Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

James Jesus Angleton: CIA Spy Hunter

The Fundamentalists

CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia
CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia

By the time the CIA moved its headquarters to Langley, Virginia, in 1962, Angleton's Counterintelligence Staff employed nearly 200 people and occupied most of the new building's second floor. Angleton's own office was large and dark, the Venetian blinds closed whenever he was in. Those who were granted access to his inner sanctum usually saw just the top of his head behind high stacks of confidential files, which he pored over day after day. A single desk lamp dimly illuminated the perpetual cloud of cigarette smoke that hovered over him.

The documents he studied came from the extensive top-secret archives he had assembled over the years and stored in various vaults in his outer office and in a locked vault room across the hall. Each day Angleton's loyal secretary, Bertha Dasenberg, would fetch the files Angleton was currently working with and assemble them on his desk just as they had been the previous day. Angleton guarded the information in these vaults the way a storybook dragon guards his treasure, and when the CIA started to computerize their files, Angleton refused to allow his material to be included. It was too risky, he felt.

The Counterintelligence Staff was not well liked within the CIA. According to author Tom Mangold, "Angleton's staff were considered the deskmen, the know-nothings, the armchair tyrants with the power to vet, obstruct, criticize, or even terminate operations." The CIA's Soviet Bloc Division found Angleton's input particularly irritating. These officers were the ones who did the heavy-lifting in the spy game, tracking enemy agents and recruiting defectors, but Angleton, who did not even speak Russian himself and had never been to the Soviet Union, dictated their rules of engagement and passed judgment on the trustworthiness of KGB and GRU agents who wanted to switch sides. For many years, Angleton would not allow Soviet Division officers to have direct contact with Soviet agents, fearing that the Soviets would try, and perhaps succeed, in recruiting Americans to their side. When Angleton made a decision, there was no court of appeal, because the reasons for his decisions came from his secret archives and they were off limits to Soviet Division officers. Angleton was determined not to let another Kim Philby happen under his watch.

Angleton did have supporters in the CIA, most notably a group of high-ranking officers known as the "Intelligence Fundamentalists," who shared Angleton's belief that the Soviet Union was actively and aggressively promoting the spread of global communism, and that Soviet spies were relentless in their attempts to penetrate the intelligence agencies of their enemies. Angleton's critics felt that the CI chief and the Fundamentalists suffered from the same paranoia. Angleton exacerbated their delusions with dubious "facts" that he extracted from his secret files.

Colonel Oleg Gordievskiy
Colonel Oleg Gordievskiy

But Angleton's convictions were validated by a high-ranking KGB defector to the United Kingdom, Colonel Oleg Gordievskiy, who told his handlers that Angleton's reputation as a spy catcher was well-known at KGB headquarters in Moscow, and that his work had thwarted many Soviet attempts to penetrate Western intelligence services.

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