Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

James Jesus Angleton: CIA Spy Hunter

The CIA's "Delphic Oracle"

At the end of World War II, as the ruins of Nazi Germany were still smoldering, a new threat loomed on the horizon, one that threatened to be more devastating to world peace than Hitler's regime. The Soviet Union's post-war goal was to spread communism worldwide, and the country's leader, Joseph Stalin, stated plainly that capitalist countries and communist countries could not coexist peacefully.

Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin

"To many, this sounded like the declaration of World War III," author Tom Mangold writes in Cold Warrior. Backed by the Soviet Union's considerable military might, Stalin's perceived intentions sent the first chill of the Cold War through Western Europe and the United States. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill graphically drew the battle line when in 1946 he said", "an iron curtain had descended across the continent."

After the war, the old OSS became the Central Intelligence Agency, and one of it's primary goals was to thwart the communist threat and expose Soviet spies working in the United States. Unfortunately, the KGB and the GRU (military intelligence), the Soviet espionage agencies, were already a step ahead of the nascent CIA. Soviet spies had already penetrated the American scientific community and stolen critical atomic technology, which led to the Soviet Union stockpiling a frightening arsenal of atomic weapons. The United States and the Soviet Union, each armed with missiles more powerful than the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, emerged as the reigning world superpowers, each with an absolute belief in their opposing ideologies.


To combat Soviet espionage, the CIA created the Counterintelligence Staff and chose James Angleton to run it. The Counterintelligence Staff, or CI, as it was known within the agency, became Angleton's fiefdom, a secretive powerbase that would influence world politics for decades to come. He would become the CIA's "Delphic Oracle," as one former CIA operations officer called him. While other CIA departments sought to penetrate and subvert KGB and GRU initiatives, Angleton's job was to evaluate these counterintelligence operations and the information they yielded. The most critical task Angleton faced was deciding whether Soviet defectors were real or KGB plants.

To accomplish this task, Angleton began to amass mountains of documents that would eventually fill scores of locked safes that only he and his staff could access. Day after day, he would sift through piles of archived paperwork, searching for threads of evidence that could expose double agents and "moles," traitors working within the government itself. He eventually earned a reputation as the agency's Grand Inquisitor, constantly searching for the smallest indications of betrayal.

But early in Angleton's career, a deeply implanted double agent slipped past his notice and operated right under his nose. The traitor was one of Angleton's closest friends.

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