Buckley etches a fictional Angleton

July 16, 2000|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff

"Spytime: The Undoing of James Jesus Angleton," by William F. Buckley Jr. Harcourt, 305 pages. $25.

No spy novelist could invent a character more engrossing than James Jesus Angleton. So it is no surprise that William F. Buckley Jr. was tempted to appropriate him from history and build this espionage docudrama around him.

The CIA's legendary chief of counterintelligence, from the creation of the office in 1954 until he was fired by CIA Director William Colby in 1974, Angleton was a Cold Warrior whose paranoia about Soviet Communism burned so fiercely that eventually it consumed both his formidable intellect and his storied career.

Nicknamed "Mother'' or "the Gray Ghost,'' he was a cadaverous figure who served under six CIA directors and had a habit of materializing unannounced in their offices from his adjoining room. Like Buckley a graduate of Yale, Angleton joined the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, working first in London, where he befriended T.S. Eliot, and then in Italy, where he worked against fascist intelligence.

After the war, he helped run the CIA's covert intervention in the Italian election of 1948, assuring the Communists' defeat. He developed contacts with the Jewish underground that grew into a close relationship with Israel's Mossad. He also befriended the British spy Kim Philby, meeting him for lunch each week at Harvey's restaurant in Washington after Philby arrived in 1949 to serve as MI6 liaison officer to the CIA and FBI.

As evidence accumulated that Philby was working for Moscow, Angleton remained stubbornly loyal to his old friend. When finally, in 1963, Philby flew to Moscow and proved he was indeed the fabled "third man'' of the Cambridge University spy ring, Angleton's feeling of betrayal may have fueled what became his endless hunt for a Soviet "mole'' inside the CIA.

By most accounts, Angleton's scattershot accusations ended the careers of several loyal American intelligence agents. Ironically, his groundless suspicions so discredited and demoralized CIA counterintelligence that in later years a real mole, Aldrich Ames, was able to operate undetected inside the agency for a decade.

Buckley, author of the Blackford Oakes series of spy thrillers, weaves a serviceable novel from this material. But the chronology jumps annoyingly from the 1970s to the 1940s to the 1960s and back; the most engaging plot elements involve not Angleton, but his presumably fictional protege, Tony Crespi; and the dialogue is often unconvincing.

For this reader, the fictionalization of Angleton's career is itself troubling, because it is not always clear what is documented and what is invented.

Buckley has the young Angleton witness the execution of Mussolini; if this happened, it is not reported in Tom Mangold's 1991 biography of Angleton, "Cold Warrior.'' "Spytime'' likewise has the aging Angleton conclude that Colby is a Soviet agent; though Angleton's supporters allegedly hinted at such a ridiculous accusation, his son and closest associates have said he believed no such thing.

"Spytime'' invites comparison with "The Untouchable,'' a 1997 novel by John Banville about a fictional British spy based on the fourth of the Cambridge spies, Sir Anthony Blunt. But Banville names his character Victor Maskell, avoiding the implication that his plot is historical. More significantly, Banville weaves the fictional Maskell into a character far more convincing and memorable than Buckley's historical Angleton.

In this case, alas, truth is lamer than fiction.

Scott Shane, a reporter for The Sun, was Moscow correspondent from 1988 to 1991 and co-author of the newspaper's 1995 series on the National Security Agency. His book on the Soviet collapse is called "Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union."

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