Remembering Philip Agee
Talks given at a Memorial for Philip Agee held at the West Side Y in New York City, on May 3, 2009. For more information on Agee see Chris John Agee, “Bridging the Gap: Philip Agee, 1935-2008,” in NACLA Report on the Americas (Jan-Feb, 2009), 9-13.
In one of his novels, John le Carré has George Smiley, his major character, saying of the western intelligence agencies: “In our supposed ideological rectitude, we sacrificed our compassion to the great god of indifference. We protected the strong against the weak, and we perfected the art of the public lie. We made enemies of decent reformers and friends of the most disgusting potentates. And we scarcely paused to ask ourselves how much longer we could defend our society by these means and remain a society worth defending.”
I think that pretty much describes the truth that Phil Agee devoted 35 years to exposing. Phil’s major accomplishment in his books, articles and speeches was to expose all of the CIA’s wrong-headed practices that made us more enemies than friends around the world. His work was impressive and effective. He and his work will be missed. For this he was pilloried by the government and the press across the years. The New York Times had lent its prestige to the pillorying. At the end, though, in its annual issue about the death of notable figures, the Times Magazine section, to explain Phil’s disillusionment with the CIA, said of him, “He started to wonder whether protecting oligarchs, while keeping their states in peonage to US investors under cover of ‘development,’ wasn’t in fact the purpose of US policy. He was, Agee now reckoned, part of the problem.” So the Times finally got it right, but not until after Philip’s death, though it still denounced his identification of CIA agents.
Until his death, however, Phil was the target of government attack. I first came to know him in 1974 when the Agency tried to disrupt his relationship with his then young sons, who were with their mother, from whom Phil was separated. I confronted the CIA general counsel and they backed off. In 1975, the Agency tried to deter publication in the US of Phil’s book Inside the Company, although it had already been published in the U.K. Though the CIA threatened legal action against Phil’s US publisher, Stonehill, I assured them and the Agency that the ACLU would defend them should the Agency take legal action, which they had threatened. They backed down again and the book was published and became a bestseller.
In addition to all of the public attacks on Phil by the Agency, they were working behind the scenes, of course, but some of that activity was particularly threatening to Phil’s safety. We came to know this from materials released by the government in Phil’s Freedom of Information Act suit. Among the thousands of pages produced, most of which were blacked out, were a couple of amazing documents. They showed that in the late Seventies, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice conducted a criminal investigation of the CIA involving its activities against Philip. In a memorandum dated January 16, 1978, the head of the Civil Rights Division, Drew Days, now at Yale Law School, sent a memorandum to the Attorney General “about whether to prosecute CIA officials for civil rights violations against Philip Agee.” There was no such prosecution, of course, and to this day, notwithstanding inquiries and lawsuits, we still don’t know what those CIA activities were specifically, but they were surely serious and threatening.
The major public step taken against Phil by the government was revocation of his passport at the end of 1979, arising out of the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran. The government, through the CIA deputy director, alleged that Philip’s ability to travel the world on his US passport “greatly enhances his potential to disrupt and damage American foreign policy and national security interests.” He also asserted that according to a report in the New York Post, then as now one of the worst and most reactionary newspapers in the US, Philip had been invited to visit Iran to participate in a tribunal to pass judgment on the American hostages. That was of course an outright lie. Phil had in fact said publicly he would not visit Iran until the hostages were released. But the government nonetheless revoked his passport there and then.
We immediately filed suit in federal court in Washington challenging the revocation. The prospects looked good because in previous cases the Supreme Court had held that US passports could not be revoked except on grounds explicitly authorized by Congress. The earlier cases confirmed that Congress had never authorized revocation for national security. Those earlier cases involved Rockwell Kent and Herbert Aptheker.
Based on those decisions, the federal district court declared the revocation of Philip’s passport invalid. The government appealed. The panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals before whom we argued the case included two of its most conservative judges, Robb and MacKinnon. Robb joined with the third judge, Patricia Wald, to affirm the District Court, relying again on the Kent and Aptheker cases. The third judge, MacKinnon, a resolutely reactionary judge, dissented. Part of his dissent included draft indictments against Phil for treason, kidnapping and seditious conspiracy. MacKinnon was seized by right-wing demons.
The government asked the Supreme Court to hear an appeal. We opposed the application but the Court granted it. It turned out that MacKinnon wasn’t the only federal judge seized by right-wing demons. So were seven of the Supreme Court Justices, all of them except Brennan and Thurgood Marshall.
The majority opinion reinterpreted the Kent and Aptheker cases, just so they could get Philip Agee. It was perfectly clear from the argument before the Court, and in its opinion, that Philip was thought to be a menace to the CIA and to its concept of national security. They got that right, of course, but as in the more recent decision giving the 2000 election to George Bush, the Court betrayed its neutral principles, as they are called, in order to reach a decision based entirely on their own political objectives.
In a way, though, Phil had the last laugh. He continued to travel the world for another 26 years on a variety of passports and travel documents issued to him by Nicaragua, Grenada and Germany, and he continued to effectively criticize the CIA and US foreign policy. Though revocation of his passport stuck in his craw, it did not diminish his work. Phil will be missed – personally and politically.
My wife Ellen Ray, our colleague Lou Wolf, and I, had the privilege of working with Philip Agee off and on for more than 30 years. For every minute of that time, he set an example for us of stark honesty and staunch integrity.
Ellen first met Phil in 1976 when she went to Jamaica for Counterspy magazine to join him in working for Michael Manley’s reelection campaign, and to research and write an article about CIA interference in Jamaica. I met Phil the next year, when Lou was working with him on the book that eventually became Dirty Work: The CIA in Western Europe. When it was published, in early 1978, the second half of the book, printed on yellow paper, was a listing of hundreds and hundreds of CIA officers, then or previously serving under cover around the world. At the time, Phil reiterated what he had earlier pointed out, and consistently maintained for the rest of his life, that these people had to be exposed, not in order to endanger them physically, which was not, in fact, the case, but in order to render them less effective, to make it harder for them to be agents of death and destruction, interfering unlawfully in the affairs of other countries, which was the reason, and the only reason, for their existence.
Not long after, in June 1978, the four of us, with two former CIA staffers, Jim and Elsie Wilcott, founded Covert Action magazine, in Washington, and brought copies to the World Youth Festival in Havana, where we made contacts with researchers and activists from around the world. To our amazement, Covert Action was published for more than 25 years. Near the back of the very first issue, there was a short column called “Naming Names,” about which more in a moment.
One of the ironies of Phil’s life was that he was often blamed (or praised, depending on one’s point of view) for things he did not do. Chief among these non-achievements was the notion that Philip Agee taught people how to identify and expose undercover CIA officers. In fact, in Phil’s landmark book, Inside the Company, he exposed many, many CIA officers, but they were all people he had worked with or had contact with or learned of in his years with the CIA. He did not teach anyone how to uncover them; he just named them all in his book.
Around the same time, a former State Department intelligence officer, John Marks, published an article entitled “How to Spot a Spook.” This is the article that showed people how to uncover and expose CIA officers serving in embassies and consulates around the world, and explained how easy it was to do this. He explained about what is called “light cover,” and why all the CIA people based at an embassy had to have some kind of phony State Department history created, and set out in the Diplomatic Register, which was a publicly available annual government publication at the time. In fact, as time went on, people began to believe that Philip Agee, not John Marks, had written that article.
Later on, it was Lou Wolf, with no access to any classified material at all, who became the expert at naming names. But before the book that Lou and Phil were working on was ever finished, in 1976, the CIA station chief in Athens, Richard Welch, was gunned down in front of his home, and President Ford went on television and blamed Philip Agee for his death.
Richard Welch had indeed been named in an article in Counterspy quite a long time before his death, when he was stationed in Peru. And Athens was his next assignment. The reference in the old Counterspy came from two other foreign publications – none related to Counterspy or to any of us – that had named Welch. He was, in fact, a very well-known CIA officer. When he was transferred to Athens, he was denounced in a left-wing Greek magazine. None of these other outings were mentioned by President Ford; he said only that Welch had been named in Counterspy and Agee was connected with Counterspy.
What the government did not reveal – which did not come to light for several years, and only after extensive probing by a then ACLU researcher, Morton Halperin – was that hundreds of people in Athens knew that the house into which Richard Welch had recently moved was the home of the CIA station chief. In fact, before he moved in, Welch had received a message from Langley [CIA Headquarters] informing him that the house of his predecessor was too well known and too dangerous and asking that he take another house somewhere else. Welch wired back that he and his wife liked the house and they would take their chances and did not wish to live elsewhere. A couple of weeks later, he was dead.
Slowly, but inexorably, from the day of Welch’s death, the law that was to become the Intelligence Identity Protection Act came to pass. The so-called anti-Agee bill was passed because of something Agee had nothing to do with. Congress was asked by the then director of the CIA, Frank Carlucci, to pass a law that would make it a criminal offense to expose the identity of an undercover intelligence officer even if the information came from public, non-classified sources.
Their problem was the first amendment, and they decided to try to get around that by making the law apply only to persons who exposed identities as part of a pattern of conduct designed to expose such identities. If you exposed someone on purpose, and not by accident or incidental to some other reportage, then, they said, it could be criminalized.
We were not the only ones to be outraged by this approach. We soon discovered that the New York Times, the Associated Press, and CBS television were all so concerned that they had jointly retained the Times’s noted first amendment lawyer, Floyd Abrams, to discuss the defeat of the proposed law with members of Congress. He did so, and he came back to report to us and to his clients, the major papers, the wire services, the television networks, that they had nothing to worry about, that there was no need to bring a test case. The members of the intelligence committees had assured Abrams that this law was designed “to get Agee and Covert Action,” not the legitimate news-gathering agencies who were not “in the business of naming names.” They had nothing to worry about; this law would never be used against them.
So much for the first amendment. A law to get Agee and Covert Action hardly justified a challenge, especially one on the Times’s dime. And, as Abrams told, us, “Don’t you bring a test case; you’d guarantee that the law was upheld.” So, after a brief discussion about the merits and demerits of martyrdom, in which the demerits definitely won, we decided that Covert Action had no choice but to discontinue its “Naming Names” column.
In fact, of course, the law had its desired chilling effect on the major media as well. Very few people knew of, much less accepted, Floyd Abrams’s assurances that the law would only be used against Covert Action, and in the ensuing twenty-five years or so, virtually no undercover CIA officers have been named in the media. Except, of course, for Valerie Plame, and no matter what the law says, the government was not about to prosecute the vice-president.
The law did not stop progressive journalists from exposing the misdeeds of the US intelligence community, although it made it much more difficult to assign individual responsibility. And, since then, so much covert activity has become overt activity, the battle has shifted. We don’t really need to expose undercover operatives as much today as we need to expose outrageous government misconduct. We can all hope that the level of that misconduct is less under Obama than under Bush, but we would be foolish to think it has disappeared. No chance.
My time of knowing Philip was unfortunately all too brief: the last five and a half years of his life. Of course, I had read him, watched him on television, listened to his radio interviews and, like many Americans, admired him for his courage and intellect. (This morning I checked the internet to find that over 100,000 hits had been registered on his website).
All of our meetings, some eight or nine, occurred in Havana, Cuba, where I had come while working on the defense of the Cuban Five, and where he resided with his wife, Giselle.
What immediately impressed me was that he was living as a Cuban, not as some international celebrity, author, and ex-CIA officer. His was a fourth-floor walkup (the elevator had long since stopped running) and you got there by climbing a dark stairwell with a rusted-out metal banister. We drove around Havana in his more than ten-year-old Russian Lada, stopping at a local market where he stood in line with paper bags to buy vegetables along with his neighbors. I would email Philip before coming down, always asking if there was anything I could bring. Modestly, he refused except for asking that I bring old New Yorker issues for Giselle.
Meeting Philip, after knowing so much about him, is a something of a surprise: unassuming, modest, quiet. But you could also see those qualities that made him what he had become: intensely present, determined and resolute. It must have driven the CIA crazy to try to attack the credibility of a man so eminently credible. However, that didn’t stop them from trying, hounding him right into his obituaries, such as that which appeared in the New York Times carrying the same old tired falsehoods about his serving as a recruited agent of America’s enemies.
Together we toured the offices of CubaLinda where Philip had organized a large Cuban staff to help him facilitate trips to Cuba by American college students (possible before the crackdown) so that they could experience the Cuban Revolution firsthand. In its time it was enormously successful and gave him great satisfaction in knowing that it enabled thousands to seek a truth long withheld by their government — Philip's life’s work.
And when this was no longer possible, due to the newly imposed Bush travel restrictions, he did what he had been so open and willing to do: assist a cause that needed truth-telling, the case of the Cuban Five. (For those who don’t know, the case is about five Cuban men who came to Florida to infiltrate paramilitary groups which had planted bombs in Cuban hotels in the mid-90's (killing an Italian tourist), and to report the plans of those groups back to Cuba. Arrested by the FBI and prosecuted for conspiracy to commit espionage and related offenses in Miami, where a fair trial was impossible, three of their number were sentenced to life terms and two to decades in prison.) Philip met with one of the outstanding documentary filmmakers in Cuba and recorded an interview for a widely distributed film which gave a perspective on that case that only an ex-CIA operative could offer. He then traveled to Europe and spoke to large audiences about the injustices in the case, prompting a response from organized labor in England that has now invigorated key parts of the American labor movement to join in support.
Philip taught an entire generation about the CIA and its worldwide operations. He never stopped being a teacher and organizer. There was no bitterness about living outside the US, no longing to return. He was at peace with his life as it was. And toward the end, when his life came to depend on the professionalism of socialized medicine in Cuba, he spoke with gratitude of the care he was receiving and the warmth and concerns of those who had become his hosts.
A wise observer once suggested that the struggle for justice is defined by the tension between remembering and forgetting. Rest easy, Philip; we’ll remember.