CIA agent turned whistleblower branded a traitor by Bush
“Why did I leave the CIA?” the former agent Philip Agee, who died this week aged 72, 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.”
It was this mixture of commitment and romance that was to characterise the man who was denounced as a traitor by George Bush senior, threatened with death by his former agency colleagues and deported from Britain as a threat to the security of the state.
Agee had left the CIA in 1969 after 12 years working mainly in Latin America, where he gradually became disgusted by the agency’s collusion with military dictators in the region and decided to blow the whistle on their activities. The Mexico City massacre of student protesters in 1968 also stiffened his resolve. His 1975 book, Inside the Company: CIA Diary, spilled the beans on his former employers and enraged the US government, not least because it named CIA operatives.
“It was a time in the 70s when the worst imaginable horrors were going on in Latin America,” he told the Guardian in an interview published a year ago tomorrow. “Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Guatemala, El Salvador – they were military dictatorships with death squads, all with the backing of the CIA and the 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.”
To carry out his work, Agee moved to London in the early 70s with his then partner, Angela, a left-wing Brazilian who had been jailed and tortured in her own country, and his two young sons by his estranged American wife. He worked with the magazine Time Out and other publications to expose the CIA’s work internationally. His activities had already alerted the then US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, who urged the prime minister, Jim Callaghan, to deport him.
After an arcane legal process, Agee was deported in 1977, along with a young American journalist, Mark Hosenball (now a senior investigative writer with Newsweek), who had worked at Time Out. The then home secretary, Merlyn Rees, who issued the deportation order, claimed – falsely and maliciously, according to Agee – that he was behind the deaths of two British agents. Their case became a liberal cause celebre.
Banished from Britain, Agee found the door closed to him in France and the Netherlands, and he faced prosecution and jail if he returned to the US where his passport was revoked in 1979. His relationship with Angela ended under the pressure and he met and fell in love with a well-known ballet dancer, Giselle Roberge. At her suggestion, they married, which gave him the right to stay in Germany. Until the time of his death, he lived between their home in Hamburg and an apartment in Havana. He continued his exposees of the CIA in the Covert Action Information Bulletin.
A former philosophy and law student from a comfortable Roman Catholic Florida family, who graduated from Notre Dame university in 1956, Agee had initially seemed perfect CIA material: bright, sharp-witted, bilingual and cultured. His career path seemed assured, but doubts about what he was asked to do soon set in.
He recounts his gradual disillusionment in On the Run, published in 1987. His former employers never forgave him and his movements and contacts were logged in incredible detail, as he later found out when he was able to return to the US and examine the archives on his case under the Freedom of Information Act. He was told that the CIA had had two or three people working on him full-time. “Such a waste of money,” he said at the time, “because I don’t do anything that’s not public.”
The CIA always tried to pin on Agee the death of Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens, who was assassinated in 1975, although Welch was named not by Agee but in other publications. “George Bush’s father 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,” he recalled.
Having lost his US passport, Agee sailed under an intriguing number of flags of convenience. He held a Grenadian passport briefly, after helping that country’s then radical government in 1980, and later in the eighties a Nicaraguan one, which the Sandinista government gave him. When the government changed there in 1990, he finally acquired a German passport.
He went back to the US where his two sons, Phil and Chris, live, both in New York. He often spoke of them with pride and some regret. “There was a price to pay,” he said of his deportation. “It disrupted the education of my children and I don’t think it was a happy period for them.”
The Major government lifted the British ban on him and he also returned to the UK and elsewhere in Europe, still campaigning, most recently on the case of the Cuban Five, the five Cubans jailed in Miami on espionage charges.
In the 90s, he set up a travel business, cubalinda.com, in Havana, where he was a familiar figure; he was described by the Cuban daily Granma today as “a loyal friend of Cuba”. Initially, his clients came from the US, but Americans are now forbidden by law from visiting Cuba and can be fined heavily if caught, so his more recent customers have come from Europe and Canada.
It was in Cuba that he died after an operation for a perforated ulcer, having been admitted to hospital just before Christmas. He had recently had surgery for a tumour on his face, but remained sociable and happy to talk over a meal and a bottle of wine about his confrontations with authority.
“I never stopped what I started in London,” he told me when we met up again in Hamburg last year, “and I don’t expect to stop till I’m dead.” In that, as in his determination to expose the CIA’s role in the scandals of Latin America, he remained true to his word. He is survived by Giselle and his sons.
· Philip Burnett Franklin Agee, ex-CIA agent, whistleblower, author, born July 19 1935; died January 7 2007
Duncan Campbell is a senior correspondent with the Guardian where he has worked since 1987