The special relationship between the United States and Israel is usually viewed as the product of great forces, the imperial interests of the United States in the cold war and the work of establishment Jewish groups after Israel’s two regional wars 50 years ago. But individuals play a part, too; and a new biography of the secretive CIA official James Angleton shows the power that a non-Jewish rightwing nationalist played in knitting the two countries together, and building up Israel.
“Angleton was was a leading architect of America’s strategic relationship with Israel that endures and dominates the region to this day,” Jefferson Morley writes in The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton. More than any other man, the longtime chief of U.S. counterintelligence made possible Israel’s shift “from an embattled settler state into a strategic ally of the world’s greatest superpower.”
Angleton did so chiefly by burying any effort in the U.S. intelligence establishment to question Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in the 1960s. “Angleton’s loyalty to Israel betrayed U.S. policy on an epic scale,” Morley writes. “Instead of supporting U.S. nuclear security policy, he ignored it.”
Could one person effect such significant policy? It is the persuasive argument of this book that a man as willful and brilliant (and twisted) as Angleton was able in the 1960s to acquire such position inside the executive branch that he could control vital flows of information. And Angleton reasoned that intelligence-sharing between the countries was more valuable to the United States than thwarting Israel’s path to becoming a regional superpower.
Today it is no surprise that Angleton is remembered more fondly in Israel than in the United States. Here he has the clouded reputation of a paranoid who used the CIA to spy on domestic political activities, resulting in scandal that forced his resignation in 1975. In Jerusalem there are two memorials to Angleton, dedicated by high officials, Morley relates. One stone is outside Angleton’s beloved oasis, the King David Hotel. “In memory of a dear friend,” it says.
Israeli officials felt great gratitude to Angleton for his actions. “[H]e was a friend you could trust on a personal basis,” Yitzhak Rabin said of Angleton. He was “the biggest Zionist of the lot,” said Meir Amit, the late Mossad director.
It is hard to imagine a person of Angleton’s eccentricity advancing so high in today’s bureaucracy. As the Minneapolis Star Tribune has said in lauding Morley’s biography, “In Angleton, he has a character beyond the imagination of John le Carré, perhaps even of Patricia Highsmith.” Born in 1917 in Idaho to a Mexican mother and an Army officer father, Angleton grew up in Milan (because his father worked as a business executive overseas) and went to Yale, where he undertook serious studies of poetry and the New Criticism. He pursued a friendship with Ezra Pound, the Idaho-born poet who was expatriate in Italy, and infamous for his devotion to fascism during World War 2.
Angleton talked his way into the intelligence services during the war, and his militant nationalism and penchant for plots suited him to an ambitious rise in the ’50s and ’60s. “Intellectually, he was secular, anti-communist, and Zionist,” Morley writes.
Angleton’s nationalism was a good fit with burgeoning Israel. Angleton disliked Jewish businessmen as “grasping,” but “Israel captured his imagination,” Morley relates. He bought the whole story of the revival of the Jewish people in their land, and he saw Israel, surely correctly, as “an indispensable source” to the west in the Cold War and not — as some other spooks did — as a breeding ground for spies from eastern Europe.
The Israelis rewarded him with the greatest coups of his life as a spy. The first was Nikita Khrushchev’s rumored speech to a Communist congress in 1956, condemning the late Joseph Stalin for terrorizing workers and mass repression. A Jewish editor at the Polish news agency in Warsaw got his hands on a copy of the speech, titled “On the Cult of the Individual and Its Consequences,” from his girlfriend, a Jewish official in the Communist Party in Warsaw, and he brought the pamphlet to the Israeli embassy (!), which passed along photos of the document to Tel Aviv. After Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ok’d it, an Israeli asset/friend of Angleton’s passed the speech along to him. Angleton gave it to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who gave it to the New York Times. The breakthrough was to Angleton’s glory.
Angleton surely placed too much trust in the Israelis. He failed to anticipate the ’56 Suez War, but he did far better ten years later. Israel wanted the green light from the United States to launch the 1967 war, but the Johnson White House was ambivalent. It took a memorandum from Angleton’s shop in the CIA arguing that Israel would quickly prevail over Egypt. When Richard Helms, the CIA director, expressed misgivings about passing it along to Lyndon Johnson without a hedge or two, Angleton dismissed the idea with a memorable piece of advice:
“It only takes a ‘maybe,’ and you don’t get the direct attention of the recipient. They begin to have a hundred thoughts rather than one thought.”
Angleton’s judgment turned out to be accurate. Israel executed a lightning six-day victory in that war, and he was credited with prescience. So it was no surprise that Angleton would lie down over the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty on the fourth day of that war, which killed 34 American Navy personnel, or that Israelis threw a party for him on his 50th birthday in December 1967, at a time, Morley says, when he was falling apart back home. “I don’t understand how a person could drink so much without getting drunk,” one Israeli agent said of him.
Disintegration was an element of Angleton’s character. His wife had left him, he was a heavy drinker and smoker, and he was holding a lot of secrets. Some of these surely had to do with the Kennedy assassination. Angleton had been following Lee Harvey Oswald for years inside the CIA, ever since the ex-Marine sought to defect to the Soviet Union; and Angleton’s testimony to a Senate committee remains classified, despite the government’s promise to release all records. Morley offers compelling evidence in this book that Angleton obstructed the Kennedy investigation and lied under oath about key details.
Though sometimes mocked by his CIA counterparts for his belief that the Soviet Union was infiltrating the American spy agencies, Angleton found greater understanding in Israel. In fact, an Israeli tried to save Angleton from one his most grievous errors. Morley relates that Angleton was warned about his dear friend Kim Philby’s likely collaboration with the Soviet Union by Teddy Kollek, the Israeli spy chief (who later became the mayor of Jerusalem in the 1960s). Angleton brushed off the warning.
The spy chief’s greatest service to Israel was his willingness not to say a word about the apparent diversion of highly enriched uranium from a plant in western Pennsylvania to Israel’s nascent nuclear program, a suspected case of successful espionage documented by Grant Smith and Roger Mattson in other books. Committed Zionists had bought the plant in the 1950s and got licenses from the Atomic Energy Commission. The company’s president was head of the local chapter of the Zionist Organization of America. Over the 9 years from 1959 to 1968, 267 kilograms of uranium went missing at the Numec plant, even as CIA agents were reporting to Langley, VA, that Israel was building a nuclear plant in the desert near Dimona.
Morley quotes a CIA agent saying that while he does not believe Angleton was in on the actual diversion of nuclear material, he was passive about it. Morley concludes that Angleton had to know about the plan and to approve it. Key is the fact that one Israeli masquerading as a nuclear engineer with the ability to visit the plant was Rafael Eitan, a Mossad agent who had been in on the capture of Eichmann earlier in the decade. Angleton (who had tracked Lee Harvey Oswald to Mexico City) had to know such a detail in his own back yard, and had to understand its significance.
Later the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission looked into the missing fuel and “found their efforts stymied by a lack of cooperation from the CIA and from Numec [president Zalman Shapiro], as well as studious lack of interest from Capitol Hill.”
Morley makes a strong case that regardless of his knowledge of Numec, Angleton knew that Israel was preparing a bomb and did nothing about it. “If he learned anything of the secret program at Dimona, he reported very little of it,” Morley writes. Angleton was close to the Mossad chiefs Amit and Efraim Halevy, who told Morley he met with Angleton as often as five times a week.
Angleton was also having monthly lunches with Yitzhak Rabin as ambassador to the U.S. In a letter the author discovered that shows he never lost his poetical gifts, Angleton said that people observing the two in deep conversation had to wonder “who was the goy and who was the golem.”
The golem was the birth of Israel as a nuclear power less than 20 years after its establishment on lands from which most of the indigenous population had been expelled. This book is a vital exploration of the role that one individual in the U.S. security establishment played in that story.
P.S. Jeff Morley is an old friend who thanks me in his acknowledgments for my help. Despite that obvious bias, I write so positively about this scintillating book because it delves into an important and rarely-visited terrain.
Update: The original of this post identified Rafael Eitan as a government minister and general. That was a different Rafael Eitan. The Eitan who visited Numec was a legendary Israeli spy.