James Jesus Angleton: The Kremlin's Favorite Spook
By Yuri Shvets
Former Major in the KGB who was in the same KGB class as Russian President Vladimir Putin. Shvets is the author of "Washington Station: My Life as a KGB Spy in America".
It was a cold winter day in 1981. I was a KGB rookie, sitting with my colleagues, future Soviet intelligence officers, in a lecture hall at the Yuri Andopov Institute--simply put, a spy school. The lecturer, a gray-haired KGB colonel, was telling us about the CIA and its chief of counterintelligence, James Jesus Angleton.
"He was our best asset," said the colonel.
We were stunned. The famous CIA mole-hunter was a KGB asset? Were we the best in the business or what?
"Take it easy, guys," smiled the colonel. Angleton wasn't really our agent. He was, the colonel explained, "our useful idiot." But given his position and his obsessive hunt for moles in the CIA, he was more valuable to us than a whole army of real agents.
The theory goes all the way back to V.I. Lenin. The founder of the Soviet Union believed that his enemies would always have in their midst certain high-ranking people fighting so hard to defeat Communism that they'd do more harm than good to their own cause. Lenin considered such individuals a vital part of the Communist "fifth column." The KGB liked that idea, since it cost nothing and sometimes paid huge dividends.
Angleton unwittingly provided the KGB with something it couldn't have possibly gotten through its own efforts. He demoralized the CIA beyond the wildest dreams of the party bosses back in Moscow. Best of all, from the KGB's point of view, was the fact that Angleton's mole-hunting discredited CIA counterintelligence efforts for years to come. The result was an atmosphere in which real Kremlin moles, like Aldrich Ames, could flourish.
The KGB never trusted anybody. A great deal of time and money was spent checking operatives for the slightest hint of treason. But nothing the KGB did minimized the temptation to defect to "the main adversary," as the CIA was called. Here again, it was Angleton to the rescue.
Always on the lookout for KGB dirty tricks, Angleton jailed Yuri Nosenko, a famous KGB defector in the early 1960s. Nosenko was more than willing to cooperate with the CIA, but Angleton put him through the wringer. Of course, KGB leadership was jubilant. Not about Nosenko's departure, but about the mortal blow his treatment dealt to the CIA.
Although the number-one job for any intelligence service is to recruit human assets, it would be hard to find a handful of KGB case officers who actually recruited American citizens as spies. I believe the same is true of CIA recruitment efforts in the Soviet Union. In reality, intelligence services depend on volunteers--people who make the decision, for whatever reason, to work for a foreign spy agency, contact it, and offer their services.
But before any such move, a volunteer should be absolutely sure his future masters can handle him safely for the rest of his life. If that's not the case, there's a good chance he might be caught and executed, which is the Soviet solution, or spend the rest of his life in jail, American-style.
By putting Nosenko behind bars, Angleton sent a crystal-clear message to other potential volunteers inside the KGB: The CIA cannot handle you safely, so you'd better give your loyalty to the USSR. One can only guess how many possible defectors were lost to the CIA due to Angleton's methods.
Nosenko was tortured and imprisoned because Angleton didn't believe he was the genuine article. But his treatment revealed to Moscow the CIA's most guarded secret: Langley had no real source of information in the KGB. No moles in Moscow meant the CIA was driving blind, and every top official in Soviet intelligence knew it. Even Ames could not have provided my former Soviet colleagues with such valuable information. Ames only gave his handlers names--useful for eliminating double agents but useless in any strategic sense.
After his lecture on the CIA, the KGB colonel told our group of spies-in-training that none of us would be able to provide better service than Angleton. In fact, "only one man can do a better job," he said, "and that's another Angleton."
We thought the colonel was kidding. We were young and inexperienced at that time. But I recalled his words years later, when Ames was caught.
In a flurry of media reports on Ames's case, one interesting episode was largely overlooked. Ames had been exposed before he could complete his most important mission. Close to the end of his spy career, when his loyalty to the KGB was checked, rechecked and confirmed many times, Ames received his ultimate assignment: to gather and transmit to Moscow all information pertaining to Angleton. The KGB wanted to know the most minute details of Angleton's career and his rise to power.
The mastermind of the Ames case in Moscow was none other than the gray-haired colonel who lectured me in 1981. In the final days of the Soviet Union, the KGB was looking for ways to raise Angleton from the dead, or at least to forecast the possibility of another individual like him rising to the top of the CIA.
Fortunately, the Soviet effort failed because the CIA had its own useful idiot in Moscow, Vladimir Kryuchkov, who headed the KGB intelligence service for 14 years and after that the KGB itself. Kryuchkov, you may recall, was a leader in the 1991 Kremlin coup plot. Like Angleton, he saw himself as a patriot, rooting out CIA double agents, and his activity, like Angleton's, did more harm than good.
Langley probably had a better chance of creating another Kryuchkov than Moscow had of making another Angleton. But with Kryuchkov in charge, the CIA could hardly have had a better man at the helm. In the space of three days, Kryuchkov not only destroyed the KGB but the entire Soviet Union. My ex-comrades in Moscow were always calling Kryuchkov "the CIA Man of the Century." As things turned out, it was a title he richly deserved