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A Mountain Out of a Molehill : COLD WARRIOR: James Jesus Angleton, The CIA's Master Spy Hunter By Tom Mangold ; (Simon & Schuster: $22.95; 490 pp.)

July 07, 1991|Garry Abrams | Abrams is a Times staff writer.

If he hadn't been the counterintelligence chief for the Central Intelligence Agency, James Jesus Angleton might have been a lot of fun.

He liked to shake a leg to Elvis Presley and drink martinis by the quart. He grew orchids and fished for brown trout by the light of the moon. An Anglophile, he wore a black homburg and elegant suits to the office in the manner of his favorite poet T. S. Eliot. He was a sophisticated, charming chain-smoker, winning passionate devotion from employees, who served him like acolytes. He fascinated his bosses, who could not resist his grasp of international skulduggery, or his stockpile of high-level Washington gossip.

But in his last decade at the CIA, Angleton was a man trapped in a maze of his own making. Convinced that the agency had been penetrated at a high level by a Soviet "mole," Angleton launched a single-minded hunt to find the traitor. It was a relentless pursuit, driven by labyrinthine logic that only Angleton fully understood.

In all likelihood, the chase was spurred partly by the great betrayal of Angleton's life. He had once been personally and professionally close to H. A. R. (Kim) Philby, who of course is the most infamous turncoat of the century. Almost certainly, Philby's duplicity left Angleton with deep psychic wounds and may have contributed to his later borderline paranoia.

One has to wonder, too, how much Angleton was divided against himself. Ostensibly a WASP with English overtones, Montana-born Angleton for decades hid the fact that his mother, who gave him his middle name, was Mexican.

At any rate, in later years Angleton found clues to double agents where others found coincidence. He saw patterns where others saw random events. He blighted colleagues' careers by investigating them, forever placing a mark of suspicion on their records. Toward the end, he directed a witch hunt that tied the CIA in knots, virtually shutting down active spy operations against the Soviet Union.

Angleton's right hand in the endeavor was Anatoliy Golitsyn, a Soviet defector who almost rivaled Angleton in his ability to spin conspiracy out of thin air. Golitsyn so won Angleton's trust that he was given unprecedented access to American and foreign intelligence files, the better to weave his intricate webs. Even today, Golitsyn has a small following in this country, largely because he argues that glasnost and perestroika are essentially massive deception operations designed to lull the West and attract an outpouring of aid.

Ironically, Angleton's nemesis was another Soviet defector, Yuriy Nosenko, who came over the wall shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy. Among other things, Angleton believed that Nosenko was the vehicle for a Soviet disinformation plot regarding the death of Kennedy. To the end of his life, Angleton fought Nosenko's assertion that the KGB had no interest in or connection to Lee Harvey Oswald, who had lived in the Soviet Union for two years. Nosenko paid for his inconvenience with years of illegal imprisonment in a specially constructed CIA dungeon.

Yet, it was all futile.

Angleton never found a Communist spy in the halls of the agency's Virginia headquarters. By 1974, Angleton himself was forced to retire because his fruitless monomania exasperated CIA Director William Colby beyond tolerance. By then, Angleton's prestige lay in tatters, and he was the target of investigations of a domestic mail-opening operation that he had directed for years. He also was the victim of his own slips of the tongue, earning notoriety for this statement: "It is inconceivable that a secret intelligence arm of the government has to comply with all of the overt orders of the government."

When Angleton finally walked out the CIA door, the cleanup of his messy legacy began. It may well continue today, with bemused CIA staffers finding yet another hidden safe brimming with files squirreled away--and apparently forgotten--by Angleton in 20 years of spy-stalking. In an irony of ironies, one of those misplaced files proved to be a treasure chest of intelligence, apparently ignored by Angleton because it did not fit his theories or his purpose.

Briefly, this is the tableau laid out by Tom Mangold in his important, thorough and intriguing "Cold Warrior: James Jesus Angleton, the CIA's Master Spy Hunter." It is an ambitious book that seeks to clear the thickets of innuendo, speculation and outright invention that, despite glasnost, still obscure much of the Cold War's secret history. It also is probably the most comprehensive biography we are likely to get on the legendary Angleton, who inspired a subset of spy fiction with his Delphic ways, his angling and his horticulture.

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