The history of United States intelligence features many leakers, whistle-blowers and even a few traitors. But no one had ever done anything like this before — and, to this day, no one else has. Agee became a celebrity of sorts. His book wrapped its revelations inside a withering critique of American foreign policy, and leftists around the world hailed Agee as a hero. The C.I.A., he wrote, was “nothing more than the secret police of American capitalism, plugging up leaks in the political dam night and day so that shareholders of U.S. companies operating in poor countries can continue enjoying the rip-off.” He was repudiating more than just the C.I.A.; his real target was “the American project writ large,” as Jonathan Stevenson, the managing editor of Survival, argues in “A Drop of Treason,” his new biography of Agee. “He was part of the opposition, but he was no longer loyal,” Stevenson says.
Stevenson’s book seeks to unravel the mix of personal and ideological motives that drove Agee. “His detractors might say he just got mildly disenchanted with C.I.A. work; tried to take the quiet, nontreasonous way out; got frustrated; was seduced by a couple of lefty women; felt the allure of dissident celebrity; and only then became a real dissenter,” Stevenson writes. He rejects that view and casts Agee as “a figure of profound ambivalence and considerable subtlety.” That portrait, however, is undermined by the rigor of the portrayal. The book is remarkably well researched and treats complex issues with admirable clarity. But Stevenson so thoroughly documents Agee’s shallowness and self-regard that his nuanced assessment ultimately seems too charitable.
There is little doubt that Agee grew disgusted with Washington’s hypocritical backing of authoritarian governments. And it is true that Agee took a huge risk without much promise of personal profit. (Some evidence suggests that the C.I.A. at one point plotted to assassinate him.) But his decision to expose the agency came two years after he had ceased working there, during which he grew increasingly bitter owing to a messy divorce and a failed business venture. Moreover, he worked on his tell-all memoir while living in Havana and maintaining contacts with Cuban intelligence officials; Stevenson concurs with other historians who have concluded that Agee became, in essence, a Cuban asset — which, given the nature of the Castro regime, undercut his pose as a principled defender of liberty.
The C.I.A. recovered quickly from the damage Agee had inflicted. He was never charged with a crime because, strange as it may seem, it was not clearly illegal to reveal the identities of intelligence officers when he did so. After a brief period of notoriety, he faded from view, carrying out a peripatetic life on the fringes of international leftism, nursing various grudges. By the time he died, in 2008, he was largely forgotten. Ultimately, despite Stevenson’s efforts to raise the stakes, Agee’s story seems less about moral risk-taking or the wages of dissent than about what might be called the banality of betrayal.
Still, if the book falls short in some ways as biography, it delivers as history. It 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. As Stevenson writes: “The fierce and euphoric idealism that had arisen in the 1960s was giving way to doubt and paranoia, a kind of creeping corporate co-optation and, ultimately, downbeat social lassitude and introverted resignation.” Agee wanted his actions to be seen through the prism of the earlier moment. He was late to the party, however, and to the extent that his revelations had an impact, it was less to hinder American power than to feed the nihilism that took hold in the country.