By RICK PERLSTEIN
Published: December 23, 2008
Philip Agee's inaugural appearance in a major newspaper was on March
7, 1968. The article was datelined Mexico City, and Agee, identified
as a U.S. Embassy official attached to the Olympic Games section, was
describing a cultural program "of art treasures, performing artists
and folklore and scientific exhibits." The next time Agee showed up
in the papers, it was 1974, and he was about to publish "Inside the
Company: C.I.A. Diary," very much against the wishes of his actual
former employer which was not the Olympics section. "I did not
write this book for the K.G.B.," Agee, who worked for a decade as a
spook, announced. "I wrote it as a contribution to socialist revolution."
The saga of Philip Burnett Franklin Agee, who died this year in exile
in Havana, was one of the signal melodramas of what pundits called
the "Year of Intelligence." Americans were reeling from the
resignation of Richard Nixon. The Watergate story was itself thick
with C.I.A. shenanigans; then, in December 1974, Seymour Hersh
published a blockbuster Times exposé revealing that the agency spied
on American antiwar activists. Senate and House committees were
impaneled to investigate C.I.A. abuses, including attempts at
assassination of foreign leaders. Agee's book became available in the
middle of the mess.
The C.I.A., Agee explained to interviewers abroad (he would never
return to live in the United States), was "promoting fascism around
the world." His chronicle frequently justified the hyperbole he
told of being ordered to fabricate a report "establishing" Communist
infiltration of the Uruguayan government. The document was shown to a
police chief; while the chief was reading the report, Agee heard the
agonized screams of a torture victim in the next room apparently
someone Agee had named to the police, not necessarily a Communist.
"All I wanted to do was to get away from the voice and away from
police headquarters," he wrote of the dawn of his apostasy.
The idealistic former altar boy joined the C.I.A. because he wanted
to be part of the solution. It was 1957. Agee had tried law school
and considered entering the family business but blanched at the
prospect of finding himself as one more drone in a gray flannel suit.
He thrilled, as a young C.I.A. trainee, to explanations of the
underlying purpose of the adventure he was about to embark upon: to
secure democratic governments in order to help them "effect the
reforms that will eliminate the injustices on which communism
thrives." He soon found himself in a vicious circle: "the more we
work to build up the security forces like the police and military,
particularly the intelligence services, the less urgency, it seems,
attaches to the reforms." The years went by; the Marxisant
revelations unfolded inexorably. He started to wonder whether
protecting oligarchs, while keeping their states in peonage to U.S.
investors under cover of "development," wasn't in fact the purpose of
U.S. policy. He was, Agee now reckoned, part of the problem.
In his book, he arrived at a typically New Left solution: the
institution must not be reformed, for "reform" is the very myth by
which the Leviathan nourishes itself. It must be destroyed. This
root-and-branch determination turned what might have been a noble, if
controversial, vehicle for intelligence reform into something
destructive. Amid its overwhelming welter of details ("It almost
takes the stamina and interest of a Soviet spy to get through,"
Walter Pincus wrote in the Times review), the book included the real
names of every C.I.A. officer, agent and asset Agee could recollect.
Shortly after its publication, Richard Welch, a C.I.A. officer not
named by Agee but whose name was published by a Greek newspaper in
the worldwide fad for agent-outing that followed "Inside the
Company," was murdered by anti-American militants. The year began
with strong momentum for intelligence reform; the C.I.A. took
advantage of Welch's martyrdom to defend the status quo.
"The Company" had long exploited the imperative of operational
secrecy to avoid accountability for its failures (like neglecting, in
1973, to anticipate Egypt's invasion of Israel). True to form, the
C.I.A.'s allies argued that the excesses of those demanding
accountability were responsible for Welch's death. The murder and the
entire fad for "naming names" were also turned into ammunition for
defenders of presidential autonomy like Richard Cheney, Ford's chief
of staff, to use against their enemies in Congress.
Socialist revolution never followed from Agee's exposé, and the Year
of Intelligence produced only modest reforms. Meanwhile, a law was
passed against naming undercover officers, under which Lewis Libby
was investigated for outing Valerie Plame supposedly at Vice
President Cheney's behest. Philip Agee was never part of any
solution, just another facet of the shadow world's ever proliferating