Mal Warwick

Author Archives: Mal Warwick

The woman codebreaker who caught gangsters and Nazi spies

woman codebreaker: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason FagoneThe Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

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When Richard Nixon asked Chou En-Lai in 1972 about the impact of the French Revolution, the Chinese Premier famously said, “It’s too early to tell.” That terse response is generally understood to illustrate the Chinese ability to take the long view of history. But it might be more accurate to regard it as reflecting the constraints on those who write history. Historians can only work with available records: there is no history without documentary evidence. And sometimes decades, even centuries pass before the most crucial evidence comes to light.

In fact, ironically, the exchange between Nixon and Chou reflects a misunderstanding that drives the point home even more strongly: they were both referring to the events of 1968, not 1789. Only now, much later, once a diplomat present at the scene clarified the exchange, can historians accurately interpret what the two men meant.

There are few areas in which the unavailability of documentary evidence has been more telling than in the history of espionage in the 20th century. Only in recent years have the archives of the CIA, the KGB, MI6, the NSA, and other leading intelligence agencies opened widely enough for us to understand what really took place in the world of espionage in World War II and the Cold War. (Doubtless, some explosive documents are still locked away and won’t surface until later in this century, if ever.) And there is no more dramatic example of how what has passed for history has misled us than what we have been taught about the FBI’s role in counterespionage in the 1920s and 30s (combating rumrunners and smugglers) and in the 1940s (catching Nazi spies).

Working with recently declassified files from the World War II era as well as long-ignored archival records and contemporary press reports and interviews, journalist Jason Fagone has brought to light at last the astonishing story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband, William Friedman. (Yes, her first name is spelled with three e’s.) As Fagone shows in his beautifully written story of this surpassingly brilliant couple, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, the Friedmans may well have been the most important 20th-century American codebreakers, and quite possibly the best and most successful in the world.

William Friedman is celebrated in cryptology circles as the man who broke the Japanese military code called Purple. “MAGIC became the top-secret moniker for these Japanese decryptions . . . MAGIC led directly to bombs falling on imperial ships at Midway,” the turning point of the war in the Pacific.

Fagone notes, “Today historians of cryptology believe that in terms of sheer, sweaty brilliance, the breaking of Purple is a feat on par with Alan Turing’s epiphanies about how to organize successful attacks on German Enigma codes.” However, independently, before the US and Britain’s Bletchley Park were collaborating on the effort, Elizebeth Friedman broke not one but three different types of Enigma machines. Fagone makes abundantly clear that the two were at least equal in ability. In fact Elizebeth may have been just a bit smarter. (William always insisted she was.)

“William Friedman is . . . widely considered to be the father of the National Security Agency,” Fagone writes. But both he and Elizebeth came to loathe the practices of the agency not long after its formation in 1952. It’s very likely they would be scandalized by the indiscriminate collection of information about civilians by today’s NSA.

As Fagone notes, “Elizebeth and William Friedman unscrambled thousands of messages spanning two world wars, prying loose secrets about smuggling networks, gangsters, organized crime, foreign armies, and fascism. They also invented new techniques that transformed the science of secret writing, known as cryptology.” Although today Elizebeth isn’t nearly as famous as her husband, that was by no means always the case. During the 1930s, she become a celebrity for her work against rumrunners and other smugglers and gangsters during the Depression. The public attention halted when she was enlisted by the Coast Guard for a top-secret effort to identify the extensive Nazi spy network in South America—work at which she and her team were extraordinarily successful. Their efforts led to the dismantling of the Nazi network well before the end of the war. However, J. Edgar Hoover claimed the success for the FBI, ignoring their efforts, and he was able to get away with it because he had become so powerful. “It’s not quite true that history is written by the winners,” Fagone writes. “It’s written by the best publicists on the winning team.”

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is an astonishing story that simply has to be read to be believed. His principal subject, Elizebeth Friedman, was an extraordinary woman he refers to more than once as a genius. (The evidence is there.) And Fagone writes the tale with often-elegant, metaphorical prose. He calls the book a love story, but it is of course far more than that

The same declassification of secret files that allowed Jason Fagone to write The Woman Who Smashed Codes has led to the publication of several other recent books about women in espionage. The most prominent of these was Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy.

Check out my post, 17 good nonfiction books about espionage, for other books that illuminate the business of spying. You might also be interested in My 10 favorite espionage novels, or in 17 nonfiction books that illuminate the World War II era.

Jihadis, the Saudi royal family, and an American soldier-spy

soldier-spy: The Secret Soldier by Alex BerensonThe Secret Soldier (John Wells #5) by Alex Berenson

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Alex Berenson’s espionage novels about American soldier-spy John Wells are timely and topical. They invariably give the reader an intimate, insider’s look at the U.S. intelligence establishment. And they reflect Berenson’s extensive travels as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times as well as his superior research skills. The author’s descriptions of the exotic settings where he places his novels are minutely detailed. They’re seemingly impossible to describe unless he has spent time on-site. The Secret Soldier, the fifth book in the John Wells series, takes the reader behind the scenes inside the Saudi royal family, a radical Islamist organization bent on jihadi, and the complex web of decision-making in which the CIA, the NSA, the Pentagon, and the White House are all involved when foreign crises erupt.

As The Secret Soldier opens, a Saudi jihadist cell massacres the young people at a popular bar in Bahrain. Simultaneously, two other sites, both inside Saudi Arabia, are attacked, with lethal consequences. These terrorist attacks represent a dangerous threat to the Saudi monarchy. King Abdullah must take action to forestall additional attacks—but he can’t trust his own security forces. Enter John Wells.

Now well into his forties and retired from the CIA, soldier-spy John Wells simply cannot resist any opportunity to chase after danger. Together with an old Special Forces colleague, Wells has gone off to chase a rogue CIA agent in Jamaica. Now a mysterious phone call draws him into the orbit of the Saudi royal family.

John Wells has years of experience both as a soldier and a spy. “He knew who he was,” Berenson writes, “what he’d done. After so much violence, killing came to him naturally. He’d always imagined that he could take off the killer’s mask as he wished. But he feared the mask had become his face.”

The scene shifts rapidly from Bahrain to Riyadh to North Conway New Hampshire to Montego Bay and on and on. Berenson’s story moves along all across the globe at a blistering pace.

The author writes at some length about the Saudi royal family and the divisions within it. The oil wealth the country’s fields generate is difficult to comprehend. As he explains, after all the expenses for running a country that covers almost as much territory as the United States east of the Mississippi, “at least fifty billion dollars remained every year for the family to divide. Every prince received a stipend. Third- and fourth-generation princelings got $20,000 to $100,000 a month. Senior princes received millions of dollars a year. At the top, Abdullah and the other sons of Abdul-Aziz had essentially unlimited budgets. Abdullah’s Red Sea palace complex in Jeddah had cost more than a billion dollars.” To put this information into perspective, note that the Saudi royal family consists of some 15,000 people, although most of the wealth goes to about 2,000 of them.

Berenson also offers a glimpse into the NSA, which in its early days was known as “No Such,” since its very existence was classified. “The NSA monitored phone calls, e-mails, instant messages, Facebook updates—a digital tidal wave. Tens of billions of messages, open and encrypted, were sent every day. The NSA spent massive energy just figuring out which ones to try to crack. At any time, one-third of its computers were deciding what the other two-thirds should do.”

For reviews of other books on this topic, read 13 eye-opening books about terrorism. If espionage intrigues you, take a look at my post, My 10 favorite espionage novels. You might also be interested in 17 good nonfiction books about espionage. You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.

November 27, 2017

Christopher Buckley’s satire on the U.S. Supreme Court

Christopher Buckley's satire: Supreme Courtship by Christopher BuckleySupreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley

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The President of the United States, Donald P. Vanderdamp, has an approval rating barely above twenty. Congress, and politicians of both parties, despise him, because he has vetoed every spending bill that reached his desk. In retaliation, the Senate has rejected the two eminently qualified jurists he nominated for an open seat on the Supreme Court. All he wants to do is move back home to Wapakoneta, Ohio, where he can go bowling as often as he wishes. His term is almost up. About all that remains is to find someone who can gain the approval of the Senate for that Supreme Court slot.

Enter Judge Perdita “Pepper” Cartwright, star of the top-rated reality TV show, Courtroom Six. While searching for a bowling show on television over a weekend at Camp David, President Vanderdamp chances upon Pepper’s show and is immediately enchanted. Now in her mid-thirties, Pepper is uncommonly facile with the English language—and uncommonly attractive. The President is convinced the Senate won’t dare reject her nomination, given her sky-high Q rating.

This is the set-up in Supreme Courtship, Christopher Buckley‘s satirical treatment of the U.S. Supreme Court. No reader will be surprised to learn that Pepper is, in fact, named to the Court. Then, of course, the real fun begins. The novel is amusing and even hilarious at times. On the whole, though, it’s not one of Buckley’s best.

Over the years, I’ve spent many hours laughing over Christopher Buckley’s novels. Here, for example, is my review of one I loved, The Relic MasterAn irreligious take on Catholic history. My review of Little Green Men is at Wondered where UFOs come from? Christopher Buckley has the answer. You’ll find God Is My Broker: A Monk-Tycoon Reveals the 7-1/2 Laws of Spiritual and Financial Growth reviewed at Self-help gurus get their comeuppance from Christopher Buckley.

November 22, 2017

Troublemakers: the people who put Silicon Valley on the map

Troublemakers by Leslie BerlinTroublemakers by Leslie BerlinTroublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age by Leslie Berlin

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Any casual reader whose knowledge about Silicon Valley comes from the headlines or the news online might get the impression that Steve Jobs and the Google and Facebook guys invented the place. Obviously, this is far from true. But even more serious coverage tends to focus on a handful of high-profile individuals who have played outsize roles in the development of the high-tech industry. Stanford historian Leslie Berlin sets the record straight with her engrossing new book, Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age. 

Troublemakers chronicles a critical period in the Valley’s history (1969-76). Those seven years witnessed “the most significant and diverse burst of technological innovation of the past 150 years . . . Five major industries were born: personal computing, video games, advanced semiconductor logic, modern venture capital, and biotechnology.”

“Innovation is a team sport,” Berlin writes in the introduction to her book. She makes clear that her intention is to tell the stories of more than just the usual suspects. “Troublemakers . . . feature[s] some of the most famous names in Silicon Valley history, while also profiling seven other individuals in depth.” More famous people such as Steve Jobs and Larry Page make brief appearances. Berlin’s account highlights:

  • Bob Taylor, who led the creation of the rudimentary computer network at the Pentagon, in a sense “inventing” the Internet;
  • Mike Markkula, the man who made it possible for Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to launch and build Apple;
  • Sandra Kurtzig, a software pioneer who was “the first woman to take a technology company public;”
  • Bob Swanson, a cofounder of Genentech;
  • Al Alcorn, who designed the video game Pong that launched the game giant Atari; and
  • Niels Riemer, the man who patented recombinant DNA for Stanford University, thus kickstarting the biotech industry.

Every one of these seven people could be the subject of their own biography. Berlin brings their stories to life through one-on-one interviews—all but Bob Taylor and Bob Swanson are still alive—while placing their accomplishments into the context of their time and place. As a professional historian specializing in this region—Berlin is Project Historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University—she deftly meshes personal accounts by her subjects with extensive archival research.

To my mind, the most impressive of these seven individuals is Bob Taylor. As a key player at ARPA (the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, now called DARPA) in the 1960s, he helped lay the foundation for the Internet. Later, in the 1970s, as the director of computer science research at Xerox’s PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), he assembled what was widely considered the most talented group of computer scientists anywhere in the world—and possibly the most talented ever brought together anywhere. These extraordinary men (and a handful of women) created the Alto, the world’s first personal computer with a graphic user interface (GUI), mouse, windows, and networking ability. It’s astonishing to most observers that the Xerox Corporation failed to commercialize the Alto. Only years later did Apple’s Macintosh begin to approach the capabilities of the Alto. (A former key player at PARC thought of the early Mac as a toy.)

You might also be interested in several other reviews I’ve posted: “The new Steve Jobs biography is terrific!,” “Confessions of a Silicon Valley techie,” “The iPhone: the world’s most profitable product?,” and “35 great biographies I’ve reviewed.”

The Cold War, the early CIA, and the McCarthy Era

An Honorable Man by Paul VidichThe early CIA: An Honorable Man by Paul VidichAn Honorable Man by Paul Vidich

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Half a century ago we learned from John le Carré about amorality and corruption in the world of espionage. Other authors have written hundreds of books about spies since then. Some, including Alan Furst, Charles Cumming, Olen Steinhauer, Dame Stella Rimington, and Joseph Kanon, for example, have made their own estimable contributions to the genre in recent decades. But only rarely has their work brought to light the sheer ugliness of the espionage craft and what damage it wreaks on those who practice it. However, there is an exception. In his first novel, An Honorable Man (2016), the American short story writer Paul Vidich brings to life a veteran officer in the early CIA who is honorable only in an ironic sense. The world he inhabits, and the life he lives, are fraught with dreadful expectations and impossible choices.

“Where once there was a struggle between good and evil,” Vidich writes in a vein reminiscent of le Carré, “the clarity was gone, and he was in a new gray-toned world where right and wrong blurred. The many innocent people who were collateral damage haunted him. He knew himself well enough to recognize the signs that he was becoming a burnt-out case.”

It’s January 1953. Senator Joseph McCarthy (identified in the novel only as “the senator”) is foaming at the mouth about alleged Communists and homosexuals in the State Department. General Dwight Eisenhower has not yet moved into the White House, and Allen Dulles is still bitterly serving as deputy director of the CIA (though never identified in the novel). The director is an admiral modeled on the man who actually held that office at the time—the three-star general who had served as Eisenhower’s chief of staff in World War II. The CIA, now just six years old, is still largely run by the freewheeling former OSS officers recruited upon the agency’s formation in 1947, but bureaucratic ways have begun to take hold. Younger recruits regard the old hands as past their sell date.

These same old hands, executives at the highest levels of the early CIA, are frantic with worry that there is a Soviet mole in their midst. They’re equally worried that the FBI will expose them to Senator McCarthy’s witch-hunt if they learn the mole’s identity. George Mueller is one of four top CIA officers who have been tasked with identifying the double agent, code-named Protocol. He and his colleagues are investigating a list of suspects that is much too long for comfort, and it is troubling that none of the four is on the list despite obvious circumstantial evidence pointing to them.

George is profoundly unhappy with his life and his work. He has made clear to the director and to all of his close colleagues that he wants to leave the CIA. But the admiral refuses to accept his resignation, insisting that George is the only one of the four men on the top-secret Protocol task force that he can really trust. With great reluctance, George persists in pursuing the mole. He feels surrounded by enemies. One is FBI Special Agent Walker, who does not find it difficult to imagine that George himself is a Soviet agent. Another is James Coffin, the director of Counterintelligence, who sits on the Protocol task force with him. (Coffin somewhat resembles the real-life James Jesus Angleton, the brilliant paranoid schizophrenic who tore the CIA apart in his relentless search for a mole for two decades from the 1950s to the 1970s—a mole he never found.) As evidence mounts that there is indeed a traitor to be found, George finds himself under ever greater pressure.

Officially, the CIA would have us believe that the only traitor who turned up during Angleton’s reign as the agency’s counterintelligence chief (1954-75) was his close personal friend, the notorious KGB spy, Kim Philby of MI6. However, in the acknowledgments at the back of his novel, Paul Vidich writes the following:

“On the morning of April 1, 1953, James Speyer Kronthal was found dead in the upstairs bedroom of his red brick town house in Georgetown by Metropolitan Police, who had been summoned by his longtime housekeeper when she arrived at 8:30 and found the home suspiciously quiet. He was fully clothed, sprawled on the floor, an apparent suicide. He wasn’t shot, as [the mole] is in the novel, but in many other respects my character is based on the sad, troubled life of James Speyer Kronthal.” Q.E.D.

If you read espionage novels, you’ll enjoy my post, My 10 favorite espionage novels. You might also be interested in 17 good nonfiction books about espionage. For reviews of a series of other novels that overlap this historical period, see Olen Steinhauer’s brilliant Yalta Boulevard cycle set in Eastern Europe.

November 20, 2017

Carl Hiaasen skewers newspaper publishers and rock musicians

Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen

Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen

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Carl Hiaasen is a very funny man. His comic novels about life in Florida are always amusing and sometimes hilarious. Inept criminals, corrupt politicians, and bumbling police officers populate his books. Few come off well. For example, “A disagreement over lane-changing etiquette has resulted in two motorists pulling semiautomatics and inconsiderately shooting each other in the diamond lane of the interstate.” And here he is in Basket Case (2002) writing about one of his protagonist’s ex-girlfriends: “Among Alicia’s multiple symptoms were aversion to sleep, employment, punctuality, sobriety, and monogamy. On the positive side, she volunteered weekends at an animal shelter.”

Most of Hiaasen’s novels involve the destruction of Florida’s environment. However, in Basket Case, the author wades into a subject that is clearly at least as close to his heart: the steady decline of the newspaper industry. Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald, where he has worked since 1976. Here he is musing about the damage wrought to a small-town paper by its profit-mad, self-indulgent young publisher: “Only two types of journalists choose to stay at a paper that’s being gutted by Wall Street whorehoppers. One faction is comprised of editors and reporters whose skills are so marginal that they’re lucky to be employed, and they know it. Unencumbered by any sense of duty to the readers, they’re pleased to forego the pursuit of actual news in order to cut expenses and score points with the suits . . . The other journalists who remain at slow-strangling dailies such as the Union-Register are those too spiteful or stubborn to quit.”

Jack Tagger, 46, is one of the latter. He writes the obituaries for the Union-Register, a small-town Florida newspaper. He is obsessed with death, primarily his own. Hardly an hour goes by without his thinking of some famous person who died when he was Jack’s age. He blames his mother for this obsession, because she stubbornly refuses to tell him at what age his father died. (Jack has no memory of the man, who left them when he was an infant.) He is terrified that he won’t outlive his father. However, he’s not happy thinking about anyone else’s death, either. Funerals upset him. Autopsies are much worse. All this is highly unfortunate in a man who writes obituaries for a living.

Jack’s preoccupation with death may go back many years, even before his consignment to the obituary page. But his present position “at the top of the shit list” at the Union-Register began only three years ago. He doesn’t like to talk about why an award-winning investigative journalist was demoted so ignominiously to celebrate the lives of pet store owners, insurance salesmen, and fishermen. (Suffice to say, it was a very colorful incident.) But now a familiar-looking name has turned up in a fax from the local funeral home that may give Jack a way out.

Jack is almost as obsessive about rock music as he is about death. So he quickly realizes that the deceased, James Bradley Stomarti, 39, was better known years ago as Jimmy Stoma of the superstar band, Jimmy and the Slut Puppies. Jack sees his byline back on the front page if he can keep the story of Jimmy’s death to himself long enough to gather the facts.

As Jack launches into the interviews that will serve as background to Jimmy Stoma’s obituary, he quickly comes to understand that all is not as it seems. Perhaps the young musician didn’t accidentally die while diving in the Bahamas. Perhaps the man’s 24-year-old wife had a motive of some sort to kill him. And why are she and the people around her so eager to prevent Jack from learning what really happened?

These circumstances could be the basis of a serious thriller. But Basket Case is anything but serious. (Except when Hiaasen muses about the sad story of the newspaper industry.) For instance, here’s where Jack meets Cleo Rio, Jimmy’s widow: “The club’s motif combines the exotic ambience of a Costa Rican brothel with the cozy, down-home charm of a methamphetamine lab.”

The cast of characters in Basket Case includes several of Jimmy’s ex-bandmates, who display a wide array of colorful behavior, usually involving drugs; Jimmy’s sister, who earns her living dressing up as a cop on a SWAT team and stripping in front of a webcam; Jack’s inept and beautiful 27-year-old boss at the Union-Register, whom he is attempting to persuade to leave journalism; MacArthur Polk, 88, the former owner of the paper who has been dying at regular intervals for many years but somehow always continues to rally; and Race Maggad III, the profit-obsessed head of the company that owns 27 newspapers, including Jack’s.

I’ve also reviewed Hiaasen’s Star Island (2010) at Carl Hiaasen skewers celebrities; Bad Monkey (2013) at A severed arm, a detective on the roach patrol, and a bad monkey; Razor Girl (2016) at Reality TV, African rodents, the roach patrol; and two of his young adult novels, both of which I found disappointing. You might also be interested in My 15 favorite funny novels.

Russian mobsters and crooked lawyers in the latest Harry Bosch

Two Kinds of Truth by Michael ConnellyTwo Kinds of Truth by Michael ConnellyTwo Kinds of Truth (Harry Bosch #20) by Michael Connelly

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Harry Bosch can’t catch a break. He was forced into retirement from the LAPD, where he served for more than forty years. His wife was murdered.  Now his integrity is being called into question when a three-decade-old case is reopened by the LAPD. Meanwhile, as a volunteer detective for the tiny San Fernando Police Department, he’s looking into a cold case and getting nowhere. Then an active double-homicide investigation sidetracks him from his other worries.

This is the setup in Two Kinds of Truth, the twentieth Harry Bosch thriller from Michael Connelly. Even well past retirement age, Harry hasn’t lost his touch. Nor has Connelly. The novel is tautly written, compulsively suspenseful, and timely to boot: one of the central lines of the plot concerns Russian mobsters running a huge opioid scam that the DEA hasn’t been able to crack. The details about how they operate are jaw-dropping—and no doubt based on fact, given Connelly’s consistently strong research.

Harry faces three investigations simultaneously. Fifteen years ago a young mother had disappeared, leaving her infant sleeping in a crib. The case haunts the San Fernando police chief, who has never turned up a clue—and nor has Harry. Two pharmacists, a father and son, have been brutally murdered at work in San Fernando. The two masked men who executed the pair have left no clues. And Preston Borders, a serial rapist-murderer Harry brought to justice twenty-nine years ago seems about to be freed from death row because DNA evidence has turned up implicating another man in the one rape and murder for which he was convicted.

Harry broods a lot. That’s always been his way. Now he reflects that “there were two kinds of truth in this world. The truth that was the unalterable bedrock of one’s life and mission. And the other, malleable truth of politicians, charlatans, corrupt lawyers, and their clients, bent and molded to serve whatever purpose was at hand.” The events that unfold illustrate this distinction to a T.

If you wonder where Harry Bosch started out, take a look at Michael Connelly’s first Harry Bosch novel: the backstory. You might also be interested in reading my post, “15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others).”

From David Ignatius, a gripping novel about Iran and the CIA

The Increment by David IgnatiusA gripping novel: The Increment by David IgnatiusThe Increment by David Ignatius

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Washington Post columnist and editor David Ignatius has covered wars, diplomacy, and the intelligence community in a long journalistic career. His reporting infuses the ten suspense and espionage novels he has written over the past thirty years. The Increment, published in 2009, dramatizes the hysteria in the Bush Administration about Iran’s program to build nuclear weapons. This engrossing and well-informed novel preceded by several years Barack Obama’s successful initiative to contain the program by treaty.

The central figures in The Increment are a young Iranian nuclear physicist who remains nameless for much of the tale and Harry Pappas, the senior CIA officer who runs the agency’s Iran division, reporting to the director. The young Iranian, disgruntled about both life and work, “walks in” online to the CIA with high-level information about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. An alert young officer routes the information to Harry, triggering a massive effort to contact the sender directly that involves the CIA Director and the White House. Officials at the National Security Council and the President himself leap to conclusions on the basis of the information the young man has sent—and quickly begin moving to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. Convinced that the information from the walk-in is ambiguous, and terrified by the President’s haste, Harry scrambles to delay the attack, in hopes of squelching it entirely. To do so, he must team up with an old friend who is now the chief of staff of MI6, with only flimsy cover from the director of his own agency. He’s putting his career on the line by reaching out to another government.

One of Harry’s primary concerns is that anything the US does may jeopardize the life of the young Iranian. “‘He’s trusting the agency,’ in other words . . . Not to f— it up, I mean.'” His assistant responds, “‘What an idiot . . . Doesn’t he read the newspapers?'” It would seem that David Ignatius’ respect for the CIA is not boundless.

It’s all too easy for Americans (probably including some in the White House today) to assume that Iran is just another little Middle Eastern country that’s easy for the US to push around. In fact, Iran is the world’s 18th most-populous country and the 17th largest by landmass. It’s home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations. For many centuries, the country’s historical predecessor, the Persian Empire, dominated the ancient Mediterranean. And, as American government military historian David Crist demonstrated in 2012 in The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran, the US engaged in a low-level shooting war with Iran until only a few years ago, when bilateral diplomacy at last took center stage. (I reviewed Crist’s book at “The ugly US-Iran war, past, present, and future.”) In other words, it’s important to acknowledge the consensus among US military leaders who have contemplated the prospect of invading Iran that it would be a very bad idea.

You might also be interested in “My 10 favorite espionage novels.” For additional insight, see “17 good nonfiction books about espionage.”



November 15, 2017

Van Jones’ messy truth about the Democratic and Republican Parties

A hopeful critique: Beyond the Messy Truth by Van JonesBeyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together by Van Jones

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More than half the American people complain about Donald Trump. But few are doing something about it. Van Jones is one of the exceptions.

Van does not mince words. “There is evidence that Trump is crazy,” he noted in a Nov. 5 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, “but he has also driven us crazy.” Van’s new book advises us how to treat that craziness.

In Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together, his third book, Van writes at the outset that “the same political dynasties that screamed the most against Trump’s ascendance . . . created the mess that opened the door for him in the first place.” And he makes clear that those “dynasties” are the Clintons and the Bushes. To remedy the mess that resulted from the neoliberal views that have dominated their years in government—and remained largely unchallenged under Barack Obama—Van advocates bridging the gap between conservatives and liberals by finding common ground on issues where our values overlap. He takes both political parties to task for blocking the way for activists on both Left and Right to meet on that common ground. And both liberals and conservatives come in for harsh criticism for our failure to grasp how we might come together on some critical issues despite the dramatic contrast in our values.

Beyond the Messy Truth consists of seven short chapters. The first addresses the dilemma we Americans now find ourselves in. Each of the two following chapters is devoted to an “open letter” to one of the two major political parties. A fourth chapter explains what Van calls the “whitelash” that elected Donald Trump. It’s followed by two other chapters that detail Van’s own work on both sides of the aisle to address some of the most urgent issues of our time. Here, he lays out an agenda for action on these issues: reforming the criminal justice system, ending the addiction epidemic, and creating jobs for the millions of people who are either already shut out of employment opportunities or will become unemployed as automation continues to take its toll. The concluding chapter expresses Van’s optimism that the agenda he lays out is not just necessary but also possible.

Here, for example, is Van in his letter to liberals: “It is one thing to say, ‘I disagree with you because we have different values and priorities.’ It’s quite another to say, ‘I disagree with you because you are an uneducated idiot—a pawn—and a dupe.’ The prevalence of the latter set of arguments is why the Democratic Party stinks of elitism.”

In each of the two cases, Van enjoins us to “honor our traditions,” uphold religious liberty, respect all Americans, “fix the party,” and “solve real problems.” Liberals, he notes, tend to be disrespectful to both churchgoers and white working-class voters—and we’re “addicted to the bickering and infighting.” (“We cannot win against the worst of the right if all of our best weapons are pointed at one another.”)

Conservatives fail by disparaging Muslims, who might otherwise be their allies, since they tend to be both religiously observant and conservative. And today’s Republicans seem to have forgotten their core commitment to limited executive power, small government, and freedom of speech and religious practice. (“Would [our founders] approve of a U.S. president attacking the credibility of independent judges merely on the basis of their heritage . . .? Would they stand by idly as the executive branch tramples on the rights of the press?”)

Van Jones is best known as a commentator and reporter on CNN. But his work as a leading activist is far more consequential. In fewer than fifty years, he has founded or co-founded numerous social enterprises, including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Color of Change, Rebuild the Dream, the Dream Corps, and Magic Labs Media. He has also collaborated with other public figures including Newt Gingrich,  Prince, and Patrick Kennedy in launching nationwide initiatives on such topics as criminal justice reform, the opioid epidemic and heroin addiction in our inner cities, and training “100,000 young women and men from underrepresented backgrounds find success in the tech sector” (#yeswecode). In other words, Van walks the talk. Many of the views he expresses in Beyond the Messy Truth reflect his own years of work on these issues.

For further reading, see “How Steve Bannon sold the alt-right to Donald Trump and made history,” “5 books that explore our broken criminal justice system,” “Donald Trump: populism, or fascism?,” and “Van Jones: Making sense of the Tea Party, the Occupy Movement, and Barack Obama’s shift from candidate to President.” You might also be interested in my post, “35 excellent nonfiction books about politics.”

A ghetto detective, a Las Vegas loan shark, and a Chinese triad

Righteous by Joe Ideghetto detective: Righteous by Joe IdeRighteous (IQ #2) by Joe Ide

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Isaiah Quintabe, known as IQ, was a brilliant 17-year-old high school student in East Long Beach on the path to Harvard when his beloved older brother, Marcus, was killed by a hit-and-run driver. Marcus’ death upended IQ’s life. At first, he turned to burglary, then gravitated toward using his extraordinary analytical powers to help friends and acquaintances in the ghetto solve the problems facing them. “He stopped the guy that was going to rape Néstor’s daughter, and he caught the guy that was setting the fires and he got the school’s computers back, and he busted the cops so they had to let Jorge go.” IQ’s string of successes caught the attention of the local news media. Thus he came to be the famous ghetto detective everyone turns to when problems come up.

Now, in Righteous, Joe Ide‘s second IQ novel, it’s eight years after Marcus’ death. The ghetto detective finally comes across a clue to the killing. In the auto wrecking yard where he worked in years past, the car that killed his brother turns up. The discovery triggers a frenzied investigation that brings IQ into dangerous confrontations with several leaders of a powerful local gang. Shortly afterward, Marcus’ old girlfriend, Sarita Van, calls to ask him to rescue her sister from a merciless loanshark in Las Vegas. Sarita’s younger sister is a gambling addict, and she and her idiotic boyfriend have gambled themselves into a debt they can never repay.

IQ’s twin investigations in Righteous bring him into conflict with the loan shark and his seven-foot-tall enforcer, the violent gang that terrorizes East Long Beach, and a Chinese triad‘s enormous human-trafficking operation. In the end, IQ solves the mystery of his brother’s death and, of course, saves the girl as well. All the fun lies in getting there. The tale is suspenseful, a successful thriller.

If you enjoy reading detective novels, check out my post, 15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others). You might also be interested in 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.