilson and Loch Johnson argue that the leakers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are unconvincing crusaders for liberty, seeming instead to be mischief-makers who have done much harm to Western security interests. Yet the two still have apologists on both sides of the Atlantic, civil libertarians who decline to acknowledge that in a world in which terrorism has become endemic, some loss of personal privacy is a price we must pay for protection: electronic eavesdropping is almost the only effective prophylactic against those within our society who wish us harm.



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