Book Review: Wilderness of Mirrors

This book review was originally published in the May 19, 1980 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed online here

The Lives of Luger and Stiletto

WILDERNESS OF MIRRORS by David C. Martin; Harper & Row; 236 pages; $12.50

If, in the biblical sense, the truth shall make you free, then members of counterintelligence are serving life sentences. As the CIA’s longtime chief of counterintelligence, James Angleton, sees it, agents wander through a “wilderness of mirrors,” in which no revelation can be entirely trusted. Many have tried to chart that wilderness, and inevitably much of the landscape and many of the personalities are thoroughly familiar. But David C. Martin, a Washington reporter for Newsweek, has some fresh perspectives: he delves deeply into the daily life of counter-intelligence operatives; he recounts a sensational (and eminently disputable) surmise about Angleton; and with documents obtained with the Freedom of Information Act, he gives credit for the exposure of Kim Philby, Britain’s most notorious postwar traitor, to a relatively obscure CIA official. Wilderness focuses on an odd couple: the elusive Angleton and the swaggering William Harvey, an improbable pair of diverse talents and temperaments who together stood guard over America’s secrets for much of the postwar era. Observes Martin: “Where Harvey had raged against the Soviet threat with basso profundo and six-shooter, Angleton seduced with a hypnotic blend of brilliance and mystique. Angleton was the Italian stiletto to Harvey’s German Luger.”

Such weapons were needed to combat the sudden surge of Soviet expansion as World War II drew to a close. Angleton hardly seemed suited for the part: he aspired to be a poet, and his friend E.E. Cummings called him a “miracle of momentous complexity.” But Angleton’s poetic imagination proved useful indeed when he was put in charge of counterintelligence for the wartime OSS in Italy. Recruiting German and Italian agents, he performed spectacularly. He unearthed the secret correspondence between Hitler and Mussolini, the Soviet instructions to the Italian Communist Party for supporting the Red uprising in Greece, an exchange of letters between Stalin and Tito, foreshadowing their break.

Named chief of counterintelligence in 1954, Angleton had to pass judgment on defectors coming out of the Soviet bloc. Were they genuine or sent to mislead, the U.S. with “disinformation”? Very few defectors got through his fine net, frustrating other CIA agents anxious to collect all the information they could. Echoing their complaints, Martin charges that Angleton became so obsessed with uncovering a Soviet “mole” in the CIA that he immobilized its operations. Martin even dignifies in print some speculation of others that astonishes and angers Angleton’s admirers in the intelligence community: that Angleton himself could have been a mole, purposely using the cover of his aggressive suspicions to vitiate the agency. Angleton was, of course, paid to be as suspicious as possible, and he did his job.

Unlike Angleton, Harvey was almost too accessible. Known as the “Pear” be cause of his shape, Harvey was, says Mar tin, “the secret war made flesh.” The bluff, boisterous Harvey began his career at the FBI, where his macho style offended J. Edgar Hoover. Transferring to the CIA, he took with him an encyclopedic knowledge of Soviet agents operating in the U.S. Harvey, contemptuous of striped-pants types, was the first, declares Martin, to identify Philby as a Soviet spy. The fact that Phil by traveled in the best circles did not mislead Harvey as it did others. In a memo digging into many dark corners of Philby’s career, Harvey spelled out a pattern that led to the double agent’s un masking.

Having urged the construction of a tunnel under East Berlin, which allowed the CIA to tap into communications within the Eastern bloc, Harvey developed a reputation for accomplishing the impossible. That proved his undoing. When the Kennedy brothers ordered a secret operation to overthrow Castro, Harvey was put in charge. He employed all the tricks of his trade, including the recruitment of Mafia figures for a rubout, but he failed. After that, it was all downhill as he drank away his frustrations and died of a heart attack in 1976.

Martin often writes perceptively and sympathetically of his hero villains. In the end, he rebukes them for going too far, for being so mesmerized by their craft that they became as great a danger to the U.S. as to the Soviet Union. But in a world where the KGB has grown increasingly aggressive, it is at least worth considering how far is too far. Angleton and Harvey deserve to be judged by what did not hap pen, by what the Soviets were unable to achieve while they had the watch. Now that they are gone and American counter-intelligence is much reduced, one can only hope that the next book written on the subject can limn as satisfactory a record.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.