I first heard the name Philip Agee, the legendary, rogue Central Intelligence Agency operative one cloudless, blue morning in San Francisco. It was my first interview with the CIA.
The CIA recruiter and I met in his junior suite at the Hilton Hotel. He was an affable man in his 50s, thick in the middle with slicked-back hair, a tweed sports coat, and a club tie. He sat in an armchair, I on the edge of the sofa. He listened patiently as I tried to convince him I was qualified to be hired as an analyst. I was enrolled in an intensive Mandarin course at the University of California, Berkeley, at the time and had hopes of being a China scholar. If the CIA wanted to pay me a salary to become one, I figured, all the better.
When I finished, he looked at me for a beat, not saying a word. When he spoke he didn’t even bother to sugarcoat his verdict: “Without an MA or Ph.D., we can’t hire you.” Before I could even register disappointment, however, the recruiter leaned forward. He dropped his voice as if the room might be bugged: “Did you ever think about operations?”
I stared back at him blankly. He reached into his briefcase and pulled out a new paperback — Agee’s memoir, Inside the Company: CIA Diary. “Read this and tell me whether you might be interested in operations.”
Back at my Berkeley apartment I read Agee’s book late into the night — my door closed so my two roommates couldn’t see me. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Inside the Company, published in 1975, portrayed the CIA as an evil, secret society that pulled strings around the world, corrupting otherwise honest officials and overthrowing democratically elected governments. Agee described in detail how the CIA propped up Latin American juntas and corrupt regimes around the world.
And worse, Agee named names — confidential sources and the names of operatives — people who are supposed to work outside the public spotlight their entire lives. I considered whether my affable recruiter had actually read Agee’s book before handing it to me.
But as I delved deeper into Agee’s book, rather than becoming repulsed, I became more and more fascinated by the idea that there really might be such a thing as a secret society, one that channeled the currents of history. I didn’t like the idea of changing popular regimes — my background and education was decidedly liberal — but I started to picture myself as some modern Knight Templar, a tempting release from the dreariness of academia.
After I was hired by the CIA, no one ever told me why or when recruiters started handing out Agee’s book, but I soon understood from the agency’s culture that it counted on reactions like mine; the book’s appeal was that it opened people’s eyes to a concealed, powerful world. Like it or hate it — and many people did — it was seductive. Later, I came to understand that the CIA prided itself on having an open-minded view of the world. It wanted its new hires to make up their own minds after they were inside. The irony, of course, was that Agee never expected his book would become a recruiting tool. He intended it to be a stake through the CIA’s heart.
On Nov. 9, New York University’s Tamiment Library released Agee’s personal papers, including his correspondence with left-wing figures throughout Latin America and documents related to his subsequent life in exile in Cuba and Europe, a step that will no doubt case many to revisit his legacy. I don’t know what’s in these papers, but I can tell you this: I won’t be reading a word of it.
The simple truth is that Agee was a fraud. No, let me be exact: He was a paid traitor. As the U.S. government would come to learn, Cuban intelligence was behind Agee’s campaign against the CIA — and it paid him well for his work. Agee’s claims of being driven by conviction and ideology were lies. Why believe any of whatever is buried in the NYU papers?
In the late 1980s, U.S. intelligence would learn from an unimpeachable source that Cuban intelligence had recruited Agee as a spy — a “controlled asset” as the CIA called him. Agee took Cuban money and followed Cuban orders to the letter. The editor of Inside the Company, which was originally published in Britain, was even a Cuban spy. It’s simply not possible that Agee — though he claimed to be operating out of a compulsion of conscience — could not have known this.
In Agee’s version of the story, his conversion came in 1968 after the Mexican government’s massacre of student protesters. Agee claimed he finally understood the implications of his work for the CIA, which supported the Mexican government at the time, and left disaffected. But what really happened was more complicated. Immediately before he resigned, he wrote a letter to the CIA saying he’d always been proud of his work. But then, after leaving the agency, his life started to fall apart — a bad marriage, money problems, and an aimless drift through leftist circles in Latin America contributed to his radicalization. When Cuban intelligence finally threw him a lifeline, he grabbed it out of desperation.
In return, Agee spilled every secret he knew. When he ran out of secrets, he dutifully agreed to a Cuban plan to wage a propaganda campaign against the CIA that involved exposing the names of U.S. operatives across the globe. The United States believes that Agee’s disclosures resulted in the murder of Richard Welch, the CIA station chief gunned down in Athens in 1975.
The Cubans eventually mentioned Agee to the Soviet KGB, which ended up funding Covert Action, a publication that, in its own words, aimed to launch a “worldwide campaign to destabilize the CIA through exposure of its operations and personnel.” Agee proceeded to release information through Covert Action, despite knowing full well that the KGB meant to use it as a bludgeon in its intelligence war against the CIA. The days of Agee pretending to be an ideological convert to the left were over.
When I arrived in Washington to start my career with the CIA, I soon enough realized I wasn’t done with Agee. I looked up an old college roommate when I moved to the area, and the two of us agreed to rent an old farmhouse in Jefferson, Maryland. Although he didn’t know I worked for the CIA, I figured it didn’t matter. In fact, I thought it would be good practice for a career of lying. (Inside the CIA this is called “maintaining your cover.”)
Things went along well enough until my housemate brought in another tenant, an associate professor of political science who also happened to be a committed Marxist. This was bad enough, but a week after she moved in, she told me that she’d spent the summer in Amsterdam working with Agee at a leftist think tank.
Every night, I came home dreading that my new Marxist roommate would figure out I worked for the CIA and call Agee. I imagined I’d find my name in Agee’s next book or splashed across the pages of Covert Action. My career would be over before it even started. I wondered if Berkeley would have me back.
I finally turned myself into the CIA’s counterintelligence staff, a group of professionally suspicious people charged with ferreting out moles in the agency. The woman who sat across the desk from me had a genuine look of horror on her face when I came to the part about Agee and Amsterdam. She ushered me into a room without windows, and for the next three hours I was grilled by three of her colleagues. One had Agee’s file on the table in front of him. This was all a long time ago, but I remember that it was about 10 very thick volumes.
I didn’t dare ask what was in Agee’s file, and to this day I still don’t know its contents. In the end, I convinced my interrogators that I wasn’t a radical leftist and had no intention of teaming up with Agee. The only consequence of my brush with Agee was that I had to move out of the house — but the gravity with which the CIA treated even this passing connection with him spoke volumes about how seriously they considered him a counterintelligence threat. It was clear he was not just a loud-mouthed critic.