James Jesus Angleton ’41, breeder of rare orchids and disputably a paranoiac, founded and edited the short-lived but reputable literary magazine, Furioso, during his time as an undergraduate at Yale. Beginning a series of enthusiastic correspondences with Ezra Pound after the two met in Italy during the summer of 1938, Angleton published Pound’s poems along with the work of Cummings, MacLeish and Williams in his magazine the next year. But more ink has been spilled describing Angleton’s life than those of his beloved poets. Returning to Washington after World War II, Angleton would go on to help found the Central Intelligence Agency.
His early literary activities and engagement with the school of New Criticism at Yale, which focused on the exclusion of authorial intent and readers’ emotion in the close readings of texts, were later by no means inconsequential to his lifelong career as the “mother of counterintelligence.” And the life he led as a spy eventually took a wild turn into a narrative of its own: so suspicious was Angleton — this man who peppered his phrases with poetry — of the superficial and duplicitous motives of others that he began a labyrinthine manhunt for an underlying traitor within his own ranks. This quest would lead him to accuse members in the highest echelons of government of treason, isolating him in his futile search for a deeper meaning.
Likewise, the decades-long relationship between Yale and the CIA has been characterized by equal shows of brilliance and folly — by an eagerness to cooperate and a proclivity for distrust.
In a visible show of solicitude, an exact replica of the Nathan Hale statue from Yale’s Old Campus stands in front of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virg. As any peppy Yale tour guide will happily let you know, Hale class of 1773 was a captain in the Continental Army during the American Revolution and one of the nation’s first spies.
The Research and Analysis Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the CIA’s predecessor, was so heavily populated by Yale alumni in its early years that it was known as “the campus.” During the Second World War, the OSS spooks had also been distinguished scholars such as the historians William Lewis, Horace Walpole and Sherman Kent. Forty-two students from the Class of 1943 ended up in the OSS and many stayed on through its transformation into the CIA.
Varsity crew coach Skip Waltz recruited for the OSS what he saw as the best of Yale’s white Anglophile protestant males from its population of mostly white Anglo-Saxon protestant males. Following the conclusion of war in 1947, OSS alumnus Walter L. Pforzheimer ’35 contributed to drafting the act that would establish the CIA.
And still today, some recent alumni from both campuses include CIA directors Porter J. Goss ’60, R. James Woolsey Jr. LAW ’68, and George H.W. Bush ’48. Now a visiting lecturer at the Jackson Institute, John Negroponte ’60 served as the first Director of National Intelligence under President George W. Bush ’68. William F. Buckley ’50, founder of the National Review, wrote one of the many aforementioned fictionalized accounts of Angleton’s life, and served a stint in the CIA as well.
In “Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961” former Yale history professor Robin Winks writes: “Rightly or wrongly, a historian could, in assessing the link between the university and the agency, declare in 1984 that Yale had influenced the CIA more than any other university had … ”
The reverse of his equation reads equally true.
Throughout its history, the intelligence community has mined the University for what it could offer as a clandestine cover, source of research and wellspring of able-bodied recruits. The move from classroom to agency was reported to be so easy that even early on, some alumni frequently moved back and forth. Joseph Curtiss, an assistant English professor, traveled to Turkey in 1942 under the pretense of collecting materials for Sterling Memorial Library, but in reality was gathering sensitive intelligence for the OSS.
For the bright young students searching for purpose, (especially the bespectacled, whose bad eyesight made them unfit for military service), the grandest of all purposes — the Cold War’s re-staging of the cosmic struggle between good and evil — was right at hand. Spurred on by the totalitarian shock of the recent war, and brought together against a new common enemy, students found, in intelligence work and the Foreign Service, a way to reconcile an excellent education with a desire to serve their nation.
“We face the realization that the very civilization we have trained ourselves to foster has been placed on the verge of destruction,” wrote one student in the 1951 Class Book. “The challenge to each of us as individuals cannot be over-emphasized.”
One hundred students in the Class of 1951, including CIA Agent and Ambassador to China James Lilley ’51, quickly signed up for the CIA to find out what they could do for their country. A decade later, President Kennedy would again inspire students with his call to public service.
But this feeling of purposeful unity was soon shattered by the growing frustration with the Vietnam War, which spread like napalm across campuses and the nation.
A loss of faith in the U.S. government only deepened with spreading reports of its agencies’ unwanted interventions and assassinations abroad. Adding fuel to the fire of college-age detractors’ discontent, Ramparts magazine ran an expose of the CIA’s secret funding of propaganda for the National Students Association in the late 1960s. To top it all off, the Bay of Pigs incident was largely engineered by Yale alumni Richard Bissell Jr. ’32 and Tracy Barnes ’33.
The so-called golden age of old blue espionage, the earlier epoch from the end of World War II to the beginning of the 1960s, had overheated to a boiling point. As the CIA professionalized its organization and became a more bureaucratic hierarchy, it drove away interest from more elite schools like Yale and the University of Virginia, and according to Winks in his “Cloak and Gown,” really “shot itself in the foot.”
The CIA’s efforts to diversify its ranks were also seen by some as an anti-intellectual move. Diplomat-in-Residence Charles Hill explains that the move on the agency’s part was a “nice idea, a democratic idea, an egalitarian idea, but it also meant that they were not screening for the people who would be best at the job, wherever they would come from.”
Meanwhile, the makeup of Old Yale’s all-white, white-collar student body and senior societies was also seeing changes that also served to alienate many older conservative alumni. Lecturer in Political Science Jim Sleeper added that as Yale, too, turned its gaze towards the rest of America’s population, their admission of students coming from secure aristocracy declined. The number of students, then, who could afford to devote themselves to public service decreased as the newer students were less financially and culturally secure to be able to take those same financial risks.
Negroponte said that during the years when he went into the Foreign Service, job salaries for government work were competitive with those in the private sector. Additionally, a source who asked to remain anonymous due to an interest in government work pointed out that “the decline of peer-to-peer competition after the collapse of the Soviet Union made intelligence work — and government service more generally — far less attractive to the best and the brightest. America’s participation in the Cold War was, for many young bright students, a palliative to the nihilism of modernity.”
The shifting alliances of this deflated political landscape, in which the CIA plays but one small part, has been credited by many as shaping liberal arts universities such as Yale as they stand today.
Conservatives often complained about the retreat in the 60s of anti-war protesters and radicals to the academy where, as professors, they seized near-monopolies on departments like Sociology and History.
Sleeper sees a “mirror image of the charge that colleges like Yale were refuges for failed, aging radicals of the 1960s” taking place now where veterans of neoconservative administration have come crawling back into the comfortable refuge of visiting appointments at universities today to lick the wounds from the failure of their controversial or unethical policies. “ Will “The Good Shepherd” caricature replace the hippie caricature of the Yale of the 1960s and 70s?” he asks.
He says that Yale today has moved in part towards “Restorationists” eager to return to the legitimacy of Yale’s conduit pre-Cold War by putting it the school back on the “inside track to national intelligence and foreign-policy making” while running the risk of its educational values being turned into “ career networking centers or cultural galleria for [the] global elite that answers to no polity or moral code.”
Politicized or not, the hold “the Company” influences today on Yale’s curriculum — exercised through soft power, big-time donor agendas, and hushed backroom deals — foregrounds a series of ethical questions concerning responsibility and institutional liberty that overshadow any partisan affiliations.
In terms of the relationship a liberal education should have with politics, Sleeper talks about a struggle at the heart of Yale between the irreconcilable approaches that are all a part of Yale’s baggage: the “skullduggery and CIA type of thing”, the military industrial complex, and a strategy of diffuse globalization.
More generally, the academic-intelligence debate most frequently centers around issues of academic freedom and pedagogy.
Though the CIA offers some of its agents the ability to further pursue a master’s degree in higher education, they place explicit limits on an academic’s ability to publish research. Should a previously independent scholar, journalist or public intellectual pass the security clearance and begin work for the agency, they too would be subject to signing a lifetime agreement allowing officials to review anything they write on putatively classified material. Many consider these safeguards to be one step away from censorship.
“The scholar who works for a government intelligence agency ceases to be an independent spirit, a true scholar,” stated a Boston Globe editorial in the mid-1980s.
Despite the tensions outlined above, the CIA has always had faculty members on its payroll and in the 1980s started to pay for approximately 10 CIA agents to serve as visiting university faculty. Last year, one former CIA member told the New York Times that the CIA had attacked and discredited a history professor under review for hire in order to block his appointment. Senior University and government officials have denied this account.
Today, the CIA also works closely alongside specialists outside the government (as part of its Global Expertise Reserve Program) with the understanding that a lot of the information specialists are looking for might already be in the public domain.
Security was so lax, Sherman Kent, Yale historian and chairman of the CIA’s board of National Estimates, told President Harry Truman in 1951, that he planned on turning Yale students loose to discover “95 percent of the nation’s secrets.” Recruited from six different departments, his 15-member team, who already knew how to use their wonderful library well, confined their research skills to periodicals and documents on public record to produce a startling report (nicknamed the “Yale Report”) on the “Estimates of Capabilities of the United States Combat Forces in Being [as of] 1 September 1951.”
According to a CIA account of the Yale Report, the team uncovered in 10 weeks’ time “what to us of the intelligence calling was a bewildering array of factual information about the size and composition of the U.S. military establishment.”
It might have been that the two campuses were more similar then than they are now. The charming comparison to draw would be that Yale could colloquially be described as a central intelligence agency in and of itself — with its myriad research capabilities, technologies, bureaucracies, quests for funding and specialized analysts.
And no doubt this Herculean task of the Yale Report could most likely be performed nowadays through the Internet. This year, a monomaniacally dedicated group of students at Georgetown University unearthed the largest body of public knowledge to date regarding China’s 1,000-mile underground tunnels harboring guesses as to the size and location of its ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads.
As the Georgetown case shows, good students can make good analysts without a graduate degree or excessive training.
Today, however, critics on both sides lament the increase in classes programmed to funnel students into government bureaucracy.
Both Sleeper and Hill speak of the Jackson Institute and the Global Affairs program as attempts to re-brand Yale as a public policy feeder school, and in doing so, these attempts have cheapened educational experience. In the desperation of the job market, Yale has tried be more like a graduate school and less like a place that teaches analyzing, thinking and writing.
Yale classes that teach students how to write policy memos in an effort to play catch-up to grad schools, are in fact, in Hill’s words, playing a “catch-down” and “training technocrats.”
Still, Negroponte, as a practitioner, views the skills that go into writing a government memo as similarly useful task as those that train students to write a research essay or give a presentation.
Courses in policy writing make students more marketable, Sleeper says, which goes totally against the true mission of a liberal arts education. Rather, Sleeper suggests, “a liberal arts education should preserve the creative tension between practice and this great conversation across the ages about these questions. And that’s very hard to do.”
For Hill, public policy has “right” and “wrong” answers which is not the case in literature, history, art, music, etc. In the humanities, which is Charles Hill’s synecdoche for Sleeper’s “value of a liberal education”, students are taught to think critically in a way that can be applicable for any number of situations.
“Why learn how to write a policy memo on preventing nuclear proliferation if you can’t even convincingly make a case that the human race — much less the United States of America — is a good thing that’s worth protecting,” laments the anonymous source. “Does the U.S. government exist to merely protect us and clothe us and feed us or to foster public and private virtue? These are questions that the Yalies of yesteryear could tackle quite easily and eloquently. Today, almost no one can.”
But whereas Hill lauds programs like Yale’s Grand Strategy as teaching precisely those skills, Sleeper sees an attempt to read into a classically open-minded model one’s own political ideology.
“When you try to turn the accounts of Thucydides or Plato into manuals for strategy, you’re betraying both liberal education and republic leadership training,” Sleeper said.
The skills that most Yale majors teach students well — namely, close reading, critical thinking and strong writing — are the same valuable assets that make its graduates good analysts. Or for that matter, good at any job.
“An analyst job is like writing a paper except its called an intelligence report,” said a senior government official, who requested to remain anonymous citing government policy. “But instead of using a book or a person as your evidence, you’re using classified intelligence.”
He points to this as to why Yale turns out so many journalists and policy makers as well. The only difference in what those jobs consist of, the senior official argued, is in the subject matter and sourcing of what they’re writing on.
Many see analyst jobs as dead-end desk jobs with little room for advancement and none for bragging rights. Are the more heavily recruited and higher-paying jobs in the financial sector and the playground-campuses of Silicon Valley attracting the agency’s highly-skilled prospective applicants instead?
In 2001, following the attacks of September 11, around 750 students expressed an interest in the CIA when they passed through the agency’s career fair booth. For some years thereafter, interest in the agency was at a new high. A 2004 News article reported that information sessions and panels with CIA recruiters regularly generated audiences of up to 80 students.
A CIA spokesperson in the article was quoted as saying that it was less the University’s historical ties to the agency and more the type of learning Yale teaches, “with its focus on languages and international study” that “equips them for the kind of work intelligence officers perform.”
According to the New York Times, student recruitment is estimated to be around a 1,000 students per year of which approximately 20 percent are recruited into covert operations. Although the agency is no longer hiring with the same fervor, for those interested in a taste of the covert action, the CIA offers lucrative undergraduate and graduate internships in Washington, D.C. lasting six months.
With the rise of cyber-espionage, it would seem that the CIA’s interest in Computer Science and Math majors who can write and break code might balloon.
Regardless of their background — whether it be in C++, the classics or both — applicants need to be realists and understand, the senior official warned, that for many it’s a “desk job.”
“Your cover is going to be a dark close-up of the shadow of Nathan Hale’s face,” a senior government official teased, “but the reality is that people [in the CIA] work in cubicles that look like a Proctor and Gamble office — and it’s mostly a bunch of Mormons.” The senior official paused dramatically, letting the reality of his vision of the CIA sink in.
“At the end of the day, all they’re writing about is traffic going in and out of a silo — let’s say in Libya — but it’s a well-lit room they’re in and it just happens to be in Langley, Virg.”
The headquarters at Langley are easy to miss, which may or not represent what really goes on inside. Crows pick the bloodied carcass of a dead deer by the side of the road. And then, on the main road, the sign for the George Bush Center for Intelligence appears, and my cell reception dies. Should you drive past the checkpoint shack, ignoring the WARNING and DO NOT ENTER signs along the way, a swarm of Humvees will descend from out of the woods like an epic simile of your choice in a matter of seconds to stop and search your car. But should you continue on the highway, you will drive past another sign, seconds later, that reads “McLean/ Come Again.” Having chosen this second option, the whole occasion, was uniquely uneventful, as I’d been forewarned. But I had wanted to drive by anyway because there was still the chance that maybe, just maybe there would be … something.
Borrowing a phrase from T.S. Eliot’s Gerontion, Angleton often described the inner workings of the agency as a “wilderness of mirrors.” Angleton’s means of ordering the world moved along so many deceptions that it ceased to be real. At the end of his career, he dove head first into so desperate a mole hunt that at one point he even suspected the stalwart anti-Communist bigot Sen. Joe McCarthy of being a Soviet spy. What better spy could the Soviets send, reasoned Angleton, than a man who made anti-Communism look even worse?
Some professors might contend that Angleton needed to be reminded about the difference between close reading and over-reading. And yet, the imagination involved in speculating such an absurdly unlikely proposition — Joe McCarthy the Stalinate — can only spring from a scheming, brilliant and wholly independent mind. One that could recast, for better or worse, the arbitrary boundaries drawn between literature and the classroom, reality and a dream, poetry and analysis. Our fascination with the CIA, with its mythical figures and failures, as a national legend — as a genre of fiction — may be of just as much interest for learning about the intuitions of the modern mind — as it is for learning about the institution itself.
Knowing very little and getting that part wrong too: this is where secrecy twists the intellect into an object of fear. The spy world then, turns accident into meaning and so frees us to imagine and presume in broad leaps and strokes.
“For in [the spy] profession there is no such thing as coincidence,” writes Le Carre in the film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
And consider an illustration of these two approaches to thinking: Most of the American public would prefer to watch say, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a fictionalized account of the spy world, than read the continually growing number of now declassified documents made readily available, or, for that matter, the adapted book.
In his review of the film, the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane linked secrets, in a series of sweeping conjectures, to a nihilistic unease: “At the same time, the secrets that lie beyond our field of vision are a wellspring of great disquiet; they tell at best of unknowable national security, at worst of unreachable loneliness, or of a kingdom that has been hollowed out, like a marriage, without our even noticing.”
But on the contrary, what Angleton and an agency that most of us will never receive the security clearance to work for might also give us, strangely enough, is a restored faith in man’s ability to again make the world according to his own image, delusions, fantasies, myths. As Hamlet put it to his players for the world-stage: “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.”