Why spies, counterspies, and counter-counterspies are so popular right now.

Why spies, counterspies, and counter-counterspies are so popular right now.

Why spies, counterspies, and counter-counterspies are so popular right now.

Military analysis.
July 30 2010 3:40 PM

Reading the Intelligence

Why spies, counterspies, and counter-counterspies are so popular right now.

Angelina Jolie in Salt. Click image to expand.
Angelina Jolie in Salt 

It shouldn't be so surprising that spies and paranoia are back in popular culture or that they've made a rousing comeback in the news.

The box-office hit Salt stars Angelina Jolie as a CIA agent who turns out to be (spoiler alert, but much slighter than it sounds) a sleeper-agent for the KGB, trained from her youth to infiltrate American power centers and await the signal for "Day X," when she'll help the Russian empire rise again and destroy its enemy. A new AMC series, Rubicon, has something to do—it's not yet clear what—with spy networks and paranoia. ("Not all conspiracy theories are theories," the ads intone.) In June, the real-life FBI arrested 10 Russian sleeper-spies who'd been living for years Virginia and New Jersey suburbs (though, again, it's unclear what they were supposed to be doing besides living high on the American hog). And just this month, an Iranian nuclear scientist, who defected to the United States after serving as a CIA informant, redefected to Tehran, where his bosses now say he was a double-agent, feeding misinformation to Langley, Va., all along. It's a producer's dream of good timing—a new movie and TV show, both with preposterous plotlines, coming out at the same time that uncannily similar plotlines are splashed on front-page headlines and take up hours of cable newscasts.

Is the Cold War back? Or is baroque intrigue just the way of the world? How do you tell a real spy from a fake one, and does it matter if you can? The world is more confusing than ever; what's real, and what's not, is prone to endless manipulation. It's only natural that we find ourselves once again wandering through the "wilderness of mirrors."

The phrase was coined by James Jesus Angleton, the head of CIA's counterintelligence division from 1954 to 1975, and he was one to know. He went crazy in that wilderness. That's what happens to everybody who plunges in as deeply as he did. It's the nature of the beast.

What happened to Angleton is a classic story and sheds fractured light on all the spy tales now in our midst.

The key turn in the story began in 1961, when a KGB major named Anatoly Golitsyn defected to the West. Angleton interrogated the spy and afterward pronounced him not only the real thing but the most valuable defector in a generation. Golitsyn provided a fair bit of information about Soviet double agents, but he also spewed a lot of nonsense—for instance, that the emerging Sino-Soviet split was an elaborate hoax. (Years later, he wrote books claiming that Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika were hoaxes, too.) All of this appealed to Angleton's conspiratorial mode of thinking.


Then, in 1964, another KGB officer named Yuri Nosenko, who had been spying for the CIA, defected, claiming that his status as a double agent was about to be discovered. Once brought in from the cold, Nosenko made two claims: that the KGB had nothing to do with Lee Harvey Oswald, who had assassinated John F. Kennedy a few months earlier, and that Golitsyn—by this time Angleton's favorite—was a KGB plant. Golitsyn scoffed and said that, actually, Nosenko was a plant.

This was too much for Angleton and his minions—as well as some agents in the CIA's Soviet Russia division, who also had their doubts about this new defector—so they locked Nosenko in solitary confinement for three-and-a-half years, nearly one-third of that time in an attic without heat or ventilation, and threatened to keep him there until he confessed that he was still a spy for Moscow.

Nosenko was finally released in 1969, after higher authorities in the CIA and FBI concluded he was the real thing. (He was relocated under an assumed name and died in 2008; Golitsyn is still alive, so far as we know.) Nothing about this saga was made public until 1974, during Sen. Frank Church's hearings investigating all kinds of CIA malfeasance. In fact, no one outside intelligence circles had ever heard of Angleton until he was subpoenaed to testify.

Even now, reasonable people disagree on the full truth of the Nosenko-Golitsyn dispute. Some people (though they couldn't be called "reasonable") even wonder whether Angleton himself was a Soviet double agent. Why else, they ask, would he have so single-mindedly destroyed counterintelligence, the division of the CIA that seeks to plant moles in enemy intelligence agencies and roots out enemy moles within? In the late 1940s, Angleton had lunch every week with Kim Philby, who was then the Washington liaison for the British intelligence service. Many believe that Angleton's subsequent paranoia stemmed from his horror at having failed to realize that Philby was a Soviet spy. The extreme conspiracy theorists turn this notion around: The fact that Angleton got to know Philby so well, and didn't turn him in, suggests that Angleton was a Soviet spy, too.


Hence the "wilderness of mirrors" (also the title of a classic book about the subject by David Martin). If you're a counterintelligence officer, your job is to be suspicious. Where you draw the line between caution and paranoia—or whether there is a line—is a day-to-day affair. The requirements of the job tend to push you over the line.

Angleton was head of counterintelligence for more than 20 years. At various points along the way, he accused West German chancellor Willy Brandt, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, among others, of being Soviet spies. When CIA director William Colby fired him in 1975, he and his followers naturally accused Colby of being the ultimate KGB mole.

Intelligence agencies, worldwide and from time immemorial, play on deception. At what point does prudence become paranoia?

Consider the case of Shahram Amiri, the Iranian nuclear scientist who defected to the United States after serving as a CIA informant—and then defected back. After returning to Tehran, Amiri at first claimed that the Americans had kidnapped and tortured him; then, after this story didn't quite fly, the Iranian officials declared that he'd been a double agent all along.


The maze is dizzyingly intricate.

First, those of us without very high security clearances don't know what Amiri told his CIA handlers. He was reportedly a source, presumably one of many, for the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program. But which part of that NIE did he corroborate—the finding that Iran was still enriching uranium or the (far more controversial) finding that Iran was no longer actively pursuing nuclear weapons? Let's say that Amiri told the CIA that Iran was no longer pursuing nuclear weapons-production. What can we infer from this in retrospect? If he was a double agent all along, does this mean he was lying—and that, in fact, Iran was still actively developing nukes? Or was he telling the truth, in the hopes that, after he redefected to Iran, we would think he'd been lying—that, in fact, the Iranians aren't pursuing nuclear weapons but want us to think they are to bolster their bargaining power?

In other words, even if the CIA knows whether Amiri was an agent or a double agent, that knowledge doesn't necessarily make what he said any more or less trustworthy.

And might some Iranian Angleton be wondering whether Amiri is a triple agent—that he was a double agent when he defected to the States but that his CIA handlers turned him during his stay? When Amiri went back to Tehran, U.S. officials told reporters (on background, of course) that Amiri had been a CIA informant for years while he was working at the Malek Ashtar University, which he and others have said was a cover for research into nuclear-warhead production. These newspaper reports made it look as if these officials were so angry at Amiri's betrayal that they decided just to throw him to the Iranian wolves. But maybe these press leaks were a ruse to convince the Iranians that he really had redefected, when in fact he is now an American mole inside Iran.


It's a standard technique in the counterintelligence game, but also a central dilemma: If a spy appears to be above suspicion, a counterintelligence chief might suspect him of being a spy for that very reason. If, on the other hand, he appears to be suspicious, the chief might accept him as the real thing—for why would the enemy send over a spy who's so obvious? Is Amiri too obvious to be a CIA spy? And might he, therefore, actually be one? Or do we just want Iranian counterintelligence chiefs to think that he might be one, so that anything he has ever said or done or been involved with is now under suspicion? Or is nobody quite as clever or devious as these scenarios imply?

These dilemmas and puzzles are, in a way, easier to parse today than in Angleton's time. Take the case of the Mossad agents who assassinated Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai earlier this year. Computerized records and pervasive video cameras made it possible to trace the assassins' every step, from their phony passports and facial disguises to the actual execution of the deed. No doubt, through similar techniques, CIA and FBI agents have by now, to the extent possible, traced every step that Amiri took while in the United States—every cell phone call, every credit card purchase, every traffic violation—for clues of who he was and what he was doing. But even then, the most deeply engrossed counterintelligence officer might think Amiri was creating feints, knowing that we'd later trace his moves, in order to deceive us further after his redefection.

Deception must be taken for granted in the spy game. But how far do you go? At some point, even the most careful spies will just screw up and reveal their true colors. But at what point, and how can you tell the difference between a feint and a blunder?

For many years after the Angleton scandals, the CIA got out of this whole thicket by more or less getting out of the whole racket. Counterintelligence was discredited, the whole field seen as a career-ender. Some argue that when we let down our guard, the moles got busy, and it was indeed in those years that Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen—Soviet moles inside the CIA and FBI's counter-spy offices—inflicted their greatest damage. (They were eventually caught. The mole-hunters hadn't vanished, but it took a long time to catch them.)

We seem to be getting back in the game, with who knows what consequences. In September 2009, Robert "Bear" Bryant—who played a key role in uncovering Ames and in overseeing the investigations of the Oklahoma City bombing and the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia—was appointed director of the recently created Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive. A new "National Counterintelligence Strategy" document calls for a counterintelligence "capability that is integrated with all aspects of the intelligence process to inform policy and operations."

Spy novelists and moviemakers, take note: The Soviet Union is dead, but the Great Game rambles on.

Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow Slate and the Slate Foreign Desk on Twitter.