Yale spy story goes Hollywood

Nine years after “This Boy’s Life,” DiCaprio and DeNiro are together again.

Only this time, Robert DeNiro will be spending more time behind the camera than in front — he is directing “The Good Shepherd” and has a small supporting role in it. And, as far as Leonardo DiCaprio is concerned, this boy’s life is the kind he can’t tell his friends about — or he’d have to kill them.

This Christmas DiCaprio makes a double-slam return to the silver screen with Martin Scorsese’s larger-than-life “Gangs of New York” and Steven Spielberg’s larger-than-Tom Hanks “Catch Me If You Can.” With the “Titanic” phenomenon a millennium behind him, DiCaprio is a little older, a little darker, and ready to take on the most challenging role of his life: becoming one of us.

In “The Good Shepherd,” DiCaprio will play James Wilson, an optimistic Yale graduate who is recruited to become one of the founding officers of the CIA.

While the film will neither be set or filmed at Yale, historians, conspiracy theorists and Yale professors agree the tie between Yale and the CIA has a long, complex legacy.



The fly fishing secret agent

The James Wilson character is based on former CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton ’41. Angleton, whom William F. Buckley Jr. ’50 unraveled in his biography “Spytime,” was America’s real-life Jason Bourne.

The Office of Strategic Services, the World War II ancestor of CIA, recruited Angleton — a chain-smoking poetry addict, master fly fisherman and grower of rare orchids — right after graduation.

Angleton was chief of counterintelligence from 1954 to 1974. He served in X-2, the OSS counterintelligence unit, during the war, and had a talent for burning and turning Nazi stay-behinds in Italy. He was eventually fired because he feared the Russian intelligence service would recruit moles in both the CIA and FBI counterintelligence. William Colby, the CIA director, branded Angleton as paranoid.

Yet, Angleton’s fears turned out to be well warranted in the 1980s when both Aldrich Ames — heading the CIA’s anti-Soviet counterintelligence — and Robert Phillip Hanssen, working for the FBI, both operated as moles for the Russian Intelligence Service.

History professor Robin Winks’ highly acclaimed book “Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War 1939-1961,” written over a decade ago, dedicated a 117-page chapter to Angleton.

H. Bradford Westerfield, the Damon Wells professor emeritus of international studies and political science who formerly taught a course on Westerfield, said Winks’ writing on Angleton was a fair, balanced and accurate portrayal.

“Most [of what has been written about Angleton] is drivel,” Westerfield said. “That’s what the movie will probably be based on. The movie will probably make him a demon.”



Bulldogs in the CIA

Angleton is not the only Yale graduate who has been a major player in the CIA. Two Yale alums, former U.S. President George Bush ’48 and R. James Woolsey ’68, have headed the CIA.

“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 said. “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 did.”

Today, however, not one of the CIA chiefs or directors has Yale affiliations.

“Yale’s student body has changed its complexion,” Westerfield said, citing disillusionment by most students since the Vietnam War.

“There was a burst of interest in the CIA in the student body after 9 -11 but I think that petered out,” he said.

Winks said that during the 1940s and 1950s, Yale professors and sports coaches doubled as CIA liaisons. The crew coach, Skip Walz, received $10,000 yearly from the CIA to recruit team members to the service, he said.

Westerfield said a cooperative tapping process developed — much like the secret society taps — where CIA liaisons picked the creme de la creme to join.

“There was no way to volunteer for the CIA,” he said. “You had to be recruited.”

Westerfield estimated between four and six Yale graduates enter the CIA every year. The level of CIA recruitment at Yale and other Ivy universities fell after 1965, Westerfield said.

“[The] CIA was a draft dodge for a lot of people. It was the respectable thing to do if you didn’t want to get shot at,” he said.

Westerfield said no respectable Yale student would think of avoiding national service completely during World War II, the Korean War, and the latter years of Vietnam.

“[And] the CIA was the least unacceptable option,” he said.

In either 1994 or 1995, he said, a top CIA official told students that 125 of the approximately 2,000 career officers in the CIA were Yale graduates.

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