Never go home at night without wondering where the mole is

Thursday, May 11th, 2023

During the first 25 years of the Cold War, U.S. counterintelligence was in the hands of two men, Tim Weiner explains, the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover and the CIA’s James J. Angleton:

Hoover was slow to see that the Kremlin’s spies had run rampant in the United States since the early 1930s. By World War II, they had infiltrated the State Department, the Justice Department, the Treasury Department, the OSS (the CIA’s predecessor), and the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb; Representative Samuel Dickstein, who represented the Lower East Side for 22 years, served the Kremlin as a paid agent in Congress from 1937 to 1940, informing on anti-communist and pro-fascist Americans for the Soviet Embassy. After the war, the FBI picked up the scent of Soviet spies in the United States. By 1951, with the Red Scare in full roar after the convictions of the atomic spies and leaders of the Communist Party of the United States, whose underground had supported the Kremlin’s agents, the Soviets laid low. But not for long.

Angleton became the CIA’s counterintelligence chief in 1954. For the next 20 years, he dominated his field throughout the free world. He was secretive and suspicious and, as he grew older, paranoid and alcoholic. An official CIA historian, David Robarge, wrote that Angleton enveloped himself “in an aura of mystery, hinting at knowledge of dark secrets and hidden intrigues too sensitive to share.” He thought the Kremlin commanded a company of moles within the CIA, and that every Soviet defector after 1961 was a double agent. The main purpose of this monstrous, though imaginary, plot was to seduce American presidents into the delusions of détente. Angleton tore the CIA apart in a futile hunt for Soviet moles, ruining loyal men. He missed the fact that the Chinese, Cubans, Czechs, and East Germans either had recruited agents in the CIA or doubled all the spies the agency thought it was running against them.

U.S. counterintelligence depends in great part on cooperation between the CIA and the FBI, though the two are often at loggerheads. Their cultures clash; the bureau’s agents are cops and the agency’s spies are robbers. The trust between Hoover and Angleton glued them together despite this friction. But Hoover died in 1972, Angleton was fired two years later, and counterintelligence fell into chaos. By the 1980s, spies working for the Soviets, the Chinese, and the Israelis had burrowed into the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency, and Navy intelligence. Some were caught, but others went undetected: The CIA’s Aldrich Ames and the FBI’s Robert Hanssen were busy selling out almost every Russian agent working for the United States. Ames spied for nine solid years, Hanssen off and on for 22; they were arrested, respectively, in 1994 and 2001.


The FBI now opens a new counterintelligence case against Chinese spies and agents every 10 hours. In October, the CIA’s assistant director for counterintelligence sent an alert throughout the agency noting that, in recent years, dozens of recruited informants in China, Iran, Pakistan, and other hostile nations have been compromised and turned against the United States as double agents, or arrested, tortured, and killed. And in January, Charles McGonigal, who was in charge of counterintelligence at the FBI’s New York office from 2016 to 2018, was indicted for aiding the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, over the course of several years. The case has cataclysmic implications; the charges represent the worst breach at the bureau in the last 20 years.

All this suggests several ground truths. First is the actuarial certainty that, at this moment, the U.S. government is penetrated by spies, foreign and domestic, as has been the case for nearly a century. Second, if counterintelligence officers aren’t finding those spies, they have failed. Third, when they do catch them, the public perception is that they’ve failed again, by not detecting them for years on end. Spy-catchers are thus damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and one may sympathize if they drink too much or doubt if God is just. The awful truth is that no outsider—and no insider, for that matter—can say for sure whether U.S. counterintelligence is better or worse than it was two, four, or eight decades ago, because no one knows if there are two, 20, or 200 moles burrowing into our body politic at this moment.


  1. McChuck says:

    Who needs moles when the NYT, WaPo, and the entire Democrat party are eager and willing to work with our nation’s enemies? Shoot, they ARE our nation’s enemies.

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