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An Inter View With Philip Agee: Confessions Of An Ex-CIA Man

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Philip Agee, 40 this January, joined the CIA in 1956 primarily to escape the draft. Twelve years later, after serving in Ecuador, Uruguay and Mexico, he quit in disgust, convinced that the CIA serves only the interest of the US rich who profit f rom the underdevelopment of Latin America. The details of his experiences - and his own transformation -- he put down in "Inside the Company: CIA Diary, " published January 2nd in England and soon to be released in most countries of the world.

Risking charges in the US for betrayal of security (he names more than 400 covert agents in his book) or even for treason (he has journeyed four times to Cuba since his resignation ), Agee today lives quietly and simply in Cornwall, England, with his two sons and his companion, Angela Camargo Seixas, 24, who at 19 was arrested in her native Brazil, tortured on and off for six months and jailed for three years by "security experts I myself might have once trained." Together, Philip and Angela are now waging a scholarly but incessant war to expose the "vicious covert activities" of his former employer.

Agee was interviewed in Cornwall by John Gerassi, a Latin American expert, author of "The Great Fear in Latin America " (Collier), "Fidel Castro: A Biography " (Doubleday), and "The Coming of the New International" (World). This article first appeared in the Boston Real Paper, February 19, 1975.

JG : How come you 're still alive? Since you quit the CIA in 196 9, you you've been followed, bugged, threatened and blackmailed. But you haven't been killed. Why not?

Agee: I don't know. Many times I've wondered whether I would ever be able to finish my book. In November 1971, while I was in Cuba, I wrote a letter to a Uruguayan leftist editor, explaining how the CIA intervenes in local elections. The Left in Uruguay had just created a unified front for the upcoming elections: a front similar to the one headed by Salvador Allende in Chile, and I wanted to warn that Uruguayan coalition of what tactics to expect from the CIA to torpedo its chances of winning. What I didn't know was that my letter was published in the editor's weekly, Marcha. I returned to Paris that month and in late December, a former CIA colleague of mine knocked at my door. He told me he had been sent over by Richard Helms, then CIA director, and he showed me a copy of the Marcha letter. "Helms wants to know what the hell this is all about," he said. I told him I had already written 900 pages, which were with various publishers, and that I was not cutting them down to book size. The truth, of course, was that I hadn't actually started, I was still doing research. I guess my bluff worked.

JG: That was after your November 1971 trip to Cuba: But you had been in Cuba before and as you explain yourself in your book, the CIA totally controls Mexico 's immigration department, in fact it controls the Ministry of GobernaciĆ³n (equivalent to the Interior) altogether, the CIA knows every person who journeys to Havana from Mexico, as you did. Wouldn't the CIA have automatically assumed the that you were turning to the other side? Why didn't 't they pick you up on your return?

Agee: I was worried that they might. I was in Cuba in May and again in July 1971, and returned to the US afterward, but no one contacted me. In fact, I got worried. about what the Cubans would think.

JG: You mean that the Cubans might think you were a double agent?  

Agee: Right. But nothing carne of it either way until my Marcha letter.

JG: Vet, you yourself describe how, during your training period, an instructor explained the various ways agents are "terminated. "He talked about financial pay-offs, scores and then "the final solution. "And, of course, we all know of CIA assassinatinn teams. Why didn't you think the final solution could apply to you?

Agee: You must first understand the distinction between an agent and an officer of the company. "Company" is what the CIA calls itself. An officer is a full-time US citizen employed by the company. An agent is a local citizen abroad working for the company either on contract or as a result of some subterfuge (like blackmail). I was a company officer for twelve years. I was not an agent. Final solutions or what is known as "termination with prejudice," that is the elimination of an agent, applies only to locals.

JG: Do you personally know of any agent that was terminated with prejudice, i.e., executed?

Agee: No. All terminations I knew about were eventually solved with money. The agents' silence was paid for.

JG: So it didn't occur to you that you could get killed? 

Agee: Oh, I thought of it, sure. But my main worry was to finish my book, that the CIA could try to intercept it or something. That's why, every time I had about 30 pages, I made various copies and distributed them around to safe friends.

JG: Did you have h ranee because the surveillance got too hot?

Agee: No. I left because I couldn't find the research material I needed. Remember I asked you where I could find local Latin American newspapers from which I could match what was being officially reported to what I knew was happening. You told me to go the newspaper section of the British Museum. So I carne to England.

JG: You carne as a tourist? With no problems?

Agee: My name was on the list, you know, in the book, but they let me in. Obviously, they decided not to keep me out. Then I got my status changed from tourist to professional researcher.

JG: Did Penguin, your Brilish publisher, arrange this?

Agee: Once I got a contract, Penguin gave me a letter saying so, and that was apparently enough.

JG: But if the CIA is as powerful as you describe it to be in your book, surely it could have made life impossible for you. Or it could have asked the British equivalent, M16, to stop you. Why didn't u?

Agee: First of all, let's not make the Agency more powerfui than it is. It has so many operations going that if only 50 percent work it does appear to be omnipresent. But lots of operations fail dismally, as I document in my book. Secondly, you must understand that the relationship between the CIA and the British services is very delicate. In my time, for example, there was an agreement that neither side would take unilateral action inside the other's territory without the other's prior approval.

JG: Are you saying that there ar.e no CIA penetration agents inside MI6, and if there are, couldn't they du the job''

Agee: The British could not and would not deny me access to scholarly research material, especiaily once I was contracted by Penguin. And if the CIA did - whether on its own or through penetration agents, the result would have been the same - the delicate relationship between the two countries' services would have been seriously jeopardized.

JG: Yet you have been an extremely easy target. In London, you lived in a dark tree-lined street off Swiss College in a two-room apartment with its separate entrante. Here in Cornwall you are even more isolated. You liked to go for walks, alone, often at night. and here you like to climb atop that hill overlooking the bay and stare at the sunset. We did it ast night and we saw no other human being for a good hour. How easy it would be to arrange your disappearance or an accident. Yet it didn't happen. I wonder, does the CIA have a policy not to "terminate" officers, that is not to demoralize its employees by never letting them think that quitting the Agency is impossible?

Agee: It's hard to say. I've never heard of the elimination of a disaffected officer, but then I've never heard of an officer being as disaffected as I. Oh, they exist. But you don't hear of them. Besides, my case was odd, I wasn't living in the US, so that, unlike Marchetti (Victor Marchetti, ex-CIA officer, co-author of "The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence"), I was not vulnerable to injunctive actions in the courts. Besides, no one would have believed my death to be accidental. Anyway, my feeling is that they weren't sure of my intentions. In my darkest moments in Paris, for example, CIA agents in Paris who had befriended me actually lent me money to keep going. They wanted to know what I was writing and, of course, I let them think I was going to use pseudonyms for the covert agents and officers. Yet they also tried to get me to Spain where the Spanish services could easily have iailed me for ten years on a phony drug rap with no or little publicity. But they keep bungling. Like when they denied I had been an Agency officer, then admitted that I was.

JG: You mentioned Marchetti, that other CIA officer who quit the Agency and wrote a book about it. But yours is very different. You not only describe the Agency 's indoctrination process it's day-in day-out operation: and all the covert illegal activities you undertook or knew about, you also name names some 400 of them! You show how callously amoral they are, how unquestioningly automatic is their response to an order which will ruin the lives of innocent peoplc. In sum, your book reveals that the average CIA operative is no better than any petty Eichmann: he questions neither motive nor goal, and believes only in efficiency. In other words, your book attacks the system of the US government ass whole. Add to that your trips to Cuba as a guest of the Castro government. Could not the consequence be that the US government considers you a traitor?  

Agee: I have learned over the years that the CIA and the government as a whole does not represent the interest of the people of the US. lt's main function - and this is clear in our policies in Latin America, in those policies that I helped carry out for 12 years - is to help, to represent that class of Americans who profit in Latin America. The CIA's main task in Latin America during my tenure (and nothing has changed since) was to frame, jail, discredit or render powerless by any means available anyone, anyone at all - whether nationalist, Communist or Liberal - who questioned America's right to own the natural resources of Latin America. And those who owned these natural resources - the Rockefellers, Guggenheims, Hannahs, etc. - were not you and me, the people, but the rich. I'm happy to be called a traitor to that class, and I will be very proud if my book helps raise the consciousness of the American people that the US government and its secret political police only serve the interests of a tiny, superwealthy minority.

JG: Are you planning to go back to the US? 

Agee: Yes, but when I don't know. I'll have to see whether I can make a better contribution by going and risking prison or by staying out.

JG: How does it feel to be an exile?

Agee: Right now, it's okay. I'm excited about my book coming out all over the world. I plan to continue the kind of work I've been doing identifying CIA people in various countries so that progressive organizations in those countries can drive them out or neutralize them in one way or another. You noticed, for example, that last October, I held a press conference at whichl I gave the names and addresses of 37 top CIA officers and agents operating in Mexico.

JG: Yes, but it got almost no coverage in the Press.

Agee: Here in England or the US. But all the names were listed by the Mexican papers and Mexican journalists checked out my information. Here, look at the results (Agee handed me a whole batch of clips from Mexico which showed not only that his press conference made headlines, but that his information was found to be correct after investigation).

JG: Don't you find it strange that the CIA isn't trying to stop all this, say by trying to get you back to the US. I notice that you are very fond of your two sons and a very good father I might add why didn't the Agency stop them from coming over.

Agee: It did, for a while, before I finished my book.

JG: How?

Agee: By influencing the kids' mother to call me, to beg me to return for their sake, to not let them come to me. But they wanted to be with me. They finally said so to the judge, and they carne.

JG: Well, but Phil is 13 and Chris is 10. The court could have ignored their plea and, undcr CIA influence, refused.

Agee: Not legally, I don't think so.

JG: In your book you describe scores of what the press now calls "dirty tricks" perpetrated by the Agency against innocent victims. Can you tell me some of the worst that you were personally: involved in?

Agee: Well, that's all I did. I mean, that was my job - to bug people we considered enemies, to frame them, to trap them, to discredit them, or possible, to get them to work for us, either by buying them or through blackmail.  

JG: Would you describe some of these.

Agee: Well, in Ecuador in 1961, we created some phony documents which were meant to prove that a whole battery of left wing and nationalist leaders were actually being paid by the Cubans to ment a border war between Ecuador and Peru. The first name on the list was that of the foreign minister who was eventually forced to resign, though, of course, he was completely innocent. The next year, to stimulate unrest in order to push the army to overthrow president Arosemena, we helped finance a bomb squad operated by the Social Christian Movement. This squad put bombs in all sorts of anti-communist centers - even in the home of the cardinal - in order to blame the Left.

In 1963 we carefully prepared five pages of documents, stuffed them into an empty tube of toothpaste, then ordered a customs officer to "find" the tube in the suitcase of an Ecuadorian Communist who was returning from visiting Cuba. The documents, naturally, "proved" that the Left was about to launch revolutionary guerilla warfare, and led to massive repressions.

Both in Ecuador and in 1965 in Uruguay I helped organize wild, provocative "left wing" riots in order to discredit the Left. In both countries I helped frame diplomats from communist block countries so that they would get deported. I also gave information to local dissident Community Party leaders so they could I win their internal party struggles then blackmail them into working for the " Agency.

In Mexico I used my othcial cover as an Olympic games ofiicer to recruit agents and sabotage the camaraderie that existed among the players. In Uruguay we framed various Communist leaders, who were in fact totally committed to peaceful elections, so that the party would be outlawed. Some of the Communists were then tortured, though they knew nothing of the charges, by experts trained by the Agency. And so on.

But these activities were sort of extra for me. My main job was electronic surveillance - bugging. I was very good at that. In both Ecuador and Uruguay, where I spent most of my field years, I successfully bugged Communist embassies, the headquarters of various leftist organizations, and the private homes of all sorts of people, from cabinet ministers to student leaders. And I don't mean just bugging the phones. I mean the whole house. In one case I even set up cameras to record everything that was going on. Obviously, we could never have done all this without the cooperation of the local police. But we had that cooperation, since we had almost unlimited funds, thanks to the AID grant program.

JG: In your book you also describe your disaffection with the CIA as developing slowly. First, you seem unhappy with minor bureaucratic bunglings. Then, you begin to question the whole so-called anti-subversion operations when a list of 58 "known Communists" among the Constitutional forces of 4000 is given as the excuse for the 1965 US Marine intervention in the Dominican Republic especially since you yourself have prepared such phony lists in other Latin American countries. Finally, you decide you want out when a harmless Uruguay an Communist that you named is tortured, and you hear his screams. Fine. But why you and not the others? You, a Notre Dame graduate, money-motivated product of a Florida middle-class home where the flag was sacred.

Agee: Well, yes, I was money-motivated and career-oriented, but I also didn't want to get drafted and the Agency offered you a way out of the draft. Besides, I was always interested in foreign affairs and that interest grew as I got my assignments in the field. I noticed, of course, the terrible conditions people lived in, right away. So I rationalized. The Left was bad - that had been thoroughly drilled into me. But the liberals are weak. So our job, I said, was to buy time, keep the Left out while propping up the liberals. Eventually, I thought, the liberals would be strong enough to carry out the reforms Latin America needed. Then gradually I saw that we didn't want the reforms. We were supporting unjust minority governments and crushing popular majority ones. That's when I started thinking about the US. It was the period of build-up in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the urban riots. I began to make connections between our liberal rhetoric on one hand and our official hard support for those who wanted no change on the other.

JG: Just a minute! In 1961-62 you are in Ecuador and Velasco Ibarra, a rabid anti-communist is president. He wants reforms, he 's popular and he's been elected by a vast majority. But, out of nationalist feeling, he won't break relations with Cuba. So yourself work for his overthrow and you do it not only by framing his aides. by fabricating fake documents, but by helping the far-Right; not other liberals, but fascists. And after your coup works and his successor, Arosemena, also refuses to break with Cuba, you'd it again. Now that wasn't helping the liberals but time, was it? 

Agee: I guess at that time I was still so brainwashed that I actually identified "liberal" with repressing the Left. I really thought that unless you eliminate the far-Left you can't have genuine reforms, so Velasco and Arosemena, since they refused to jail the Left, even when we gave them "documents" and when they refused to break relations with Cuba, proved to me that they were not real reformers. Of course, I learned fast.

JG: How?

Agee: Well, I saw what happened after our coups were successful.

JG: Did you discuss the issues with your colleagues?

Agee: No.

JG: What did you talk about? 

Agee: Golf.

JG: Always?

Agee: Golf and the weather. That was in Ecuador. Later, in Uruguay, we did talk about the terrible corruption. Sometimes, we joked that the best thing would be for Uruguay to go Commie for a while so the country could get cleaned up.

JG : Did you ever find a CIA officer who was genuinely concerned, an idealist'?

Agee: No. But I wouldn't say all officers are cynical either. It's a complex thing. There is no way that an officer in the field can avoid seeing the injustices. But as he gains experience, he also undergoes a process of desensitizing. He becomes a technician who never asks why. And then he's half-way up in his career. He's sending his kids to college. He's got house payments, car payments. Soon he thinks it's too late. He merely hangs on for his retirement benefits.

JG: Do you think there is a qualitative difference between the CIA officer who prints false documents and leaflets in order to create a riot at which 50 innocent dissenters are killed and an SS officer who orders the execution of 50 Jews?

Agee: Yes, there's a difference in the cruelty. Besides, CIA officers are not trigger men.

JG: Neither were SS leaders. And what about, speaking of cruelty, the ordering of torture?

Agee: Well, things have changed since the Sixties. Now Latin America is full of fascist dictatorships - Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil - so it's impossible for a CIA officer to avoid direct responsibility. He may not be turning the crank of the electroshocks, but he ordered the equipment, trained the local torturer, pays him, often even watches and certainly maintains the liaison. But, he views himself as a technician. He hasn't made the connections.

JG: In other words, you think that the average CIA officer would refuse to shoot an "enemy," but might order his "elimination."

Agee: Yes, and I think the difference is important. Like the B-52 pilot who could mass bomb Vietnamese children but couldn't shoot one face to face. In other words, there's still a spark of humanism in him - which we should feed.

JG: You 're saying that most CIA officers, even if they've ordered the elimination of torture of innocents, are still not unsalvageable.

Agee: Exactly! For all I know there might be two or three or fifty officers right now who are reconsidering what they're doing, who might be on the verge of quitting, of writing a book like mine about their experiences. I sure hope so. I hope my book will encourage these officers to do the same. If we could only create an organization, something like Alcoholics Anonymous, to help CIA people shake the habit! Imagine what humanitarian progress we could achieve, at least in people's consciousness, if there were a CIA book on Indonesia, on Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, on the Shah of Iran's repressions, on the Congo, Ghana, Guyana...Now that Americans have understood a little about the sort of tactics our government uses, through the exposures of Watergate, imagine what lessons could be derived from equal (and much more vicious exposures) of the same government's tactics in all the poor countries of the world. That's my hope: that other CIA officers will now talk out.

JG: You don't think such officers will be turned off by your trips to Cuba?

Agee: Not at all.

JG: How did you get to Cuba in the first place?

Agee: My French publisher arranged it so I could do some research there.

JG: Why did they accept you?

Agee: They thought my book would be useful.

JG: Sure, but you could have been a plant.

Agee: I'm sure they considered that.

JG: Did you offer any bona fide? Were you debriefed by their intelligence service?

Agee: No.

JG: Were you approached by the KGB?

Agee: No. Besides by then my information was fairly dated.

JG: What, all those you name would have disappeared?

Agee: I don't know, but their effectiveness would have been limited.

JG: Can't you change an agent's name, dossier, etc, and transfer him?

Agee: That's not so easy. There are wives, children, friends to contend with.

JG: So it is useful for the KGB to know what 's in your book?

Agee: Well, the reason I name them - and listed those 37 agents in Mexico - and we're going to do more of that - is to render the CIA as useless as possible. The CIA has to be fought for the anti-American, in the true sense of the word, institution it is.

JG: Then your work does help the KGB.

Agee: Perhaps, but that's not my motive.

JG: You tell in your book how at various times your job was to befriend KGB agents...

Agee: Yes, in both Uruguay and Mexico, one of my jobs was contact operations, that is, open direct friendly relations with the enemy. In Montevideo I had going relationships with several KGB officers, with a Czech intelligence man and with a Romanian. In Mexico, I cultivated a relationship with both a KGB and a GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) officer.

JG: Did these contacts change your political view of things?

Agee: No. We rarely discussed politics, except the politics of the local governments.

JG: Did you like them?

Agee: In Mexico, yes. I liked them as people. In Montevideo, I was too defensive because it was new to me.

JG: But didn't such relationships, whether really friendly or formal, lead you into thinking that you are both the same kinds of people, one doing his job for communism, the other for capitalism?

Agee: No. In Uruguay, I already knew we werc supporting the wrong side, but I hadn't gotten to the point of seeing that the Soviets, by supporting leftist reformers, were supporting the right side. In Mexico, I already knew I was going to quit. so I was more relaxed and could joke witli them.

JG: So now, you think the Soviets are supporting the right side?

Agee: You have to differentiate the interna! KGB from the external. Inside Russia, though I only know this from what I read, the KGB is a repressive institution. But in its foreign affairs, it helps genuine reformers, filters funds to the press that usually says the truth, provides technical equipment such as printing presses to that press, etc. In any case, they never support the side that keeps the people in misery and itself rich, as the CIA does.

JG: Couldn't the argument be made that the CIA simply supports the side that supports the US?

Agee: If you want, but the side that supports the US is the one that makes deals with US corporations to exploit local countries...

JG: Is it that clear in Mexico?

Agee: Well, in Mexico, the government has long been stable, so the CIA has simply had no choice but to accept it and try best to work with and within it.

JG: In your book, you imply that it has done this quite successfully.

Agee: I was amazed at how closely the Mexican government worked with us. Presidents Lopez Mateos and Diaz Ordaz were so close to the Agency that when the CIA Station Chief, Winston Scott, who served in that capacity from 1956 to 1969, got remarried, Lopez Mateos (then-President) and Diaz Ordaz (then Minister of the Interior) were his two witnesses.

JG: Why should the Mexican government maintain such close ties to the CIA? It certainly doesn't need it to survive, does it?

Agee: Oh yes it does! There are so many flagrant injustices in Mexico that rebellions are rampant, especially in the countryside. This isn't reported in the press, but we knew about them. Without the CIA, Mexico's secret police and repressive forces could not put them down. l'm not saying that without the CIA Lopez Mateos would have been overthrown necessarily, but he would have had a very hard time.

JG: What did the CIA get in return for its help?

Agee: Both Lopez Mateos and Diaz Ordaz (I don't know about Echevarria, the current president) ordered phones tapped for us, mail intercepted and the whole Cuban travel control apparatus. Everyone flying to Havana was photographed, fingerprinted and checked with the CIA before departure. When we didn't want someone to go - as happened in one specific case I remember with five US New Leftists - they were put into waiting cars and driven, illegally of course, to the US border where they were handed to the FBI. But it happened many times. I remember I used to phone Gobernacion and say "I don't want so-and-so to go," and he didn't go.

JG: And by exposing all this, naming names, you hope it will stop?

Agee: That's right.

JG : But what happens to your agents?

Agee: Well, they'Il be neutralized.

JG: And, perhaps, eliminated?

Agee: I hope they won't be in any physical danger. But that brings us back to the purpose of the book. If I want to show how the CIA works, its methodology, I can't convince anyone by fictionalizing or hypothesizing. I've got to be concrete. I've got to name the agents, the officers, the victims, and place the incidents in precise time and spot so any doubters can check and verify what l'm saying.

JG: Let us hypothesize just the same for a moment. As a CIA officer in Ecuador you bugged the phones of all leading Communists. That 's how you found out there was a rivalry between two men on the Central Committee. You contacted one, bought hint a few drinks, convinced him that if he could furnish you with a little bit of extra information on the other, you could frame this other. Convinced that this other was a bad Communist, this one, a naive but idealistic Communist, gave you the Information you wanted and "Well yes, I was money-motivated and career-oriented, but I also didn't want to get drafted and the Agency offered you a way out of the draft." you did frame the other. You then blackmailed the one into remaining a CIA agent insidc the Communist Part? Central Committee. Now your book appears and tells the story. So far we're really on facts, not hypothesis: the one's comrades read your book, seize him and executc him. A very likely possibility. How do you feel about that? Did telling this story present you with a moral dilemma? 

Agee: No. My answer is look at the thousands killed and tortured as a consequence of the CIA in Chile, the hundreds of thousands murdered in Indonesia in 1965, the thousands killed in Mexico in 1968, the...

JG: But this one is your doing. You hooked him, now you name him, in a real way you kill him.

Agee: If he continues to operate as an agent, he's helping to prepare the kind of list that the CIA gave the Chilean Junta. He's now preparing for a massacre. If I can stop him...

JG: You would. And you plan to continue?"

Agee: Absolutely!

JG: So you are still a danger to the CIA.

Agee: Perhaps. but it's important to realize that in fighting the CIA, we're not wildly tossing bombs. We're coldly analyzing who is doing what, where. It is then up to local governments, progressive organizations and the people to decide how to neutralize the agents and officers. There are already some groups who can help those officers who want to undo the harm they've done. In Washington, for example, CIA officers who have doubts should approach the Center for National Security Studies. The more is exposed, the more officers will want to expose. The more they expose, the more there is a chance of stimulating a serious congressional investigation of the CIA. Should such an investigation take place, the world and especially the American people will learn to what extent they are being conned and defrauded by the CIA.

American citizens believe, for example, that some of their tax dollars go to finance AID Public Safety Programs. They believe that these Public Safety Programs are to help the people of the Third World countries live better and safer. The investigation would prove to them what every Agency officer knows: that the whole AID Public Safety Program is a front for CIA covert operations, including illegal detentions and torture. Hard earned dues paid by America's working folk go to support AIFLD, the American Institute for Free Labor Development, which, workers believe, is to help poor countries get unions to defend their rights. lf the CIA were seriously investigated, it would be revealed that AIFLD is a CIA front, through which money is sent to assassins, provocateurs and coup-makers. It was AIFLD, for example, which was used to finance the Chilean coup. If the American people could learn this and all the other frauds perpetrated on it by the CIA...I am convinced that the clamor would be so great that Congress would destroy the CIA.

U.S. citizens believe that some of their tax dollars go to finance AID Public Safety Programs, to help Third World Countries live better and safer. This program is a front for CIA covert operations, including detentions and torture.