Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

In some office in Moscow lies a secret map of Arlington. It highlights not our famous cemetery or the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor but some sites of Cold War spy drama.

Last Friday at the Arlington Historical Society’s banquet, David Robarge, chief historian at the CIA, delivered a rich talk titled “Spies Next Door.” Detailing three major espionage incidents, he lent big-picture perspective to some juicy tales with Arlington settings.

The first unfolded at Arlington Hall, that federal multiplex on Route 50 where World War II codebreakers labored to break the secret communications of Japan and the Soviet Union. A hush-hush U.S-British counterintelligence project called Venona assembled linguists and math whizzes to decipher Soviet messages to intelligence, diplomatic and trade officials.

“It was tough, dogged work,” Robarge said, commending ace code breaker Meredith Gardner, whose team found patterns in double-encrypted texts showing Soviet inquiries about the Manhattan Project and President Franklin Roosevelt’s health. Venona eventually identified 300 Soviet “assets” inside U.S. agencies. Years later their names came out—Klaus Fuchs, Harry Dexter White, Alger Hiss.

Though Hiss remained a cause célèbre for decades, “he was guilty as charged, and it should be put to rest forever,” Robarge said. Venona’s findings could not be used in court, so prosecutions depended on catching spies in the act.

Venona collapsed in 1949 when the Russians were tipped off to the message interceptions by double agents Kim Philby and William Weisband. Arlington Hall “went deaf,” Robarge said.

The notion of a mole inside CIA became a 20-year fixation for Arlingtonian James Angleton, the CIA’s counterintelligence chief in the 1950s and 60s. “He was a strange, polarizing figure, an oddball who worked strange hours with the blinds down,” Robarge said.

Angleton figured if his friend Philby could betray him, there must be others. So each hint of a mole from Soviet defectors was “music to Angleton’s ears.” The counterintelligence push ended up probing 40 CIA employees, 14 of whom became suspects whose careers were damaged, the historian said.

In December 1974, after The New York Times exposed the CIA’s illegal domestic operations, Angleton was fired. As reporters mobbed his home at 4814 N. 33rd Rd., Robarge said, Angleton came out in a bathrobe looking drunk, leaving a bad impression. “Angleton’s career went down in flames, so the bad he did was remembered and the good forgotten,” Robarge said. For years, counterintelligence became the CIA’s “stepchild,” as the “Angleton syndrome” impeded efforts to find spies inside U.S. intelligence.

That, in part, led to the saga of Aldrich Ames, “probably the CIA’s most destructive spy ever,” Robarge said. An incompetent in charge of anti-Soviet strategy, Ames beginning in 1985 began selling classified documents to the Soviets he was supposed to be recruiting. One result: 10 pro-U.S. agents in the Soviet Union were executed. After nine years, CIA monitors began noticing his expensive home at 2512 N. Randolph St., his $50,000 Jaguar, new wardrobe and his wife’s 500 pairs of shoes.

Damaging evidence was found on his home computer and trash cans, and a pattern noted: Every time he met with Soviets, his bank accounts suddenly swelled. His dramatic arrest was big local news in 1994. It added to evidence used later against long-missed FBI mole Robert Hanson, who picked up Russian money at Long Branch Nature Center. Yet another spy on the Arlington map.