On this date in espionage history, Tuesday, December 24, 1974, James Jesus Angleton resigned/retired from the Central Intelligence Agency at the request of CIA Director, William Colby. Angleton was the most controversial CIA officer of the twentieth century.  While the first half of his career was marked with extraordinary success, the latter years are besmirched by his search for the insider, the mole, within the CIA which prevented the CIA from conducting effective offensive foreign intelligence and counterintelligence operations against the Soviet Union.

Angleton had a well-earned reputation as a stellar, some would say brilliant, operations officer with the erudite mind able to sleuth out nuggets of information and associations which others would routinely miss. In 1954, Director Plans Frank Wisner and his deputy, Richard Helms, created the Counterintelligence Staff to which with Angleton was named Chief.  Angleton would occupy the position until his departure from the Agency some 20 years later.

A number of books have been written about Angleton, taking him to task, appropriately. In 1987, the New York times wrote, how as time passed, “recent disclosures about highly damaging Soviet espionage operations suggest that Mr. Angleton was more accurate in his suspicions than was once believed.”

Three events would scar Angleton’s behavior and frankly his operational analysis in the mid-1960s through his last days within the CIA in 1974.

Kim Philby

In the mid-1990s, this writer had a History Fellowship to the Center for the Studies of Intelligence. One of the projects assigned was to assist former Director Richard Helms with his research within the CIA’s archives. Helms remarked in the late-1990s, and again in his memoir how the defection of the UK intelligence officer Kim Philby hit Angleton hard. Angleton hadn’t been the CIA officer who fingered Philby’s traitorous activity, and Angleton’s friendship clouded his finely honed sixth sense. Helms opined, how this event shaped the attitude which Angleton would be most remembered, never wanting to be hoodwinked again.

Anatoliy Golitsyn

In December 1961, a KGB major, Anatoliy Golitsyn approached the CIA station chief in Helsinki, Finland and asked for asylum. Golitsyn was a middling officer within the KGB, and as noted in the book, Cold Warrior, his impact on the West would be momentous.

The CIA station chief whisked him out of Helsinki, with his family to Stockholm then on to the United States. The COS would later describe the intelligence initially provided by Golitsyn as small potatoes. While he had information on the KGB personnel in Helsinki, he knew little of KGB operations elsewhere – though his tidbits of information did provide the kernel of information to initiate counterespionage investigations which eventually identified three KGB penetrations of the west.

Golitsyn also was full of himself. Within weeks of having defected, he started making demand upon demand, the next more outlandish than the prior – demanding to meet President Kennedy (which didn’t happen), CIA Director McCone which happened and became a regular occurrence.

He also piqued Angleton’s interest and thus, Angleton and Golitsyn formed an inexplicable bond. As time passed and Golitsyn was debriefed by various entities of the U.S. intelligence community and military, his story also began to morph and adjust based on acquired knowledge. When the U.S. tired of Golitsyn, he was sent to the UK where his accusations caused additional disarray to an intelligence community already reeling from the defection to the USSR of Philby and his colleagues Donald McLean and Guy Burgess. Golitsyn would return to the U.S. in 1963 under the control of Angleton, who had convinced his seniors, including DDO Helms that Golitsyn had great value. Indeed, Angleton’s adoption of the view that Golitsyn was the only defector from the Soviet Union who had shared truth, would evolve to be Angleton’s Achilles heel.

With hindsight 20/20, we now know that Golitsyn, was, in a word, a BS-artist.

Yuri Nosenko

In the spring of 1962, Yuri Nosenko, an officer within the KGB Second Chief Directorate (Counterintelligence) and on a TDY to Geneva, managed to slip away from a delegation to which he was providing security and volunteer his services to the United States. Over a series of four meetings in Geneva, Nosenko provided a fire hose of actionable counterintelligence information, ranging from the location of bugs within the U.S. embassy to the identity of Soviet spies in the United States and the United Kingdom. The CIA officers debriefing Nosenko cable to CIA headquarters read, “Subject has conclusively proven his bona fides.” Nosenko’s only stipulation to a continued clandestine relationship was that the CIA never to try and meet with him in Moscow.

What wouldn’t be known, until years later was that the initial CIA officer who debriefed Nosenko had weak Russian language skills and that Nosenko, not unlike other defectors, had gilded the lily of his professional stature. These two issues would later cause Nosenko to be viewed with great distrust and ultimately become a great embarrassment to the CIA. Angleton had hitched his wagon to the incredible story being peddled by Golitsyn which was, “any defector which followed him was a false-defector.” He set about convincing those who had met with Nosenko that, he, Nosenko was indeed a provocation.

In January 1964 Nosenko returns to Geneva, this time determined not to return to Moscow, and carrying with him 18 months of harvesting from within the KGB archives. He carried with him the identity source within NATO and the U.S. Army. Most importantly, however, was Nosenko’s claim to have personal knowledge on the KGB’s interaction with Lee Harvey Oswald, who had assassinated President John F. Kennedy two months prior.

Nosenko on Oswald

Nosenko first noted that while Oswald had defected to the Soviet Union in Minsk (Belarus), and was monitored by the local KGB, Oswald had no relationship with the KGB. Nosenko claimed to have read Oswald’s file in 1959, and then again four years later following JFK’s assassination. The tug-of-war on the bona fides of Nosenko would envelope much of the attention of the Soviet operations division and Counterintelligence Staff for years, as Nosenko was treated as hostile, kept in confinement at a CIA facility and interrogated regularly. On March 1, 1969, after an exhaustive review, Nosenko was deemed bona fide and soon after released, had his name change and was hired on as a CIA consultant. Angleton would never come to accept the fact that Nosenko was bona fide.

Nosenko’s rehabilitation

Nosenko would go on to brief classes of new employees within the CIA on Soviet KGB recruitment techniques. (NB: This author attended more than one of Nosenko’s briefings and had the opportunity to engage directly with the man, who remarkably, held no ill-will and wanted only to provide what ever benefit he could to his adopted country).

Looking back on Angleton

Richard Helms wrote in his memoir, “A look over my shoulder” (2003) how Angleton was “one of the most complex men I have ever known.” He also wrote how Angleton’s dismissal (retirement) from the CIA that only one other officer of his Agency contemporaries “to have inspired more public attention is Allen Dulles.”

Helms observed that post-Soviet Union, former KGB officers had commented how Angleton was their biggest asset, not in the frame of a source, but rather because his “alleged hare-brained security measures had paralyzed the ability of the Western powers to operate against the USSR.”

Former Director William Colby wrote in 1978, in his book Honorable Men, how he should have removed Angleton “before he became an apparent scapegoat. But I saw that American intelligence still had to get rid of its James Bond or Maxwell Smart image.”  Many attribute a Seymour Hersh piece of December 22, 1974, which eviscerated the CIA as the catalyst for Angleton’s removal.  Colby claims in his memoir such was not the case.

Indeed, Colby, while Deputy Director, he had recommended to then CIA Director Schlesinger that Angleton be included in the purge of operations officer which occurred in 1973. But, Schlesinger omitted Angleton from the purge, as he was “fascinated by Angleton’s undoubted brilliance.”

Angleton’s December retirement had in fact already been ironed out prior to Hersh’s piece. Colby explained how he had already told Angleton on December 17 that he was being removed as Chief Counterintelligence and head of liaison with Israel, and was offered an advisory role where he could continue to provide his insight, but without any oversight or responsibility. If that wasn’t to his liking, he could retire and avail himself to the full retirement benefits. Angleton retired on December 24.

Angelton the Intelligence officer

Angleton’s career in U.S. intelligence spanned many years. He is, unfortunately remembered for the ignoble actions of the latter half of his career which overshadowed the success of his early career. Former KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky would note many years after Angleton’s death, how KGB operational failures occurred because of Angleton’s reputation alone. His name was “legend at No. 1 Dzerzhinsky Square.”

Angleton should always be remembered for the aforementioned errors. He should also be remembered for his hand in the evolution of counterintelligence and counterespionage methodologies which are now standard within Western intelligence services and insider threat risk programs.

Angleton died of lung cancer on May 12, 1987; he was 69 years old.

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of securelytravel.com