WASHINGTON — James J. Angleton, a poetry-loving agent with a professorial demeanor who ferreted out counterspies for the Central Intelligence Agency for 20 years until allegations of domestic spying led to his resignation in 1974, died Monday()of lung cancer. He was 69.
Angleton's wife, Cicely, said he had been ill since December and that he died at Sibley Memorial Hospital here.
A 31-year veteran of the CIA, Angleton was director of the agency's counterintelligence department from 1954 to 1974, when he was forced to retire after disclosure of a widespread program of domestic spying and surveillance by U.S. intelligence agents.
According to testimony before a congressional committee in September, 1975, Angleton directed the CIA's domestic spying efforts during the Administration of President Richard M. Nixon, whose own mail had been opened earlier by CIA agents involved in the same program.
Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Hubert H. Humphrey and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also were among the 1,300 Americans targeted by the CIA for surveillance during the course of the 20-year program, according to witnesses at the so-called Church hearings, named for the late Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho.)
Angleton's official responsibilities included ensuring that Soviet agents did not infiltrate key U.S. institutions including the CIA itself, and he conducted a decade-long search for a KGB "mole" that he was convinced had reached the agency's top echelons.
Perhaps one of Angleton's best-known operations was in obtaining a copy of the secret speech that Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev delivered to the Communist Party's 20th Congress in 1956 in which Khrushchev denounced his predecessor, Josef Stalin.
Angleton's zeal in pursuing double agents was criticized after his departure, with some of his successors saying that the search diverted resources and attention away from the CIA's traditional overseas intelligence-gathering role.
But Angleton found a measure of vindication in recent disclosure of security problems at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and reports that the Soviets have turned their new hilltop embassy in Washington into an electronic eavesdropping center.
Angleton told the New York Times in an interview last month that many of the nation's current security problems had their origins in disputes that began years ago. He said, for example, that he and other top U.S. intelligence officials argued vehemently as early as 1966 against allowing the Soviets to build their new embassy on the elevated section of Washington known as Mount Alto.
He also sharply criticized reductions in counterintelligence staffing made in the 1970s by then-CIA Director William Colby.
At its peak in the 1960s, the CIA's counterintelligence directorate had a staff of 300, according to Angleton. He said it was cut to 80 under Colby and "it's never been built up again."
After leaving the CIA, the chain-smoking Angleton refused to discuss any of his specific activities with the agency. But he said the lesson of recent spy scandals such as the Walker spy ring and the Moscow embassy guard case is that "there will always be penetrations" of U.S. institutions by Soviet agents.
"It shouldn't be thought of as an aberration," said Angleton, who had joined the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor of the CIA, during World War II. "It's a way of life."
Informed of Angleton's death, Richard Helms, a former CIA director, said, "James Angleton was to American counterespionage what Thomas Edison was to the development of electricity."