"A Drop of Treason": Philip Agee, CIA Whisteblower Gets a New BioHistorians in the News
tags: Latin America, CIA, whistleblowers, espionage, Covert Operations, Dirty Wars, Philip Agee
A DROP OF TREASON
Philip Agee and His Exposure of the CIA
By Jonathan Stevenson
One morning in December 1965, the C.I.A. station chief in Montevideo, Uruguay, went to the city’s Police Headquarters to tell security officials about a disinformation campaign the Americans were planning in their country. Like the rest of Latin America, Uruguay was a Cold War battleground, and Washington was eager to discredit a left-wing insurrection — in this case, by concocting rumors that Soviet agents had infiltrated Uruguayan labor unions. Accompanying the C.I.A. chief was a 30-year-old case officer named Philip Agee, who was helping coordinate the plot.
As the Uruguayans reviewed the C.I.A.’s plans, a soccer match played on the radio. Soon, however, a different noise intruded. “I began to hear a strange low sound which, as it gradually became louder, I recognized as the moan of a human voice,” Agee later wrote. At first, he thought it was a street vendor outside. But the sound persisted, and it became clear that it was coming from the room above.
“The moaning grew in intensity, turning into screams,” Agee wrote. “By then I knew we were listening to someone being tortured.” Agee was already harboring moral qualms about his work, and to his horror, he suspected — correctly, he soon learned — that the voice belonged to a Communist operative whose name Agee himself had supplied to the Uruguayans. “All I wanted to do was get away from the voice,” he recalled.
Agee did get away — far away. He left the Central Intelligence Agency in 1968, and seven years later launched an unprecedented assault on the agency by publishing a book, “Inside the Company,” that revealed the names of more than 400 C.I.A. officers, agents, informants and assets. The book created a crisis for the American intelligence community; with its personnel compromised and its sources and methods exposed, the C.I.A. had to dismantle many of its Latin American operations.
The history of United States intelligence features many leakers, whistle-blowers and even a few traitors. But no one had ever done anything like this before — and, to this day, no one else has. Agee became a celebrity of sorts. His book wrapped its revelations inside a withering critique of American foreign policy, and leftists around the world hailed Agee as a hero. The C.I.A., he wrote, was “nothing more than the secret police of American capitalism, plugging up leaks in the political dam night and day so that shareholders of U.S. companies operating in poor countries can continue enjoying the rip-off.” He was repudiating more than just the C.I.A.; his real target was “the American project writ large,” as Jonathan Stevenson, the managing editor of Survival, argues in “A Drop of Treason,” his new biography of Agee. “He was part of the opposition, but he was no longer loyal,” Stevenson says.