A Life of Intelligence

Courtesy John Blee

When Svetlana Stalin showed up at the American embassy in India in 1967, asking for asylum from the dictatorship once run by her father, it was a former member of the Stanford Band who spirited her to safety.

San Francisco native David Henry Blee, one of the CIA's most influential officers, died August 4 at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 83.

An Alpha Kappa Lambda at Stanford, Blee graduated summa cum laude with a degree in political science, earned a law degree from Harvard in 1942 and enlisted in the Army the following year. After a brief assignment to the Army Corps of Engineers, he was transferred to the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA's wartime predecessor. The OSS sent him, via submarine, to an island off Thailand, where he joined a small team monitoring the Japanese fleet. It was an extremely dangerous mission, says his son, John Blee, of Bethesda. "He was a blue-eyed, fair-skinned man in a kayak. I don't understand how he made it through."

After the OSS morphed into the civilian CIA, Blee served as chief of operations of the Near East division for more than 20 years. It was during his stint as station chief in New Delhi that Josef Stalin's daughter fled her homeland and eventually knocked on Blee's door. He hurried her onto a plane to the West, engineering a triumph for the United States at the height of the Cold War. Four years later, he was named head of the CIA's Soviet division.

Holding one of the agency's most crucial posts in the '70s, Blee revolutionized the Soviet division by quietly reversing the policies of James Angleton, longtime counterintelligence chief in Washington. Angleton's administration was characterized by mistrust. He insisted on treating nearly everyone--from foreign defectors to his own agents--as potential KGB spies, essentially paralyzing counterintelligence efforts. Without ever igniting an open confrontation with Angleton, Blee identified a select cadre of American agents untainted by Angleton's mole hunt and set them about cultivating Soviet defectors who could spy for the United States. In so doing, he revitalized the American espionage presence behind the Iron Curtain, intelligence experts say. "He was the architect of the program that turned the clandestine service back on target against the Soviets after all the years of Angleton," former CIA officer Haviland Smith told the New York Times last August. In 1978, Blee was promoted to chief of counterintelligence, replacing Angleton.

Blee's accomplishments earned him high honors, including the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal, the National Security Medal and two CIA Distinguished Service awards. He retired in 1985 to a quieter life, teaching Sunday school and becoming an opera devotee. His survivors include his wife of 53 years, Margaret; four sons, David, Richard, John and Robert; his daughter, Elizabeth Fritsch; and four grandchildren.