After blowing the whistle on the dirty tactics of his CIA bosses in the 70s, Philip Agee was forced into exile. Thirty years on he has found a safe haven, but, he tells Duncan Campbell, the fight goes on
Wednesday January 10, 2007
Thirty years ago, Philip Agee, then a 41-year-old former CIA officer living in Cambridge, was told that he was to be deported from Britain as a threat to the security of the state. After a high-profile but unsuccessful attempt to fight the order, he and his young family left Britain for ever. But what happened to the man denounced as a traitor by George Bush Sr, threatened with death by his former colleagues and portrayed as a communist stooge by the British government?
A small fish restaurant off the Winterhude marketplace in Hamburg, on a grey afternoon, seems as good a place as any to meet a former CIA man who has spent much of his life looking over his shoulder. He is 71 now, grey-haired and a little battered around the face from recent surgery on a tumour, but still recognisable as the intense and clean-cut agent who took on the CIA all those years ago. It was his book, Inside the Company, published in 1975, that first revealed in detail many of the dirty tricks that his colleagues had been involved in across the world. Agee, a former philosphy and law student from a comfortable Florida family, had been in the CIA for more than a decade, working mainly in Latin America, before making his momentous decision to quit and tell.
"It was a time in the 70s when the worst imaginable horrors were going on in Latin America," he says. "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."
His intent to destabilise the organisation by revealing the identities of CIA agents infuriated his former employers. In Britain, he worked with publications such as Time Out, which in those days had a lengthy news section, to list the names of the agents, leading to many of them being sent back to Washington, their cover blown. The US government was livid.
Agee had made it clear he was going to settle in Cambridge with his partner, Angela, a leftwing Brazilian who had been jailed and tortured in her own country, and his two young sons by his estranged wife, and carry on exposing the CIA. But before he could unpack his bags, he was facing expulsion. He believes the US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, urged the prime minister at the time, Jim Callaghan, to act because of a belief that Agee had disrupted the Jamaican elections in favour of leftwinger Michael Manley by exposing CIA activities there.
The home secretary, Merlyn Rees, issued the deportation order, informing colleagues - falsely and maliciously, according to Agee - that Agee was behind the deaths of two British agents. "Rees lied," he says. On the same day, a young American journalist, Mark Hosenball, who had just left Time Out where he had co-authored an exposé of GCHQ in Cheltenham, was also told to leave. The two became a cause celebre.
There were no safe havens for Agee. France refused to allow him to stay. The Netherlands, which had initially granted him admission, changed its mind, and he had no desire to risk a return to the US and probable prosecution and jail. Events in his personal life took over. His relationship with Angela, already strained by the pressures of deportation and his own frequent absences campaigning, ended. He met and fell in love with a ballet dancer called Giselle Roberge. At her suggestion, they married, which gave him the right to stay in Germany.
Agee currently splits his life between Hamburg and Havana. His US passport was revoked in 1979, but he was given a Grenadian one after helping that country's radical government. Then the Nicaraguans, under the Sandinista government, gave him one, which he was able to use until 1990 when his past caught up with him once more. "When Violetta Chamorro [a centrist candidate] was elected president," he explains, "she was desperate to have the Bush administration release the hundreds of millions of dollars they had promised in aid for relief and reconstruction. In order to release the aid, Bush made a series of demands and the revocation of my passport was one of them."
Since 1990, he has had a German passport. He did apply to get his US one back and duly visited the American interests section in Havana. "It was a spooky experience. The head of the section invited me to lunch - he was extremely friendly - but there was no way I would have lunch, much less a conversation about Cuba, with him. I did tell him I thought the US was getting a black eye over Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly over the torture." His bid to get the passport back was unsuccessful. "They wanted to have all the details of the Americans I was dealing with in the travel business [Agee started a company in the 90s to brings visitors to Cuba]. They expected me to rat on all the Americans who come to the country illegally. And I wasn't about to do that."
Looking back over the 30 years since he made his decision to step out into the cold, Agee says: "There was a price to pay. It disrupted the education of my children [Phil and Chris, teenagers then], and I don't think it was a happy period for them. It also cost me all my money. Everything I made from the book, I had to spend. But it made me a stronger person in many ways, and it ensured I would never lose interest or go back in the other direction politically. The more they did these dirty things, the more they made me realise what I was doing was important."
Under the US Freedom of Information Act, Agee has been able to see the scope of the operation mounted against him by an unforgiving CIA. "They admitted to having 18,000 pages on me. I figured out there were 120 pages a day for seven or eight years. That can only be things like telephone transcripts and letter intercepts. Some person from the Pentagon was talking about me and saying they had two or three people working on me full time. I thought it was so foolish, such a waste of money, because I don't do anything that's not public. I don't pay much attention to them any more, but now and then something will come up."
What comes up most often is the name 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, Agee has often been blamed for his death. "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. His wife, Barbara, published her memoirs and she repeated the same lie, and this time I sued and won, in the sense that she was required to send me a letter in which she apologised and recognised what she wrote about me was false. They've tried to make this story stick for years. I never know what government hand or neocon hand is behind the allegations, and I don't pay too much attention, but I know I haven't been forgotten."
Agee may not be on the run any more - he has been back to the US many times without being arrested and was allowed back into Britain under the Major government - but life is lived at least at a trot. He has just arrived from Spain, where he has addressed a rally in support of the Miami Five, the Cubans jailed for up to 25 years on espionage charges for infiltrating anti-Castro groups in Florida. Soon he will return from Hamburg to his other home, Havana, and his travel business. Initially, his customers came from the US, but Americans are forbidden by law from visiting Cuba and can be fined heavily if caught, so his clients now come mainly from Europe.
Would it be possible for someone in the CIA today to do what Agee did? "I think it would be much harder," he says. "I can think of plenty of people in the CIA who would be horrified by what the CIA has been doing in terms of the torture of suspected terrorists, but a person who tried to do what I did would face kidnapping and possibly being put on ice in a secret prison for many years to come."
Although the cases of Agee and Hosenball were inextricably linked, the two men have not met since their expulsions. Hosenball has had a successful journalistic career, first with the Sunday Times and now with Newsweek, a publication that has, coincidentally, always been hostile to Agee. "Newsweek is not about to be favourable to me or even neutral," says Agee. "It has been on my case from the very beginning."
If the CIA were hoping that age would mellow Agee, they were wrong. I had last seen him nearly 30 years ago at his farewell party in London as he said his reluctant goodbyes to what had become a large and vocal defence campaign. He wept on the ferry that took him away from Britain as he contemplated what the future might hold for him and his family, and you wondered how he would survive. But he remains as committed as ever, and busy working on another book, this time about the CIA's activitives in Venezuela over the years. "I never stopped what I started in London," he says, "and I don't expect to stop till I'm dead".
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007