A Drop of Treason
Philip Agee and His Exposure of the CIA
A Drop of Treason
Philip Agee and His Exposure of the CIA
The first biography of this contentious, legendary man, Jonathan Stevenson’s A Drop of Treason is a thorough portrait of Agee and his place in the history of American foreign policy and the intelligence community during the Cold War and beyond. Unlike mere whistleblowers, Agee exposed American spies by publicly blowing their covers. And he didn’t stop there—his was a lifelong political struggle that firmly allied him with the social movements of the global left and against the American project itself from the early 1970s on. Stevenson examines Agee’s decision to turn, how he sustained it, and how his actions intersected with world events.
Having made profound betrayals and questionable decisions, Agee lived a rollicking, existentially fraught life filled with risk. He traveled the world, enlisted Gabriel García Márquez in his cause, married a ballerina, and fought for what he believed was right. Raised a conservative Jesuit in Tampa, he died a socialist expat in Havana. In A Drop of Treason, Stevenson reveals what made Agee tick—and what made him run.
328 pages | 6 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2021
Political Science: Diplomacy, Foreign Policy, and International Relations
"Stevenson offers a history replete with globe-trotting intrigue akin to novels by Graham Greene and John le Carré. Making ample use of Agee’s writings, interviews with his contemporaries, and declassified documents, Stevenson details the CIA's confrontation with multiple challenges and controversies. The result is a first-rate study. . . . Highly recommended."
"Remarkably well researched and treats complex issues with admirable clarity. . . . [A Drop of Treason] offers a vivid snapshot of America in the mid-1970s, when the collapse of institutional authority after the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal was followed not by revolution or reformation but by exhaustion and decadence.”
New York Times
“One of America’s ‘most hated’ spies receives a lively, thoughtful biography. Stevenson has searched the archives and interviewed everyone willing to talk about Philip Agee. . . . An insightful and evenhanded portrait.”
Kirkus (starred review)
“Stevenson portrays Philip Agee’s thrilling story and what made him take action against his country.”
"Jonathan Stevenson’s biography of the turncoat CIA officer Philip Agee leaves the reader with an unexpected appreciation for the durability of the republic. One finishes his fine book thinking it was something of a miracle that America survived the 1970s and ultimately won the Cold War. The Agee controversy was just a single data point during a decade that began with the shootings at Kent State and ended with the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet capture of Afghanistan. But his story illustrates the moral exhaustion of post-Watergate and pre-Reagan America."
"Stevenson’s book is an equivocal portrait of Agee."
Los Angeles Review of Books
“Stevenson brings an insider's knowledge and a scholar-writer's talent to this riveting biography of the turncoat spy Philip Agee. A Drop of Treason is rich in historical revelation and psychological and moral insight into a fascinating figure of America's long twilight struggle.”
George Packer, author of 'Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal'
“With A Drop of Treason, Jonathan Stevenson does more than give us a readable, much-needed biography of Philip Agee's wild life, taking us from the lawns of Notre Dame to the streets of Hamburg and the plazas of Havana. By placing Agee's life in the context of the transatlantic left, he illuminates an often-overlooked facet of the Cold War with cloak-and-dagger elan and historical sweep.”
Clay Risen, author of 'The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders and the Dawn of the American Century'
“A Drop of Treason is biography in its highest form, unearthing the central fault lines of America’s foreign policy through Agee’s troubled path from idealism to disenchantment to partial rehabilitation. Stevenson’s book is a tour de force—a must-read for anyone curious to understand the troubling course of America’s global presence from the Cold War era to the time of Donald Trump.”
Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University and author of 'Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State'
“Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, A Drop of Treason reads like a spy thriller, chronicling the life of turned CIA officer Philip Agee. Stevenson masterfully brings together a real-life story of espionage, betrayal, and the dramatic consequences that befell one of the first Americans to publicly turn on the CIA.”
Ali Soufan, former FBI special agent and author of 'The Black Banners (Declassified): How Torture Derailed the War on Terror after 9/11'
“In this engaging biography, Stevenson gives us Philip Agee as a man who ‘straddled the giddy line’ between dissenter and traitor, between exile and expat, between cad and antihero. Agee’s complicated life, in Stevenson’s able hands, becomes a lens through which the past half century of statecraft and spycraft come into sharp focus, and with them the politics and culture of a tumultuous era.”
Gary Greenberg, practicing psychotherapist and author of 'The Book of Woe' and “In the Kingdom of the Unabomber”
Table of Contents
2 The Young Spy
3 The Consolidation of Dissidence
4 Indefinite Limbo
5 Agee and the Transatlantic Left
6 Uneasy Normalization
7 Whipsawed, Stalked, Tired
8 Posterity for a Traitor
When Agee left the CIA in 1969, it was still a relatively young organization, having been officially created by the National Security Act of 1947. But it was built on the rather unsteady foundations of the wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—which had been, despite the legendary status it inspired then and continues to enjoy owing to the charitableness of nostalgia, an erratic seat-of-the-pants enterprise. The Cold War, of course, created a crucial demand for intelligence, prompted exponential growth in the CIA’s personnel strength and budget, and afforded the agency immense traction and clout within the United States’ national security bureaucracy. Furthermore, during the Eisenhower administration CIA Director Allen Dulles—fully supported by his older brother, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles—burnished its reputation with covert action that secured US-friendly regimes in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and the Congo (January 1961). Yet the agency had performed poorly in the Korean War and embarrassed itself with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961. Rightly or wrongly, in the mid- to late 1960s its intelligence assessments were partially blamed for the United States’ ongoing frustrations in Vietnam. By the early 1970s, the CIA was an underconfident institution, worried about its place in an open democracy and less sanguine than it appeared about the stalwartness of its second generation of officers.
In fact, a fair number of intelligence officers who were Agee’s rough contemporaries were experiencing disillusionment. Some, of course, were imperturbable cold warriors for whom the twinned ends of planting capitalist democracy and extirpating MarxistLeninist communism justified any effective means. Others took a more nuanced view, subscribing to the American mission in general. Conceding that US institutions—including the CIA—made mistakes that ranged from mere operational errors to major strategic ones, they resolved to remain part of the system for lack of any better alternative. For them, becoming malcontents or whistleblowers or, beyond that, traitors, were not viable options; they had careers as professional patriots that they were not about to upend. Recrimination and reconsideration might someday be warranted, but not while they were busy doing what had to be done for themselves as well as their country. Then there were irrepressibly disaffected intelligence officers. What they had seen in the world of shadows they had chosen to inhabit had intolerably unsettling psychological effects. Some simply opted out of the intelligence business, leaving behind what they perceived as a somehow wrongheaded or just bad life, choosing never to talk about it or address it further. They might have had particular experiences that were disillusioning and upsetting, such as recruiting an agent who wound up dead. Or they might have developed a broader philosophical sense that convincing vulnerable, needy people to commit treason—the meat and drink of spycraft—was either immoral or, in the martial countries that were the focus of the agency’s attention, futile. Among officers leaving the CIA before retirement age, this variety was perhaps the most common. Very few felt compelled to do something about the putative iniquity of American spying. As David Corn has observed, “It’s very rare that someone decides to confront that institution, expose what they think is wrong about it, and bring it to a halt.”
Agee was just that rare. His turn shocked and traumatized the CIA, which characterized him as its first defector. Its institutional loathing of Agee, and its wariness of his story as precedent, have endured. To this day the CIA is sensitive to the public disclosure of information about Agee’s activities. The Philip Agee Papers— the various and sundry documents that he accumulated between the time of his resignation from the CIA and his death in January 2008, central to the composition of this book—have been held at New York University’s Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives since 2010, his wife Giselle Roberge Agee having donated them to the library. The papers were in his Havana apartment when he died in January 2008, and Michael Nash, then the Tamiment Library/ Wagner Archives’ associate curator, supervised their transport from Cuba to the United States. Owing to US restrictions on direct flights between the two countries, he arranged for the documents to be flown to Montreal by DHL and then transferred over land to New York. Unsurprisingly, the CIA and other government agencies got wind of these arrangements. When the flight stopped to refuel in Cincinnati, the CIA, the FBI, and other national security officials seized the papers, combed through all of them, and confiscated an appreciable number of documents before allowing the shipment to proceed to Montreal. They also appeared to tear out and retain a significant number of pages from Agee’s datebooks from several years—especially in the 1990s and 2000s, when Agee was spending much of his time in Cuba—and to confiscate his 1980, 1989, 2002, 2003, and 2005 datebooks in their entirety.
Agee was the only publicly disaffected American intelligence officer to confront the CIA on full-fledged ideological grounds and to oppose American strategy and foreign policy on a wholesale basis. He left the agency after twelve years as a case officer in Latin America, at least in part over his disenchantment with what he perceived as the CIA’s undermining of liberal democracy to serve American economic and political interests. He later resolved to subvert that effort by writing a book—entitled Inside the Company: CIA Diary—setting forth his political and philosophical grievances, published first in the United Kingdom in early 1975 and about six months later in the United States. It would take him five years to write and would become the urtext of spy tell-all books. Unlike most other vocally unhappy CIA officers, he also declined to submit the book to the CIA for vetting and redaction, violating his agency employment agreement. Unlike any other such officers, he published the names of some 400 clandestine CIA officers, agents, and fronts. (A CIA “officer” is a US government civil servant employed by the agency. A CIA “agent” is an outside party clandestinely recruited by the CIA to advance CIA objectives.)
Published in 1975—the so-called Year of Intelligence—Inside the Company scandalized the agency, enraged its top management as well as its rank and file, and compromised its operations in the Western Hemisphere. The book and Agee’s campaign to expose intelligence operatives and operations drew bipartisan opprobrium among American politicians—Barry Goldwater wanted Agee’s citizenship revoked, and Joe Biden said he should go to jail.4 For the rest of his life, Agee would continue, albeit with diminishing returns, his efforts to undermine CIA covert operations and other aspects of what he considered objectionable US policies.
There have been quite a few former intelligence officers who have turned against the CIA or some other federal intelligence agency. But Agee set himself apart from other government dissidents.