18 good nonfiction books about espionage

books about espionage - top secret america - dana priestFor good or ill, a fair amount of what I’ve learned about espionage over the years has come from reading spy stories. A few authors are particularly diligent about research and accuracy, so most of what I’ve picked up is probably true. In fact, many of those authors are veterans of the intelligence game and should know what they write about. But, for assurance that what I read is less likely to be fictional, there’s nothing like an in-depth nonfiction treatment of the field by a credible author. Since January 2010, I’ve read eighteen books about espionage. I recommend them highly.

The most remarkable of these books are David Talbot‘s revisionist biography of Allen Dulles, The Devil’s Chessboard; Dana Priest and William Arkin’s extraordinary expose of the military-intelligence complex, Top Secret; and Max Hastings’ revisionist history of secret intelligence in World War II, The Secret War.

Each of the seventeen titles below is linked to my review of the book.

Books about espionage before and during World War II

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone—An extraordinary woman codebreaker who caught gangsters during the 1930s and Nazi spies during World War II.

Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, by Douglas Waller—One remarkable man and the origins of the CIA

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben McIntyre—A new spin on why the Normandy Invasion succeeded

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured Allied Victory, by Ben McIntyre—Finally declassified, the true story of “the man who never was”

The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945, by Max Hastings—A revisionist view of intelligence in World War II, questioning the value of “humint”

Books about Cold War espionage

The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, by David Talbot—When America’s secret government ran amok

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben MacIntyre—Was Kim Philby the greatest spy ever (as far as we know)?

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World Warby Stephen Kinzer—They shaped US foreign policy for decades to come

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, by Kai Bird—A true story of the PLO, Miss Universe, and the CIA

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal, by David E. Hoffman—Spycraft as it was actually practiced in this true-life tale of Cold War espionage

Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against Communism, by Karen M. Paget—Revealed: another sordid CIA scandal

Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney—The CIA, the mistress, and JFK’s assassination: an astonishing but true story

Books about espionage since 1989

Agent Storm: My Life Inside Al Qaeda and the CIA, by Morten Storm, Paul Cruickshank, and Tim Lister—A truly amazing story about Al Qaeda, and it’s real

Operation Shakespeare: The True Story of an Elite International Sting, by John Shiffman—How the Department of Homeland Security went abroad to capture an Iranian arms dealer

The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, by Mark Mazzetti—Drones, mercenaries, and targeted murder: the new strategy of the CIA

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin—The shocking reality behind America’s war on “terror”

Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, by Fred Kaplan—A story that stretches over five decades

The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel, by Uri Bar-Joseph—The amazing tale of Gamal Nasser’s son-in-law, who spied for Israel for many years

This post was updated on May 27, 2017.

You might also be interested in my post, My 10 favorite espionage novels.


Mal Warwick