Saturday, March 24, 2018

Q&A with Jefferson Morley

Jefferson Morley is the author of the new book The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton. His other books include Snow-Storm in August and Our Man in Mexico. He spent 15 years working for The Washington Post, and his work has appeared in a variety of other publications, including Salon and The Atlantic. He lives in Washington, D.C.  

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of James Angleton?

A: I knew a lot about him—my first book, Our Man in Mexico, was about a top CIA officer of the same generation, Win Scott. 

There were a bunch of good books written about him in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but a lot had come out since the ‘90s. The old picture of Angleton as an eccentric mole-hunter was very narrow. He was a much bigger, stranger, and more powerful character than anybody realized.  

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?

A: I started by going to archival material. That meant presidential libraries, especially Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, archival manuscript collections of people who knew him.

And interviewing people. There are not many around who knew him, but a very interesting source was the kids of CIA agents who knew him. They knew about his world, his personality. It was an important source to bring him to life. 

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: We thought about a lot of titles, but we settled on The Ghost because Angleton was a special presence in American government. The phrase captured the invisible presence of this guy. I thought it was a good metaphor for his invisible power. And with the black and white Avedon cover photograph, it goes well with that, too. 

Q: You write, "Angleton's most significant and enduring legacy was to legitimize mass surveillance of Americans." What impact did his actions have on the issue of surveillance as it exists today?

A: What Angleton did was the first mass surveillance on the U.S. mail. He took a small Pentagon program—if U.S. servicemen were writing letters to people overseas, it would copy addresses and see who they were writing to. 

From a military point of view, it was understandable. When military personnel defected, it was because they fell in love with an East German girl.

Angleton took the program and transformed it into something very different. He made a huge list of people. [A few years later] they wereopening 8,000-10,000 letters a year, resealing the letters, filing and indexing material. There was no pretext of a warrant, or getting permission.

He expanded the program and ran it for 20 years. It was one of the first times the U.S. government surveilled its own citizens en masse. 

When this was exposed in the 1970s, the question was should he be prosecuted. The Justice Department said no, it was too difficult to try. What that meant is that there were no legal inhibitions to launching mass surveillance.

After 9/11, no criminal case said, Are you violating the law? It was a set precedent, and it connected to the mass surveillance conducted by the NSA.

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Angleton today?

A: He’s become iconic of the figure in spy fiction—the eccentric fisherman, the orchid grower, meticulous, paranoid, caught in the complexity of his own thoughts. That’s what people think of him today.That’s all very true—he had paranoid characteristics. 

But he was not just that—he had a wider influence. The mass surveillance part is true—it’s a lasting legacy. But he was a big character—he had influence across a lot of agencies and in other countries. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m doing another CIA book—I don’t want to say more about it than that. 

Q: Anything else we should know about The Ghost?

A: The other piece of the story that was never told before is the concern for surveillance of Lee Harvey Oswald. This book tells for the first time that Angleton and his people monitored Oswald for four years before Kennedy was killed. 

He was under surveillance. Whenever anybody in the U.S. government got information on Oswald, it was sent to the CIA, to Jim Angleton’s office. By the time Kennedy was killed, they had a fat file on Lee Harvey Oswald. It was never shared with any investigators.

The Ghost tells that story. I’m telling you what definitely happened: Angleton had Oswald under surveillance for four years. It’s a very interesting story, it’s never been reported anywhere else. It’s very solid—it’s based on declassified CIA documents and interviews…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jefferson Morley.

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