Veteran CIA officer Cleveland Cram was nearing the end of his career in 1978, when his superiors in the agency’s directorate of operations handed him a sensitive assignment: Write a history of the agency’s Counterintelligence Staff. Cram, then 61, was well qualified for the task. He had a master’s and Ph.D. in European History from Harvard. He had served two decades in the clandestine service, including nine years as deputy chief of the CIA’s station in London. He knew the senior officialdom of MI-5 and MI-6, the British equivalents of the FBI and CIA, the agency’s closest partners in countering the KGB, the Soviet Union’s effective and ruthless intelligence service.
Cram was assigned to investigate a debacle. The Counterintelligence Staff, created in 1954, had been headed for 20 years by James Jesus Angleton, a legendary spy who deployed the techniques of literary criticism learned at Yale to find deep patterns and hidden meanings in the records of KGB operations against the West. But Angleton was also a dogmatic and conspiratorial operator whose idiosyncratic theories paralyzed the agency’s operations against the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, and whose domestic surveillance operations targeting American dissidents had discredited the CIA in the court of public opinion.
In December 1974, CIA Director William Colby fired Angleton after the New York Times revealed the then-unknown counterintelligence chief had overseen a massive program to spy on Americans involved in anti-war and black nationalist movements, a violation of the CIA’s charter. Coming four months after the resignation of Richard Nixon, Angleton’s fall was the denouement of the Watergate scandal, propelling Congress to probe the CIA for the first time. A Senate investigation, headed by Sen. Frank Church, exposed a series of other abuses: assassination conspiracies, unauthorized mail opening, collaboration with human rights abusers, infiltration of news organizations, and the MKULTRA mind-control experiments to develop drugs for use in espionage.
The exposure of Angleton’s operations set off a political avalanche that engulfed the agency in 1975 and after. The post-Watergate Congress established the House and Senate intelligence committees to oversee covert operations. The passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act required the CIA to obtain warrants to spy on Americans. And for the first time since 1947, the agency’s annual appropriation was slashed.
Cram’s mission — and he chose to accept it — was to soberly answer the questions that senior CIA officials were asking in their private moments: What in the name of God and national security had Jim Angleton been doing when he ran the Counterintelligence Staff from 1954 to 1974? Did his operations serve the agency’s mission? Did they serve the country?
With his porkpie hat and trenchcoat, the portly Cram bore a passing resemblance to George Smiley, the fictional British spymaster as played by Alec Guinness in the BBC’s production of John le Carré’s classic “Smiley’s People.” There was some professional similarity as well. In le Carré’s novels, Smiley is introduced as a veteran counterintelligence officer called on by his superiors to assess a covert operation gone disastrously wrong. He is drawn into a hunt for a mole in the British intelligence service.
Cram’s task in 1978 was to investigate a covert career that culminated in a disastrous mole hunt. Like Smiley, Cram was a connoisseur of files, their connections and implications, their deceptions and omissions. Like Smiley, he embarked on a Cold War espionage odyssey that would fill more than a few volumes.
When Cram took the assignment, he thought his history of the Counterintelligence Staff would take a year to write. It took six. By 1984, Cram had produced 12 legal-sized volumes about Angleton’s reign as a spymaster, each running 300 to 400 pages — a veritable encyclopedia of U.S. counterintelligence that has never before been made public. With professional thoroughness, Cram plumbed the depths of a deep state archive and returned with a story of madness that the CIA prefers to keep hidden, even 40 years later.
Last June, I received a phone call from a Los Angeles area code. Half expecting a robocall, I tapped the green icon.
“I’ve heard you are interested in a man named Cleve Cram,” the caller said in a British accent. “Is that so?”
Was I ever. I had just sent in final changes to the manuscript of “The Ghost,” my biography of Angleton. I thought of Cleve Cram the way a fisherman thinks of the Big One that got away. I had focused on Cram in 2015, as soon as I started to research “The Ghost.” He had written an article, published in an open-source CIA journal, about the literature of counterintelligence, which gave some insight into his classified conclusions about Angleton. To learn more, I sought out his personal papers, more than a dozen cartons of correspondence and other documents that his family had donated to Georgetown University Library after his death in 1999. The library’s finding aid indicated that the bequest contained a wealth of material on Angleton.
But I was too late. The CIA had quietly re-possessed Cram’s papers in 2014. I was told that representatives of the agency had informed the library that the CIA needed to review the material for classified information. All that had been publicly available vanished into the CIA’s archives. By withdrawing the Cram papers from view, the agency effectively shaped my narrative of Angleton’s career. Without Cram’s well-informed perspective, my account of Angleton would necessarily be less precise and probably less critical. I wrote about the experience for The Intercept in April 2016.
The caller said his name was William Tyrer. He had read my article. He told me he had visited the Georgetown library a few years earlier, while developing a screenplay about a mole in Britain’s MI-5. He had gone through the Cram papers, photographed several hundred pages of material, and become fascinated by the man. “He’s like an American George Smiley, no?” Tyrer said.
I agreed and said I would be most interested to see what he had found. He questioned me closely about my views on Angleton, Cram, and the CIA, and said he would be in touch. A quick web search revealed that Tyrer is a British-American movie producer, the man behind “Memento,” a brilliant and unforgettable backward-running thriller, the cult favorite “Donnie Darko,” and scores of other movies. He was a serious man and a credible source. A few days later, Tyrer started emailing me 50 pages of material about Angleton that he had found in Cram’s personal papers.
The Cleveland Cram File, portions of which are published here for the first time, contains a sample of the primary source materials that the veteran CIA official used to write his Angleton study. The documents were photographed in Georgetown University’s Booth Family Center for Special Collections. A Georgetown archivist did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment; the CIA also declined to comment.
The Cram file illuminates a pregnant moment in the history of America’s secret government, when the CIA began to reckon with the legacy of James Angleton, a founding father of the deep state, a master of mass surveillance, a conspiracy theorist with state power.
Perhaps the most complex and contested Angleton story that Cram had to untangle concerned two KGB officers who defected to the United States and offered their services to the CIA in the early 1960s. Angleton insisted the men’s conflicting stories had enormous implications for U.S. presidents and policymakers, and indeed for U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. For the CIA, the question was, which defector was the more reliable source?
Anatoly Golitsyn, the chief of the KGB station in Finland, bolted to the West in December 1961. He was a heavyset man with hazel eyes and a methodical and manipulative mind. Yuri Nosenko, a career KGB officer embedded in the Soviet delegation to a U.N. disarmament conference in Geneva, started selling information to the Americans in June 1962 to pay back official funds blown in the company of dubious women. Eighteen months later, he approached the CIA and struck a deal to defect in return for a $50,000 cash payment. Among other things, Nosenko had firsthand knowledge that the KGB had not recruited accused presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald when he lived in the Soviet Union from 1959 to 1962.
Golitsyn, resettled in upstate New York by the CIA, convinced Angleton that Nosenko was a false defector sent by the KGB. Under Golitsyn’s influence, Angleton came to believe that in 1959, the KGB had launched a massive deception operation designed to lull the U.S. government into believing Soviet propaganda about “peaceful coexistence” between capitalism and communism, with the goal of prevailing over the complacent West.
Nosenko’s purpose, Golitsyn said, was to protect a Soviet “mole” already working inside CIA headquarters. “He is a provocateur, who is on a mission for the KGB,” Golitsyn told Angleton, according to a memo found in the agency’s declassified online database known as CREST, or the CIA Records Search Tool. “He was introduced to your agency as a double agent in Geneva in 1962. During all the time until now he has been fulfilling a KGB mission against your country.”
Angleton reneged on the payment and ordered that Nosenko be held in what would now be known as a “black site,” a secret CIA detention facility in southern Maryland. Nosenko was not tortured, but he was fed a minimal diet, denied all possessions, and, he said later, dosed with LSD. He was held in solitary confinement for the next four years, all the while protesting his innocence.
In 1968, Angleton lost out to the institutional consensus within the agency that Nosenko was in fact a bona fide defector. Nosenko was released from solitary confinement and the CIA resettled him in suburban Washington, D.C. Nothing he did in his retirement supported the idea that the KGB had sent him or that he knew of a mole inside the CIA.
A few years later, Cram was faced with a simple but important question: Had Angleton been right to incarcerate Nosenko?
To answer it, Cram relied in part on a secret CIA history titled “The Monster Plot,” written by John Hart, a career officer in the Soviet Russia division who had previously studied the Nosenko case on behalf of CIA Director Richard Helms. “The Monster Plot,” which runs to more than 180 pages, was declassified with a batch of JFK assassination files in November; Cram kept a copy in his personal papers.
The introduction and conclusion of “The Monster Plot,” photographed by Tyrer in the Georgetown collection, detail how legitimate concerns about Soviet penetration of the CIA blossomed into Angleton’s certainty that a giant KGB deception operation was undermining the West. The history’s title referred to the massive size of the suspected Soviet “plot” that Angleton and others feared was unfolding within the CIA.
After Philby’s betrayal, Angleton and other CIA officials worried that another communist mole might still be working the agency, a theory that seemed to be borne out nearly a decade later, when the CIA began losing a string of spies inside the Soviet Union. In October 1959, Petr Popov, a Soviet military intelligence officer who had been passing secrets to the Americans for seven years, vanished. A few months later, it emerged that he had been arrested, which “added a specific problem to the general concerns about the possibility the CIA was penetrated,” wrote Hart.
In 1961, the CIA began receiving anonymous letters warning that Western intelligence agencies — but not the agency itself — had been penetrated. The information in the letters was considered genuine because it led to the arrest of Soviet spies in the upper ranks of the British and German intelligence services. A year later, Oleg Penkovsky, a British spy in Soviet military intelligence who had given the U.S. information of “great strategic importance,” was arrested.
Angleton suspected the worst, and he found Golitsyn’s explanation persuasive. All the Soviet defectors who came after Golitsyn’s arrival in late 1961, including Nosenko, were phonies, Golitsyn said. They had been dispatched with false information to discredit Golitsyn, to protect KGB moles already in place, and to confuse U.S. policymakers about Moscow’s intentions. Hart noted that when Golitsyn “stressed themes of KGB ‘disinformation’ (dezinformatsiya) and extensive (but initially unspecified) staff penetration of the Western services, he found a willing and eager audience” in Angleton.
Golitsyn couldn’t have known how ready Angleton was to believe him when it came to Soviet disinformation, for Angleton had learned firsthand how strategic deception operations could influence the course of history. As a young intelligence officer in World War II, he was cleared for the ULTRA operation, in which British intelligence fed false information to the German High Command. Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower both believed the ULTRA operation gave the Allies a decisive advantage over the Germans, and so did Angleton.
The Soviets’ goal, Golitsyn said, was to dupe the West into believing that a schism was developing between the Soviet Union and its longtime ally China in the late 1950s. On the surface, at least, there were ample indications of a split. When Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s tyranny in 1956, the Chinese communists turned hostile to Moscow, issuing bitter demarches about the correct course of communism and launching border skirmishes over obscure territorial disputes. But Golitsyn didn’t buy it. According to Hart, the defector “was certain” the purported distance between the two powers “was the clever product of KGB disinformation.”
Angleton was persuaded, viewing the public Sino-Soviet conflict as part of a KGB deception operation designed to persuade the West that the communist world was divided, Hart wrote. If the deception succeeded — that is, if the CIA believed it — it would undermine the U.S.’s commitment to a firm policy of containing Soviet power, Angleton thought. Hart concluded that Angleton had set out to break Nosenko before ascertaining the facts.
“There was never an honest effort at the time to establish NOSENKO’s bona fides,” Hart wrote. “There was only a determined effort to prove NOSENKO was mala fide, and part of a KGB deception operation meant to mislead the CIA into believing it was not penetrated.”
In his report, Hart affirmed the agency’s 1968 finding, reached over Angleton’s bitter objections, that Nosenko was a genuine defector. Not for the first or last time, a self-serving informant had used the agency’s ideological preconceptions to manipulate it to his own ends. Angleton’s handling of Nosenko “did not conform to any generally accepted sense of the term ‘methodology,’” Hart wrote. In his recommendations, he called for more rigorous psychological assessment of defectors and “improvement of intellectual standards” in the clandestine service.
Cram agreed. In a summary of his assessment of the Nosenko case, published in a 1993 monograph for the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence titled “Of Moles and Molehunters,” he concluded Angleton was wrong about Nosenko. The excerpts from Cram’s papers reveal the classified information on which he based his conclusion.
As Cram delved into Angleton’s records, he received a signed memo, included in the Georgetown collection, from a branch chief in the Soviet Russia division named “Miles.” Miles explained that in the mid-1960s, he had served on a CIA team code-named AESAWDUST that sought to vindicate Angleton’s theory of false defectors and strategic disinformation. (All CIA operations involving the Soviet Union were identified by the diagraph AE, followed by a randomly selected code name.)
With the benefit of hindsight, Miles admitted that groupthink had distorted his work. “The AESAWDUSTERS were convinced people (I ought to know, I was one of them), and they were very impatient with anyone who disagreed with them or were critical [sic], often snapping back that the critic did not have all the information they had, so didn’t know what he was talking about,” he wrote. “Convinced participating AESAWDUST members were terribly concerned and motivated by fear that until this vast deception complex was exposed and countered, we would be in bad trouble which could get worse at any moment.”
The sheer enormity of Angleton’s “Monster Plot” theory convinced its advocates that it must be true, Miles wrote. But a counterintelligence theory that explained everything was suspect. The mass of cases “tossed into the boiling pot grew and grew, until outsiders simply could no longer swallow the idea that all [Soviet defectors] were bad,” Miles wrote. “Sooner or later those not bound up in the mission said ‘Hold it, Wait a minute! Maybe NOSENKO [was a fake defector], maybe some [double agent] cases, maybe even a few more, but almost all? Too much.’”
“Simple passage of time has proven that AESAWDUST was wrong,” Miles continued. “The idea was that NOSENKO would not have been sent unless the goals of the KGB were truly major. These were postulated as negating GOLITSYN’s information (which NOSENKO never did, nor do I believe he could have); then to protect sources the KGB had in place in the USG and CIA (none discovered despite marathon effort); and finally to destroying CIA itself.”
The CIA had indeed “gone downhill” in the 1970s, Miles noted, but he attributed that decline to sensational revelations of CIA abuses in the press and the cultural changes wrought by the 1960s, not KGB deception operations. “Nothing has turned out as AESAWDUST predicted,” Miles concluded.
Even Angleton’s original supporters eventually became disenchanted with the rigidity of his thinking. Such testimony fortified Cram’s findings about Angleton and clarified the fate of another one of his victims, James Leslie Bennett, chief of counterintelligence for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
In the course of his inquiry, Cram heard from a counterintelligence officer with the initials “PTD” who seems to have known about the origins of Angleton’s investigation of Bennett.
PTD sent Cram a one-page memo on “The Bennett Case,” which was included in the Georgetown collection and photographed by Tyrer. It was a damning account of Angleton’s methods and his misguided reliance on Anatoly Golitsyn.
The Bennett Case began in 1970, when senior Canadian intelligence officers became convinced, correctly, that there was a communist spy working inside their headquarters. Because the CIA worked closely with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, known as the RCMP, Angleton was concerned, too. He consulted with Bennett, his Canadian counterpart, an intellectual whose headstrong opinions were not always appreciated by his more provincial colleagues. But Angleton liked Bennett, according to PTD. Angleton “never thought of Bennett as a spy and in fact was very high on him as a pro among cowboys,” PTD wrote. Angleton even gave a “tongue-lashing” to a colleague who suggested Bennett might be working for the Soviets.
One of the Canadian officials who clashed with Bennett came to Washington in the summer of 1970 for “long discussions of penetration of RCMP by [Russian Intelligence Service] and probable Bennett role,” PTD recalled.
After defending Bennett, Angleton asked Golitsyn to analyze the case. “In early 1972 Golitsyn was given RCMP files to peruse about the supposed RIS penetration,” PTD recalled. In his report, Golitsyn wrote down three names of Canadian officials, one of whom was Bennett. “After pondering some he decided Bennett was the penetration.”
Angleton was suddenly persuaded. “JJA forced Golitsyn on the RCMP for this purpose of supposedly aiding them in the investigation,” PTD wrote, using Angleton’s initials. “And all through the case, JJA kept up an unrelenting pressure on the RCMP … to push Bennett out.”
Bennett protested his innocence and took a polygraph test to prove it. The exam “showed him to be a strong reactor on certain subjects not related to the investigation,” PTD reported. “But when queried whether he was working for an adversary service (and they tried them all), there was no response.”
When a CIA polygraph security officer looked at the results, PTD wrote, “he concluded Bennett had passed the test.” By then Bennett had already been forced to retire.
As first reported in “Cold Warrior,” Tom Mangold’s 1993 book about Angleton’s mole hunt, Bennett left intelligence work under a cloud of undeserved suspicion. He got divorced and moved to Australia. The Canadians eventually caught a Russian spy in their midst who had nothing to do with Bennett. In 1993, the Canadian government cleared Bennett of any wrongdoing and gave him $150,000 Canadian in compensation, according to journalist David Wise.
To Cram, PTD’s account showed that Angleton had acted on Golitsyn’s whim, misinterpreted the polygraph results, and ruined a man’s career on the slenderest of suppositions.
As Cram dug into the debacle of the mole hunt, he came across its absurd culmination: Angleton, the mole hunter, became the prime suspect.
Cram heard the story in May 1978 from Clare Edward Petty, a veteran U.S. counterintelligence officer. After years of unsuccessful mole hunting, Petty became convinced that the mole must be working on Angleton’s staff. First, Petty wrongly suspected Angleton’s longtime deputy, Newton “Scottie” Miler, and later Pete Bagley, chief of counterintelligence for the Soviet Division, who didn’t actually work for Angleton but was, in Cram’s estimation, “wholly under Angleton’s domination.”
Petty had also spoken to two reporters, David Martin, a defense correspondent for Newsweek, and David Ignatius, then a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Both had written glancingly about the astonishing-if-true allegation that Angleton was suspected of being the mole, and were trying to confirm it with sources inside the agency.
In a four-hour interview with Cram, Petty gave a more detailed version of the story he had told Martin and Ignatius. He said that he had written up his suspicions of Bagley in a memo and sent it to Angleton at some point in the late 1960s. Several months later, during a long conversation about something else, Angleton suddenly said, “Bagley is not a spy.”
That blanket denial, Petty said, set him wondering what made Angleton so sure. Could it be that Angleton was himself the mole? Cram thought it unlikely that Petty was alone in his suspicions, “for there were many who regarded Angleton as sinister,” he observed in his memo about the interview, which was included in the Georgetown collection.
Petty said he recorded 30 hours of commentary in which he outlined the various “litmus tests” he had run on Angleton to see if he was a KGB spy. His reasoning might have been called “Angletonian.” Assuming the CIA had been penetrated at a high level, Petty considered the possibility that both Anatoly Golitsyn and Yuri Nosenko had been sent by the KGB under the guidance of the real mole, Angleton himself. Through this analytical lens, Petty saw new meaning in the anomalies of Angleton’s career: his friendship with Kim Philby; his faith in Golitsyn; his insistence that the Sino-Soviet split was a ruse. Every decision he made seemed to impede U.S. intelligence operations, Petty noted. Perhaps it was intentional.
Cram’s account of the interview makes clear that Petty had no solid evidence to support his musings. Petty specialized in “airy theorizing,” Cram wrote later, favoring “extreme speculation unsupported by facts.”
There was — and is — no evidence that Angleton was a spy for the KGB. Given Angleton’s staunch anti-communism, the notion is close to absurd. Petty’s accusation is most significant as evidence for Cram and the CIA leadership that Angleton’s theory and practice of counterintelligence were deeply flawed.
If Angleton wasn’t working for the Soviets, what could account for his folly?
Among the papers Cram reviewed was a “very secret” report prepared in January 1973 for Angelo Vicari, chief of the Italian National Police, and included in the Georgetown collection. It conveyed the views of an Italian intelligence officer serving in Washington to his superiors in Rome, including his impressions of the CIA.
“He regards the offensive sector of the CIA as better than the defensive sector and says that noteworthy conflicts exist between the two of them,” the report said. “The man who ruined the defensive sector there is Angleton, known to you personally — who though fortunately set aside for some time — is still in a position to do harm.”
“According to this opinion, not his (because he does not know him personally) but of his service, Angleton is clinically mad and his madness has only gotten worse in these later years. This is a madness that is all the more dangerous because it is sustained by an intelligence that has about it elements of the monstrous and that rests on a hallucinatory logical construction. The whole is unified by a pride that imposes a refusal to recognize his own errors.”
That was hearsay evidence of a widely held belief that buttressed what even Angleton’s onetime supporters admitted: The man’s thinking bordered on delusional, even as he was too proud to admit he might be wrong about anything.
Angleton acted zealously on a theory of history whose validity is hard to accept and harder to dispute: that secret intelligence agencies can control the destiny of mankind. He had a keen understanding of how intelligence agencies covertly manipulate societies, and he believed that such operations could turn the tide of history. He would not have been surprised by Russia’s meddling in the U.S. presidential election of 2016. The CIA had used such tactics in scores of votes around the world, starting with the 1948 Italian elections, which prevented the communist party from coming to power, and in which Angleton himself played a key role.
Angleton lived and thrived in what he called “the wilderness of mirrors,” his favorite phrase for Soviet deception operations. When David Martin published a book about Angleton called “Wilderness of Mirrors,” Angleton indignantly claimed he had coined the phrase, according to a three-page memo included in the Georgetown collection. He hadn’t. He had first read it in T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Gerontion.” But his explication of the metaphor was apt. The phrase, he wrote in the memo, perfectly captured the “myriad of stratagems, deceptions, artifices, and all the other devices of disinformation which the Soviet bloc and its coordinated intelligence services use to confuse and split the West … an ever fluid landscape where fact and illusion merge.”
The most powerful intelligence agencies traffic in facts and illusions to manipulate societies on a massive scale. Substitute “CIA” for “Soviet bloc” and “America’s perceived enemies” for “the West” and you have a solid description of U.S. covert action around the globe for the last 70 years. Substitute “Putin’s Russia” for “Soviet bloc” and you’ve captured the FSB-sponsored social media operations in recent U.S., French, and German elections.
The Cram papers suggest that if Angleton were in government today, he would approve of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance capabilities, which were reportedly used to listen in on Russians calling their contacts in Trump Tower. He probably would have overestimated the FSB’s capacity to pull off deception operations, such as social media-driven “fake news,” and their impact on American government, just as he overestimated the KGB’s capabilities and influence in the 1960s. He would have searched long and hard for “moles,” the agent or agents inside the U.S. intelligence community who helped the Russians advance their schemes. Counterintelligence was Angleton’s religion, and he would have insisted on its relevance.
Cram continued to study Angleton and share the lessons of his extraordinary career for the rest of his life, even as his epic study remained a state secret. In his 1993 monograph, declassified a decade later, Cram concluded that Angleton was “self-centered, ambitious and paranoid with little regard for his agency colleagues or simple common sense.” He was a visionary and a crank, a prophet and a law breaker, a national security menace just slightly ahead of his time.
Jefferson Morley is the author of “The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton.”