Philip Agee: Former CIA agent who accused his government of 'state terrorism'

Philip Burnett Franklin Agee, intelligence agent, writer and activist: born Tacoma Park, Florida 19 July 1935; twice married (two sons); died Havana 7 January 2008

To some he was a conscientious whistleblower, to others a "traitor" responsible for the deaths of American, and possibly British, intelligence agents. The former CIA officer Philip Agee stunned the world in 1975 when he published Inside the Company – CIA Diary, accusing the US intelligence agency of "state terrorism", authorised by the White House, to thwart rising left-wing movements in Latin America. It included a list of some 250 CIA agents in the region. As a result, Agee was forced to live underground fearing a CIA "hit" for much of the rest of his life.

He said that even before his exposé appeared the CIA were keeping track of him, with miniature microphones and location devices planted in his typewriter case, images he used for the first cover of the book. He was thrown out of Britain at the behest of Washington, and finally died in Cuba, where he had been given safe haven, and free medical treatment, by Fidel Castro.

Agee worked as a case officer for the CIA for 12 years, mostly in Washington DC or Latin America, until he resigned in 1969. He had served during what was probably the intelligence agency's highest peak of influence, emboldened by the perceived threat of Soviet expansion worldwide – but what was surely its lowest moral ebb. When Penguin first published Agee's book, in London – he had assumed the CIA would find a way to censor it if it were published in the United States – it came as a bombshell. The agency had considered itself untouchable in print but Agee's exposé struck a chord with youth around the world increasingly concerned by US foreign policy. CIA-bashing became the fashion.

He was the first person to publish what many Americans had preferred to ignore during the Cold War, that the CIA supported "dirty tricks", including assassinations, to keep pro-Soviet movements out of power in Latin America. He described how, while based in the CIA's station in Montevideo, Uruguay, he visited police headquarters to find they were torturing a prisoner he had tipped them off about merely as a possible leftist. When he complained, the police simply turned up the volume of a radio-broadcast football match to drown out the screams.

Initially, Agee was prime CIA material. He was a conservative Catholic from a comfortable white family in Tampa, Florida, a 1956 graduate in philosophy and law from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, who said later he had set out to serve his country. Interviewed by Playboy magazine after the book appeared, Agee said: "Millions of people all over the world had been killed or at least had their lives destroyed by the CIA. . . I couldn't just sit by and do nothing."

His decision to quit stemmed largely from the so-called Tlatelolco massacre of hundreds of students by troops in Mexico City 10 days before the 1968 Olympic Games. As a CIA agent in the Mexican capital at the time, Agee said he had worked with the then Mexican interior minister (and future President) Luis Echeverría to subdue student opposition to both the government and the games. A year earlier, he insisted, it was the CIA who had ordered the assassination in Bolivia of Cuba's Argentinian revolutionary hero, Ernesto "Ché" Guevara.

After resigning from the CIA, Agee took a master's degree in Latin American history at Mexico's biggest university, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, a hotbed of leftism, where he said he became radicalised and began planning the diary.

He insisted that he had disclosed the identities of his former CIA operatives in order to "weaken the instrument for carrying out the policy of supporting military dictatorships. . . regimes supported by the CIA where the human cost was immense: torture, executions, death squads". Little of what he revealed shocked Latin Americans who had been through it. It did, however, shock citizens of the United States, who had liked to think their government agencies held the high moral ground.

Immediately after the success of his book, Agee found himself hounded by the CIA, not least by the man who became its Director in 1976, the future US President George H.W. Bush. Agee was accused of having a drinking problem and of "vulgar propositioning of embassy wives" during his postings. To this day, George Bush Snr calls Agee a "traitor" and says he became a Cuban agent after accepting Castro's hospitality – and, allegedly, money. Bush also blamed him for the assassination of the CIA's station chief in Athens, Richard Welch, shortly after CIA Diary was published, but Welch had been named not in the book, but in a publication called Counterspy. "For more than 25 years I have been one more American working in solidarity activities with Cuba and against US hostility, aggression, blockade," Agee replied. "If this makes me a 'Cuban agent', then there are certainly a lot of us out there."

Having sought refuge in England after the publication of CIA Diary, Agee lived in Cambridge, where he also provided material on CIA activities to publications such as Time Out. But the Labour government of James Callaghan, under heavy pressure from the US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, deported him in June 1977, saying his book's revelations might have led to the deaths of two MI6 agents in Poland.

Agee sought asylum in other European countries but, again under US pressure, was expelled from France, the Netherlands, Italy and West Germany, though the latter later allowed him back after he married the German ballet dancer Giselle Roberge. He spent his last years between Hamburg and Havana, where he was eulogised after his death as "a loyal friend of Cuba and staunch defender of the people's struggle for a better world". Despite his earlier deportation from the UK, and the fact that his US passport had been revoked in 1979, he was allowed in to both countries in recent years to lecture or attend rallies opposed to American foreign policy.

In 1987 he wrote an autobiography, On the Run. For several years until his death, he ran a Havana-based internet travel agency, which sought to help Americans find loopholes in the Trading with the Enemy Act, a US law under which the United States government tries to maintain the blockade of Castro's Communist regime.

Phil Davison

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