As a sophomore attending an international high school in Germany in 1979, I used to come home after school and ask my dad—a former CIA case officer named Philip Agee—what was really happening in places like Nicaragua, Grenada, Cuba, Angola, and the Middle East. Our high school history teacher had told us we lived in a bipolar world, and I wanted to know “what side” my dad was on. My dad sketched a more dynamic model for me, one that included basic history about the third world and various independence movements. One day he told me, “Son, this is where the world is,” putting his hand near his stomach, “this is where the world should be,” putting his other hand above his head, and then saying, in a conclusive tone, “and some people are trying to bridge that gap.”
As was widely reported in the media, Philip Agee — who resigned from the CIA and wrote a book about it — died last year, on January 7, 2008. His life served as an example of unparalleled dedication to bridging the gap between what people know and don’t know about the hidden policies of U.S. imperialism. On that journey, he came to understand the various efforts of third world liberation movements and the meaning of their struggle under oppressive regimes and neoliberal economic policies. Given the recent resurgence of the left in Latin America, as well as the revelations over the past eight years of CIA “dirty work,” it behooves us to review some of his story.
Agee’s first book, CIA Diary: Inside the Company (1975), is a historic account of a CIA operative’s daily life in Latin America. As an in-depth exposé, CIA Diary continues to inform generations of people about not only the way the CIA works, but also what drives U.S. foreign policy. His subsequent books with Louis Wolf, Ellen Ray, and Bill Schaap, Dirty Work I (1978) and Dirty Work II (1980), about the CIA in Western Europe and Africa, respectively, identify the names and activities of hundreds of CIA agents and operations in those parts of the world. Indeed, this was Agee’s trademark: Name names in order to undermine covert operations and all the killing, maiming, and torture that characterize much of the CIA’s dirty work. On the Run (1987), his last book, is a page-turner: a real-life drama of a spy who, out in the cold, went public and spent the rest of his life educating people about U.S. foreign policy while running from the CIA’s never-ending efforts to disrupt his life.
Agee was born into a wealthy family in Takoma Park, Maryland. While coming of age in Tampa, Florida, he was expected to take over his father’s successful laundry business. Instead, he decided to study philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, graduating first in his class. He was encouraged by recruiters from the CIA to consider a career with the agency. And while he initially resisted, after only a few months of law school in Florida, he decided that a career in the CIA might allow him to travel to exotic places and meet interesting people. A job with the U.S. government “spreading democracy and freedom,” it seemed, might even be a noble calling. His experiences as a CIA case officer in Latin America, however, led him to develop quite a different feeling about the nature of the work.
During his 12 years in the CIA, from 1957 to 1969, Agee was stationed in Ecuador, Uruguay, and Mexico. At the height of the Cold War, Agee’s mission had three main objectives: to influence the host country to break relations with Communist countries in general, and with Cuba in particular; to recruit agents who could provide “intelligence” immediately or at some point in the future; and to collect and share information with local security services and deal with “subversive elements” in the host country. On the darker side of CIA operations—in so-called black ops—such activities could, and sometimes did, lead to the torture and disappearance of hundreds, sometimes tens of thousands, of people. In an episode he would often recount to gatherings in the United States and abroad, this ugly realization began to dawn on him while he was stationed in Uruguay. Sitting in the Montevideo police headquarters one day with the chief of police, he overheard the moaning and screaming of someone clearly being tortured. He wondered if it was someone he had identified on his list; the chief said it was.
Initially he tried to ignore these realities. Yet it was during his activities as a CIA case officer that Agee began to develop an awareness of how his actions were entangled in nefarious methods and purposes. He recounts in CIA Diary how he began, albeit painfully, to understand his role in the CIA and the U.S. interests that benefit from cheap labor markets and raw materials:
The difficult admission is that I became the servant of the capitalism I rejected. I became one of its secret policemen. The CIA, after all, is nothing more than the secret police of American capitalism, plugging up leaks in the political dam night and day so that shareholders of U.S. companies operating in poor countries can continue enjoying the rip-off.
It became apparent to Agee that any opposition to U.S. corporate interests would be considered a threat to U.S. national interests. As people organized to rise up against dictatorships and oppressive conditions, the United States would intervene and oftentimes bring in the CIA.
It was in this context that Agee became increasingly aware of his role as a spook in Latin America. His naive vision of the spy world became overshadowed with an increasingly skeptical view of U.S. interests for which he was an accomplice. The tumultuous period of the 1960s stoked those doubts. Beginning with the controversial escalation of the war in Vietnam, the protests against the war, and the growing disillusionment with the Nixon administration, Agee began to question his involvement with the CIA.
My father liked to joke — although it was partly true - that his fiancée at the time, a lovely, well-educated debutante from Millbrook, New York, politicized him. She worked with UNESCO bringing children’s art to the Olympics and had just happened to come across Che’s Motorcycle Diaries. As he writes in his opening line to On the Run, he quit the CIA, in part, because he “fell in love with a woman who thought Che Guevara was the most wonderful man in the world.”
After Agee resigned, he went into business with friends — a decision that did not satisfy him. He contemplated teaching and decided to enroll in the Latin American studies program at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where he began to read more about U.S. economic and geopolitical interests in Latin America. Meanwhile, as the situation grew worse in Vietnam and the Nixon administration lost prestige, it occurred to my father that perhaps he should write about his experiences. And so he began to meet with potential publishers.
Agee realized that to write a good book about his work in the CIA, he would need good archival sources. His search for adequate resources took him finally to the British Museum in London, where he found the extensive newspaper library he needed. He set out to write a daily record of the major political events that had occurred in Latin America during his time as a CIA officer there and to expose the role of the CIA in those events. Agee realized that naming all the names and operations in his book would be considered unpatriotic or even illegal, given the secrecy oath he took upon joining the CIA. However, the dilemma he faced was the following: Not saying anything would be unpatriotic; not telling the whole story would be half-hearted and disingenuous. Given the revelations of atrocities committed by CIA covert operations, as Agee writes in CIA Diary, the best thing to do was inform the public of what the U.S. government was actually doing—warts and all:
We already know enough of what the CIA does to resolve to oppose it. The CIA is one of the great forces promoting political repression in countries with minority regimes that serve a privileged and powerful elite. One way to neutralize the CIA’s support to repression is to expose its officers so that their presence in foreign countries becomes untenable. Already significant revelations have begun and I will continue to assist those who are interested in identifying and exposing the CIA people in their countries.
The point was not just to tell a gripping story; rather, Agee felt compelled to document the actual activities of the CIA so that people could see for themselves what the U.S. government was doing. Furthermore, by naming names he could also have a devastating impact on actual CIA operations. When the book came out in 1975, it rocked Washington and the world. While many perceived it as a betrayal, others were impressed by his bravery and enlightened by his insights.
Thirty-four years later, Agee’s book remains not only a moving personal testament, but, perhaps more importantly, a crushing indictment of U.S. foreign policy. He realized that what the CIA actually does—in addition to gathering information—is to engage in covert operations that ultimately create conditions favorable for U.S. corporate interests, which, he wrote, depend upon easy penetration and use of cheap labor markets and access to inexpensive raw materials. Any country challenging those interests not only represented an impediment to transnational capital, but also served as a highly dangerous example to other countries.
When people protested poverty and squalor in their country, they were usually facing the repression of brutal dictatorships. When they rose up against those oppressive conditions, they were frequently beaten, imprisoned, tortured, killed, or simply “disappeared”—all under the umbrella of Cold War rhetoric and hysteria. When a country successfully overthrew its dictatorship or oppressive regime, as in places like Guatemala, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Grenada, and Nicaragua, every step was taken to isolate it, force a break in diplomatic relations, and engage in all kinds of dirty work to destabilize the unfolding revolutionary process.
On the ground, Agee’s job included activities like bugging embassies, planting fake messages in toothpaste tubes so as to frame Cuban embassy officials, writing bogus news stories and publishing them under the bylines of paid journalists, gathering lists of subversives, and exchanging information with the local police and military so they could round up so-called Communist sympathizers and interrogate them, even torture them, to obtain more information on other activists and activities. Upon reflection, my father realized these activities did not add up to spreading democracy and freedom for Latin Americans.
What was Agee able to accomplish by writing his books? By identifying CIA agents in countries where the United States engaged in covert operations, Agee was able to disrupt operations and force the agency to change its cryptonyms, procedures, and personnel—especially in Ecuador, Uruguay, and Mexico, where he was stationed. But most importantly, he was able to educate the U.S. public, and the world, about not only the activities of the CIA, but, significantly, the interests it represents. As he stated in CIA Diary:
Probably at no time since World War II have the American people had such an opportunity as now to examine how and why succeeding U.S. administrations have chosen, as in Vietnam, to back minority, oppressive and doomed regimes. The Congressional investigating committees can, if they want, illuminate a whole dark world of foreign Watergates covering the past thirty years, and these can be related to the dynamics within our society from which they emerged. The key question is to pass beyond the facts of CIA’s operations to the reasons they were established—which inexorably will lead to economic questions: preservation of property relations and other institutions on which rest the interests of our own wealthy and privileged minority. This, not the CIA, is the critical issue.
These are the insights, dispersed throughout Agee’s writings, speeches, and interviews, that have resonated so deeply with people. Everywhere I go, admirers of my father have said to me, “When I read your dad’s book, my whole way of seeing the world changed.”
Under quite challenging circumstances, my dad spent the rest of his life writing and speaking about U.S. foreign and domestic policy with particular emphasis on the hidden role of covert operations in propping up U.S. corporate interests. In 1982, Congress passed, and Ronald Reagan signed into law, the Intelligence Identities Protections Act, making it a federal crime to reveal the identities of CIA agents. The U.S. Supreme Court also overturned lower-court rulings that affirmed Agee’s contention that he had been unlawfully denied his right to due process, his right to travel, and his First Amendment rights of free speech when his passport was arbitrarily revoked in 1979 by then secretary of state Alexander Haig. In 1981, the Supreme Court ruled in Haig v. Agee that the Passport Act of 1926 granted the executive branch the authority “to withhold passports on the basis of substantial reasons of national security and foreign policy.” In other words, anyone’s passport can be revoked by the signature of the secretary of state.
Agee lived out his golden years shuttling around on German travel documents that could not be denied since he was a legal resident of Hamburg. He also traveled at times on a Grenadan passport, a Nicaraguan passport, and a World Passport. He never renounced his U.S. citizenship because his work was all about building a more active sense of citizenship among his fellow U.S. citizens.
As a result of Agee’s relentless efforts, the U.S. government never stopped disrupting his life. He was ordered to submit all his speeches and writings to the CIA for censorship prior to speaking engagements and/or publications. He was deported from one European country after another, six in all, and his life was constantly under threat—real or imagined. When traveling, he was often the subject of harassment and interrogation. Our mail was often opened and we were often under surveillance.
There is no doubt that our family suffered emotionally and financially and that the stability he could have provided, had he stayed in the CIA or kept his mouth shut, was a luxury he chose to forgo. This was the price he paid for a cause he felt compelled to champion. And this he did, tirelessly, to the last days of his life. He was sought after by activist groups throughout the world and, when he could, he would travel to speak to them using whichever travel documents he was able to acquire at the time. In the end, he died in Havana filled with the honor of having orchestrated one of the greatest exposés of the CIA.
Over the past eight years, much has come to light regarding the activities of the CIA and the U.S. government: the embarrassing events at Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” waterboarding, the threats to habeas corpus through the Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act, the rise of Blackwater, and the transparent U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf have all helped to bring to light what Agee had been trying to tell us since the 1970s. People are beginning to understand not only the brutal realities of “black ops,” but also the insidious geopolitical interests driven by what has become, in Dwight Eisenhower’s famous words, a military-industrial complex.
Students in my American Government classes are often surprised by my insights and ask me early in the semester how I came to understand U.S. foreign and domestic policy the way I do. Now I just tell them at the outset my father’s story and my experiences as a result: I went to more schools than there are grades in more than a half-dozen countries around the world. I participated in the World Youth Festival in Havana when I was 14; went to secondary schools in England, Holland, the United States, and Germany; picked coffee in Nicaragua when I was 18; and studied at the University of Madrid in my early twenties. It is my father’s story, however, that inspires my students to take a more realistic look at U.S. foreign and domestic affairs.
Ultimately, my father never defected to the Eastern bloc or the Soviet Union, nor was the world bipolar, divided between the Communist East and the capitalist West. Rather, my dad was simply a democrat who believed in the socialist principles that everyone should be guaranteed access to the basic necessities of life: food, shelter, clothing, health care, and education. It was clear to him that the majority of Latin Americans suffered in this regard. Yet at the same time, he opposed the excesses of bureaucratic statism that had clearly developed in the Soviet Union. He simply and courageously informed people in the United States of what their government was actually doing. It was in this effort that he developed an unwavering support for third world movements struggling for more equitable distribution of wealth and access to social services and housing. In Cuba he was considered a great friend. He spent much of his later years trying to draw attention to the cruel and inhumane blockade against Cuba and the Cuban Five, who are being unjustly held in U.S. jails for trying to discover information about destabilization campaigns against their country.
Simply put, my father wanted the people of the United States to be informed citizens. It was in that pursuit that he came to understand the various struggles for human rights, workers’ rights, and women’s rights, and the need to create an equitable economic and political system for everyone. Many regard my dad as a remarkable person who simply tried to make the world a better place by bridging the gap between how the world is and how it could be.
Chris John Agee teaches political science and sociology at the City University of New York. For more information, see www.philipagee.com.