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The goy and the golem: James Angleton and the rise of Israel

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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.

Morley will be talking about Angleton and JFK in Dallas this Friday, November 17th, at 4 pm at the JFK Lancer conference. He will speak about Angleton and Israel at the Miami Book Fair this coming Sunday, November 19th, at 12:30 pm. And he will discuss his book at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, DC, on Saturday, December 2nd, at 3:30 pm. 

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.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-06.

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25 Responses

  1. Boomer on November 13, 2017, 2:04 pm

    Fascinating. It wasn’t until some time in the 90’s that I read something about the diversion of uranium to Israel. Of course, in the days before the WWW, such news traveled more slowly. I’ve always assumed that there must have been some knowledge, some “wink and nod,” at high levels in the U.S. But I haven’t ever seen a credible report about that. This book may go some way towards explaining that. But we probably can’t hope to know the whole story with certainty.

    • irmep on November 13, 2017, 6:11 pm

      The Central Intelligence Agency fought hard to keep thousands of its files known to exist about the NUMEC diversion out of the public domain. Courts are notoriously deferential to CIA’s blanket claims in court that “sources and methods” would be disclosed undermining “national security” if released. In March of this year, Judge Tanya Chutken dismissed a FOIA lawsuit that would have compelled release of all of the CIA’s NUMEC files:

      Meanwhile, residents of Apollo and Parks Township continue to suffer and die as a result of the underfunded, ramshackle smuggling operation, even as the Department of Justice works diligently to pin the half billion dollar cleanup costs on U.S. taxpayers.

      • Boomer on November 14, 2017, 1:03 pm

        Interesting. And disgusting. As the judge says, “Summary judgment is appropriate where the record shows there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Citizens can move along now, there’s nothing to see here.

  2. marc b. on November 13, 2017, 3:23 pm

    Allegedly Karen Silkwood was murdered because she had documented the diversion of plutonium to US allies’ weapons programs, such as Iran’s.

    Rashke wrote that Mrs. Silkwood, a lab technician who was active in plant union activities, had been collecting data that she said showed the plant was plagued by safety violations and also was manufacturing defective nuclear fuel rods.

    In addition, she told a friend ‘she had found out that 40 pounds of plutonium, enough to make almost three atomic bombs, were missing from the plant,’ Rashke wrote.

    He said some investigators ‘would later speculate there was a plutonium smuggling ring’ at the plant.

    The book, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, also says an investigator was told by a confidential source that the CIA had been involved in plutonium diversions from plants in the U.S.

    Shortly before her death, Silkwood was mysteriously exposed to plutonium — traces of which were found in her apartment. The now-defunct Atomic Energy Commission ruled that her contamination was deliberate and came from plutonium processed at the Kerr-McGee plant. But officials never resolved who was behind the contamination.

    Between 1976 and 1978, a private investigator and lawyers for her family began probing suspicions that she also may have been bugged before her death.

    Investigator William Taylor traveled to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to check if a school specializing in teaching electronic surveillance, the National Intelligence Academy, had links to the Silkwood case, Rashke wrote.

    Two White House officials heard about the investigation and Taylor was told the academy trained ‘students’ from Brazil, Uruguay and Iran’s Savak and that it ‘was a top-secret operation with CIA connections,’ Rashke said.

    One White House source warned an associate of Taylor that he should ‘stand down’ from the case, Rashke wrote.

    ‘They’ll kill him,’ Raske quoted the source as saying. ‘And I promise you no one will do anything about it.’ He did not say who ‘they’ were.

    Another source told Taylor ‘the CIA had been diverting plutonium from nuclear plants and giving it to foreign countries friendly to the United States’ and that several CIA operatives had died after being contaminated, Rashke wrote. But the source did not know if the Kerr-McGee plant was involved, Rashke said.

    • gamal on November 13, 2017, 4:00 pm

      “The sheriff of Monroe County’s got
      Sure ‘nough, disasters on his mind

      But what would Karen Silkwood say to you
      If she was still alive

      That when it comes to people’s safety
      Money wins out every time”

      Gil Scott Heron “We Almost Lost Detroit”

      the chorus could have been tweeted today

      “Almost lost Detroit
      That time
      How could we ever get over
      Cause odds are
      We’re gonna lose somewhere, one time
      Odds are
      We’re gonna lose somewhere, sometime
      And how would we ever get over
      losing our minds”

      how indeed?

  3. wondering jew on November 14, 2017, 1:05 am

    I am no expert in Kollek’s career, but it seems that at the time that he informed Angleton of his (Kollek’s) suspicions about Philby, he was not at the time, the israeli spy chief, but rather working as director general in ben gurion’s office.

    • John O on November 14, 2017, 8:43 am

      Good cover story, wasn’t it?

    • jon s on November 14, 2017, 3:35 pm

      Allow me to point out that the Mossad and Shabak are under the authority of the Prime Minister’s Office (משרד ראש הממשלה) . So as Director General of the PMO Kollek was certainly a part of the intelligence community.

  4. Citizen on November 14, 2017, 6:51 am

    JFK was striving hard to defeat Israel’s secret acquisition of the bomb at the time he was murdered. Tidbits suggesting Jack Ruby was an Oswald accomplice, as well as of the cop killed by Oswald, are part of the latest documents Trump just released. Johnson must have known this–he’s responsible for recalling the US fighter jets sent to save the USS Liberty, and he and McCain’s daddy covered up evidence of Israel’s intentional attack on that spy ship.

    • Jackdaw on November 14, 2017, 11:31 am

      Lord God.

      • Mooser on November 14, 2017, 12:20 pm

        “Lord God.”

        “Jackdaw” it’s always oder a klop, oder a fortz with you. You press “Post Comment” after you write the comment. You just had a premature expostulation.

    • Kathleen on November 25, 2017, 11:14 am

      On MSNBC when the recent release of the close to 3000 Kennedy file documents out of what 18,ooo (not released) it was mentioned several times that the remaining files that would not be released due to the damage they could do to U.S. relationships with a foreign nation.

      The other reason given for not releasing many documents is that the welfare of CIA agents still alive could be jeopardized.

      Why one person Oswald would assassinate President Kennedy with no help or support and then be killed by one person Jack Rubenstein with no help or support just does not make any sense. We know the Kennedy’s had many enemies mobsters, Cuba, Israel. However only until recently have you heard anyone be willing to put Israel on that Kennedy’s enemies list

      The Angleton story ” The Secret Life of a CIA Spymaster” would surely make a great documentary

  5. Misterioso on November 14, 2017, 11:25 am

    There is a theory that the 1967 war was arranged between Meir Amit (Chief Director and the head of global operations for Mossad from 1963 to 1968) and James Angleton, the CIA’s official liaison with the Mossad. Angleton was a fervent anti-communist who, like Israel, wanted to “break Nasser in pieces,” to destroy him as a political force. (Dangerous Liaison, The Inside Story of he U.S. – Israeli Covert Relationship, by Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, 1991, p. 146.) “One long-serving official at the CIA’s ancient rival, the code-breaking National Security Agency, states flatly that ‘Jim Angleton and the Israelis spent a year cooking up the ’67 war. It was a CIA operation, designed to get Nasser.’ Such a verdict, from a source inside an agency that had the inclination and the facilities to monitor both the CIA and the Israelis, must carry some weight.” (Dangerous… pp.146-47)

  6. MHughes976 on November 14, 2017, 3:09 pm

    Is there really any reason to think that Angleton did more than share the admiration for Israel and Zionism that was common in those days in most Western circles? In spying terms Israel must have been a bridge between the two rival intelligence agencies, with great contacts both ways, so Angleton would have had every reason to cultivate his Israeli counterparts. This would have inhibited him when it came to the nuclear thefts but this inhibition and willingness to turn a blind eye must have been shared by dozens of people.

    • mcohen.. on November 14, 2017, 4:06 pm

      mh976 says

      at least a bakers dozen.but sending plutonium here and there is a mugs game.

      in the long run

      • MHughes976 on November 14, 2017, 6:13 pm

        The bakers dozen included our Harold Wilson, I rather think.

    • Kathleen on November 25, 2017, 11:19 am

      There is a huge gap between sharing “the admiration for Israel and Zionism” that was allegedly “common in those days” and providing cover and intelligence for a nuclear weapons industry in Israel. Massive gap.

  7. James Canning on November 15, 2017, 1:40 pm

    Yes, no surprise that Angleton “would lie down” regarding Israel’s intentional attack on the USS Liberty. LBJ apparently gave Israel the green light to attack the American naval vessel.

  8. Bandolero on November 17, 2017, 7:55 pm

    To me, it sounds all like that the theory of Michael Collins Piper, that the whole JFK thing was based on an Israeli drive to nukes, was just given more credibility. For those, who don’t know, it’s here for download:

    • Citizen on November 22, 2017, 11:24 am

      Documentation in JFK library shows clearly that JFK was pushing Israel hard to stop it from getting the bomb–at the time he was murdered. Who benefits (the most)?

      • Kathleen on November 25, 2017, 11:27 am

        And the very fact that Israel was not added to the suspect list of those who could have wanted to or did knock Kennedy off (via Oswald/Ruby) makes that absence even more suspect.

        Supposedly more of the Kennedy files were going to be released on a rolling disclosure. Although not hard to imagine that if there is any evidence that Israel or Israeli agents in this country working with CIA were involved with contacting Oswald/Rubenstein that this would ever be exposed.

    • jon s on November 22, 2017, 3:47 pm

      Citing Michael Collins Piper doesn’t add credibility to the theory , any theory. He was associated with white supremacism, Anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

  9. jon s on November 22, 2017, 3:55 pm

    Wait a minute, wasn’t JFK allegedly assassinated by a conspiracy that included the mafia, the CIA, the FBI, the Secret Service, the Dallas Police, the KGB, anti-Castro Cubans, pro-Castro Cubans and Ted Cruz’s dad?

    • Kathleen on November 25, 2017, 11:41 am

      Nah Oswald was the lone shooter working on his own and the same goes for Rubenstein. Yeah that’s the story and you’re sticking to it.

      JFK had lots of enemies and Israel and their covert and illegal nuclear program put them on that list, Who was the Assistant Counsel on the Warren Commission who helped come up with the lone assassin theory? That would be Senator Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania.

      So will the public ever be able to access all of those records? That was supposed to be the case

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