[This book review was published in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 194-198.]
The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton
St. Martin’s Press, 2017
This is a rather unfortunate biography of James Jesus Angleton, who started his career in American intelligence during World War II and rose to be the long-time chief of counterintelligence in the CIA. Thus, he was one of the leading figures in American intelligence during the Cold War, so much so that Morley describes him as having been “the third-most powerful man in the CIA” during the Kennedy administration.
The author of this biography, Jefferson Morley, was for fifteen years a journalist with The Washington Post, and the reason we say his account is “unfortunate” is that the biography tells us more about Morley’s biases and journalism-by-innuendo than it does about Angleton. Lots of things are mentioned, but few are tied down. He has added another to a list of essentially anti-Angleton books, and we are left wondering why he thought this one necessary, since we come away feeling that we have by no means received a dependable, much less definitive, insight into Angleton’s career.
Readers will notice that Morley’s perception of the American intelligence community’s efforts during the radical years of the New Left and its aftermath is colored by the kind of leftist understanding that is common within the mainstream media today. He refers to “targets” of surveillance such as “black nationalist groups, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panthers” and argues that they were “peaceful political groups” that were “suspected of no crime.” Surveillance, he contends, was not called for as necessary for “national security.” Those of us who lived through those years have an indelible memory, however, of the fevered revolutionary rhetoric and activism, including bombings and riots, that hardly matched Morley’s attitude that there was no one there but innocents. When Morley so utterly drops the context of those times, he causes us to take with a grain of salt his assessment of many of the activities James Angleton was engaged in. Was Angleton a patriot defending his country, or a loose-cannon who ran amok with American civil liberties? If the book didn’t drop the context and took a more objective view, readers would be in a better position to judge.
It isn’t so much ideology as a defect in reasoning that discolors Morley’s discussion of Angleton’s continuing search for “moles” (a spy for another country) who may have penetrated the CIA. He says Angleton set out on a “paranoid… ideological crusade” that lasted for decades to detect and remove moles. The crusade was “out of proportion,” produced “victims,” and was “disastrous” because it “would paralyze and divide the CIA.” This is a theme that runs recurrently through Morley’s book. What Morley doesn’t see is that it is precisely the job of the CIA’s counterintelligence chief to keep the agency clear of hostile penetration, and to do this on a continuing basis that will match the never-ending efforts of other nations’ intelligence services to plant spies where they can. The notions that the anti-mole effort can be temporary or episodic, or that the effort can avoid discomfiting those who are subject to scrutiny, are divorced from the realities of intelligence work. Again, readers won’t know what reasonably to conclude. It is possible for efforts to catch moles to be conducted in a blunderbuss fashion that does more harm than good. But the lack of balance in Morley’s critique of it doesn’t provide a foundation for an objective judgment.
This reviewer was led to The Ghost because a friend recommended it as having meaningful things to say about the JFK assassination. Perhaps Morley’s belief that there was a second shooter, citing “some fifty people… [who] believed a gunshot had come from in front of the motorcade, from the grassy knoll,” is what the friend had in mind. We note, though, that Morley doesn’t go into depth about the second-shooter aspect; he never mentions, for example, the book by Dr. Charles Crenshaw which, breaking a long silence, revealed that he had observed entry wounds from the front when JFK was brought into the emergency ward at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. Crenshaw’s report is sharply disputed, but any in-depth discussion of the second-shooter thesis would certainly discuss it (and the criticisms of it). What is evident is that Morley’s book is a work of shallow journalism, not of scholarly inquiry. This superficiality vitiates the treatment of the many aspects of Angleton’s counterintelligence career that Morley touches upon but doesn’t explore.
The friend cannot have thought that Morley “solved the assassination.” The Ghost doesn’t even advance conclusions of Morley’s own about who was behind it. Instead, there is a scattering of speculations about several possible perpetrators, although without any review of the literature pro and con about the varied scenarios. Here is what we find among the tidbits relating to possible suspects:
That a faction of the CIA did it. JFK threatened to break up the CIA, Morley tells us, and in the wake of that “the men of the CIA had reason to fear the man in the White House.” He reports that the CIA’s deputy director Dick Helms “was worried that CIA personnel might be involved in the killing of JFK.” (This would point toward Helms’ not himself being party to any cabal. Further, Morley makes observations that would be inconsistent with any belief by him that Angleton was involved in one. He apparently believes that some faction in the CIA did do the assassination, because in the context of discussing “who did it?” he mentions RFK’s “naivete” in having “trusted the CIA.” As with so much of Morley’s superficiality, though, he lets it hang at that. This is a subject of such importance that it shouldn’t be left to innuendo.)
That Fidel Castro did it. At several points, Morley touches on a variety of tentative plans by Robert Kennedy (JFK’s brother and then Attorney General), the CIA, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to invade Cuba or incite a rebellion to overthrow Castro, and perhaps to assassinate him. One of these was the Joint Chiefs’ “Northwoods” operation to “create a justification, a pretext, for a US invasion of Cuba.” All this would give Castro a motive to strike first. Nevertheless, Morley tells us – without explanation – the “Robert Kennedy knew Fidel Castro had not killed his brother” (and further that “he knew the KGB wasn’t involved).
That U.S. generals did it. We are told that “the hostility to President Kennedy in his own government was pervasive and palpable.” “The generals felt the president was abandoning the U.S. policy of containment of the Soviet Union in favor of accommodation” and “the president feared… a military coup” (which was “a real possibility,” since, Morley says, “the American army could get out of control”). And there’s a side to this that has to do with JFK’s well-known sexual promiscuity and personal behavior: one of JFK’s mistresses during the White House years, Mary Meyer, left a diary, Morley tells us, that intimated that she and JFK had “smoked marijuana and taken LSD” together. She is reported to have said that because “he was changing too fast,” his “powerful enemies” felt they “couldn’t control him anymore.” (This, of course, doesn’t tell us who the “powerful enemies” were, so it may or may not have referred to the military leaders.)
That the KGB (the Soviet secret service) did it. Morley speaks of Angleton’s “conspiracy theories about KGB involvement,” but doesn’t explain what those were. We have already seen that Morley says Robert Kennedy “knew the KGB wasn’t involved.”
That the mob did it. In reference to a second assassination, that of Robert Kennedy, Morley says “Angleton suspected organized crime figures were behind the assassination.” He leaves it at that, and ignores JFK’s sharing a mistress, Judith Exner, with a mob boss. The whole mob thesis would benefit from scholarly explication, but Morley avoids it.
That Angleton masterminded it. As we have seen, Morley writes as though he believes Angleton was not involved, but we nevertheless see a continuing preoccupation with Angleton’s long-time scrutiny of Lee Harvey Oswald and of Oswald’s contacts with the Cuban consulate in Mexico City. Morley says Angleton “obstructed justice to hide interest in Oswald,” and goes on to say that “whether Angleton manipulated Oswald as part of an assassination plot is unknown. He certainly abetted those who did. Whoever killed JFK, Angleton protected them. He masterminded the JFK conspiracy cover-up.” (There is, however, a single sentence in Morley’s account that introduces a possible legitimate reason for Angleton’s obfuscations: “He was loath to share anything about Oswald’s Cuban contacts, probably because they related to sensitive [CIA] operations….” Morley should have discussed the exculpatory implications of this.)
That others did it. All of this speculation by no means exhausts what Morley could have brought into the mix. Roger Stone has written a book arguing that Lyndon Johnson did it. If Dr. Crenshaw’s book about events at Parkland Hospital is to be credited, the Secret Service acted very suspiciously, something Morley never discusses. He touches lightly on several possibilities, and has made no attempt to review the vast literature on the assassination, which would take him far beyond the scope of Angleton’s career.
Morley summarizes his take on Angleton near the end of the book when he says Angleton “was an ingenious, vicious, mendacious, obsessive, and brilliant man… His mastery was sometimes indistinguishable from his madness. He was a combination of Machiavelli, Svengali, and Iago. He was an intellectual, charming and sinister.” Angleton was a man who “served and failed American democracy.”
This is hard to square with Angleton’s having received “one of the Agency’s highest awards, the Distinguished Intelligence Medal” shortly after his 1974 retirement. From his beginning in intelligence work in 1943 until he finished his contract work for the CIA under a secret contract even after his retirement, Angleton served under several presidents of the United States and a series of Directors of Central Intelligence. From such a record, one might suppose his abilities and virtues were somewhat greater than Morley’s summary suggests.
Readers of The Ghost will do well to accept the book as a very imperfect introduction to the life of an important figure with whom they may not have been familiar – and to realize that if they wish to know more they will have to dig deeper for themselves.
Dwight D. Murphey
1. The acronym CIA hardly needs any explanation, but on the theory that all acronyms should be explained at the time of their initial use, we should mention that it refers to the United States’ ‘Central Intelligence Agency.’
2. A book of a different stripe is Mark Riebling’s Wedge: The Secret War Between the FBI and CIA.
 The acronym CIA. hardly needs any explanation, but on the theory that all acronyms should be explained at the time of their initial use, we should mention that it refers to the United States’ “Central Intelligence Agency.”
 A book of a different stripe is Mark Riebling’s Wedge: The Secret War Between the FBI and CIA.