Article Review 483- "James Angleton and the Church Committee"

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H-Diplo Article Reviews
No. 483
Published on 17 September 2014

H-Diplo Article Review Editors:  Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Web and Production Editor: George Fujii
Commissioned for H-Diplo by Thomas Maddux

Loch Johnson.  “James Angleton and the Church Committee.” Journal of Cold War Studies 15:4 (Fall 2013).  DOI:  10.1162/JCWS_a_00397.

URL: or

Reviewed by Katherine Scott, U.S. Senate Historical Office

Note:  The views presented here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Senate or the United States Government.

“This essay about James Angleton, the chief of counterintelligence at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1954-1974, examines more than one day—but not much more” (128). So begins Loch Johnson’s memoir-like account of the relationship he developed with Angleton while working in 1975-76 as an investigator for the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, also known as the Church Committee. Johnson has not written a standard scholarly essay; it is not thesis driven, nor does it engage critically with existing literature. What it does well is paint a picture of a powerful Cold War counterintelligence official and his impressions of members of Congress who challenged his world view. In light of today’s ongoing debate between the Agency and elected officials about intelligence reports critical of the CIA’s work, it is an article that will be of interest to many who study the intersections of Cold War politics, society, and culture in the United States.

A series of revelations by whistleblowers, investigative journalists, and activists in the Vietnam and Watergate eras prompted Congress to formally investigate allegations of intelligence abuses.[1] In 1975 the U.S. Senate created a special investigatory committee, chaired by Democrat Frank Church of Idaho, tasked with exploring the extent to which national security agencies had spied on American citizens in violation of their own charters and, perhaps more disturbingly, the Constitution. Congressional intelligence oversight had been inconsistent, at best, and in some cases, practically non-existent. Much has been written about the Church Committee, and Loch Johnson’s insider account, A Season of Inquiry, remains a standout among them.[2] Today an accomplished scholar of national security and intelligence at the University of Georgia, Johnson cut his teeth on these issues as a staff member of the Church Committee.

Anniversaries offer opportunities to reevaluate historic events. With the Church Committee’s fortieth anniversary approaching, it’s no surprise that a renewed interest in the committee’s year-long investigation and its conclusions (the committee’s documents remain closed under the 50-year rule for congressional investigations) has developed. But the revived interest in the Church Committee’s investigation has been driven more dramatically by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden’s leaked documents. Revelations of National Security Agency programs that collect and store vast quantities of personal data have renewed calls for a ‘second’ Church Committee.[3] Recent disputes between the Agency and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (itself a product of the Church Committee investigation) over the declassification of CIA reports has focused national attention on the prerogatives of congressional investigators and elected officials tasked with exercising effective oversight.

In 1974, just as revelations of the CIA’s surveillance activities became public, CIA Director William Colby dismissed James Angleton, head of counterintelligence operations, citing Angleton’s “supersecretive style of operation” (132). Among Johnson’s many committee responsibilities was an assignment to investigate U.S. Cold-War foreign counterintelligence operations. Interviewing the then-retired Angleton was the basis of that education.

After a brief history of the Church Committee and his role as an investigator, Johnson vividly recalls meetings he had with the inscrutable ‘Mother’ over the better part of one year (the author reconstructs these meetings based on meticulous notes he took at the time). Over lunches at the Army-Navy Club a chain-smoking, impeccably-dressed Angleton regaled Johnson with stories of the counterintelligence game, of which he was the master player. The stories, according to Johnson, were at once fascinating and “lacked all semblance of a linear narrative” (135). Their incomprehensibility was further exacerbated by Angleton’s penchant for kir; on more than one occasion, when Johnson and Angleton retired to overstuffed chairs after lunch, Angleton began slurring his words.

But this essay is not really about the mechanics of counterintelligence work—which Johnson describes as a “labyrinthine subject in itself” (135). It is, instead, a close examination of Angleton’s Cold-War world view, and especially how he defined national security threats. In between his explanations—opaque though they were—of counterintelligence work, Angleton made clear his disdain for the Senate investigation in general, and Johnson’s boss Senator Church, in particular. Johnson recalls that Angleton took the criticisms of CIA counterintelligence work personally: “The CI chief might well view the Church Committee as just another foreign adversary,” and indeed he did (136). By Angleton’s calculation, congressional ‘liberals’ (Angleton singled them out) like Frank Church were as dangerous to national security as the Soviet spies who worked assiduously to infiltrate Western intelligence services. The committee’s mission, according to this line of reasoning, was not fact finding, or long-overdue oversight. Instead, the investigation was a blatant attempt to, in Angleton’s words, “‘fashion a statutory straitjacket for the Agency.’” He pulled no punches in his scathing assessment of the committee’s chairman: “‘Whose payroll is [Church] on: KGB? GRU [Soviet military intelligence]? Or perhaps the Cubans have recruited him’” (137).

Angleton, perhaps because of his mysteriousness, and certainly because of his power as CIA counterintelligence chief, has been the focus of many very good studies over the years.[4] Johnson’s account adds another layer to that assessment, humanizing this seemingly inscrutable character. In the essay’s final pages, Johnson regrets Angleton’s handling by the committee. He recalls one on-the-record exchange which led—unintentionally on Johnson’s part—to Angleton’s humiliation before a live television audience. During the course of a typical pre-hearing deposition, Johnson probed Angleton’s position on counterintelligence for the better part of two hours. At the end of this exhausting exchange, Johnson posed a well-intentioned, though ill-conceived, question. Angleton’s response was equally well-intentioned and ill-conceived: “‘It is inconceivable that a secret intelligence arm of the government has to comply with all the overt orders of the government’” (140). Johnson defends Angleton’s response, arguing that Angleton meant that in the context of the Cold War “the CIA might be told to carry out Operation X even though the State Department (for example) might be offering assurances that the United States would never engage in such an operation” (141).

Later in a televised hearing Senator Richard Schweiker, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania, seized upon Angleton’s statement as evidence that Angleton (and, by extension, the Agency) believed himself to be above the law. For his complicity in this embarrassing exchange (Angleton’s response was taken out of context, Johnson argues), Johnson laments: “I felt some personal distress at the time that my questioning had led to Angleton’s humiliation.” And, “no matter how many mistakes he may have made, he had served his country for more than thirty years to the best of his ability” (144). Yet a few paragraphs later Johnson admits, “I doubt that Angleton, in his well-intentioned efforts to fight Communism, had sufficiently considered the harm he might be inflicting on America’s form of government” (145).

Johnson’s account adds to a growing body of work about the Church Committee’s investigation and conclusions, as scholars reassess that record in light of current developments. In part because the committee’s records remain closed for research, the U.S. Senate Historical Office has launched a Church Committee oral history project, interviewing staff and senators who served on the committee. This project will capture the recollections of insiders like Johnson, to assist scholars as they reevaluate the investigation within the broader context of U.S. Cold-War politics and culture, and U.S. foreign relations.

Katherine Scott is a historian at the U.S. Senate Historical Office. Her research interests include twentieth-century American political culture, politics, and policymaking. Her book, Reining in the State: Civil Society and Congress in the Vietnam and Watergate Eras, was published with University Press of Kansas in 2013.  She is currently working on a political history of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas Senate hearings.


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[1] I have explored these events in my book, Reining in the State: Civil Society and Congress in the Vietnam and Watergate Eras (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2013).

[2] Loch Johnson, A Season of Inquiry: The Senate Intelligence Investigation, (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1985).

[3] Mark Jaycox, “Former Church Committee Counsel and Staffers Call Congress to Create Modern Day Church Committee,” 17 Mar 2014, (accessed 18 Mar 2014).

[4] Michael Howard Holzman, James Jesus Angleton, the CIA, and the Craft of Counterintelligence (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008); Tom Mangold, Cold Warrior (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991); David C. Martin, Wilderness of Mirrors (New York: Harper and Row, 1980); David Robarge, “Cunning Passages, Contrived Corridors’: Wandering in the Angletonian Wilderness,” Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 53, No. 4 (December 209), pp. 43-55;  Robin Winks, Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961 (New York: William Morrow, 1987).