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A Drop of Treason: Philip Agee and His Exposure of the CIA

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Philip Agee’s story is the stuff of a John le Carré novel—perilous and thrilling adventures around the globe. He joined the CIA as a young idealist, becoming an operations officer in hopes of seeing the world and safeguarding his country. He was the consummate intelligence insider, thoroughly entrenched in the shadow world. But in 1975, he became the first person to public Philip Agee’s story is the stuff of a John le Carré novel—perilous and thrilling adventures around the globe. He joined the CIA as a young idealist, becoming an operations officer in hopes of seeing the world and safeguarding his country. He was the consummate intelligence insider, thoroughly entrenched in the shadow world. But in 1975, he became the first person to publicly betray the CIA—a pariah whose like was not seen again until Edward Snowden. For almost forty years in exile, he was a thorn in the side of his country.   The first biography of this contentious, legendary man, Jonathan Stevenson’s A Drop of Treason is a thorough portrait of Agee and his place in the history of American foreign policy and the intelligence community during the Cold War and beyond. Unlike mere whistleblowers, Agee exposed American spies by publicly blowing their covers. And he didn’t stop there—his was a lifelong political struggle that firmly allied him with the social movements of the global left and against the American project itself from the early 1970s on. Stevenson examines Agee’s decision to turn, how he sustained it, and how his actions intersected with world events.   Having made profound betrayals and questionable decisions, Agee lived a rollicking, existentially fraught life filled with risk. He traveled the world, enlisted Gabriel García Márquez in his cause, married a prima ballerina, and fought for what he believed was right. Raised a conservative Jesuit in Tampa, he died a socialist expat in Havana. In A Drop of Treason, Stevenson reveals what made Agee tick—and what made him run.  


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Philip Agee’s story is the stuff of a John le Carré novel—perilous and thrilling adventures around the globe. He joined the CIA as a young idealist, becoming an operations officer in hopes of seeing the world and safeguarding his country. He was the consummate intelligence insider, thoroughly entrenched in the shadow world. But in 1975, he became the first person to public Philip Agee’s story is the stuff of a John le Carré novel—perilous and thrilling adventures around the globe. He joined the CIA as a young idealist, becoming an operations officer in hopes of seeing the world and safeguarding his country. He was the consummate intelligence insider, thoroughly entrenched in the shadow world. But in 1975, he became the first person to publicly betray the CIA—a pariah whose like was not seen again until Edward Snowden. For almost forty years in exile, he was a thorn in the side of his country.   The first biography of this contentious, legendary man, Jonathan Stevenson’s A Drop of Treason is a thorough portrait of Agee and his place in the history of American foreign policy and the intelligence community during the Cold War and beyond. Unlike mere whistleblowers, Agee exposed American spies by publicly blowing their covers. And he didn’t stop there—his was a lifelong political struggle that firmly allied him with the social movements of the global left and against the American project itself from the early 1970s on. Stevenson examines Agee’s decision to turn, how he sustained it, and how his actions intersected with world events.   Having made profound betrayals and questionable decisions, Agee lived a rollicking, existentially fraught life filled with risk. He traveled the world, enlisted Gabriel García Márquez in his cause, married a prima ballerina, and fought for what he believed was right. Raised a conservative Jesuit in Tampa, he died a socialist expat in Havana. In A Drop of Treason, Stevenson reveals what made Agee tick—and what made him run.  

40 review for A Drop of Treason: Philip Agee and His Exposure of the CIA

  1. 4 out of 5

    J Earl

    A Drop of Treason: Philip Agee and His Exposure of the CIA by Jonathan Stevenson is a detailed and comprehensive account of Agee both before and after his controversial book on the workings of the CIA. A great book as both history and as nonfiction that almost reads like fiction. I am of the age to remember Agee's book and might have a little more memory of it than many my age because my father was part of the intelligence community at-large (NSA and Naval Security Group, Fort Meade) so the book A Drop of Treason: Philip Agee and His Exposure of the CIA by Jonathan Stevenson is a detailed and comprehensive account of Agee both before and after his controversial book on the workings of the CIA. A great book as both history and as nonfiction that almost reads like fiction. I am of the age to remember Agee's book and might have a little more memory of it than many my age because my father was part of the intelligence community at-large (NSA and Naval Security Group, Fort Meade) so the book was discussed my senior year of high school at home. This book is a perfect example of not being what I initially expected it to be, and my being thankful it wasn't. I expected the usual story of what he did at the CIA and what people thought of him, maybe a little about what he did after publication. But this did all of that and so much more. It is far more even-handed than most books about intelligence people who turn without sidestepping both Agee's positives and negatives. I think what stood out for me was that even when it was largely a biography like any other, Stevenson made sure to keep everything in context. What Agee did, why (or at least why he said he did) he did it, and the repercussions to Agee and the Agency. I think most readers will come away with a better and far more nuanced understanding of who Agee was and why he did what he did in the manner he did it. I will always have a difficult time with the naming of names, at least the names of field agents. That is putting people's lives at risk as well as their careers. I also grapple with the idea of whether he tried to do what was "right" because he believed that strongly or because he simply wanted to be visible (call it hubris, call it ego, whatever). But Stevenson has given me the information to make how I feel a bit better informed. I hesitate to state explicitly how I feel toward Agee because the book does, I think, an excellent job of offering the reader plenty of pros and cons, sometimes told with a slant but not too often and not too slant. Where I ended up with my opinion may well be a different place from where you end up, so I don't want to make it sound like the book argued for the position I take. I think anyone interested in US intelligence, both in the Cold War era as well as today, will come away with new insight and maybe a new appreciation of what it took, right or wrong, for Agee to do what he did. Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.

  2. 4 out of 5

    David Mattingly

    Stevenson, Jonathan. A Drop of Treason: Phillip Agee and His Exposure of the CIA. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press: 2021. 328 Pages. $27.50 The U.S. Intelligence Community in the mid-1970s was rife with investigations by Congress, the press, and exposé’s biographies written by former intelligence operatives. Phillip Agee wrote Inside the Company: CIA Diary after he left the CIA. The book chronicled CIA operations in Latin America and soon become one of the top reads for students in intel Stevenson, Jonathan. A Drop of Treason: Phillip Agee and His Exposure of the CIA. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press: 2021. 328 Pages. $27.50 The U.S. Intelligence Community in the mid-1970s was rife with investigations by Congress, the press, and exposé’s biographies written by former intelligence operatives. Phillip Agee wrote Inside the Company: CIA Diary after he left the CIA. The book chronicled CIA operations in Latin America and soon become one of the top reads for students in intelligence studies programs worldwide. Jonathan Stevenson is an editor at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and was previously professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War in his new book looks at Agee from his early years in a devout Catholic family, attending Notre Dame University, joining the CIA, and the decades after leaving the agency as a “stateless” man. Phillip Agee and fellow CIA officer Victor Marchetti left the CIA within months of each other, both were disillusioned with CIA operations conducted overseas and U.S. foreign policy. Both wrote exposés that exposed operations and named names of CIA officers and foreign agents. However, Stevenson points out “Agee was certainly the only publicly disaffected American intelligence officer to confront the CIA on full-fledged ideological grounds and to oppose American Strategy and foreign policy on a wholesale basis.” After authoring the book Inside the Company, Agee remained what Stevenson called “a public pest.” After having the U.S. State Department denied him a U.S. passport, Agee spent his years in Europe and Latin America writing and supporting governments that were counter to the established U.S. foreign policy. The CIA often considered him to be under the control of either the Soviet Union’s KGB or Cuban Intelligence. His work became the foundation for the U.S. Congress to pass the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 or as it was known in the Intelligence Community as the “anti-Agee Act” which makes the disclosure of intelligence officers’ identities unlawful. Stevenson’s work is professionally researched and documented he leads the reader through many of the tumultuous periods of U.S. foreign policy such as the Iran-Contra Affair as well as Agee personal issues with the U.S. and foreign governments. His writing is well balanced and makes for an enjoyable read for both the historian and the intelligence aficionado. I highly recommend A Drop of Treason to any one interested in the U.S. Intelligence Community.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Poptart19 (ren)

    3.5 stars A thoroughly researched & engagingly written biography of CIA dissenter Philip Agee, this book focuses on the influences that shaped his political activism throughout his life & the nuanced reasons for his turning. Though at points a bit repetitive, the narrative keeps the central question (why did he do it?) in focus. It’s an interesting read, more of a story of political activism than one focused on espionage. [What I liked:] •I found it helpful how in chapter 1 the writer made a disti 3.5 stars A thoroughly researched & engagingly written biography of CIA dissenter Philip Agee, this book focuses on the influences that shaped his political activism throughout his life & the nuanced reasons for his turning. Though at points a bit repetitive, the narrative keeps the central question (why did he do it?) in focus. It’s an interesting read, more of a story of political activism than one focused on espionage. [What I liked:] •I found it helpful how in chapter 1 the writer made a distinction between Agee’s defection (deemed an “ideological conversion” with intent to bring down the CIA) & whistleblowing (exposing narrow problems to bring reform). The writer discusses various definitions of whistleblowing in light of recent scholarship, & establishes why he thinks Agee is so unique compared to other figures like Snowden & Ellsberg. It’s a solid start to the book. •Exploring the why & how of Agee’s turning is the main theme of this book & the writer maintains this throughout the book. The story traces Agee’s personal life events, the greater political atmosphere, & shifts in Catholicism from the 1950’s through Agee’s death in 2008. This approach worked well I think, showing where Agee’s convictions were buoyed by or bucked the trends & influences around him. •The book is well researched, & the writer includes a selected bibliography & some photographs in the notes. A number of primary sources were used, including Agee’s personal papers, as well as interviews with people he knew throughout his life. •I’m not an expert on this subject, but I feel that the writer gave a nuanced portrayal of Agee’s motivations. He paints Agee as neither an evil traitor nor a righteous crusader, but as a complex person whose agenda & motivations evolved over time. Some common misconceptions are cleared up (such as Agee being responsible for Richard Welch’s death), & claims about Agee’s cooperation with the DGI &/or KGB are addressed with as much evidence is available without drawing unverifiable conclusions. [What I didn’t like as much:] •At times the narrative felt a bit repetitive, with certain phrases being repeated or certain points being heavily emphasized. This was not a major issue for me though, & overall the structure is sound & the book well edited. CW: descriptions of torture [I received an ARC ebook copy from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. Thank you for the book!]

  4. 4 out of 5

    Roger Mexico

    An interesting take on a controversial character. I empathize with Agee: the CIA and intelligence in general seem like such attractive callings for clever, patriotic, and idealistic people. I think the reality of the work is often too gritty/boring/unsavory and it takes guts to leave it. But he went a step further.

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    Whatwhenwhere

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    Lisa

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