Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

James Jesus Angleton: CIA Spy Hunter

"Off the Reservation"

British Prime Minister Harold Wilson
British Prime Minister Harold Wilson

By the late 1960s, it seemed that no one was safe from Angleton's suspicions. He launched an investigation of British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, based on Golitsyn's belief that the KGB had murdered Wilson's main rival in the Labour Party to pave the way for Wilson who thus had to be a Soviet agent.

Over time, Angleton and Golitsyn patched together scraps of alleged evidence and came to the conclusion that West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme, and Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson were all Soviet "assets."

West German Chancellor Willy Brandt
West German Chancellor Willy Brandt

Golitsyn cited CEO of the Occidental Petroleum Corporation, Armand Hammer, and former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union and former governor of New York, Averell Harriman, as possible Soviet agents.

Henry Kissinger
Henry Kissinger

Angleton and Golitsyn even put Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State in the Nixon Administration, under their magnifying glass. They questioned his motives in seeking détente with the Soviet Union and reaching out to strengthen ties with China. The mole hunters also suspected that Soviet agents had penetrated NATO.

As well as hunting for moles within the government, Angleton searched for Soviet infiltration in the anti-Vietnam War movement. His staff took charge of Operation Chaos, an investigation into domestic protest groups, spurred by a directive from President Lyndon Johnson. By law, the CIA is restricted to foreign investigations, so technically Chaos was an illegal operation. This did not bother Angleton, who saw it as necessary to the security of the country, even though it yielded little in terms of concrete information.

HT-LINGUAL was another illegal operation supervised by Angleton. Started in 1955, this operation secretly intercepted and opened mail to and from the Soviet Union. Letters were analyzed to ferret out Soviet spies who might have been using the post office as a means of communication. "Precisely because opening letters was patently illegal, [Angleton] reasoned, the Soviets would regard mail as a secure means of communication," David C. Martin writes in Wilderness of Mirrors. Angleton blatantly disregarded the laws that prohibit tampering with the U.S. mail.

Seymour Hersh
Seymour Hersh

In 1974, the missteps of Operations Chaos and HT-LINGUAL caught up with Angleton, when the New York Times investigative journalist Seymour Hersh made it known that he was writing an expose of these two government infringements on the rights of American citizens. Angleton was called into Director of Central Intelligence William Colby's office and advised that it was time for him to submit his resignation. Fervently believing that his work at the CIA wasn't done, Angleton resisted, and in desperation he called Hersh and tried to bribe the reporter with promises of other classified information if he buried the story he was working on. Hersh recalls that conversation with Angleton, and in Cold Warrior he describes Angleton as being "off the reservation" and "totally crazy." The article was published, and the backlash was, as expected, damaging to the agency.

Angleton put off his advised retirement for months, and even after he had submitted his letter of resignation, he continued to show up for work as usual. This continued for months until he finally resigned himself to his fate in the spring of 1975.

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