By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Wednesday 12 March 2008
The phone rang much too early. An American diplomat named Richard
Welch had just been killed in Greece, the caller told me. Did Phil
Agee and I have anything to do with naming Welch as the CIA station
chief in Athens?
This was just before Christmas 1975, and I had lived for less
than a year in London, making my way as a magazine writer and TV
researcher. In the course of several stories, I had gotten to know
Agee, a former CIA operations officer and author of the best-selling
"CIA Diary," in which he revealed the names and misdeeds of some 250
of his fellow spooks. His goal, quite simply, was to make it as
difficult as he could for the CIA to continue doing its dirty work.
My phone continued to ring furiously, but finally came the one
call for which I'd been waiting. "What's happening?" asked the
well-modulated voice. If the Brits were listening in, as I had to
believe they were, they would have no problem recognizing who was on
the line. He was calling from Italy, where he was vacationing with his family.
"Oh, it's you," I answered. "Nice of you to call, Phil.
Nothing's happening - just an earthquake in Washington and a couple
of hundred people trying to get in touch with you."
"Shit," he said. "It's bad, huh?"
Phil published our conversation many years later in his book,
"On the Run." The words, as he recalled them, seem a bit stilted, but
he caught the gist of what I told him. With Welch's body hardly cold,
CIA spokesmen were already blaming Agee for the murder and using the
outrage to fend off Congressional and media investigations of CIA activities.
He asked if I knew anything about Welch's name being published
in Athens. I didn't know before, I told him. But I had managed to
piece the story together.
In November, the English-language Athens News had published a
letter from "a Committee of Greeks and Greek Americans" attacking the
CIA for backing the harsh military dictatorship that had fallen just
the year before. The letter identified ten CIA officers working in
Greece. One was Richard Welch. I also told Phil that "Who's Who in
the CIA?" had identified Welch as early as 1968. The "Who's Who" was
published in East Germany, almost certainly by the KGB, and was so
full of mistakes that we rarely bothered to consult it.
Phil already knew that our American friends in the Fifth Estate,
a group initially funded by Norman Mailer, had outed Welch when he
was still serving as station chief in Lima, Peru. Their magazine -
CounterSpy - had published his name, along with an article by Agee
urging a worldwide effort to "neutralize" CIA people wherever
possible. The CIA was now calling Phil's words an invitation to kill,
which was never his intent. With its backing for the Greek generals,
whom many saw as fascists, the CIA itself had provided more than
enough motivation for murder.
Later, we learned two interesting side notes. A Maryknoll priest
who had worked as a missionary in Peru had given CounterSpy a local
publication that had earlier identified Welch. And when Welch moved
to Athens, he insisted on living in a house widely known as the
residence of the previous CIA station chief. As the story emerged in
Congressional testimony, CIA headquarters had warned him not to live
there, but poor Welch, supposedly a brilliant classics scholar, knew
better. I don't remember how long Phil and I talked that day, but we
ended strangely upbeat. We agreed not to let the CIA's counter-attack
stop us from exposing the agency and what it was doing in Europe and
around the world. Cambio 16 was about to publish a cover story I had
written on the CIA in Spain, and I would come to Italy to write a
front-page story for La Repubblica on the CIA station in Rome.
"They're going to burn your ass and Fifth Estate's over Welch," he
remembered my telling him. "But there's no stopping that. So why
should we stop?" Ah, the bravery of one's younger years! Now older,
if no wiser, I still think we made the right decision to carry on,
but Phil paid a grievous price.
The following September, he traveled to Jamaica to expose a CIA
destabilization campaign against the government of Prime Minister
Phil's work helped blunt the CIA effort, allowing Manley's party
win a second term. To my eyes, this was Phil's finest moment. The
Labour government in Britain took a different view and, with obvious
prompting from Washington, began kangaroo-court proceedings to expel
Phil from the country. I could easily write a book about the colorful
campaign many of us waged to stop the deportation. But, after a
fight, Phil had to leave, moving to Amsterdam, where the Dutch later
kicked him out as well. In all, the Ford, Carter and Reagan
administrations kept him on the run for years, pressuring at least
six European allies, including France, to either boot Phil out or ban
him from entering.
Over the years that followed, I managed to see Phil from time to
time, including once in Florida, where my wife and I were then
living. But, even without the unrelenting pressure, I think that Phil
and I were destined to go our separate ways. We had never agreed
politically about Cuba or what he ca me to call "the Socialist camp,"
and I thought it crazy when he and other friends publicly launched
their Covert Action Information Bulletin from Havana.
Was he, then, in the pay of the Soviets or Cubans?
At the time I worked with him in the mid-1970s, I knew that he
had lived several months in Cuba, where he must have talked to the
Cuban security services. But my impression from other sources was
that neither the Cubans nor the Russians felt they could trust him.
I also came to know Phil's "Russian contact," Edgar Cheporov,
who worked in London as correspondent for the Novosti News Agency. I
assumed Edgar was KGB and was reporting back to Moscow on what we
were doing, but he never gave us any information or guidance that I
saw. I must admit, I found Edgar extremely good company, and my wife
and I often went to London jazz clubs with him. Alas, we always split
Even more to the point, Phil himself did not provide the
original impetus for the rest of us to publicly out CIA officers.
That came from a former State Department officer named John Marks,
who wrote an instructive article in the Washington Monthly on "How to
Spot a Spook?" As silly as it sounds, CIA officers working under
diplomatic cover in American embassies always showed the same
tell-tale career patterns. All we needed to identify them were the
State Department's Biographic Registers and Foreign Service Lists,
which we found in the the library of the British Museum.
In the end, I don't really care whether Phil ever dined out on
Havana or Moscow gold. Everything I saw him write or say about the
CIA was true, as even the agency's defenders had to admit. And, in
telling the truth, he alerted millions of people to the threat the
CIA's covert actions continue to pose, as much to the United States
as to other countries.
My friend Philip Agee died in Havana in January. He was 72. May
his work live on.
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left
monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London,
working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives
and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.