Jefferson Morley on the 'Secret Life of Spymaster James Jesus Angleton'
Jefferson Morley: No problem, it is my pleasure
FSR: In reading your most recent book The Ghost: Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton, the concept of ‘double-government’ comes to mind very strongly throughout. Much of the story you tell about Angleton’s secret life takes place behind the scenes and against or beyond the orders he is supposed to be following. He is frequently operating on his own agenda. This is the main theme I would like to dig into today. It seems to have particular relevance in the current political moment. When you came to speak about your book at Fletcher, you talked about how when you first started writing your book, no one was talking about the idea of double-government or deep-state in the popular media context, but that by the end of your writing process, discussion of the deep-state was everywhere.
JM: Yes. Michael Glennon’s conception of double-government was one that I came on while I was writing the book and I realized its relevance as the more loaded term of ‘deep-state’ came into common use. I thought ‘double-government’ was a more precise and a more detached way of describing the milieu in which Angleton flourished. That connection became increasingly apparent to me as I finished the book. When I first started writing, I truly did not recognize it. I was really thinking more of an unknown story of the Cold War. By the middle of 2016 I realized that there was also this very strong connection to the present.
FSR: While reading the story I kept being struck by this exact feeling, that just a year or two ago, the story would have been just that, a very interesting Cold War spy tale, but that it now has great relevance. There are a number of points in the book that drive this home. For example, when President Kennedy has fired Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell after the failure at the Bay of Pigs and thinks he has reined in the CIA, that the CIA will now work with him and do what he needs them to do. You then explain that Angleton, now the third most powerful man at the CIA, just keeps on doing what he has been doing all along, just what he wants to. I kept looking at today, where we have fairly frequent changes and reshuffles at the top, and wondering how much power these appointees, Pompeo or Wrey, can have in the bifurcated/double-government system to actually make changes to the inner workings of people like Angleton?
JM: Well, Angleton had an unassailable bureaucratic position within the CIA. He had the trust of the directors and so was impervious to changes at the top. That is surely true in today’s national security agencies as well. It is the political appointees who have the challenge of navigating between an entrenched bureaucracy and the President. They have to appeal both ways and have connections both ways in order to keep their jobs. For the people in the permanent bureaucracy, that connection to the president is less essential. Presidents come and go and the secret agencies do not. They are there for more than four years and more than eight years.
FSR: The programs that Angleton was involved in were programs that I had only heard of in high school as conspiracy theories reading history, like the LINGUAL/HUNTER letter opening program, or CHAOS and MKULTRA. These are all things I remember reading about and thinking “wow, what a crazy idea!” It was fascinating to dig more into this and see how these programs were run outside of any accountability.
JM: Right, but they were real! There are a lot of crazy conspiracy theories out there, but the core of LINGUAL, mass surveillance of American mail, or CHAOS, mass surveillance of popular protest movements. Those actually happened and it is because Angleton was a conspiracy theorist with state power. These types of illicit covert operations are shadowed and shrouded in conspiracy theories, some of which are completely wrong, but the core truth of a secret policy, that is there, that is true.
FSR: In discussing the outcome of when these programs really get discovered after the New York Times story and Congress wants to look into them and Angleton is forced to give testimony, again, I saw this real connection to today especially in what you say about Dick Cheney kind of picking up where Angleton left off. You talk about how not prosecuting Angleton basically didn’t create a precedent, which might have meant there was something on the books to do something legally later or at least have a deeper discussion of these sorts of policies.
JM: Yeah. In January of 1977, the Justice Department decided that they would not prosecute Angleton and they released a memorandum, about 60 pages long, very detailed, about the legal considerations and the legal implications of the kinds of surveillance programs that Angleton was running. It was a very close call. There was definitely a legal case to be made. These operations, and Angleton understood this, were illegal when they were undertaken. It was a complete violation of U.S. law to open the mail of 10,000 Americans every year. The postal code is quite explicit on that. Angleton knew that there was no plausible cover story. The fact that he was not prosecuted meant that other national security bureaucrats could return to surveillance and not worry about the legal implication either. Now, if Angleton had been prosecuted in 1977, would that have changed what happened after the passage of the Patriot Act? Obviously we will never know, but it would have created legal issues that anyone engaging in mass surveillance would have had to address and those issues were not addressed after 2002 because of the desire for increased security. It probably would have been healthier for the system if they had been aired and if we had had more of a reckoning with what exactly the government was undertaking.
FSR: I was really struck by Angleton’s testimony, which you quote in the book: “It is inconceivable that a secret intelligence arm of the government has to comply with all of the overt orders of government.” You say in the moment that he tried to walk this statement back, but could not because it was what he really felt. Today, in reading this, there is a kind of revulsion, because in some ways we have come a long way from this point. But this has never gone away. It was not exorcised from the government. How much of this Angletonian conception of duty beyond the overt government still exists today?
JM: The Angletonian mentality that national security requires and justifies unlimited powers of surveillance is definitely alive. Among current policy makers, it is very difficult for them to accept that we might forgo any security advantage yielded by total surveillance in favor of something that is more protective of peoples’ liberties. This mentality is also still very strong in the U.S. national security establishment. I would say it is the norm. The idea that we might curb mass-surveillance of people’s emails, for example, is very hard for them to understand. What we had in the 1970s, and this was part of Angleton’s fall, was that the political pendulum swung the other way. People felt that the government had become abusive—Nixon’s Watergate abuses—now on top of that you had the CIA’s abuses of power. There is always the potential for that kind of shift.
We have a trade-off between security and liberty and the pendulum swings back towards liberty. After 9/11, the pendulum swung towards security. Angleton’s rise and fall really embodied that ambivalence at the time in the American government about where do we put the emphasis between security and liberty. His downfall arrived because he had just gone too far. What he was doing was unsupportable and indefensible. That gave us a regime of control for the CIA for the first time. That regime is now pretty weak. The security agencies are now strong and able to defy Congress and defy public ability. The accountability structure we do have is in part thanks to Angleton’s bad example.
FSR: What you are saying made me think again about this concept of ‘double-government.’ In professor Glennon’s book on double-government, he talks about how there is this relationship between the overt government, what he calls the ‘Madisonian Government’ and the ‘Trumanite Government’ and that the legitimacy of the Madisonian Government has to stand in order for the Trumnite government to do its work. On the one hand, I can look at the events around Angleton and say ‘ok, the conscience of the American people said that this is not a good thing, not something that we want to do or have done to us, so we are going to put in place something to change it and make it so that it cannot happen again’ (of course whether or not that actually happened is a different topic). Or you could see it as the basic structure of the bifurcated government seeing a threat to itself and resetting the boat.
JM: Yes, I think the latter is a very good description of what happened and what happens today. After the revelations of Wiki Leaks and Edward Snowden, the secret agencies had to recalibrate in order to sustain their policies. The government did become a little bit more open—President Obama admitted that there were problems with the security surveillance state that he inherited. This did not require much compromise, but the national security agencies have to play the game in order to maintain their democratic legitimacy. They have to take in public concerns about liberty, and the suspicion of big government that is inherent in American culture.
FSR: Angleton’s seems to be a very American story. It shows how our country became what it is and what we stand for, perhaps what we do not know we stand for. While it is clearly important that people understand these sorts of stories, I wonder at the same time if there is a danger to understanding this understanding in terms of what it could cause in the public sphere. Not to sound like a censor, but thinking very theoretically.
JM: Well, there is something disturbing about the Angleton story, that someone could be so powerful and almost never face any direct test of accountability, despite making severe mistakes—severe mistakes that were understood internally. Within the CIA, by the late 1960s, there was a real appreciation and reaction against Angleton’s misguided mole hunt. There was a big bureaucratic faction that mobilized to stop him and eventually managed to prevailed over him. There is nothing in our understanding of how our government works that prepares us for a character like Angleton. This is why the discourse of the ‘deep state,’ a new kind of discourse about our national security agencies, sheds some new light on Angleton. He evokes enduring fears of hidden and unaccountable power.
His story is troubling because we do not have a political tradition that explains a guy like Angleton. The closest that I have come to is professor Glennon’s idea of ‘double-government.’ If you imagine a double-government of the overt state and an apparatus which wields powers behind it, then you can say ‘oh, ok’ in the less overt part of the government, there can be hidden centers of power because they are not subject to democratic accountability the way the rest of the government is. The Angleton story points out that we need a new way of understanding the American government post-World War II.
What is missing is a credible narrative understanding of our common history that everyone agrees to because we have this secret side of government. Some people acknowledge it and want to talk about it and are worried about the ‘deep-state,’ a phrase embodying a lot of fear. Other people will say that it is a myth. There is no way to talk about those issues without a common understanding. The rise of the rhetoric of the deep-state shows a popular concern that the government has to address because it is a questioning of the government’s very legitimacy.
FSR: In the past, I have worked with the concept of a ‘shared myth,’ the idea being that when societies no longer have this shared myth, they can fall apart or have some kind of major upheaval. The context that I was pulling this from was the revolution in Egypt. The way you just talked about the United States not having a shared conception of history that we can speak about just struck me as very similar to that idea of a shared myth. Of course, a myth not in the idea of something false, but in the sense of a unifying narrative that we can all draw from. Might we be at a point where we have to recreate that?
JM: That is a very real question right now. These questions convulsed the political system in the ‘70s, led to Nixon’s resignation, led to the Church Committee investigation. We do not have that right now in the national security arena. The surveillance state, foreign wars, these are issues, but they are not quite front and center in people’s lives, not like they were in the ‘70s. These issues are unresolved, which means by default, the secret agencies maintain their power.
FSR: It is interesting looking back at that period. The people that were calling for reining in the secret government at that time might today be those feeling thankful for that same group of people keeping the current government in check.
JM: Trump has been very hostile to the secret agencies, to CIA and NSA, and the leadership of NSA and CIA has returned the favor. It is really quite extraordinary. After Watergate we did not have CIA Directors weighing in on who should be the next President, that just did not happen. We are in a different world now where agencies feel threatened by the President and they are going public with their denunciations of him.
Professor Glennon makes a good point when he talks about Trump. He says that presidents do have the ability to bring agencies to heel by appointing people and finding people in the ranks who will support their agenda while cutting people who do not. That is what Trump is going to try and do with the national security agencies. The challenge he has is that he is so hostile to them, at least rhetorically, that I wonder how successful he will be about coopting them. There is a worry there that Trump is not just a man with different policies, but a man antithetical to the Constitution. Is he antithetical to the double-government idea as well? That is the question that security agencies face today.
FSR: Something else you talked about at Fletcher when you came to speak about your book was the idea of a mission and an enemy that was sought by the secret government. Clearly, there was the Cold War enemy in the Soviet Union, and it seems that there has been a new enemy created with the Global War on Terror. I wonder, in that framing, does it make sense, or is it useful for the secret government to always have this “enemy” or “mission?”
JM: Yes it is essential. Without an existential fear, this global system of intelligence and war making, by definition, would not be necessary. We have come into a state of permanent war since 9/11 which resembles very much the state of permanent war we were in during the Cold War. The resources of society are mobilized completely to achieve the goal of absolute security. Once that attitude is in place, [the resources of society are mobilized in such a way] perpetually. We do not have an ideological competitor anymore in global Communism, but we do have an existential threat, or a perceived existential threat of terrorism.
FSR: Is there a way out of this? Can double-government take us out of that mindset? Do we want to get out of this mindset?
JM: I do not think it can take us out of that mindset. That is the raison d’etre of the national security state; to reflect and repel and defeat the existential threat. The question is, do we want to? Then the question is, ‘what is sustainable?’ What you see with President Trump is the message that we cannot be a global super power, we have to be a national power. That was clearly part of Trump’s appeal. This is a sign that public support for ‘American super power’ is not what it once was. With the people advising Trump, we see that the consensus behind that sort of ambitious global view is definitely weakened. It is expensive and people perceive it as threatening. That is where their rhetoric of the ‘deep state’ comes in.
FSR: Understood. Do you think that the people working in the national security apparatus who might be similar to Angleton in their well-connectedness and networks and real operational ability around the world are fearful about this, or threatened, or are unconcerned?
JM: I think they are fearful that Trump wants to dismantled a system that they thought was working just fine. They are threatened.
FSR: Thank you for talking to me, Mr. Morley.