On the night of 23 December 1975, Richard Welch, CIA Station Chief in Athens, went with his wife to the American Ambassador’s residence for a Christmas Party. A few hours later, he drove back to his fashionable suburban home with every intention of enjoying the festive season. However, upon leaving the car to open the gates to his Athenian lodgings, Welch was ambushed by masked assailants and shot to death in front of his wife. The gunmen were eventually caught, tried, and imprisoned. Belonging to a Greek terrorist group called “November 17,” the chief assailant was a math teacher who lived on a Greek island.
Welch’s murder is a tragic testament to the dangers associated with the unauthorised exposure of an intelligence officer’s identity.
Welch’s identity had first been revealed by an East German publication called Who’s Who in the CIA in 1968. In 1974, the Peruvian press published the fact that he was, at that time, Station Chief in Lima. A month before he was slain, on 25 November, the newspaper Athens News printed his name, as well as address and telephone number.
However, the person most commonly held responsible for his death is CIA renegade Philip Agee. Agee had left the Agency in November 1968, citing as a factor his dissatisfaction with the CIA’s support for corrupt authoritarian regimes across Latin America. After publishing Inside the Company from exile in Great Britain in 1975, which included an alphabetised appendix naming some 250 CIA officers, he had become closely involved with the watchdog organisation “The Fifth Estate,” founded by prominent American author and supporter of leftist causes Norman Mailer.
Agee worked as an adviser to the Fifth Estate’s quarterly magazine, Counterspy, which made national headlines in winter 1975 when it published a list of 225 CIA officers around the world under diplomatic cover. Agee was indelibly associated with the list since, in the same issue, he had penned an editorial call-to-arms declaring: ‘The most effective and important systematic efforts to combat the CIA that can be undertaken right now are the identification, exposure, and neutralization of its people working abroad’. One of those individuals named was Richard Welch.
New CIA Director George H.W. Bush laid the blame squarely at the feet of Counter Spy and Agee; the Agency issued a press release announcing ‘we’ve had an American gunned down by other Americans fingering him – rightly or wrongly – as a CIA agent.’ Counter Spy refuted the charge, releasing a statement referring to the earlier publications that had identified Welch as a “Company Man.” Agee said the same.
Their appeals nevertheless fell on deaf ears. No sympathy was forthcoming. The Washington Post declared that the winter edition of Counter Spy was ‘tantamount to an open invitation to kill him’. It did not matter that Welch’s name might have been printed elsewhere: what mattered was that Agee was the loudest and most high-profile champion of naming names, and now a dedicated American patriot was dead.
According to historians like John Prados, reeling from congressional investigations and sensing an opportunity to swing the pendulum of popular opinion back in support of the need for secrecy, the CIA wasted no time in making Welch a martyr; a symbol not only of the dangers of disclosing names, but of transparency in general. Although a civilian, the fallen intelligence officer was buried, by order of President Ford, in Arlington National Cemetery. The plane bearing the coffin was impeccably timed to land at Andrew’s Air Force Base for live coverage on breakfast television. With both the House and the Senate still drafting their recommendations for intelligence reform, Senator Frank Church accused the CIA in the press of exploiting the death to scare would-be reformers and water-down their proposals.
It has since been revealed that Welch’s identity was in fact known to many Athenians because he lived in a house long recognised to be the abode of the incumbent CIA Station Chief. According to historian Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, local tour guides even highlighted the residence during their bus journeys around the city. Freedom of Information requests have also yielded internal CIA documents showing that, before Welch moved in, Langley had warned him that the location might be compromised. Fatally, he wired back that he would take his chances.
None of this, however, should make us lose sight of the dangers of blowing a CIA officer’s cover.
Spy Museum Executive Director Peter Earnest, a personal friend of Welch, recalls him as a high-spirited, focused, and highly effective Intelligence Officer. ‘Welch,’ remembers Earnest, ‘was a near legendary CIA Operations Officer and his murder was experienced as a great loss at the Agency. A vibrant personality in his own right, his recruitments were solid and lasting, his reports and dispatches colorful and always insightful. Truly, the consummate case officer.’
There are several artifacts from Welch’s life on display at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
— by contributing author Dr. Christopher Moran, Warwick University, author of Classified: Secrecy and State in Modern Britain.