John Paisley was a senior CIA officer who worked on Team B, was the Agency’s liaison to the Watergate burglars, and according to some was a Soviet double agent. In 1978 he disappeared while sailing in the Chesapeake Bay, and the body that washed up was never definitively identified as his. This week we take a look at the life and work of John Paisley and examine the conspiracy theories around his CIA career, and his disappearance.
John Arthur Paisley was born in Sand Springs, Oklahoma in 1923. He mostly grew up in Arizona, in a poor family who sometimes didn’t even have the money for shoes for the kids. Paisley was obsessed with radios, and one christmas the family clubbed together all their money to buy him a radio he had admired in a shop window for years.
This began his lifelong obsession with technology, especially radio communications. During WW2 he enrolled in Maritime Service Training and became a radio operator for the Merchant Marine. He travelled widely, including to Cuba and the Soviet Union, learning Spanish and Russian as he went. This appears to have formed his other lifelong obsessions – with adventure, and with boats and sailing. Paisley was not unlike Sterling Hayden in this respect.
After the war he worked as a radio operator for Arizona Highway Patrol, before getting into the University of Oregon. He lasted only a few months before being expelled after the housemaster found him in his dormitory with a young lady. Paisley had a curious relationship with women – despite having poor posture and being very ordinary-looking, a lot of women found him very attractive and endearing. He was known as something of a charmer, but was also prone to introversion and obsessing with his work, to the detriment of his marriage. He was, in many respects, an oddball.
Paisley then spent a time working for the United Nations in the Middle East – again as a radio operator. On his return to the US he got married and enrolled at the University of Chicago to study International Relations. In 1953 he joined the CIA, though some say he was unofficially recruited several years earlier. His technical knowhow along with his knowledge of foreign countries and languages made him an excellent intelligence officer, capable of combining information from various sources – electronic, human, open source – to produce vivid and detailed analyses of Soviet life.
In the mid 1950s he also spent a couple of years on loan to the NSA, analysing information coming back from the now-famous Berlin tunnel listening post. After that he became head of the Agency’s Electronic Equipment Branch, Industrial Division. This entailed spending a lot of time gathering information in Eastern Europe, to feed into assessments of the Soviet Union’s capabilities and likely intentions.
Paisley was then appointed deputy director of the CIA’s Office of Strategic Research, or OSR. In the early and mid-Cold War this was a very important post, largely focused on Soviet military power and strategic thinking. There are some who think Paisley was involved in the defection and return of Lee Harvey Oswald, though I’ve not been able to nail that down. He certainly interrogated Soviet defectors, including Anatoli Golitsyn and Yuri Nosenko, as well as the mysterious double agent Oleg Penkovsky.
As his job at the OSR became more politicised during the Nixon administration, and pressure was applied to produce more aggressive estimates of the Soviet nuclear missile strengths, Paisley became disillusioned. He took a sabbatical studying at the Imperial Defence College in London. When he returned, Paisley had apparently changed his views and was willing to soup up the assessments of Soviet capabilities in line with the White House’s demands.
Not long after his return, the White House established the Plumbers – their Special Investigations Unit who were charged with looking into the leaks that were plaguing the Nixon administration. When the White House asked the CIA for help, they approached head of counter-intelligence James Jesus Angleton. Angleton put them onto Paisley, even though Paisley had never worked in counter-intelligence or mole-hunting or leak investigations. Paisley became the CIA’s liaison to the White House Plumbers, who weren’t just the White House’s CIA guys, they were the CIA’s guys in the White House.
Paisley left the CIA, at least officially, in 1974, around the time Nixon left the White House. He was brought back for Team B, a role he was eminently qualified for, as it involved competitive assessment of Soviet strategic strengths. He disappeared in September 1978 while out sailing, alone, in the Chesapeake Bay. Some days later a body washed up, with diving weights attached, that had been shot in the head. It was identified as Paisley’s despite being four inches shorter and some 30 pounds lighter, and his death was ruled a suicide.
His wife, Maryann Paisley, did not believe the body was that of her estranged husband. She hired the family friend and neighbour Bud Fensterwald, a lawyer who had previously defended James W McCord, the Watergate burglar who had previously worked as a black bag electronics expert for the CIA. Maryann sued the CIA and the FBI for documents relating to her husband’s career and supposed death, and was somewhat successful.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence conducted their own investigation into whether Paisley had been murdered as a result of his intelligence work, promising to issue a full report. After two years all they did was issue three public statements saying they had found no evidence to support the allegations.
John Paisley and Watergate – Was he ‘Deep Throat’?
There are a great many mysteries surrounding Paisley’s life and death, and it is not my intention to examine all of them in detail or offer any strong conclusions. But I do have a long-running interest in Watergate, and exactly what was going on there. A couple of years ago a draft CIA report from the 1970s was released that confirmed that one of the burglars – Eugenio Martinez – was on the CIA payroll while he was breaking into the Watergate. Howard Hunt’s book says he faked his retirement from the CIA and came back as a contract agent, and he worked for Mullen and Co. a publishing and public relations firm that was a CIA front. Likewise, most of the Plumbers had worked for the CIA, whether or not they were still working for them at the time of the break-in.
On top of that, Paisley was a permanent liaison to the Plumbers, even helping with the investigation into Daniel Ellsberg, one of the leakers of the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg was known for attending high class swingers parties, as was Paisley, even while he was still with his wife. Another attendee was Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporter who helped break the Watergate story.
In Joe Trento’s book Widows: Four American spies, the wives they left behind and the KGB’s crippling of American intelligence he documents Paisley and Bernstein’s attendance at DC sex parties. Indeed, they seem to have crossed paths at these events as early as 1971 – while Paisley was working as CIA liaison to the Plumbers in the run-up to the Watergate break in. When the Trentos interviewed Bernstein, he initially denied ever having been to the parties at all, but phoned back a few days later to say he ‘may have’ attended the parties but didn’t know anyone called John Paisley.
After Paisley disappeared, Bernstein’s partner during the Watergate investigation Bob Woodward, now an editor at the Washington Post, tasked two journalists with looking into Bernstein’s activities. Woodward had heard the stories about Bernstein and Paisley and wanted to find out if they were true. Bizarrely, in the later years of his life Paisley even had a fake ID and number for a Washington Post delivery agent, allowing him access to the offices of the newspaper. It is not known where he got the ID or why he had it.
Naturally, some people suspect that Paisley was Deep Throat, Woodward’s high level source that helped steer Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation. Both Woodward and Bernstein deny that Paisley was Deep Throat, and many years later it was revealed that it was deputy director of the FBI Mark Felt. However, some of the information they attributed to Deep Throat could not have come from Felt, leading the FBI to suspect that there were multiple sources being amalgamated to form ‘Deep Throat’.
Trento suggests that Paisley was one of the sources, asking whether the name actually came from the popular porn movie of the time, or whether it originated in the sex parties attended by Paisley and Bernstein. However, despite knowing all there was to know about Watergate, Paisley told no one what he knew. Not colleagues, not friends and family, no one. The congressional investigations and most of the other investigations ignored Paisley completely.
Indeed, Woodward and Bernstein never mentioned Paisley, in their reporting or in their book. The focus was initially on Howard Hunt, the ‘former’ CIA agent who was involved with the break-in, and then the CIA got forgotten in favour of the ratfucking and slush fund at CREEP. Paisley wasn’t identified as the CIA liaison to the Plumbers until years later, so if he was a source for Woodward and Bernstein then part of the pay-off was that they’d leave his name and role out of it.
When Trento interviewed Woodward about Paisley, he said that if Deep Throat was someone who had died, he would name him. But the problem, as Trento points out, is that there was no conclusive evidence that Paisley was dead, so Woodward could have been playing a clever game with words.
Whatever Paisley knew about Watergate, he is surely dead by now (whatever happened in 1978) so we will probably never know. But I do think it’s highly unlikely he was murdered because of this. There are stories that he was investigating the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of JFK, and intended to blow the whistle to the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Among the sources for this claim is Victor Marchetti, the former CIA officer whose book we discussed a few episodes ago. I’m not at all sure, but I do think that would provide a much more likely motive for someone within the upper echelons of the US government or establishment to want him dead. By that point the soft coup that was Watergate and the downfall of Nixon was complete, so I strongly doubt that Paisley was murdered or disappeared because of his role in Watergate.
A Russian Spy?
The thrust of the book Widows is that the KGB successfully crippled US intelligence through high-level infiltrations. This is hyperbole, and the book was published just before the fall of the Soviet Union and the triumph of the West at the end of the Cold War. Given how much of the Cold War was an information and intelligence war, if the KGB were as skilled and ruthless as the Trentos and William Corson claim then history would be very different. But of course, no one ever went broke hyping up fears of an external enemy.
That is not to say we should discount Joe Trento or the book Widows, just that I take issue with the central thesis. The book is very well researched and highly readable, but like so many it is written by investigative journalists and not intelligence analysts. For example, the book’s argument that Paisley was a secret KGB double agent includes the fact that he was involved in the Berlin tunnel operation.
Called Operation Gold, this was a joint MI6-CIA mission to tap into the communications in the Soviet Army headquarters in East Berlin by tunnelling in from the Western side. It was highly successful, in that they dug the tunnel and tapped the communications, but unfortunately the Soviets knew about the operation from the very beginning, so they ensured nothing too valuable was allowed to fall into the hands of Western intelligence. Widows repeatedly implies that because Paisley was involved in Operation Gold that this bolsters the argument for him being a Soviet spy. But the book also acknowledges that it was a KGB man inside MI6 – George Blake – who leaked the operation to the Soviets.
The book also talks in pretty vague terms about possible KGB approaches to Paisley, particularly when he was at the Imperial Defence College in London, in the early 70s. The problem with this interpretation is that when Paisley returned from London he was no longer opposed to the White House’s politicising of his intelligence estimates. If he had been working with the Soviets then he would have continued insisting on his more conservative estimates of their capabilities.
This is where the book starts to rely heavily on the word of another CIA analyst, David S Sullivan, who believed Paisley was a KGB mole, possibly even the KGB mole that Angleton spent all those years looking for. In the last 60s and early 70s the SALT-1 talks led to an agreement whereby both the US and the Soviet Union would freeze their nuclear stockpiles at their current number. In Paisley’s view the Soviets lacked the economic power to carry out a major, secret build-up of weapons and therefore the US government’s negotiating position was safe. In Sullivan’s view, and the view of some others, the Soviets did have the economic wherewithal to secretly violate the treaty. Widows concludes that the consequence of Paisley’s view is that the agreement was signed and the Soviets secretly flaunted it, thus he helped enable them to secretly build up their stockpiles.
In the mid-70s, in the run up to the SALT-2 talks, there was something of a crisis in confidence within the CIA about their assessments of Soviet military strengths. The intelligence estimates produced by the CIA’s in house analysts came under criticism from neo-cons in both the Democrat and Republican parties, leading then president Gerald Ford to ask CIA director William Colby about producing competitive analyses – i.e. letting an outside group compete with the CIA own’s analysts to produce intelligence estimates.
Colby balked at the idea, and was promptly fired in the Halloween massacre and replaced by George HW Bush, who approved the competitive analysis scheme. Team B was formed – Team A being the CIA’s in house analysts. It was the third group of outside analysts – headed by Richard Pipes and given the job of looking at Soviet strategic objectives – that became known as Team B, and drew a lot of attention. The group was full of neurotics, mostly drawn from the upper ranks of the Committee on the Present Danger.
Paisley’s job was to coordinate Team B and to clear CIA documents so the Team could access them in order to form their analyses of Soviet capabilities and objectives. Indeed, documents on the Team A/Team B experiment and how competitive analysis could be built in to the CIA’s intelligence estimates in the future were found in Paisley’s boat after he disappeared.
Trento’s book makes out that Paisley tried to scupper Team B by only providing them with information that would support the existing, moderate view of Soviet strengths and intentions. There are numerous problems with this argument. The first is that Team B didn’t support the view of the existing National Intelligence Estimates but produced a much more fearful and aggressive view of what the Soviets were doing. If Paisley’s task as a KGB mole was to prevent that then he failed miserably.
For another thing, Donald Rumsfeld (who was Ford’s Chief of Staff) was successful at using Team B’s conclusions to obstruct talks on arms limitation treaties. In effect, Team B provided the Soviets with the excuse and freedom they needed to carry out a massive build up of nuclear weapons.
A third reason to doubt this is that the claim originated with David Sullivan, who is quoted in the book accusing Paisley of ‘spying on Team B’ and ‘regulating’ their access to information. Sullivan not only was a hard right conservative who believed the now-discredited Team B view of the Soviets, he also disliked Paisley personally, saying, ‘I guess, in the end, I never trusted him… I never liked him. There was something that wasn’t right. He seemed like some kind of burned-out old fart who had a beard and looked like a queer. I am convinced he was the mole.’
Sullivan, who worked on Team A, believed the Soviets had deceived the US in the run-up to the SALT-1 talks, and was determined not to let it happen again with SALT-2. When Carter came into office, and Bush was fired at head of the CIA and replaced by Stansfield Turner, Sullivan was not happy. He produced a thesis arguing in favour of the Team B view of the world, and insisted its conclusions be included in an intelligence estimate. The Agency refused, so he leaked classified documents and his own thesis to Richard Perle, then working for Democrat neo-con Henry Jackson. This helped critics of SALT-2, such as Perle, which in turn resulted in the treaty never being ratified. Once again, it was paranoia and a hard-line anti-Soviet mentality that provided the Soviets with the excuse to engage in a massive military build-up.
Widows goes on to point out that for a time in the late 70s – while Paisley was definitely still working for the CIA, albeit being paid through a front company not unlike Howard Hunt – Paisley lived in an apartment block that also housed a number of Russian spies. The book points out how the nearby Washington Post building, which remember Paisley had a false ID for, shared a back alley with the Soviet Embassy. But at no point does the book present eyewitness accounts or any kind of evidence that Paisley was actually recruited by and working for the Soviets, while it does establish that Paisley’s retirement from the Agency in 1974 was a piece of theatre.
Finally, on the night of his disappearance there was a lot of radio chatter at a Soviet summer retreat not far from where Paisley was sailing in the Chesapeake Bay. Combined with the high-tech radio equipment on Paisley’s boat Widows theorises that Paisley slipped away in the night for a new life in Russia, and had been using his boat to communicate with the his Soviet handlers. The major problem with this theory is that Paisley’s briefcase along with various classified papers and other things he was working on, were found on his boat. If he had finally, after years of being a double agent, run off to Russia then why wouldn’t he have taken this material with him?
As such, I find this argument to be quite weak, though not necessarily wrong. I don’t know if Paisley was a KGB double agent, but so far I’ve seen very little evidence suggesting that. He was subject to an internal CIA investigation, which found nothing, though we probably shouldn’t put too much faith in that. A circumstantial case can be made for the double agent theory, but it never becomes anything more than a circumstantial case.
The disappearing, reappearing Paisley
A few weeks after his 55th birthday, John Paisley disappeared while sailing on his sloop, Brillig. He went out, alone, on the night of September 24th 1978 and while his boat washed up a couple of days later, a body was not found until October 1st. The corpse – which had diving weights attached to it and was swollen having been submerged for days – was identified as Paisley’s. The body had suffered a gunshot wound to the left of the skull, and while the coroner wrote up the manner of death as unknown, it was widely reported that Paisley had committed suicide.
There are lots of problems with this story. For one thing, Paisley was right handed, and should have shot himself using his right hand. For another, no blood or bullet casing or anything was found on the boat to suggest anyone had shot themselves before falling overboard. The diving weights show that if he had waited until he was in the water he probably would have sunk instantly and therefore the gun wouldn’t have worked. So in order for Paisley to have killed himself he’d have to strap on the weights, climb up on the edge of the boat, jump off, and shoot himself in the head in mid-air using the wrong hand. That, in essence, is the official story.
Unsurprisingly, every author to have studied the Paisley story concludes that he did not kill himself, but it gets better. The head only had part of the upper plate intact, and Paisley’s dentist had lost his files on Paisley when he moved offices, so he was only able to make a comparison by memory.
The fingerprint identification is extremely problematic. The hands were so swollen and there was so much skin slippage that the coroner couldn’t take fingerprints. His boss, Dr Russell Fisher, removed the hands and sent them to the Maryland State Police, who in turn sent them to the FBI, who had chemicals to dry out the skin and try to make a fingerprint present itself. But Fisher included a report, dated October 1st even though no one examined the body until the following day, saying the corpse had been identified as Paisley’s through fingerprints the FBI had on file.
But the CIA’s copy of Paisley’s fingerprints had been turned over to the FBI some years earlier, and they had destroyed millions of their records in 1972, including Paisley’s. Reporters were mystified as to why Fisher was saying that Paisley’s fingerprints had been identified by the FBI when they didn’t have a set to compare them to. Some journalist quickly found a set from 1942, when Paisley had joined the Merchant Marine, which were held by the Coast Guard.
Fisher couldn’t explain what had happened, and reporters pressed on. They asked him why Paisley’s Merchant Marine files had him as 5’11” and 170 pounds and the corpse was 5’7” and 144 pounds. Fisher responded by pulling out the file, scrubbing out the numbers he’d written and replacing them with the figures provided by the journalists.
It was not until four months later that the FBI wrote back to the Maryland Medical Examiner’s office saying they’d completed their fingerprint tests and identified the hands as Paisley’s. So why did Fisher spent months saying they’d already done that? And given that the FBI were comparing fingerprints from hands where the skin was slipping off, to fingerprint records made in the 1940s, 35 years earlier, how reliable can such an identification be? Not at all, is my opinion.
On top of this, there was a string of weird phonecalls that apparently relate to Paisley’s disappearance. On September 21st – three days before he went missing – the Washington Star got several calls from a man with a foreign accent calling himself Ghawzi Ullah of the Moslem War Council. He said that a ‘CIA man would be attacked’. The FBI and CIA had an informant in the newsroom who told them about the calls, and after Paisley disappeared the FBI did briefly launch a kidnapping investigation.
On September 29th, before the body was found, there were two more calls from Ghawzi to the Washington Star. The informant took the calls, and according to him a voice that sounded ‘white’ said that Paisley had been seized by Moslem War Council commandos in the Chesapeake Bay. He said Paisley was useful to them because he could identify Zionist agents in other countries. He demanded that all Muslim prisoners be released, and that Henry Kissinger be delivered to them. And one million dollars. He even knew about Paisley’s work in Palestine decades earlier, so whoever this was they either knew Paisley personally or knew a lot about him.
The origin of these calls was never traced.
So what happened to John Paisley?
So what really happened? The body does not seem to be Paisley’s, whatever the FBI might say. The calls suggest that someone knew that Paisley was either going to be disappeared or kidnapped or murdered, and they started three days before his disappearance. That’s evidence of foreknowledge or premeditation, though I have no idea which because we have no idea who made those calls.
Did Paisley fake his own death? That’s always possible, especially given that he was a spy. His FBI file contains a tantalizing possibility – that he was seen, still alive, years later. In 1989 the Bureau received a call from a woman who had seen a TV piece that mentioned Paisley, who looked just like someone she knew who lived nearby. The Bureau checked their own files and a memo records how Paisley was identified by Maryland State Police from his dental records, and later by the FBI from his fingerprints. They concluded that whoever the man was, he was ‘not identical’ with John Paisley and therefore the matter was closed.
But we know his dental records went missing, and the fingerprint identification was dodgy at best. Who this woman was and where she called from is redacted, though it went through the Newark office so it was probably close to there. If Paisley had faked his own death and was seen a decade later then he didn’t move that far from everyone who knew him, which is odd. Usually people who fake their own death move abroad, and as a spy he could likely lay his hands on a fake passport and just run off the Bahamas. Or he could have sailed there, given his experience on boats.
So we’re left with competing theories about who Paisley was and what happened to him. I have my doubts about all of them, and as per usual the lack of answers sucks in speculative attempts to connect the dots. I will say that I, like many people, do not believe he killed himself, or that the body was his. It is always possible he was secretly working for someone else aside from the KGB, and they smuggled him out or kidnapped him or murdered him. Likewise, it’s possible the CIA killed one of their own and created an unsolvable mystery surrounding that. It’s possible he was KGB, though it’s possible James Jesus Angleton was, you never really know with these things.
One thing is very clear – the CIA monitored the unfolding story, the suggestions Paisley was Deep Throat, the allegations that the body wasn’t his – all of this appears in the CIA’s CREST database. Indeed, that and the Harold Weisberg archive are some of the best sources for information on this case. There are even memos between CIA director Stansfield Turner and CIA Public Affairs discussing Paisley, showing that this was a concern at the top level of the Agency.
None of which provides us with answers at to what happened. This one will probably be filed under ‘unsolvables’ forevermore, unless someone somewhere finds new evidence in some old dusty files in the archives of some intelligence agency.
And we’ll wrap things up there. I trust that this was an informative episode and I hope you enjoyed it, and I do recommend Widows to anyone who wants to learn more about this story. Their breakdown of the events surrounding Paisley’s disappearance and the identification of the body as his is particularly good, it’s broken down day by day, almost hour by hour. If you have not heard this story before then maybe reflect on why that is, not just in terms of the cover-up but also the failure of the so-called alt media to cover complex stories like this.