Victor Marchetti: A 'Spook' Who Haunts the CIA
Victor Marchetti is an ex-CIA agent who has written a book exposing (and lambasting) some of the seamier activities of his former employers. He may be forgiven for feeling insecure.
He admits to a surge of genuine paranoia one day this summer when he returned to the New York hotel suite where he and his family had been staying—only to find it empty.
“As I rode the elevator down to the lobby, I felt as if I was in some kind of British spy movie,” Marchetti recalls. It turned out that Marchetti’s wife had moved to a higher floor to escape the Manhattan street noise. But the incident does demonstrate the Chilled-spine feeling that has dominated Marchetti’s life since he started work on The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence.
The book, which was published in June, has climbed into the nonfiction best-seller lists even though large chunks of it are missing—or perhaps because they are. The CIA’s censoring of the book has garnered pages of free publicity for Marchetti.
Marchetti had written a novel shortly after he quit the CIA in 1969, disillusioned after 14 years with the agency. Called The Rope-Dancer, it contained some of the same accusations of CIA waste and interference in other countries’ affairs that his new book does. It made the agency dubious about Marchetti’s alumni loyalty, so that when it learned he was working on nonfiction, CIA attorneys obtained an injunction requiring him to clear any writing based on his CIA experiences.
When Marchetti eventually submitted the manuscript of The Cult of Intelligence to the CIA for clearance in the summer of 1973, he got it back with 339 passages marked for deletion on the grounds that their publication would endanger national security.
Negotiations reduced the cuts to 168 before the book was published, most giving details of CIA penetration of foreign governments. A subsequent court decision clearing all but 27 of the passages is still under appeal. Meanwhile, wherever passages were cut in the book, the word “deleted” appears.
The CIA’s only public comment on the book has been a formal statement charging that Marchetti has violated a secrecy agreement he signed. Unofficially, however, Marchetti has been accused of having a “sour grapes” attitude because his career at CIA was relatively unspectacular. Marchetti will admit that he was originally attracted to the agency by the more exotic aspects of its work. Born in 1930 in a small Pennsylvania mining town (the son, he likes to point out, of a plumber), Marchetti earned spending money as a boy by working as a numbers-game runner. He joined the army after two years of college, serving in intelligence.
That duty and the degree in Soviet studies he earned at Penn State after he left the army prompted a strange call he says he got one day in 1955.
“The man said he was a friend of my brother’s,” Marchetti recalls. “He told me to come to meet him at a hotel. When I got there, there were two men—one had a finger missing, which impressed me—and they asked if I would be interested in joining the CIA. This was at the height of the Cold War, and I liked the idea of the cloak-and-dagger business. They could have said, ‘Here’s your gun; Khrushchev is over there in Moscow. Go get him.’ And I would have done it.”
When he went to Washington for further interviewing, he received his expense money by a check mailed from a furniture company. The hyper-secrecy only whetted his enthusiasm. Marchetti spent a year as a covert agent—a “spook,” as it is called—before going into higher-paying analytical work. He eventually became executive assistant to deputy director Adm. Rufus Taylor. But he became increasingly alienated in a “long, involved metamorphosis” spurred by the Vietnam War.
“I began to wonder why we should be giving money to some stumblebum of a political leader in Southeast Asia when we have so many problems at home,” he says.
Marchetti’s ultimate break with the CIA was bitter, but he says he still respects many of the people he met in the agency. “They range all the way from unaggressive, Ph.D. types to Terry and the Pirates, jumping-out-of-planes people who want to eat dog meat up in the hills,” he says. “They’re complicated.”
Marchetti expects (perhaps hopefully) further legal harassment from the CIA, but despite the hotel episode (and another incident in which one of his car windows was shot out while he was driving through a rough Washington, D.C. area), he says he doesn’t feel physically threatened.
“Friends at the agency have told me there are guys there who have said they would kill me if they were asked to,” he says. “They may throw tantrums, but I can’t see them going that far. Even I don’t believe they’re that bad.”