Philip Agee

- Murray Horton

To describe Philip Agee, who died in Havana in January 2008, aged 72, as a whistleblower is a complete misnomer and altogether too mild. Agee was a metaphorical bomb thrower (and the enemies he made for life among his former colleagues and political masters tried very hard to libel him as a literal bomb thrower too). He was one of the real global heroes of the latter decades of the 20th Century. By his courageous actions in exposing the names and operations of his erstwhile employer, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), he will be forever remembered as a real American patriot (naturally he was vilified as a traitor, permanently stripped of his US passport, hounded out of his homeland and subjected to all sorts of threats).

His 1975 classic book “Inside The Company: CIA Diary” went off like a bomb during that turbulent era when the crimes of the CIA throughout the Third World and against its own people were being exposed. That book was absolutely essential reading for everyone at the time. Agee was not a one hit wonder. He went for broke, undergoing a profound political transformation that saw him spend the next several decades actively working against American imperialism throughout the world.

Born in Florida in 1935 into a comfortable Catholic family, Agee attended Jesuit schools and graduated from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana in 1956. “Agee had initially seemed perfect CIA material: bright, sharp witted, bilingual and cultured” (Guardian Obituary, 10/1/08; “Philip Agee: The man who blew the whistle on the CIA’s backing of military dictatorships”, Duncan Campbell). “He told the New York Times in 1974 that the CIA attempted to recruit him while he was at Notre Dame, offering a package plan that included Air Force duty. He said no but reconsidered while studying law at the University of Florida. He served as an Air Force officer from 1957 to 1960 and then began his CIA career” (LA Times-Washington Post, reproduced in Press, Obituaries, 19/1/08; “Agent who lifted CIA lid”).

The Political Education Of A CIA Agent

Agee served as a CIA field officer in Latin America until he quit in 1969, profoundly disillusioned with what he had done and witnessed in the 12 years he worked for the Agency. "[The current attitude] is pretty much the attitude we had in the CIA during the 1950s. When we analysed the operational climate and all the political forces in any given country, we had our friends and we had our enemies. There was no one in between. The friends were centre and Rightwing social democrats, conservatives, liberals, in some cases all the way over to neo-fascists. The enemies were Leftwing social democrats, socialists, Communists, all the way to those advocating armed struggle.

"This is the way we saw the world. It was a strictly dualistic view of the political climate in any given country where we were operating. It was very much like what we are hearing today from Washington. It was not until I got down to Latin America that I began to get a political education. Whatever my ideas when I went down there, I saw things around me every day that influenced me. I saw the terrible economic and social conditions, and the injustices that could not be ignored.

"… The aim of our programmes was to support the status quo, to support the oligarchies of Latin America. These are the power structures that date back centuries, based on ownership of the land, of the financial resources, of the export-import system, and excluding the vast majority of the population. With all of our programmes, we were supporting these traditional power structures. What first caused me to turn against these people were the corruption and the greed that they exhibited in all areas of society. My ideas and attitudes began to change, and eventually I decided to resign from the CIA.

"… I was myself involved in some of these activities. I worked, for example, with the police in Latin American countries, and they were often involved in torture. I remember one Sunday morning in the office of the Chief of Police during a state of siege in Montevideo. My boss, the CIA Chief of Station in Uruguay was present, along with the local Army colonel in charge of anti-riot forces. We began to hear a low moaning coming through the walls and, at first, I thought it was a street vendor outside. But then it became clear that it was someone being tortured in another part of the building. As this horrible sound became louder and louder, the Police chief told the colonel to turn up a radio in order to drown out the groans and screams. There is no end to such examples, and Latin America was one of the places where the worst offences occurred. But it was not just Latin America… (Nordic News Network, 10/1/08; “Philip Agee: Let Us Now Praise An [In]Famous Man”, Al Burke. The Agee speech quoted was delivered in Stockholm, 24/9/01 and can be read in full at Appendix E at “In 1968, Agee ran CIA activities during the Mexico City Olympics. When the Army massacred student protesters there, Agee told me he was tormented by the fact that the survivors were taken away and tortured to death” (Los Angeles Times; “Agee’s Faustian bargain”, Tim Rutten; reproduced in Press, 18/1/08).

He was also a romantic. “’Why did I leave the CIA?’, Agee once asked himself at a public meeting. ‘I fell in love with a woman who thought Che Guevara was the most wonderful man in the world’” (Guardian Obituary, ibid.). She was “a beautiful Brazilian Marxist who had been arrested and tortured by her country’s military, which was then cooperating with US intelligence” (Los Angeles Times; “Agee’s Faustian bargain”, ibid.). Together with his two young sons from his former American marriage, they moved to first Paris and then London in the early 1970s where he worked with the magazine Time Out and other publications to expose the CIA.

Bombshell Book

It was his bombshell 1975 book “Inside The Company: CIA Diary” which immortalised Agee. It detailed what he had done and what the CIA had done during his career with it throughout the 1960s in Latin America. Published in 20 languages it came complete with a 22 page list of 250 Agency operatives (all perfectly legal at that time). In 1978 he wrote “Dirty Work: The CIA In Western Europe”, followed up by a similarly titled book on the CIA in Africa, which exposed a total of another 2,000 CIA agents. He told the Guardian in 2007: “It was a time in the 70s when the worst imaginable horrors were going on in Latin America. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Guatemala, El Salvador – they were military dictatorships with death squads, all with the backing of the CIA and US government. That was what motivated me to name all the names and work with journalists who were interested in knowing just who the CIA were in their countries” (Guardian Obituary, ibid.). “’I did not write the book for the KGB’ (the intelligence agency of the former Soviet Union), he told the New York Times in 1974. ‘I wrote it for revolutionary organisations in the United States, in Latin America and everywhere else’” LA Times-Washington Post, reproduced in Press, Obituaries, 19/1/08; “Agent who lifted CIA lid”).

Ironically, Agee died the same month as Indonesia’s former dictator Suharto, the genocidal kleptocrat who was one the 20th Century’s worst mass murderers and whose 1960s’ slaughter of anywhere up to a million “Communists” was actively aided and abetted by the CIA. For the details of this still unpunished crime against humanity, check out the Anti-Bases Campaign’s newsletter Peace Researcher 25, March 2002, Special Issue, “Ghosts Of A Genocide: The CIA, Suharto And Terrorist Culture”, by Dennis Small (a writer who needs no introduction to Watchdog readers). It can be read online at:

“’Inside the Company’, though published in 1975, remains a basic reference on the methods and procedures by which the United States pursues and maintains its interests in the countries it seeks to control. In fact, I happened to be re-reading it a few years ago as Venezuela was being subjected to a classic destabilisation campaign whose evident purpose was to soften up the country for the coup against President Hugo Chávez which in due course took place a few months later.

“The basic procedure was all laid out in Philip's book: One could read his detailed account of how he and his colleagues had organised the downfall of Ecuador's President Velasco in 1961, and in the daily news follow the same tactics and procedures as they were being applied in Venezuela 40 years later. Then as now, the mainstream media played a central role in creating the necessary pre-coup atmosphere of diffuse anxiety, widespread malaise, and seething rebellion against a ‘dictator’ who happened to be democratically elected. Now as then - despite the numerous subsequent revelations of Philip and others who have followed his example - the same media have divulged little or nothing about the shadowy figures and agencies who orchestrate such processes. For the most part, the CIA and other instruments of US domination continue to operate behind a media smokescreen of wilful neglect and obfuscation” (Nordic News Network, 10/1/08; “Philip Agee: Let Us Now Praise An [In]Famous Man”, Al Burke).

Agee was and remains the CIA’s only ideological defector. He didn’t do it for money or to live in an enemy country (it wasn’t until his final years that he moved to Cuba, where he died). Other ex-spies have written books which have caused ripples (in 2001, the Anti-Bases Campaign hosted Mike Frost, a former Canadian spy turned author, on an NZ speaking tour) but none provoked the fury that Agee did, which lasted the rest of his life. He wasn’t a whistleblower and despite being libelled as a traitor (meaning one who betrays one’s country to an enemy), he was nothing like a traitor. If he was, that means the CIA sees the American people, indeed the world’s peoples, as their enemy, because that’s to whom Agee “betrayed” the CIA. He had become a political enemy to his former covert world, one who could do very real damage to it (which he did, as much as possible for as long as possible) and it, in turn, became his lifelong enemy.

The Price To Be Paid

He was never charged with anything because he hadn’t done anything illegal. In 1982 Congress passed the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, specifically to halt Agee’s revelations. He didn’t name any more names after that. His 1987 book “On The Run” detailed the unrelenting campaign waged against him by the US government during and after his writing of “Inside The Company”. I reviewed that book in Watchdog 62, September 1989 (things moved slower in those pre-Internet days. The book was not available in NZ and I had to import a copy from Australia). Here’s an extract:

“By deliberately choosing to live in the West (not in Cuba, where he could have been set for life), he exposed himself to the full retribution of the open and covert arms of the US government and its satellites. Agee was hounded out of Britain (because he exposed joint US/UK intelligence destabilisation of Michael Manley’s government in Jamaica). He was subsequently expelled from Holland and France, and had a real hassle getting permission to live in (the former) West Germany. More than once he was arrested or held at airports. As a result of trumped up accusations at the time of the Iranian hostage situation (when US Embassy staff were held hostage from 1979-81, and CIA records found in the building made public) he was stripped of his US passport (which was never returned to him). He then travelled on first a Grenadian one and now a Nicaraguan one (the first one ceased when President Reagan sent US forces into Grenada, in the West Indies, in 1983 to overthrow its Government; the second one when the Sandinista government was electorally defeated in 1990, after enduring years of Reagan’s and Bush Senior’s contra war waged by the CIA and its local death squads). He has been subject to constant physical and electronic surveillance. He has had spies planted on him, and found their tools of trade (the famous cover photo of the bugged typewriter in “Inside The Company”). “On The Run” includes a photograph of Agee confronting one of these spies when she was found at her next deep cover assignment. She fled the scene on the spot. He has been called a KGB agent, a Cuban spy, a traitor and a murderer” (all of which were dredged up again in 2008 in mainstream media coverage of his death).
“Under the US Freedom of Information Act, Agee was able to discover the CIA had accumulated 18,000 pages of information on him. Agee was repeatedly blamed for the death of Richard Welch, the CIA Station Chief in Athens who was assassinated in 1975. ‘George Bush's father [George Bush Senior] came in as CIA Director in the month after the assassination and he intensified the campaign, spreading the lie that I was the cause of the assassination. His wife, Barbara, published her memoirs and she repeated the same lie, and this time I sued and won, in the sense that she was required to send me a letter in which she apologised and recognised what she wrote about me was false. They've tried to make this story stick for years. I never know what government hand or neocon hand is behind the allegations, and I don't pay too much attention, but I know I haven't been forgotten’" (Guardian Unlimited, 9/1/08; “Renegade CIA agent Agee dies”, Fred Attewill and agencies).
To return to my 1989 Watchdog review: “’On The Run’ is the aptly titled human record of his life in the CIA, whilst writing ‘Inside The Company’, and as an author, activist and fugitive in the years since. It is a life that has exacted a personal toll – the CIA encouraged his ex-wife to use their two sons as bait to lure him home. The constant pressure has broken up more than one subsequent relationship. He is now married to a ballerina/teacher – he found her totally different world an antidote to the paranoid, secretive one of spy and counterspy” (and marrying a German citizen had the added advantage of entitling him to a German passport).
“Life would have been much easier for Agee if he had been what he has been accused of – a defector and traitor. He could have had a Moscow dacha (this was written before the collapse of the Soviet Union just a couple of years later) or a Havana villa. But he chose to stay and fight, and take the heat. The world owes him a debt of thanks. Nor is he a wishy-washy reformer, who wants to clean up the CIA of a few bad apples. There have been several other agents who have gone public since Agee, written books, toured NZ in one case (Ralph McGehee, in the mid 1980s). They live in the US. But Agee is treated as an implacable enemy, because he has come full circle. He actively espouses revolutionary socialism, with Cuba as the model…He can be accused of naivety and paranoia (with great justification, in the latter case). But he has never swerved from his hard fought principles - that the secret world of US intelligence must be exposed and that the imperialism it serves must be fought worldwide. Read as a straight autobiography, ‘On The Run’ is riveting – as a chronicle of growing political awareness from someone in a position to hit his former masters very hard, it is invaluable”.
In the 1990s Agee set up an online travel company to bring visitors to Cuba. Most of his clients were Europeans or Canadians but many were Americans who risked hefty legal penalties for defying the US embargo (which, among things, prohibits US citizens from visiting this enemy pariah state just off its coast) that has been in place for nearly as long as Fidel Castro has been in power. “Agee was a great supporter of what he regarded as Cuba's progressive policies providing universal healthcare and education, and he regarded the current US President as the ‘antithesis’ of those achievements. Writing in the Guardian in 2007, he said: ‘All Cuba's achievements have been in defiance of US efforts to isolate Cuba. Every dirty method has been used, including infiltration, sabotage, terrorism, assassination, economic and biological warfare and incessant lies in the media of many countries’" (Guardian Unlimited, 9/1/08; “Renegade CIA agent Agee dies”, Fred Attewill and agencies). So it was fitting that Agee died, following surgery for a perforated stomach ulcer, in the country where he most felt at home. It is doubtless a matter of surprise and regret to his many powerful enemies that he died of natural causes.
Agee On “The War On Terror”
Agee remained an extremely astute analyst of US imperialism right up until the end of his life. Less than a fortnight after the September 11, 2001 terrorist atrocities in the US, he gave a fascinating speech in Stockholm. "There has been some reporting, but not very much, about the fact that Osama bin Laden is a product of the United States. He is a creature of the CIA, having gone to work for it in Afghanistan. It was the largest operation ever carried out by the CIA, and its purpose was to bleed the (former) Soviet Union. Bin Laden was one of thousands who volunteered to fight with the mujahedin against the Soviets. As I recall, there were seven different groups. All seven were basically fundamentalist Islamic forces, who felt that the Soviet invasion defiled an Islamic country. Bin Laden was among those who did not stop fighting after the Soviets were expelled. In fact, he started laying plans for the future while the (1979-89) war against the Soviet Union was still going on. He was able to develop a worldwide network which today is operating in 60 countries or more. Very little of this background on bin Laden as a creation of the United States has been brought to public attention during the past two weeks. Most of what we have seen and heard is related to the 'solution', which is war. How much have we read or heard about those voices calling for alternative solutions to the problem of international terrorism? How much reporting have we seen on analyses of what has driven these people to such desperation that they carried out those attacks on September 11th?
"… Since the attacks on September 11th, I do not believe there has been any serious effort by the US mainstream press to review the history of US involvement in and support of terrorism. The news is monopolised by those who want to go to war. For that reason, I do not think it will be very easy to avoid this 'war on terrorism'. The US media are so powerful, and they fill our minds every day with what they think we should know and how we should interpret it. They are working hand-in-hand with the Government, and they share the same values. This is what makes it possible for them to earn a lot of money by selling advertising. After all, these are privately-owned institutions whose capital is supposed to yield a return for stockholders. They have to keep this constantly in mind, like any other corporation, and so they go along with the Government.
"…But in the decade since the end of the Cold War until September 11th, the US security establishment - the political class, the CIA, the people who fought the Cold War - had no real enemy to focus on. True, they had (the late) Saddam Hussein for a while, and they might have had a minor enemy here, another one there. But there was no real worldwide threat similar to that of the Cold War. Well, now it seems that they have one again. What this means is that the United States is going to be in this for quite some time. I have feeling that it is going to go on for ten or 15 years, because they are not going to wipe out international terrorism or something like bin Laden's group overnight. During this period, they are going to be doing the same things they did in the Cold War. We can already here it in such expression as: 'Whoever is not with us is against us'. They are going to be trying to use every bit of power they have to bring countries in line behind the United States.
"It also means important changes within the United States, because the war on terrorism will serve as the justification for restraints on civil liberties. They are building a huge crisis in the United States. They are building the psychological climate for broadbased acceptance of an ongoing war, for which there will be no quick resolution. There will be no great battles, either. During this period, there will be very little room for alternative views and alternative solutions in US news media. What are the alternatives? Well, one is obviously to address the question of why these people are doing these things: What are the roots of international terrorism? How does US foreign policy create this type of reaction? How does US support of everything that Israel does, including the oppression of the Palestinian people, influence fundamentalist Islamic groups?
"…Unfortunately, I suspect that there will be greater self-censorship by US media in order to line up behind the Government, however its policy of war may turn out. There is already talk of a personal identification system of some kind for the entire country, together with large-scale surveillance of the population -- especially immigrants, and Muslim immigrants in particular. There will be some opposition to this but, historically, the courts have usually gone along with the Government, even though they are theoretically supposed to be the guarantors of civil liberties…So, it will be possible to restrict, and even infringe upon, civil liberties and human rights in the US.
"It is early days to draw any conclusions about how all this is going to develop, since it is still in the planning stage. But in my opinion, if they carry out this military solution - with an attack or a series of attacks, or the establishment of military bases in Islamic countries - they will be doing exactly what bin Laden wants them to do. It would turn more and more people to fundamentalism and to his organisation… Certainly, the CIA and the other components of the US intelligence apparatus will be using all available technical means to locate and attack these groups, wherever they may be. They should certainly know where all the training bases are located, since they were established by the CIA, itself. But that will not be nearly enough" (Nordic News Network, 10/1/08; “Philip Agee: Let Us Now Praise An [In]Famous Man”, Al Burke. The Agee speech quoted was delivered in Stockholm, 24/9/01 and can be read in full at Appendix E at Agee was spot on with his analysis and predictions, delivered right at the very start of the endless “War On Terror” being waged by the US and its faithful satellites, such as New Zealand.

The 1980s’ CAFCA Speaking Tour That Never Was

Readers might be forgiven for thinking that this is all very interesting but what’s it got to do with us? Rest assured that there is a CAFCA connection. To return, one final time, to my 1989 Watchdog review of “On The Run”: “For three years (1984-87) CAFCA worked to organise an Australasian speaking tour by Philip Agee. We put in a lot of work, raised several thousand dollars (one member gave us $1,000, which was serious money in the decade where I bought my present house for $25,000), and generated the kind of media controversy that attends anything to do with Agee. It all ended with a late night call from him in Madrid (no e-mail or faxes in those days), cancelling the tour to concentrate on a North American promotional tour for this book. It was his first trip home to the US in nearly 20 years, and it was fraught with peril for him. It was only after he cancelled that the servile Australian government announced that it wouldn’t have given him a visa anyway. Ironically, this book is not, and apparently will not be, available in NZ. I had to import my copy from Australia. If it had been available before I got involved in organising the abortive tour, it would have explained a lot more, indeed I would have been forewarned. Agee is a man under enormous pressure, who undertakes more international commitments than he can possibly fulfil”.

We invited him to tour NZ at that “tipping point” in NZ’s history, at the height of the “ANZUS Row”, when there were documented examples of the CIA working to destabilise the anti-nuclear Lange government (such as the notorious Maori Loans Affair, for instance), precisely because Agee would have been able to expose the modus operandi of his old employer at work in this country. It was never to be (Agee was incredibly apologetic in his cancellation phone call – not even lapsed Catholics lose the guilt) and all I’ve got to show for it is the fat pile of letters that he and I exchanged during those three years - the stamps recording his various temporary European homes as he was kept on the run - plus the publicity photos he sent us for the tour that never was. We had no further contact with him in the past couple of decades and I never did meet him, although Jeremy Agar, my CAFCA committee colleague and Watchdog reviews editor, did get to hear him speak at a Hamburg conference in the 80s. Agee prioritised his US return and, indeed, he was subsequently able to visit his homeland (where his two sons still live) several more times, without incident, and he was even able to revisit Britain, the country which cravenly expelled him in the 1970s.

Working on that tour was an exercise in fascination – for example, in the course of a trans-continental Australian rail holiday, I stitched together a network of usually bitterly opposed Left parties and groups who were prepared to work together on the Agee project – and frustration, which saw it postponed once by him, then finally cancelled. I don’t deny that I was monumentally pissed off when he pulled the plug on what had been three years work by me (his call came right on the eve of my birthday; the next day, out of the blue, my late father rang to announce that, as his present, he would, unsolicited, pay off my mortgage. That birthday, 21 years ago, is definitely right up there in my memory for its emotional rollercoaster ride). But you learn from such setbacks and life goes on, just as they always say it does. There was even a silver lining. CAFCA devoted one whole meeting to writing and posting refund cheques to donors, a significant proportion of whom told us to keep their money (so we actually made a profit on the tour that never was!). Looking back now, I marvel at how everything was organised then by good old letter, including complex international tours involving two countries and a speaker on the other side of the world who had no fixed abode.

An Invaluable Legacy

Philip Agee left an invaluable legacy. Not only did he write those several books exposing the CIA and thousands of its agents, he was also a founder of the wonderful US magazine Covert Action Information Bulletin (which later renamed itself Covert Action Quarterly). CAFCA holds nearly a complete set of these, filling three file boxes in my office, dating back to the second issue, in 1978. Agee himself featured in a lot of the early issues (e.g. number 8, in 1980 had a photo of him on the cover and was headed “The CIA Vs Philip Agee”). Sadly, and without explanation, Covert Action stopped publishing with number 78 in 2005. Its Website is still there at but it hasn’t been updated since 2005.
Philip Agee is owed an enormous vote of thanks from all the peoples of the world, including New Zealand. Where is his like among the kidnappers, torturers and murderers of today’s CIA? In Agee’s day the crimes of the CIA were confined to the Third World and hidden from its own people. Now, the culture of imperial impunity means that these crimes are brazenly committed in full view of everyone. So, the need to oppose and expose this criminal enterprise is greater than ever. Right up until his death, Philip Agee did more than his share in striking blows against the Empire. The struggle continues!

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