March 13, 2018

Former MI5 Director spins a fascinating tale of espionage

Former MI5 Director: The Geneva Trap by Stella RimingtonThe Geneva Trap (Liz Carlyle #7) by Stella Rimington (2012) 337 pages

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Leave it to the former head of Britain’s Security Service (MI5) to serve up a compelling tale of espionage that rockets from Geneva to London to Marseilles. In the seventh entry in her well-crafted series of spy stories featuring MI5 officer Liz Carlyle, Stella Rimington weaves a fascinating story involving not just MI5 and MI6 but also the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service, the CIA, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the French Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE), and the Korean National Intelligence Service (KCIA) as well as other agencies involved in espionage. Above all else, The Geneva Trap dramatizes the interdependence of these national agencies in an era when borders have been virtually erased by high-speed travel and the universality of Internet access.

When a Russian spy surfaces in Geneva insisting on speaking only with “Lees Carlyle,” Liz is quickly flown to Switzerland to determine what the man might have to offer British intelligence. She is shocked to learn from him that a top-secret British-American defense project has allegedly been infiltrated by a foreign country that, the man insists, is not Russia. She sets out to uncover the identity of the mole, assuming he or she exists. Meanwhile, someone has murdered a senior Swiss intelligence official on a highway from Geneva to Marseilles. And the daughter of the man who is her mother’s lover is threatened by men from the French anarchist commune she had recently fled.

No reader of genre fiction will be surprised to learn that all three of these threads in The Geneva Trap will eventually intersect. But clever plotting by the former MI5 director makes for a fascinating story along the way.

For nearly three decades, Stella Rimington served in MI5, her last four years (1992-96) as Director General. Unsurprisingly, she was the first woman to hold the post. MI5 is often equated with the FBI, but the analogy is inexact. The FBI is principally a law enforcement agency, whereas MI5 is focused on counterintelligence and counterterrorism. The American and British agencies are similar in one respect, though: just as there is friction between the FBI and the CIA, MI5 and MI6 (Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service) sometimes find themselves in competition for resources and recognition.

If you enjoy spy stories, check out my post, My 13 favorite espionage novels. You might also appreciate 17 good nonfiction books about espionage and 53 excellent mystery and thriller series, which includes this series.

March 6, 2018

Russia takes the next step in the latest John Wells spy novel

The Deceivers by Alex BerensonThe Deceivers (John Wells #12) by Alex Berenson (2018) 447 pages

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Is a new Cold War underway between the United States and Russia? Certainly, the signs are emerging. The two countries are at loggerheads in Ukraine and Syria, and the Russian response to deepening US sanctions has seemed increasingly desperate. Russian efforts to upend the 2016 presidential election may be on today’s front pages, but it’s only one aspect of the broadening if still nonviolent conflict. In his new John Wells thriller, The Deceivers, Alex Berenson imagines Russia crossing the threshold into violence.

Former Army Ranger John Wells has retired from the CIA. He lives in rural New Hampshire with a local cop named Anne and their three-year-old daughter, Emma. But when Vinny Duto, his old nemesis, sends word for him to meet him in the White House, he has little choice but to leave his pregnant wife and young daughter. The former CIA Director is now President. Nobody says no to the President, especially this President.

Wells is expecting an assignment connected to a horrific recent attack in Dallas, where 400 people were murdered by a small group of Islamic terrorists outside a basketball arena. But Vinny wants him to travel to Bogota, Colombia, to meet a man who claims to have critically important information about some unspecified matter. Puzzled, Wells heads off southward, beginning a frustrating and dangerous journey to meet the man. His investigation eventually leads him to Quito, Ecuador, Mexico City (now self-styled CDMX), Dallas, southeastern Washington State, and eventually back to Washington, DC, and home to New Hampshire. It’s a whirlwind adventure in high style, and another captivating thriller from Alex Berenson. Along the way, you’ll encounter a convincing portrait of Vladimir Putin in the guise of Russian President Sergei Fedin.

Alex Berenson worked for the New York Times for more than a decade, covering the occupation of Iraq and the pharmaceutical industry as an investigative reporter. He has been writing full-time since 2010. The Deceivers is the 12th novel in his bestselling John Wells series. Berenson has also written three works of nonfiction.

You may also appreciate seeing My 10 favorite espionage novels and 48 excellent mystery and thriller series (which includes this series). If spy stories aren’t enough and you crave the real thing, check out 17 good nonfiction books about espionage.

February 20, 2018

A satirical take on the dysfunctional CIA under George W Bush

The CIA under George W Bush: Intelligence by Susan HaslerIntelligence: A Tale of Terror and Uncivil Service by Susan Hasler (2014) 321 pages

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Can the CIA really be as clumsy and ineffectual as Susan Hasler portrays it in Intelligence? The dysfunctional agency she dramatizes is a bureaucracy tied up in knots, some of them of its own making, some handed down from a White House bent on pursuing its own aggressive strategy regardless of whether it’s justified by the facts. Granted, the CIA Hasler paints is that of the George W. Bush Administration, five years after 9/11. And we all know what that was like. But can we be confident that today’s intelligence establishment will be able to operate any more independently under Donald Trump’s White House?

Madeline (“Maddy”) James is an intelligence analyst who is still wracked with guilt over not having been able to stop the 9/11 attacks. Not that she hadn’t tried: she and a handful of other dedicated officers had attempted for weeks to focus the White House on their belief that an Al Qaeda attack was imminent. But the White House, and specifically the Vice President, wanted only to hear about Iraq. Clearly, this was a policy failure of the highest order. However, as Maddie keeps reminding herself, “There are no policy failures, only intelligence failures.” So, guess who got the blame for 9/11 in the CIA under George W. Bush?

Now, five years later, history seems to be repeating itself. Maddy is convinced that another major terrorist attack is imminent from Al Qaeda. But everyone in a position of authority over her at the Agency refuses to forward her warning to the White House. As Maddie is told, “The President doesn’t want to hear this.” And the new office created at the Pentagon to develop “alternative intelligence” keeps assigning Maddie and the CIA staffers who work with her to tasks designed to “prove” that Iranian terrorists are about to attack the US. If any of this rings bells, that’s because it’s a fairly accurate summary of the procedures in place in the Administration of George W. Bush. And specifically with respect to Iran.

Intelligence is sometimes funny and always engaging. Hasler writes well, her characters are three-dimensional (if a little overdrawn), and the suspense is palpable.

Hasler has created her own terminology about the Agency. The CIA is “the Mines,” with corridors called “mineshafts.” Analysts are “alchemists.” She calls counterterrorism officers “bomb dissectors.” 9/11 was “the Strikes.” And so forth. (I have no idea whether any of these terms can actually be heard within the CIA.) It’s a little disorienting, but the author helpfully provides a glossary at the end of the book.

Susan Hasler is a 21-year veteran of the CIA. As her bio reveals, “At the Agency, Hasler served variously as a Russian linguist, a Soviet analyst, a speechwriter to three Directors of Central Intelligence, and a counterterrorism analyst. where she served as an intelligence analyst.” So, she would appear to be a reliable source about the Agency. Intelligence was the first of the three novels Hasler has written to date.

If the topic of secret intelligence appeals to you, you might be interested in My 10 favorite espionage novels. You might also like my reviews of 17 good nonfiction books about espionage.

January 22, 2018

Do all the best spy novels come from Britain?

Present Danger by Stella RimingtonPresent Danger (Liz Carlyle #5) by Stella Rimington

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John le Carré. Eric Ambler. Graham Greene. Ian Fleming. Len Deighton. Frederick Forsyth. Somerset Maugham. Charles Cumming. Ken Follett. Alex Gerlis. Philip Kerr. Is that enough names to make the case that the best spy novels come from Britain? (Okay, maybe just in the English language.)

Not that America hasn’t also contributed a fair number of top-flight espionage novelists. Joseph Kanon, Alan Furst, Alex Berenson, Martin Cruz Smith, David Ignatius, Robert Ludlum, Olen Steinhauer, and Tom Clancy all come to mind. But the sheer abundance of compelling British espionage novels presents a high bar. Perhaps the fact that the British live on small islands so vulnerable to the world around them helps to explain their evident preoccupation with danger from the outside world.

Although most of the best-known British spy novelists did their best work from the 1930s to the 1980s, some are currently writing at the top of their game. Charles Cumming, Alex Gerlis, and Philip Kerr, for example. But isn’t it curious that all the names I’ve mentioned so far, both British and American, are men? Search online for “women spy novelists,” and you’ll turn up a number of names, of course. Some are well known, but not for their espionage fiction. Most of the others rarely if ever make the bestseller lists.

Stella Rimington is an exception. That’s Dame Stella Rimington, if you please. Rimington was the first female Director General of Britain’s Security Service, MI5. It’s sometimes thought of as the equivalent of the FBI, but its remit (to use the British term for mission) is domestic intelligence, not criminal investigation. Rimington served as DG for five years in the 1990s. Since 2004, she has published what are now nine novels to date featuring MI5 spycatcher Liz Carlyle. To my mind, Rimington’s work stacks up with that of other top spy novelists writing today.

Present Danger is the fifth novel in the Liz Carlyle series. The title slyly refers to the threat posed by breakaway factions from the IRA intent on sabotaging the Ulster peace deal. (The agreement was confirmed in 1998 by referenda in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; the book is set several years later.)

MI5 has posted Liz to Belfast for what she assumes will be an uneventful time away from her work in counterterrorism and counterespionage in England. However, shortly after she arrives a police officer she’d worked with in the past is attacked outside his home by a gunman. One of several breakaway Republican groups is suspected. That suspicion is confirmed when an anonymous tipster contacts Dave Armstrong, one of the officers working for Liz. An American expatriate running one of those factions has sworn to kill a police officer and an official with MI5 in hopes of undermining the peace deal. Then Dave disappears, apparently kidnapped. Liz spearheads the investigation to rescue Dave and take down the American. The case takes her to Paris and the South of France, where she teams up with a French intelligence officer.

Rimington writes with a sure hand. Her prose is unadorned but unfailingly logical and easy to read. The novel steadily gains momentum, creating suspense all along the way. Present Danger is convincing and enjoyable. Individually, Present Danger doesn’t rank among the best spy novels of the last half-century. Collectively, however, the Liz Carlyle series deserves serious consideration.

You might also enjoy My 10 favorite espionage novels and 17 good nonfiction books about espionage.

January 9, 2018

A compelling spy novel by Paul Vidich set during the Cuban Revolution

The Good Assassin by Paul VidichThe Good Assassin by Paul Vidich

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In An Honorable Man, the debut novel by Paul Vidich, we meet George Mueller. In my review of Vidich’s first novel, An Honorable Man (The Cold War, the early CIA, and the McCarthy Era), I described him as “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.” In Vidich’s captivating second novel, The Good Assassin, Mueller has been retired from the agency for five years. He is teaching Shakespeare at his alma mater, Yale University, when the director of the CIA approaches him to take on an assignment in Cuba. There, he is to track down an old acquaintance, Toby Graham. The director seems to suspect that Toby may not be following orders. Mueller is to find out “what’s on his mind.”

The action unfolds in the closing weeks of 1958, as the Cuban Revolution is heading toward its climax on New Year’s Day, 1959. Traveling under cover as a travel writer for Holiday magazine, Mueller circulates through Havana with a freelance photographer in tow. She is an attractive young woman with whom, unsurprisingly, he ends up in bed. And it turns out that she is friendly with a married American couple who have purchased land for a cattle ranch nearby. Mueller knows them both: he and Jack Malone both attended Yale, as did Graham, and Jack’s unhappy wife, Liz, had once slept with Mueller. Together with Graham, the four—Mueller, Jack, Liz, and Katie Laurent, the photographer—wind up spending a great deal of time together as Liz and Jack’s marriage steadily disintegrates. The five are drawn closer together by the civil war spiraling out of control all around them.

Graham is the “good assassin” of the novel’s title. He is a veteran officer of the CIA with a violent past and a troubled mind. Among many other assignments, Graham had helped engineer the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz, the elected socialist president of Guatemala. In a long conversation with Mueller, Graham conveys his discontent with the agency’s coup there. “I was in the room. Men died. It was all concocted by ambitious men thinking they were playing a Cold War board game. Do you know what I’m talking about? It was a feeling I got—hard to put into words—these perfectly decent Ivy Leaguers at their desks writing memos on extreme interrogation and assassination. We were given a manual on the best ways to extract a man’s eyes to keep him alive, but blind, one eye at a time, to get a confession. Decent men, ambitious men, who were asked to rationalize assassinations, so they wrote a manual on the most effective way to kill. I got the manual in Guatemala.” Sadly, as the author well knows, the CIA did indeed create such a manual. (You can read it here.) The manual was made public in 1997 as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request.

In Cuba, however, Toby’s loyalties are unclear. He appears to be smuggling guns into the country—but it’s unclear for a time who is receiving them. Only gradually does Mueller learn the truth about Toby’s activities in the country.

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.

December 12, 2017

Alan Furst: spies at work in WWII Istanbul and Rumania

WWII Istanbul: Blood of Victory by Alan FurstBlood of Victory (Night Soldiers #7) by Alan Furst

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Blood of Victory is the seventh of the fourteen historical novels to date in the celebrated Night Soldiers series by Alan Furst. Written in the tradition of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, the Night Soldiers stories are set in Europe during the period 1933-44. The action ranges all across Continent, from Warsaw to Istanbul to Paris and numerous points in-between. Most of the novels involve espionage in the long, often futile resistance to Nazi domination.

In Blood of Victory, a Russian émigré writer named I. A. (Ilya) Serebin is drawn into an ambitious British plot to deny Nazi Germany the oil (“the blood of victory”) that flows from the Rumanian oilfields at Ploesti. “Half Russian aristocrat, half Boshevik Jew, . . . Serebin was forty-two, this was his fifth war, he considered himself expert in the matter of running, hiding, or not caring . . . He was, after all, I. A. Serebin, formerly a decorated Hero of the Soviet Union, Second Class, currently the executive secretary of the International Russian Union, a Paris-based organization for émigrés.” Like so many Europeans in the early years of World War II, Serebin no longer has a permanent home. He is living in Paris as the story opens in 1940, shortly after the Nazi invasion of France. But work and a desire to check in on a former lover taken him to the Balkans and to Istanbul. There, he is recruited by Janos Polyani, formerly Count Polyani, a shadowy Hungarian intelligence operative in the service of the British (and a recurring character in the Night Soldiers series).

In 1940, the Balkans are in turmoil—“as always,” some might say. Serbia is about to explode—again—with pro-Nazi and Communist forces fighting for dominance in a bitter political struggle. Mussolini’s legions have made the mistake of invading Greece and are steadily in retreat. Rumania has just joined the Tripartite Pact with Germany as civil war rages on; the Soviet Union has seized two eastern provinces, the fascist Iron Guard roams the streets like Hitler’s brownshirts, loyalists to the old regime are fighting back, and grim young Nazi “tourists” are moving into the country in large numbers. Turkey attempts to stay neutral but is in a steadily more delicate position as pressure mounts on all sides, from the Germans, the British, and the Russians.

Control of Rumania is a key to Hitler’s strategy. The oil at Ploesti fuels the German war machine because I.G. Farben cannot produce synthetic gasoline fast enough. Rumanian land is on the path to the upcoming Nazi invasion of the USSR, and Rumanian divisions are needed to flesh out Germany’s southernmost army group. To hamper Hitler’s invasion plans, slow down the Panzer divisions wreaking havoc in the West and Northern Africa, and possibly delay the invasion of the Soviet Union, Britain has identified the Ploesti oilfields as one of its highest priority targets on the continent. And Winston Churchill has established the top-secret Special Operations Executive (SOE) to conduct sabotage behind enemy lines. Ploesti is one of its first targets. Serebin is drawn into an ambitious and high-risk plan by SOE to disrupt the shipment of oil from the region up the Danube to Germany. The action that unfolds is compelling.

Like so many of Furst’s protagonists, Serebin is a man in early middle age, successful in his field, and what in that era was called a “ladies’ man.” He is rarely without the warming presence of a beautiful woman. Furst writes in an arresting style. His work conjures up the dark mood that had fallen over Europe in the late 1930s.

Check out My 10 favorite espionage novels.

If this book intrigues you, you might enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included. You might also check out 75 readable and revealing historical novels. My post 17 nonfiction books that illuminate the World War II era may also interest you.

For your information, I’m also listing here all the mysteries and thrillers reviewed in 2017 on this blog.

December 5, 2017

In “Paranoia,” Joseph Finder spins a devilishly clever tale

Paranoia by Joseph FinderParanoia by Joseph Finder

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In Paranoia by Joseph Finder, young Adam Cassidy works in a low-level job at the huge high-tech firm Wyatt Technologies. When he decides to game the system and transfer company funds to pay for a retirement party for a man in the shipping department, his troubles begin. Big troubles. Threatening to send him to prison for years for embezzlement unless Adam cooperates, the company’s nasty, paranoid owner Nicholas Wyatt forces him to become an industrial spy. Nick Wyatt is “a guy so crooked he’d cheat on a prostate exam.” Nobody says no to Nick. Nobody. Ever.

“Nick Wyatt slept three hours a nigh, seemed to eat nothing but PowerBars for breakfast and lunch, was a nuclear reactor of nervous energy, perspired heavily. People called him ‘The Exterminator.'”

“‘Of course I’m paranoid,’ Nick says. ‘I want everyone who works for me to be paranoid. Success demands paranoia.'”

Adam’s assignment is to secure a job at Trion Systems, Wyatt’s biggest competitor. There, after intensive training in industrial espionage by Wyatt’s chief of security, Adam is to ferret out information about a huge top-secret project at Trion that is rumored to be a game-changer. Adam is a slacker and has never applied himself, but it quickly becomes clear that he is highly intelligent, socially adept, and a slick talker. It doesn’t take long for him to get himself hired, luck into a relationship with a gorgeous coworker, and eventually gain the attention of Trion’s celebrated founder, Jock Goddard. The contrast between Goddard and Wyatt couldn’t be greater. Complications quickly ensue.

Paranoia is fast-paced and devilishly clever. Even if, like me, you get an inkling of what’s going on as Adam’s spying progresses, you’re unlikely to be prepared for the explosive ending.

Joseph Finder has been writing thrillers since 1983. Many of his books concern industrial espionage. Paranoia, which is set within the tech industry, displays considerable knowledge of technology and of the industry.

Check out My 10 favorite espionage novels. You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

For your information, I’m also listing here all the mysteries and thrillers reviewed in 2017 on this blog.

November 28, 2017

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.

For your information, I’m also listing here all the mysteries and thrillers reviewed in 2017 on this blog.

November 21, 2017

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.

For your information, I’m also listing here all the mysteries and thrillers reviewed in 2017 on this blog.

November 16, 2017

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.” You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. This series is included.

For your information, I’m also listing here all the mysteries and thrillers reviewed in 2017 on this blog.

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