Jonathan Stevenson’s biography of the turncoat CIA officer Philip Agee leaves the reader with an unexpected appreciation for the durability of the republic. One finishes his fine book thinking it was something of a miracle that America survived the 1970s and ultimately won the Cold War. The Agee controversy was just a single data point during a decade that began with the shootings at Kent State and ended with the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet capture of Afghanistan. But his story illustrates the moral exhaustion of post-Watergate and pre-Reagan America.
Agee is best known for his 1975 book, Inside the Company, a memoir of his tour as a spy in Latin America. The CIA, Agee says, were the bad guys, and he offers a harrowing portrayal of how the Cold War was fought in the shadows. Agee claims in the book that he overheard a man being tortured as he briefed a security chief in Uruguay about an insurgency in his country. He writes about how he arranged for death squads to be trained in Panama. He says he put his own dog in a coma to test a knockout drug he would later use to subdue guard dogs at a foreign embassy.
Agee was not the first CIA man to write a critical memoir, but he was the first to publish the identities of the agency’s assets, agents, and fellow officers he had once promised to protect. This was an act so treacherous that nearly 40 years after Agee’s disclosures, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden went out of his way to explain why none of the material he handed to journalists would compromise the cover of agents in the field—why, in other words, he was not Philip Agee.
If Agee had just said his piece and moved on, his story would have been a black eye for the CIA. But he actually switched sides. He didn’t seek the reform of the CIA; he sought its destruction. After his book, he helped found a publication, Covert Action Information Bulletin, which would go on to publicize the identities of “some 2,000 CIA officers, agents and other assets,” according to Stevenson. He would later co-author two more books dedicated to identifying CIA officers and agents in Europe and Africa.
These days the word “traitor” is thrown around too casually. But Agee’s actions in the late 1970s really do fit the constitutional definition of treason. First, he was giving aid and comfort to America’s enemies in the middle of a Cold War against international Communism, and he endangered the lives of Americans and foreigners who were fighting it. Second, Stevenson demonstrates that while it’s probably untrue that Agee was actively an agent of Cuban intelligence, he clearly was their asset, willing to help them when he could and also drawing on their assistance.
Agee committed his crimes with a brazen flair as well. He taunted the CIA, acknowledging that he spent months in Cuba to do “research” for his book. He traveled to Moscow, allegedly to negotiate the rights to the Russian edition of his book. He corresponded with Weather Underground felon Kathy Boudin and offered to testify on behalf of Red Army Faction terrorist Ulrike Meinhof at her trial. In this respect, Agee was a sinister version of the character played by the late Charles Grodin in the movie Midnight Run—a former mob accountant who would occasionally send postcards to the Mafia boss about how he was spending the money he had stolen from him.
In 1976, for example, Agee flew to Jamaica to give a press conference, on the eve of national elections, outing nine alleged CIA officers operating out of the U.S. Embassy in Kingston. “He aimed to strip the agency bare,” Stevenson writes. During the press conference, he not only provided their names, he also disclosed their home addresses and telephone numbers. In the magazine Counterspy, he published a photo and name of the CIA’s top liaison with British intelligence, leading the UK government to deport him. After Iranian fanatics seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, Agee publicly and privately offered the hostage-takers his services to negotiate their release in exchange for all U.S. files on CIA activities in Iran under Shah Reza Pahlavi.
These stunts should have made Agee toxic to the respectable international left. But this was not the case. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, then the leading writer in Latin America, invited him to testify in a mock war-crimes tribunal on political repression. Jean-Paul Sartre published an essay by Agee in his publication Les Temps Modernes.
After proceedings began in the United Kingdom that ultimately led to Agee’s expulsion from that country in 1977, 150 members of Parliament signed a motion of protest, including future foreign secretary Robin Cook. The mother of chess champion Bobby Fischer staged a 10-day hunger strike in front of Whitehall. Morton Halperin, once an aide to Henry Kissinger and later a founder of the George Soros–funded Open Society Institute, made an impassioned plea on Agee’s behalf at Central Hall, Westminster. (Halperin would later lose his nomination battle to join the Clinton administration in part because of his Agee advocacy.) Decades later, former California Governor Jerry Brown and former President Jimmy Carter would use Agee’s Havana-based travel agency for visits to Cuba. Carter’s visit was particularly ironic since his administration had revoked Agee’s U.S. passport in 1979.
THE KEY to understanding why the left never shunned Agee or acknowledged his traitorousness was timing. His disclosures came at a boiling point for American security-state scandals. These include the publication of a top-secret history of U.S. policy in Vietnam, known as the Pentagon Papers; a series of articles by Seymour Hersh that revealed CIA assassination plots; and the exposure by radical anti-war groups of files that showed the extent of illicit domestic spying by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. All this led Congress to establish two committees in 1975 that put on the public record a history of CIA and FBI overreach that nearly wrecked both agencies.
Timing also explains the tepid response from the U.S. government to his treason. While the FBI conducted two separate investigations in the 1990s against Agee for betraying his country, the Justice Department never brought these cases. In 1975, Attorney General Edward Levi drafted a memo detailing how Agee could be prosecuted for violating his secrecy agreement with the CIA, but he advised against such a prosecution because it would entail the disclosure of still more state secrets. At the time, the CIA was already under enormous scrutiny, and legal action against a turncoat would invite more of it.
Stevenson, a National Security Council official during the Obama administration and a fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, provides a thorough account of the CIA’s strategy to neutralize Agee, which was successful at first. Three years before the publication of Inside the Company, the CIA sent two officers to Agee, then in Paris, to befriend him. Posing as a left-wing journalist and a Venezuelan heiress, the spies gave Agee a bugged typewriter and were able to obtain a draft of the memoir. An internal CIA review found that Agee would disclose “the true status of over 400 CIA officers, collaborators, agents, informants, and fronts,” Stevenson writes. This gave the agency a head start in mitigating the pending damage.
By the time the book was published, the CIA had switched to trying to blacken his reputation in the press. The point man for this operation was the CIA’s recently retired chief of Western Hemisphere operations, David Atlee Phillips. It was Phillips who first leveled the charge that Agee had been directly responsible for the murder of the CIA station chief in Athens, Richard Welch.
This charge has long outlived Agee, who died in 2008, but Stevenson persuasively argues that Agee’s writings did not, in fact, lead a group of revolutionaries to murder Welch and his wife in December 1975. To start with, Agee never named Welch in his book, while Welch’s name did appear in the 1969 and 1973 State Department Biographic Register. Using methods outlined in a 1974 Washington Monthly article on how to identify CIA officers at foreign embassies, Counterspy outed Welch in 1975 as the former station chief in Lima, Peru. But it was a newspaper in Athens that identified Welch as the new station chief.
The more likely cause of Welch’s murder was poor operational security. Stevenson writes that former CIA Director William Colby eventually told the Los Angeles Times that Welch had “bad cover” and was living in the same house as his predecessor, whom the assassins had previously stalked. Eventually even Phillips acknowledged that there was no direct link between Agee and the murder of Welch.
But Agee’s innocence in this one case obscures the larger point about the damage he did. The fact that no one was killed because of his disclosures was only a fortunate accident. “Agee’s revelations easily could have resulted in the assassination of a CIA officer,” Stevenson writes. “And it’s arguably a matter of luck that they didn’t.” He did destroy careers and intelligence networks. For a few years, he helped create a new genre of journalism dedicated to outing the identities of CIA officers. This made the basic work of recruiting and managing spies much harder.
Over time, Agee mellowed. He agreed in principle in 1980 to submit his writings to a CIA pre-publication board, which reviews the work of all former employees, and appears to have largely stuck by it. After the 1970s, he spent the rest of his life trying his best to be a radical intellectual. First living in West Germany and then moving to an apartment in Cuba, Agee became a dime-store Howard Zinn, occasionally publishing op-eds in the Guardian, consulting on documentaries and films and barely scraping by on commissions, lecture fees, and an untenured teaching gig at a German university. He died in a Cuban hospital after ulcers in his intestine ruptured, leaving his wife with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and a failed Cuban travel agency. Stevenson records that some of his last words were, “No one can say I didn’t make a difference.”
That is true in a sense. Agee weakened the CIA at a moment when the threat of international Communism was rising. If he had been a Soviet spy, waging a political war against the KGB, it’s doubtful he would have lived to publish a memoir. But Philip Agee had the good fortune of being an American traitor. The final pathetic decades of his life are a reminder of not only America’s moral superiority to its adversary in the Cold War, but also of its resilience.
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