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Inside the Company by Philip Agee (Lyle Stuart: $19.95; 400 pp.)

July 05, 1987|David Johnston | Johnston, a Times staff writer, wrote his first story about government spying 19 years ago.

Philip Agee has led three lives. First, as a secret agent deep undercover for the Company in Latin America, propping up dictators and subverting democracy. Second, as the spy who went out into the cold, revealing what evil he did (and our government still does) in his 1974 book "Inside the Company: CIA Diary." And third, as revealed 1768824948naivete.

For 18 years, Agee has been an enemy of the state, though, he says, not the people. He has made a living out of naming secret names, prompting Congress and the Supreme Court into futile efforts to punish him, efforts that instead only chipped away at the rights of all Americans to freely speak and travel.

Now at age 52, he offers this memoir, looking back at his days of rage and writing with outrage at how the U.S. government and its Langley dirty tricks subsidiary spied on him after he turned on them, writing books about Company secrets. The Company followed him, opened his mail and even arranged to loan the novice author a typewriter, complete with radio transmitter secreted in its case. Imagine, the CIA actually spied on Agee. Shocking.

What is shocking is how the CIA mishandled Agee once he began to break with the Company. He quotes at length a psychiatric evaluation that says Agee is not psychotic and predicts that he will relish a fight and thus should not be provoked. So what does the Company do? Does it, in its own interest, try to lure him back into the fold? No, the bureaucrats ignore this sage advice and proceed to do all they can to alienate Agee further. Of course.

Consider how Agee says his plan to uncover undercover agents came to the CIA's attention. He wrote to a leftist Uruguayan weekly in late 1971, identifying himself as a former CIA agent, predicting the Company would subvert upcoming elections and just mentioning that he was writing a book about the CIA.

Soon a CIA agent was at Agee's Paris door, clipping in hand, saying Richard Helms, Nixon's spy boss, wanted to know what the hell was going on. Agee writes of the visit with a voice of innocence, surprised that the CIA could locate him and especially surprised that Helms personally would be interested. Agee spills his guts to the Company man, recounting all the good things that he is certain will flow out of a book that exposes CIA agents. Unpersuaded, the Company man wanted to know if the manuscript might be in "enemy" hands.

"Oh, oh, I thought," Agee writes. "What if they try to stop me?" Come on. We are supposed to believe this stuff? Since that manuscript, when published three years later, established in undeniable detail that the CIA's lines of business include torture and murder, how could it not already have occurred to Agee that even attempting to write such a book might prompt the Company to terminate him with extreme prejudice?

Later, the government does try to stop Agee, not by having him shot or tortured, but by leaning on our European allies to harass him, to expel him and to ask him "insulting questions" about his relationship with a woman traveling companion. God forbid.

Believing--as he does--that America is an evil empire, what did Agee expect? A ticker-tape parade? The little boy who blew the whistle on the emperor's tailor was not feted, either. Instead, the crowd just whispered the truth he spoke.

Agee writes that he authored books telling us that we are not who we say we are-- a noble and enlightened people spreading democracy--out of deep moral convictions. Perhaps. Like fellow dissident Company men Victor Marchetti and John Stockwell, he entered the agency filled with religious training, and he now seeks absolution for the evil he believes he did. But in these memoirs, he reveals himself not as a moral hero (though his disclosures were brave and vital), but as the sort of vacillating, amoral petit bourgeois opportunist whom all governments prefer as spies. When Agee wants to telephone America from Paris, he stops by a rigged telephone where he can talk forever for 20 centimes, pleading poverty. But then he flies to pre-invasion Grenada in a Lear jet.

Agee's most fascinating disclosure--one of many that are just intriguing enough to keep the reader plowing through his prosaic text--concerns who financed completion of "Inside the Company." The money came from the CIA. Of course.

Agee makes a persuasive argument for the proposition that the bosomy blonde he met in a Paris bar--and who soon loaned him her apartment, freely gave him money and produced the typewriter in the bugged case--was a novice spook. What amazes is not that Uncle Sam would employ a Mata Hari, but that Agee would be surprised at this, that he would be morally outraged, that he would not be suspicious of such suddenly good and great friends.

Throughout, Agee also relates anecdotes that raise serious questions about how this nation's most prestigious papers willingly report as gospel the concoctions spoon-fed them by sources who are not only unnamed, but also often invisible to readers. The sources are sometimes Company men, including ex-spy Agee, but all of them grind axes without being held accountable for who they cut up.

This is a crafty account, contradicting versions of events Agee has told in the past. That Agee expects readers to swallow his tale and not to believe that he has worked hand in glove with the Soviets and their agents, suggests he is a man of world-class naivete. But for those who can't get enough about national security, and are willingly to work hard at reading, there is plenty of intriguing material here.

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