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School for spies

What the CIA learned (and mislearned) in the groves of academe.

COUNTLESS BOOKS AND MOVIES have displayed the seedier elements of the spy trade: the entrapments, the blackmail, the assassinations. Yet the analytical, brainy side of the profession has always been of equal importance: There is a reason why spies are said to belong to the "intelligence community." Just as James Bond needs his boss M for guidance, real-life spies rely on armchair accomplices to shape raw data into coherent and meaningful analysis.


But what kind of analysis? Attempting to distinguish "signal" from "noise," officials at the CIA and Defense Department debate competing methods of data-sifting and weigh the aggressive, "hypotheses-driven" style of interpretation favored by the Pentagon. Probability and risk are continually assessed, and sometimes the talk can sound nearly philosophical. Referring to the search for illegal weapons in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared on Aug. 5 that "the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence."

If such matters arose at a university, they would attract the attention of philosophers of science or even theorists of literature, who study how to tease meaning out of texts. And indeed, the academy has profoundly shaped the rough-and-tumble espionage trade since the founding days of the CIA. In his classic 1987 study, "Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961," Yale historian Robin W. Winks showed how professors took a crucial role in creating and manning the agency and its forerunner, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). No university played a greater role than Winks's own. "From Yale's class of 1943 alone, at least 42 young men entered intelligence work, largely in the OSS, many to remain on after the war to form the core of the new CIA," Winks notes.

It wasn't just globe-trotting historians and social scientists who made the leap. As Winks emphasized, Yale's literature specialists played a key role in shaping the agency's thinking. Mole-hunter James Jesus Angleton, the most controversial figure in CIA history, began his career as an apprentice of the New Critics on Yale's English faculty, and his literary training in "close reading" may have shaped his hyper-skeptical (some would say paranoid) approach to counterintelligence.

With their emphasis on wide-ranging historical research and, later, the minutely detailed examination of language, Yale's literary scholars shaped the CIA's understanding of the world -- for better and for worse.

. . .

Among the first of the New Haven intelligence specialists was Wilmarth Lewis, a well-born dandy who guided Yale University Press's landmark 48-volume edition of the letters of 18th-century British art collector and novelist Horace Walpole. As many reviewers noted, the beauty of the Yale Walpole was not in the actual letters, which tended toward the trivial, but in the footnotes, which extensively detailed the overlapping networks of patronage and influence that characterized Walpole's time.

On the eve of 1941 the poet, Yalie, and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish recruited Lewis into the embryonic intelligence agency being created by future OSS chief "Wild" Bill Donovan. A Columbia alumnus, Donovan was busily hiring both sturdy Eastern establishment types and erudite refugees from Nazi Europe (including the Marxist social theorist Herbert Marcuse).

In late 1941, Lewis became chief of the Central Information Division (CID), a government agency charged with organizing vast bodies of knowledge so that any crucial military question could be answered quickly -- an effort reminiscent of retired Admiral John Poindexter's recent attempt to create a "Total Information Awareness" database. In the pre-Google world, CID collected postcards of German cities, popular European newspapers and magazines, and other items, and stored them on index cards and microfilm.

As University of Arizona professor William H. Epstein explained in a 1990 article for the journal English Literary History: "Lewis and his staff developed a system for the storage and retrieval of this huge flow of material, a cross- and counter-indexed catalogue which became the pre-computer model for other government information systems. This monumental attempt to index the contemporary world was based on the documentation techniques Lewis and his sub-editors had devised for the Yale Walpole edition."

But even as it gained currency in Washington, back in New Haven Lewis's style of extensive historical research was coming under fire from a new generation of literary scholars. Influenced by the British scholars I.A. Richards and William Empson, and by the towering presence of T.S. Eliot, the New Critics insisted that too much historical context could distract the reader from the really important question: the shape and intrinsic value of a work of literature itself. Like appraisers of jewelry, literary critics would examine poetry and prose in fine detail; only an intensive reading of the poem itself could show how a great work such as John Donne's "The Ecstasy" wove its conflicting meanings into a coherent whole.

In 1942, erstwhile Yale student Donald Downes recruited English professor Norman Holmes Pearson into the OSS. As Winks explains, Pearson knew how to read materials "as intently as possible for hidden messages" because the Yale Department of English taught him "how to read, really read, closely, without interruption, how to interrogate a manuscript. . .." (After the war, Pearson would resume his scholarly career, which included collaborating with his friend W.H. Auden in the editing of the five-volume anthology "Poets of the English Language.")

None of the New Haven alumni would be more significant or controversial than James Jesus Angleton. As a Yale undergraduate in the late 1930s and early `40s, he distinguished himself as an active supporter of both the New Criticism and its cultural ally, literary modernism. Furioso, the little journal Angleton cofounded with poet Reed Whittemore in 1939, published modernist writers like Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. Angleton also invited Empson to campus.

Following Pearl Harbor, Angleton joined the OSS, where he served with distinction. In Italy after the war, he organized the covert anticommunist campaign that secured victory for the Christian Democrats in the crucial election of 1948. He carried out this task with such flair that he quickly rose in the CIA, becoming Chief of the Office of Special Operations in `49. In that capacity, Angleton was responsible for all counterintelligence. But in his increasingly obsessive search for a "Big Mole" inside the agency, he alienated colleagues and eventually reached what many considered the outer limits of paranoia before he was fired in 1974.

The key to understanding Angleton's genius, or madness, may lie in his training as a literary theorist. Angleton once defined counterintelligence as "the practical criticism of ambiguity." (As William Epstein observes, this phrase is "derived from the titles of two of the most influential texts of formalist criticism, Richards's `Practical Criticism' and Empson's `Seven Types of Ambiguity."')

The New Critics famously attacked the "intentional fallacy," arguing that the meaning of a text could not be identified with its author's intentions. They also put a high value on paradox, indirection, and all the many ways in which a written artifact does not mean what it seems to mean.

In his rigorous questioning of Soviet defectors, Angleton was a New Critic par excellence. He almost never took them at their word, fearing as he did that they might be double agents sent to spread disinformation. "The more solid the information from a defector, the more you should not trust him, and the more you should suspect he has something to hide," he once observed.

For Angleton, history resembled a novel by Ford Madox Ford or Henry James, with a plausible surface story that hid a very different and more troubling tale if you read it closely enough. He speculated that Joe McCarthy might have been a KGB agent sent to make anticommunism look bad, and believed the Sino-Russian split was a ruse. Convinced that a KGB defector named Yuri Nosenko was a fraud, Angleton and his followers at the CIA went to elaborate if fruitless lengths to get him to admit the "truth" about his deception: They held him in isolation for at least two years, tortured him and injected him with truth serums. As a massive wave of suspicion engulfed the agency, many began suspecting that Angleton himself was the Big Mole.

Now that the Cold War is history, it's clear that Angleton's refusal to accept straightforward explanations led him seriously astray. The Soviet Union did penetrate the CIA, but Aldrich Ames was not the Big Mole of Angleton's theorizing. But even though he is generally dismissed as a crank, Angleton does continue to have his admirers. New York Times columnist William Safire likes to recall meeting Angleton and has fondly imagined him "cultivating the orchids in Spook Heaven." (Angleton died in 1987.) In National Review Online, Michael Ledeen, a conservative thinker involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, has written columns imagining what Angleton would say about the war on terrorism. (Karl Rove has cited Ledeen as one of the chief intellectual influences on the current Bush administration.)

Both Safire and Ledeen are proponents of a grand unified theory of the Middle East. Safire believes that Osama bin Laden had ties with Saddam Hussein whereas Ledeen has argued for connections between the Iranian theocrats and Al Qaeda. They are, in their way, heirs to the Angleton tradition.

Angleton once described the intelligence world as "a wilderness of mirrors", a quote taken from one of his favorite poets, T.S. Eliot. For all his reputed brilliance, Angleton got lost in that wilderness.

Perhaps the moral of Angleton's story can be found in another work of literature. Norman Rush's recent novel, "Mortals," tells the story of a CIA agent and John Milton scholar whose cover is his job teaching literature at a university in Botswana. At one point, Rush's scholar-spy reflects: "The past is a forest of signs. The problem was that you could only read them when you turned around and looked back, unfortunately."

Jeet Heer is a regular contributor to the National Post of Canada and the Globe.

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