Angleton’s Enduring Value as CI Epistemologist

There is perhaps no more controversial figure in all of American intelligence than James Angleton, whose actions and character have been debated so thoroughly that works on him constitute an entire subcategory of literature on counterintelligence (CI). However, while much attention has been focused on negative aspects of his twenty-year tenure as the Associate Deputy Director of Operations for Counterintelligence (ADDO/CI) at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), criminally little attention has been paid to his significant contributions in the formation of how American intelligence officers conceptualize counterintelligence.

The limited recognition given to Angleton on this front usually hasbeen presented only as a sort of apology to justify how CIA could have let one man wield so much power for so long with such negative consequences.[1] This piece aims to rectify this asymmetry by consolidating what I believe amounts to Angleton’s core epistemology of CI, shaped in large part during his World War II service as a member of the Office of Strategic Services’ (OSS) X-2 branch.

Angleton’s eventual approach to counterintelligence [was] “Total Counterespionage”, which took for granted that all nations spy on each other, and that in doing so a nation can betray its intentions through what sort of secret information it aims to collect…[and that] uncovering what an adversary was lying about — such as through the passing of doctored information via controlled sources — could reveal not only an adversary’s intentions, but their fears and weaknesses as well.

X-2 branch was responsible for OSS counterintelligence and was the only element of American intelligence with which the British shared the fruits of the ULTRA intercepts and the Double-Cross System.[2] In practice, X-2 developed into an organization that was responsible not only for ensuring OSS security in the field, but also for conducting offensive operations — including the running of double agents — aimed at degrading enemy intelligence and subversion activities.[3] Angleton learned the intricacies of counterintelligence both at the feet of the British intelligence officers in London and in the field, first as X-2’s chief in Rome and eventually (at the age of only 28) as the chief of all CI in Italy for both OSS and its immediate post-war successor, the Strategic Services Unit (SSU).[4] These experiences were highly formative for Angleton, and led to him to develop his own conceptions of what counterintelligence was, what it required, and how it could be used.

Timothy Naftali described Angleton’s eventual approach to counterintelligence as “Total Counterespionage”, which took for granted that all nations spy on each other, and that in doing so a nation can betray its intentions through what sort of secret information it aims to collect.[5] Angleton applied this logic both in war (when X-2’s operations supported the inherently defensive mission of force protection via adversary service neutralization) and peace (when he viewed intelligence services as replacing militaries as the primary way actors through which nations challenged one another). He saw it as a justification under both circumstances for broad involvement of CI officers in monitoring foreign activities likely to affect U.S. interests and all possible channels through which an adversary might acquire American secrets.[6]

Another of Angleton’s justifications for such broad CI coverage across the spectrum of intelligence operations was that uncovering what an adversary was lying about — such as through the passing of doctored information via controlled sources — could reveal not only an adversary’s intentions, but their fears and weaknesses as well.[7] Of course, advocating for such a pervasive counterintelligence presence can be interpreted as blurring the line between it and traditional foreign intelligence, as both activities and products — a fact Angleton himself acknowledged while in SSU.[8]

To Angleton, effective CI consisted of three core elements beyond broad coverage: penetration, “superior sources”, and liaison. In his experience, each was exemplified by different experiences he had with the British. First and foremost, embodied in the success of the Double-Cross System, was penetration. It was far and away the most critical element, particularly human penetrations which could combine the virtues of access and operational flexibility into a dynamism which eludes static collection assets such as SIGINT.[9] Angleton also saw penetrations as supporting the function of “controlling intelligence”: the weeding out of poor quality or intentionally deceptive material collected.[10] In this sense, he saw the value of penetrations in support what now would be considered an aspect of source validation.

Another British example which deeply influenced Angleton was the ULTRA intercepts, which he termed a “superior source.”[11] In 1983, Angleton argued that a CI service required such a superior source — either in the form of SIGINT or multiple human penetrations — in order to be truly successful.[12] In Angleton’s experience, a superior source presented two powerful opportunities. First was the opportunity to “make an unreal world real” to an adversary through the careful orchestration of deception, backed up by dispatched agents and carefully tailored feed information: of course, this meant that it was possible for an adversary to do the same to you if so similarly equipped and thus constant vigilance was required.[13] Second was the ability to develop a reliable “playback” mechanism, which could allow one to gauge the efficacy of one’s own tactics against an adversary.[14]

It was liaison, the final essential element, which made Angleton’s education with the British possible and helped him achieve such success in cooperation with the post-war Italian services. He believed that there was no more efficient way for a CI service to expand its sources than to be liaising with a close ally, particularly given that liaison was the “only way for a foreign service to have systematic access to the myriad of banalities routinely collected by domestic institutions that often prove essential in determining the bona fides of a source.”[15] Angleton believed that with all these elements in place, the information each produced would interact with the others, constantly providing an increasingly clearer picture of an adversary and hopefully even triggering a “snowball effect”, in which one piece of information from a given channel could enhance the effectiveness of another.[16]

Officers in a CI service could possibly misconstrue the “counter” aspect of their work, neglecting the offensive opportunity to turn an adversary’s human assets against it in favor of operating in a wholly defensive manner, such as merely identifying and apprehending adversary agents.

Angleton also understood the critical role that offensive counterintelligence, which he knew as “counterespionage” (CE), played in the broader mission of CI as an activity. According to the papers of Angleton’s X-2 mentor, Norman Holmes Pearson, the OSS definition of counterespionage emphasized countering “the practice of spying or employment of secret agents” by adversaries, while CI focused more broadly on securing intelligence from adversary acquisition.[17] The essential difference was that CE contained the explicit mandate of degrading adversary intelligence efforts, rather than merely safeguarding valuable intelligence. This is, of course, obviously reminiscent of the dichotomy between offensive and defensive CI today.

Angleton firmly believed in the utility of offensively countering espionage as serving the broader defense provided by all counterintelligence, but he also “recognized that CE was not likely to be fully understood” because it could appear at first brush that its degradation mission was at loggerheads with the security mission of broader CI.[18] Officers in a CI service could possibly misconstrue the “counter” aspect of their work, neglecting the offensive opportunity to turn an adversary’s human assets against it in favor of operating in a wholly defensive manner, such as merely identifying and apprehending adversary agents.[19] For example, upon discovery of an adversary’s network: standard CI would call for the network to be neutralized and rolled up, while CE would instead aim to keep the network in place in order to exploit it and play it back against the adversary. Such exploitation, like the use of superior sources, aims to put an adversary in an unreal world. In both cases, CE is akin to “putting a virus into the bloodstream” of an adversary, requiring the longest-view possible in terms of potential benefits — including the sort of perception management that can elevate offensive CI into a form of political action.[20]

…ignoring the real lessons that Angleton-as-CI-epistemologist provides — merely on the basis on his later operational record — is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

It would be naïve to think that while developing such a sophisticated appreciation of counterintelligence as a craft, Angleton was ignorant of its risks. The greatest risk for the CI officer was, and remains, being misunderstood. To be effective in the field, Angleton’s conception of counterintelligence required practitioners to take a longer-range view than what normally is held by officers focusing on foreign intelligence collection, and a broad presence that easily can be misconstrued as an attempt at omniscience. This has the potential to create a hazardous gulf between CI officers and their foreign intelligence-focused colleagues: those working in counterintelligence see the necessities of their work as self-evident, while outsiders may view it as dangerous or meddlesome.[21]

As the United States traverses an increasingly hostile counterintelligence environment spanning more domains than ever thanks to information technology, those whose business it is to safeguard American secrets, sources, and methods should recall that Angleton — whose flaws have been made plain to see elsewhere and many times over — earned his original post of ADDO/CI in part due to the thinking outlined above. That thinking remains highly relevant today:

  • Total Counterespionage’s lessons of understanding a nation’s intent based on the behavior (and lies) of its intelligence services are borne out in how Chekist operational preparation of the environment can, and to some degree did in very recent memory, telegraph potential active measures.
  • Information technology has added new dimensions to the concepts of penetration, superior sources, and liaison in ways that Angleton only could have speculated about during his lifetime.
  • In a time when barriers to entry and apparent deterrents to conducting cyber-driven, covert political action are apparently few and far between, it essential that CI planners explore how best to use modern technology to put viruses (pun notwithstanding) into the bloodstreams of such activities.

As Angleton understood that by their very nature and mission CI officers ran the risk of being misunderstood, so too we should understand that ignoring the real lessons that Angleton-as-CI-epistemologist provides — merely on the basis on his later operational record — is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

[1] Michael Sulick, American Spies: Espionage Against the United States from the Cold War to the Present (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2014), 83; Tom Mangold, Cold Warrior: James Jesus Angleton: The CIA’s Master Spy Hunter (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991), 345

[2] “Chapter 3: Counterintelligence in the Office of Strategic Services,” in A Counterintelligence Reader Volume 2: Counterintelligence in World War II, ed. Frank J. Rafalko (Washington: National Counterintelligence and Security Center: 2004), 166–167

[3] Rafalko, 172–173, 176

[4] Ibid, 199–201

[5] Ibid, 201

[6] Ibid, 201–202, 210

[7] Robin W. Winks, Cloak & Gown (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1987), 343; Rafalko, 237n26.

[8] Rafalko, 202

[9] Winks, 342; Rafalko, 206

[10] Rafalko, 206

[11] Ibid, 202

[12] Rafalko, 238 n35

[13] Winks, 342–343.

[14] Mangold, 40, 61.

[15] Rafalko, 203

[16] Ibid, 202

[17] Winks, 422.

[18] Ibid, 421–422.

[19] Ibid, 423.

[20] Ibid, 422; Jennifer E. Sims, “Twenty-First Century Counterintelligence: The Theoretical Basis for Reform,” in Vaults, Mirrors, & Masks, eds. Jennifer E. Sims and Burton Gerber (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2009).

[21] Winks, 426.

Open source counterintelligence referent. Views here are personal, not my employer’s. All original content © Alex Orleans, 2014–2021.

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