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Angleton's Counterintelligence Program and What Went Wrong Essay

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Counterintelligence Thesis Proposal


This proposal describes the need for an ethical standard in counterintelligence. It discusses how an analysis of the formation of the counterintelligence program under Angleton can provide insight into what went wrong with counterintelligence and how those problems can be prevented in the future. It uses a combination of conflict theory, structural functionalism and critical theory to explore the dimensions of counterintelligence in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The research design is qualitative with the case study approach to Angleton’s counterintelligence serving as the method. The aim of the research is to provide an ethical framework that could be used to help the counterintelligence enterprise collaborate more effectively with the private sector in the future.


Intelligence and counterintelligence operations have always been a part of the American Republic (Federation of American Scientists 1996). General Washington was aware of the threat of foreign espionage and the need to counter it (Wettering 2000, 165). The need to deceive those whose intention is to deceive one’s nation is in fact an ancient one, identified by Sun Tzu thousands of years ago (Select Committee on Intelligence 1986). Practicing deception while remaining free from the corrupting influences of deceivers has proven to be a challenge, however (Valentine 2016, 45). The circumstances under which counterintelligence in the US was formerly developed and pursued in its infancy, childhood, and adolescence could be said to have predicted what that program would become in its adulthood. Abuses, errors and mistakes were so rampant that the CIA’s counterintelligence program, run by James Jesus Angleton from inception in the 1950s to the 1970s, effectively had to be reconstructed by Colby, facing pressure from Congress and the public (Church Committee 1976, 171). The problem of ethics in counterintelligence was one that to this day has yet to be adequately answered. However, by understanding what counterintelligence was in the beginning, one may be better situated to understand what it is today and why its policies are what they are. By learning from the mistakes made in the past, a better foundation can be set in place for the future.

Both Angleton and the era in which the counterintelligence program was formerly organized shaped the nature of counterintelligence at a time when the nation itself was buckling under the stress of paranoia, anger, frustration and mistrust (Valetine 2016, 23; Wettering 2000, 165). To some degree, the nation has never recovered from the stresses of the post-war climate that birthed the counterintelligence program in America (Valentine 2016, 9). When Director Colby dismissed Angleton from his position as head of counterintelligence at the CIA, Colby inherited a Staff that was by that time a full-grown adult. Facing political, social, and economic pressures, the CIA was compelled to reorganize, and as the Church Committee reported, it was “an end of an era in CIA counterintelligence” (Church Committee 1976, 171). Yet, the consequences of that era remained. The structure that Angleton had created and the nature of counterintelligence itself had already come into being, much like Frankenstein’s monster. Victor Frankenstein rejected his own creation, but that did not mean the creation ceased to exist. In fact, the creation went on to destroy the creator.

Such an ominous analogy may be appropriate, at least according to Wettering (2000), the retired Central Intelligence Agency operations officer, who oversaw clandestine operations in Europe and Africa for more than three decades. Director Colby certainly felt as much in the 1970s, when it became apparent that the child the federal government had reared into adulthood was not exactly what the state had hoped for. The Church Committee noted that by 1976 the issues facing the counterintelligence program were “how best to protect the United States, including the proper degree of compartmentation of CI information, methods of operation, approaches to security, research priorities, extent of liaison cooperation, and emphasis on deception activities” (Church Committee 1976, 172). One dominant issue the Senate uncovered was the lack of cooperation among the various agencies on the counterintelligence front (Wettering 2000, 270). Tension between the CIA and the FBI had been high since the former’s birth, and while the two agencies could boast of a collaborative spirit in the 1970s, the lack of any substantial counterintelligence office in the FBI meant that the bulk of the work was coordinated by the CIA.

William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, has gone so far as to warn that the challenge of counterintelligence is no longer one the government can address on its own, that the private sector must bear some of the burden and weight of protecting data and ensuring digital security in the face of snooping foreign actors (Nakashima 2020). An additional consideration put forward by Tromblay (2017) is that technology has developed rapidly in the last two decades alone, and the counterintelligence program has been slow to cross the generational divide between itself and the digital natives of the 21st century who have grown up using technology. In response to the rise of new, global technological advances, the counterintelligence program has appeared much like a member of an older generation attempting to catch up on what members of younger generations take for granted. Tromblay (2017) calls it the problem of counterintelligence’s reactionary orientation—a characteristic of the program that was defined by the circumstances of its birth. Moreover, with so much data now in the hands of private industry, there is an increased need for counterintelligence to work more closely with private industry. Intelligence operations have always included work within private industry, but in many cases…

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…problems that arose within the counterintelligence program from the 1950s to the 1970s. Conflict theory was posited as a response to structural functionalism, and critical theory arose out of the failure of conflict theory to fully account for the failure of the Marxist prophecy, so by itself it is an inadequate theory—but in combination with others, and with a focus on how ethics play a part in decision-making—it can help to explain the complex nature of the subject (Bartos and Wehr 2002).

The aim of this exploration will be to fill the wide gap that remains in counterintelligence research regarding an appropriate ethical standard that guides and fosters an effective culture, as called for by Bellaby (2012) and Valentine (2016). This aim will allow for important lessons to be learned, and may allow one to see how those lessons can serve to guide the way forward for today’s integration of the counterintelligence enterprise within the private sector. Thus, this theoretical approach will pay special focus to culture and the role that culture plays in influencing ethical decision-making. In qualitative studies, hypotheses are generally avoided or formed at the conclusion of the study following an analysis of the data obtained through exploration of the topic. Nonetheless, it is hypothesized here that an analysis of the past transgressions of counterintelligence can be prevented in the future through the development and application of a standardized ethical approach to counterintelligence.

Research Design and Methods

The research design is qualitative because the subject is exploratory in nature. The aim of the research is to explore by way of case study analysis the counterintelligence program under James Jesus Angleton, including the literature of the past and present. Scholarly articles, Senate reports, memoirs, independent research, biographies, and analysis will serve as the sources of information. Data will be analyzed using content analysis, with themes drawn from the literature and arranged and organized to give a clearer understanding of how ethics might be better utilized to guide the integration of the counterintelligence enterprise with the private sector in the 21st century. Concepts of ethics will be operationalized by defining them in accordance with accepted scholarly practices. Potential biases will be addressed by bracketing them out at the beginning, as recommended by Johnston, Wallis, Oprescu,and Gray (2017).


Just as Erikson’s model of human development enables psychologists to understand the adult by examining the age-related conflicts that must be overcome before the child can proceed successfully to later stages of development, one could potentially gain insight in understanding the policies and issues of counterintelligence today by examining the early days of the counterintelligence program as it grew through its infancy, childhood and adolescence stages of the post-war/Cold War era (Valentine 2016, 10). This study aims to see how conflict, relationships and a…

Sample Source(s) Used

Reference List

Bailey, Christopher and Susan M. Galich. “Codes of Ethics: The Intelligence Community.” International Journal of Intelligence Ethics 35.2 (2012), 77-99.

Bartos, C. and P. Wehr. 2002. Using conflict theory. UK: University of Cambridge.

Bellaby, Ross. "What's the Harm? The Ethics of Intelligence Collection." Intelligence and National Security 27, no. 1 (2012): 93-117.

Church Committee. “Final report of the Select committee to study governmental operations With respect to Intelligence activities United states senate Together with Additional, supplemental, and separate Views.”, 1976.

Coyne, John, Peter Bell, and Shannon Merrington. "Exploring ethics in intelligence and the role of leadership." Interntional Journal of Business and Commerce 2, no. 10 (2013): 27-37.

Erskine, Toni. "'As Rays of Light to the Human Soul'? Moral Agents and Intelligence Gathering." Intelligence & National Security 19, no. 2 (2004): 359-381.

Nakashima, Ellen. “Top counterintelligence official challenges the private sector to step up defenses against foreign spying.” Washington Post, 2020.

Pfaff, T., & Tiel, J. R. (2004). The ethics of espionage. Journal of Military Ethics, 3(1), 1-15.

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