CIA History Seymour Hersh

Seymour Hersh: The Fall of James Jesus Angleton

My part in the sacking of the notorious counterintelligence chief.
James Jesus Angleton. unknown employee of US federal government, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Seymour Hersh / Substack

This piece is from Seymour Hersh’s Substack, subscribe to it here.

Last week I wrote a column about my unforgettable afternoon visit more than a decade ago in London with the late Pervez Musharraf, the exiled Pakistani president who bragged to me about his country’s ability to hide its nuclear arsenal deep underground. Two days later, my colleague Jeff Stein, whose SpyTalk newsletter covers American intelligence, turned over his column to Jefferson Morley, an author who has spent decades tracking the CIA and other state secrets stemming from Jack Kennedy’s assassination onward.

Morley focused on the Biden administration, battered anew last weekend in the wake of negative polling, and its willingness to continue pretending that Israel, long known to have an undeclared but significant nuclear arsenal, has no such arsenal. His main target was the administration’s refusal to declassify 48-year old Senate testimony by James Angleton, the notorious onetime head of CIA counterintelligence. Angleton turned up recently as a character in A Spy Among Friends, a television series about the murderous transgressions of Kim Philby, the brilliant British intelligence officer who spied for the Soviet Union and conned Angleton, among others, in a long career of betrayal. 

After serving in the Office of Strategic Services in World War II, Angleton was assigned as station chief for the newly organized CIA in Rome, where he had two main responsibilities: he was liaison to the Israeli nuclear program and was the main architect of the CIA’s postwar mission to prevent Italian politics from turning to the left after years of fascist suppression under Benito Mussolini. Instead, the CIA supported the two most prominent anti-communistgroups in Italy: the Mafia and the Christian Democratic party. Political corruption was a staple of life in Italy for the subsequent decades.

I have a few things to add to Morley’s account. 

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Musharraf’s contempt for US efforts to monitor and, in his view, control Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal stemmed from his knowledge of America’s policy of denying that Israel was a member of the world’s nuclear club. In the 1970s and ’80s, various administrations ignored Congressional pressure to cut off American foreign aid to nations that sold or received nuclear processing or enrichment materials, equipment, or technology. The law was enforced, however, two times for Pakistan but for no other nation, including Israel.

In early 1978, President Jimmy Carter continued to look past the Israeli arsenal, but he did send Gerard C. Smith, his ambassador-at-large for nonproliferation issues, to meet with Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the Pakistani president, to discuss secret Pakistani plans to build a nuclear arsenal. I was later told by George Rathjens, Smith’s deputy, that Zia, who had fought in the Second World War with the British Indian army, responded by asking Smith why he was not also talking to Israel. Smith was upset, Rathjens added, “but there was no way to answer Zia. No satisfactory answer. The Israeli bomb wasn’t anything people [in the Carter Administration] wanted to talk about. It was an embarrassment.” Rathjens went on to become one of the founders of MIT’s Securities Study Program and continued his research in nuclear disarmament.

In 1972, I left a swell job with the New Yorker at the urging of Abe Rosenthal, the cranky and politically conservative editor of the New York Times, to join its Washington bureau and, Abe promised, to write the truth about the Vietnam War as I saw it. He made it plain that he knew something was missing in the newspaper’s coverage. It didn’t take me long to understand why Rosenthal was troubled. I was part of the bureau’s foreign policy cluster, and, soon after we got to town, my wife and I were invited to a dinner at the elegant home of the paper’s senior diplomatic correspondent. It was there that I met James Angleton, who was at the time, as I would learn more than a year later, in charge of the agency’s illegal domestic spying program. He also was a big part of Washington’s Old Boys network. It was not merely a cliché. After the meal was served, the women were invited to gather together in an anteroom while the men attended to business. I still remember the look on my wife’s face.

Such ties were then part of the foreign policy reporting game. Henry Kissinger was always available for a few Times reporters, with the proviso that his comments were never to be directly quoted. CIA Director Richard Helms was part of the crowd, too. My beat focused on Vietnam, but I was soon running into Washington spy stories that were just begging to be told. I knew I would need a large chunk of time off after I informed the bureau chief in the fall of 1972 that I had been chipping away on three major stories: the CIA’s active role in undermining the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile; the planned recovery of a Soviet submarine that had broken apart, with at least three nuclear torpedoes on board, in the Pacific Ocean; and the CIA’s spying on thousands of American antiwar dissenters who, so President Lyndon Johnson believed, were being directed by Soviet operatives.

It was a month before I got approval in writing to continue my reporting. I was urged by a senior editor to put all I knew into one general story about the needs of America’s national security community to conduct sensitive foreign and domestic intelligence operations that sometimes crossed the line. I was also urged to “touch base” with Kissinger and Helms. I was shocked. At that point, I saw no other recourse than to resign from a dream job. Rosenthal got wind of my discontent, and I was told in advance about a change soon to comein the bureau’s leadership. In a few months, my new boss would be Clifton Daniel, a senior editor in New York—and the husband of Margaret Truman, daughter of President Harry Truman. Daniel called me in Washington, told me not to quit, and promised he would “have my back.” 

Daniel did have my back. I was off the leash, with the support of many in the Washington bureau. The brilliantreporters there included the likes of Johnny Apple, John Herbers,Elaine Shanahan, John Finney, and Christopher Lydon. Russell Baker, Anthony Lewis, and Tom Wicker were columnists. Watergate was a consuming issue at the time, thanks to the work of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward in the Washington Post, and the Times seemed lost. I stayed as far away from that story as I could, and continued to chip away at Vietnam. Helms was quickly removed as CIA director and sent to Tehran as US ambassador to Iran. The new director was William Colby, an old hand who had flown behind enemy lines for the Office of Special Services during the Second World War and had recently been running the CIA’s controversial and murderous Phoenix Program in South Vietnam.

It took me more than a year to break the stories I was working on because in late 1972 Rosenthal insisted I drop my investigations and cover Watergate. With Nixon on the ropes in early 1974, I was able to slide back into the blockbuster story, about which I had told few specifics to Rosenthal or any other editor on the paper. By then I had reason to believe from my sources at the agency that it had been spying on Americans in direct violation of its charter prohibiting it from spying on citizens here. All roads led to my onetime dinner partner, James Angleton, head of counterintelligence.

A secret history of Colby’s tenure as CIA director was declassified in 2011, and it includes a chapter entitled “Seymour Hersh and His Charges against the CIA.” I learned from the report that the agency was tracking my reporting on its illegal abuses that I had begun on my own early in 1972. The agency had no way of knowing that I had no choice—that is, because Rosenthal gave me no choice. He switched my focus to Watergate and its messy aftermath for the next two years. By the fall of 1974, with Nixon on his way out, the report says, Colby “learned that Seymour Hersh was making inquiries about past CIA operations.” Written by an experienced covert operative, the report notes that I had learned that an internal review of illegal agency activities—known informally as the “family jewels”—had been put together in great secrecy. The report says Colby’s response was to instruct “all CIA deputies not to honor Hersh’s requests for an interview.”

But Colby kept on taking my calls that summer and fall, especially when he was told that I had mentioned the “jewels” in a conversation with Congressman Lucien Nedzi, a Democrat from Michigan who learned from me about the in-house nickname. Nedzi was then chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

By this time, I was telling any of the senior CIA officials who took my calls that I knew Angleton was deeply involved in spying on Americans. I suspected that any CIA report focused on Angleton, even if called the “family jewels,” would be far from
complete. And so I sent a message to Colby, as included in the CIA history, saying, “I figure I have about one-tenth of 1 per cent of this story,” and added this snotty comment: “I am willing to trade with you. I will trade you Jim Angleton for 14 files of my choice.” The report says Colby was “perplexed” by the message. But I doubted it when the report was declassified in 2011, and I doubt it now.

In December of 1974, when I knew I had a story of massive violation of the CIA’s charter, I talked again to Nedzi. And so did Colby. A transcription of that conversation was published in the CIA study and from the first question on, it is priceless:

NEDZI: I talked with him [Hersh] a short time ago . . . who is Jim Angleton?

COLBY: He is the head of our counterintelligence. He is kind of a legendary character. He has been around for 150 years or so. He is a very spooky guy. His reputation is of total secrecy and no one knows what he is doing. . . . but he is a little bit out of date in terms of seeing Soviets under every bush.

NEDZI: What is he doing talking to Hersh?

COLBY: I do not think he is. Hersh called him and wanted to talk with him, but he said he would not talk with him.

NEDZI: Sy showed me notes of what he said and claims he [Angleton] was drunk.

COLBY: You catch me twelve hours ahead of an unpleasant chore of talking to him about a substantial change of his [Angelteon’s] responsibilities.

NEDZI: There is a bit of a problem for you. What occurs here is all of a sudden a guy is telling me things about—and he is going back to that meeting we had in which you briefed me on all of the—he used the same terms, incidentally, “jewels.”

COLBY: Hersh did?


COLBY: I wonder how he got that word. It was used by [only] a few people around here.

NEDZI: The problem that occurs to me right now is that here is a guy [Hersh] who is trying to expose the agency and all of a sudden he [Angleton] gets sacked.

COLBY: Yes, what I think I will do is talk to Hersh . . . 

I did talk to Colby at length and very carefully about the CIA’s domestic spying, which, as I later learned, involved keeping more than 100,000 files on antiwar protesters. I told him that in one of my talks with Angleton he claimed that the domestic spying operation was run by one of his deputies and he had little to do with it. He told me about what he said were two ongoing CIA covert operations: one inside Russia and the other in North Korea, whose details would make terrific stories. All I had to do, he said, was drop any mention of him in my domestic spying story. I relayed all of this to Colby and told him my story would be in print within days. 

When the story was published on December 22, 1974, it was roundly denied by CIA spokesman and repeatedly attacked as dead wrong by the rival Washington Post for the next three months. It was only when Colby was called before Congress’s Church Committee in 1975 that any official acknowledged the general truth of what I had reported.

Splashed across the paper’s front page, my 7,000-word dispatch didn’t name any of the seven CIA sources I quoted, one of which was Colby. I stayed friendly with him after he left the CIA, until his death in a boating accident in 1996.

The establishment of the Church Committee in 1975 was the direct result of my story and its follow-ups. Its hearings and papers provided the most detailed examination of the CIA and its activities to this day. I don’t think we shall see its likes again. The Democrats in the White House and in Congress have shown no interest in trying to learn what the agency and other US covert operatives have been doing on the ground in Ukraine or under the waters of the Baltic Sea.

© 2023 Seymour Hersh

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Seymour Hersh

Seymour M. Hersh’s fearless reporting has earned him fame, front-page bylines, a staggering collection of awards, and no small amount of controversy. His story is one of fierce independence. He has been a staff writer for The New Yorker and The New York Times and established himself at the forefront of investigative journalism in 1970 when he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize (as a freelancer) for his exposé of the massacre in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai. Since then he has received the George Polk Award five times, the National Magazine Award for Public Interest twice, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the George Orwell Award, and dozens of other accolades.
He lives in Washington, D.C.

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