by Jefferson Morley, The Intercept:
Documents Reveal the Complex Legacy of James Angleton, CIA Counterintelligence Chief and Godfather of Mass Surveillance
ETERAN CIA OFFICER Cleveland Cram was nearing the end of his career in 1978, when his superiors in the agency’s directorate of operations handed him a sensitive assignment: Write a history of the agency’s Counterintelligence Staff. Cram, then 61, was well qualified for the task. He had a master’s and Ph.D. in European History from Harvard. He had served two decades in the clandestine service, including nine years as deputy chief of the CIA’s station in London. He knew the senior officialdom of MI-5 and MI-6, the British equivalents of the FBI and CIA, the agency’s closest partners in countering the KGB, the Soviet Union’s effective and ruthless intelligence service.
Cram was assigned to investigate a debacle. The Counterintelligence Staff, created in 1954, had been headed for 20 years by James Jesus Angleton, a legendary spy who deployed the techniques of literary criticism learned at Yale to find deep patterns and hidden meanings in the records of KGB operations against the West. But Angleton was also a dogmatic and conspiratorial operator whose idiosyncratic theories paralyzed the agency’s operations against the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, and whose domestic surveillance operations targeting American dissidents had discredited the CIA in the court of public opinion.
In December 1974, CIA Director William Colby fired Angleton after the New York Times revealed the then-unknown counterintelligence chief had overseen a massive program to spy on Americans involved in anti-war and black nationalist movements, a violation of the CIA’s charter. Coming four months after the resignation of Richard Nixon, Angleton’s fall was the denouement of the Watergate scandal, propelling Congress to probe the CIA for the first time. A Senate investigation, headed by Sen. Frank Church, exposed a series of other abuses: assassination conspiracies, unauthorized mail opening, collaboration with human rights abusers, infiltration of news organizations, and the MKULTRA mind-control experiments to develop drugs for use in espionage.
The exposure of Angleton’s operations set off a political avalanche that engulfed the agency in 1975 and after. The post-Watergate Congress established the House and Senate intelligence committees to oversee covert operations. The passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act required the CIA to obtain warrants to spy on Americans. And for the first time since 1947, the agency’s annual appropriation was slashed.
Cram’s mission — and he chose to accept it — was to soberly answer the questions that senior CIA officials were asking in their private moments: What in the name of God and national security had Jim Angleton been doing when he ran the Counterintelligence Staff from 1954 to 1974? Did his operations serve the agency’s mission? Did they serve the country?
With his porkpie hat and trenchcoat, the portly Cram bore a passing resemblance to George Smiley, the fictional British spymaster as played by Alec Guinness in the BBC’s production of John le Carré’s classic “Smiley’s People.” There was some professional similarity as well. In le Carré’s novels, Smiley is introduced as a veteran counterintelligence officer called on by his superiors to assess a covert operation gone disastrously wrong. He is drawn into a hunt for a mole in the British intelligence service.
Cram’s task in 1978 was to investigate a covert career that culminated in a disastrous mole hunt. Like Smiley, Cram was a connoisseur of files, their connections and implications, their deceptions and omissions. Like Smiley, he embarked on a Cold War espionage odyssey that would fill more than a few volumes.
When Cram took the assignment, he thought his history of the Counterintelligence Staff would take a year to write. It took six. By 1984, Cram had produced 12 legal-sized volumes about Angleton’s reign as a spymaster, each running 300 to 400 pages — a veritable encyclopedia of U.S. counterintelligence that has never before been made public. With professional thoroughness, Cram plumbed the depths of a deep state archive and returned with a story of madness that the CIA prefers to keep hidden, even 40 years later.
LAST JUNE, I received a phone call from a Los Angeles area code. Half expecting a robocall, I tapped the green icon.
“I’ve heard you are interested in a man named Cleve Cram,” the caller said in a British accent. “Is that so?”
Was I ever. I had just sent in final changes to the manuscript of “The Ghost,” my biography of Angleton. I thought of Cleve Cram the way a fisherman thinks of the Big One that got away. I had focused on Cram in 2015, as soon as I started to research “The Ghost.” He had written an article, published in an open-source CIA journal, about the literature of counterintelligence, which gave some insight into his classified conclusions about Angleton. To learn more, I sought out his personal papers, more than a dozen cartons of correspondence and other documents that his family had donated to Georgetown University Library after his death in 1999. The library’s finding aid indicated that the bequest contained a wealth of material on Angleton.
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