Everywhere James J. Angleton looked, he saw spies.
Then again, that was his job. Angleton was the head of the CIA's counterintelligence division, meaning his job was to make sure our spies weren't being spied on by their spies. Or, more dangerous even, that our spies weren't really their spies.
It's a job that seems designed to breed paranoia. And, according tonight's edition of PBS' "Frontline," that's exactly what grew in the fertile field of Angleton's mind. "The Spy Hunter" will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, tonight at 9 o'clock.
A BBC production that is a bit heavy in its theatrics, this hour nevertheless succeeds in taking you into this Alice in Wonderland world where at every step you have to wonder if the truth is really a lie, if a friend is really a foe, if black is really white.
In three years of investigating Angleton, whose shadowy story has previously emerged in bits and pieces, BBC reporter Tom Mangold managed to get a lot of people on the record to talk about this former top CIA official who died in 1987.
This means that "The Spy Hunter" is not just intrigue and innuendo. It manages to nail down its subject quite well.
Consider this as perhaps the ultimate nightmare scenario in what John LeCarre called spycraft. You're a spy for the KGB who decides to defect. You begin working for the CIA, supplying good information, maintaining a double-agent status.
But, at some point, your CIA bosses decide that you've really kept your loyalty to the KGB. Even though it's not true, they hang you out to dry by revealing you as a counterspy and returning you to the Soviet Union where, presumably, torture and death await.
According to this documentary, that actually happened to a KGB defector named Yuri Loginov, whose information did not jive perfectly with Angleton's warped view of the Spy Vs. Spy world.
Angleton was part of the best and brightest who came into the CIA and its predecessor, the OSS, around World War II. Well bred boys with top-flight educations, these men were going to remake the world in their image of a privileged America, fighting off the evil empire in the process.
Mangold points to a crucial turning point in Angleton's career during the 1950s. Kim Philby, a top British intelligence agent, came to America and impressed Angleton with his upper-class British style. They became fast friends and colleagues in their world of seductive secrecy.
Then it was revealed that Philby was really a Russian mole. Angleton was apparently shattered. He burned the evidence of how close they had been, how much intelligence they had shared.
If he couldn't trust Philby, then he couldn't trust anybody. Moreover, if a Russian mole could fool even the great James Angleton, they such a spy could fool anybody. There must be more moles and they needed to be ferreted out.
This was Angleton's state of mine when, in 1961, a KGB defector named Anitoly Golitsyn walked into his life and, according to his hour, fueled his delusions. Though a CIA psychiatrist felt that Golitsyn was clinically paranoid, Angleton believed all his fantastic stories about Russian subterfuge, including, for example, that the split with China was just a ruse, that monolithic communism still stood strong behind this ploy.
Under the spell of Golitsyn's claims of many burrowing moles, Angleton tortured and refused to believe a man who was apparently a genuine KGB defector, Yuri Nosenko, because he claimed Golitsyn was a fraud. That case was the subject of an HBO movie a few years back.
Angleton ruined the careers of 14 CIA agents because of Golitsyn's claims about the identity of a mole. And he sent the KGB defector Loginov back to certain death in Russia because he claimed that Nosenko was the genuine article.
In 1973, William Colby became director of the agency and, seeing that his Soviet division was paralyzed by Angleton's paranoia, fired him one year later. Mangold says that Angleton's secret files revealed reams of valuable intelligence data about the Soviet Union that had not been acted on because of suspicions that it might be tainted.
That Angleton had managed to run rampant in this agency, essentially, Mangold would say, thwarting its operations for more than a decade, is testimony to his personal power and charisma, and to the fear that must envelop all secret operations.
As much as the evidence pointed to Angleton's being wrong, no one wanted to take the chance to tell him so. Because what if he was right? Better safe than sorry, the motto must have been, but, in this case, that old adage was a sorry excuse for the shoddy operation of our government's intelligence agency.