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?