Showing posts with label spies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label spies. Show all posts

06 September 2017

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Empath


I scribbled down notes for this piece years ago when I saw an ad in Mystery Scene Magazine  for The Complete George Smiley Radio Dramas.  The BBC had created radio dramas based on the eight John le Carré novels featuring super spy George Smiley.  He is the protagonist of only four or five of the eight (depending on whether you think The Honourable Schoolboy is about him or about, uh, the honourable schoolboy).  

I have not heard the recordings but my first reaction was: Not possible.  Not possible turn my favorite of the books, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, into a radio drama and make it work.

I know people who read that book cover to cover and couldn't follow the plot.  I know people who have watched the whole six hour TV mini-series with Alec Guinness and were baffled by it.

For an earlier blog I wrote up the endings of twenty great mysteries (not identifying which books they came from, fiend that I am).  I spend twice as much space explaining TTSS as any of the others and still received a complaint that I had it wrong.



The novel's story is so twisty, so reverse-logic, that the idea of trying making it clear in a radio performance strikes me as insane.  If anyone has listened to the recording, please let me know what you think.

Here is one of the reasons the plot is hard to grasp.  Characters A and B are in effect asking: "Given that the situation is X why are Characters C and D doing what they do?"  The answer is: Characters C and D think the situation is Y.

(And by the way, the pretty-good movie version starring Gary Oldman, blew this part of the plot entirely, apparently just to put in one shocking scene.) 

My point is that to follow this part of the plot  requires  a leap of empathy, which no one in the book but Smiley is able to make, and a lot of readers have trouble with it, too.

I don’t mean sympathy, the ability to feel what someone else is feeling.   I mean the scientific sense of empathy: the ability to see things from the other person's point of view.

Decades ago a scientist named Daniel Povinelli taught chimpanzees to do a task for a reward.  Then the chimps saw a human doing a second related task.  Finally the chimps had to copy what the humans did.  In other words, the beasties' thinking process had to go something like this: "The human did a certain thing at the table and we both got fig bars.  Now the tables are turned (literally) and I have to do that same thing to earn us bars."

Which turned out to be no problem for most of the chimps to figure out.  But when the same experiment was tried with monkeys, well, it was like trying to teach them differential calculus on a roller coaster.  In spite of the old adage "monkey see, monkey do," those primates could not make the empathic leap.

It is easy to assume empathy is a good thing, but that's an oversimplification.  For example, it is an essential tool for con artists.  They have to see what the mark is seeing and know what the mark wants.  Science fiction writer Harry Turtledove wrote a story called "Bluff" in which an alien world's civilization is overturned when one character learns poker and discovers the concept of lying.

Other fields rely on empathy as well. I just read a terrific book by Nicholas Rankin called A Genius For Deception, about British trickery during the two World Wars.  One example is camouflage which, of course, depends in knowing how the object you are trying to disguise will look to an enemy soldier, sailor, or pilot.

But it is just as true in intelligence battles.  One of the frustrations of the British spies during WWII was that the Japanese intelligence units were so incompetent they would miss the false information that had been cunningly prepared for them.  In other words, you can't get someone into your trap if they don't notice the bait.

Which, I suppose, brings us back to the cunning of George Smiley.  If you haven't encountered Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I recommend it.  There are plenty of versions to choose from.

Addendum: After I wrote this I received an advance reader copy of John le Carré's new novel, officially published yesterday.  A Legacy of Spies is being plugged as a new Smiley novel, but it appears that once again the cunning old fox manages to stay on the side lines. The main character is Peter Guillam, Smiley's protege, who is called out of retirement to explain some of the master's cases to a post-Cold War generation of spies. I'm reading it now, and so far, it's good.


10 May 2017

Rattling the Cupboards


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the twelfth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

by David Edgerley Gates

All happy families are alike, Tolstoy famously says, and each unhappy family unhappy in their own way. Tolstoy certainly knew from personal experience. John le Carré is another writer whose unsettling family history gave him not only a template, but a theme. He tells us the habits of concealment have served him a lifetime - not always with the desired result. Skeletons in closets.

Buried secrets are an old literary device. The buried past particularly. I'm always a sucker for it, and it's one I've used myself fairly often. I have to wonder too, like le Carré, how much of my personal history conspires to make the secret so attractive.

Well, first off, there's the official record - not all of it on the record, naturally. Most people know I was a Russian linguist and intercept analyst when I was in the Air Force, and probably as many people know from reading my posts here that my uncle Charlie Haskins was at Bletchley Park during WWII. He also served on Eisenhower's national security staff during Eisenhower's presidency. I suspect there's more to his life in the secret world, but I'll never know. Going back another generation, his own dad, the historian Charles Homer Haskins, was at Versailles with Wilson, in 1919. Specifically, he served on the commission to administer the Saar. You wouldn't think this was a political hot potato, because everybody pretty much conceded the French would control the coalfields, but it may have been one of Wilson's bargaining chips with Clemenceau. Wilson himself was impatient with the machinations at the conference, but his main advisor (and intelligence chief) Col. House didn't mind getting his hands dirty, and my grandfather reported to House. I can only guess, but given my fanciful nature, I imagine there's probably more to this than meets the eye.

Then, we got the unofficial. My mom's family, the same lineage as above, had one of those episodes everybody was deeply embarrassed about, and it was rarely spoken of. The problem being, for a kid, is that the hints and silent glances only made you want more, and more was never forthcoming, which of course made the whole thing out to be worse than it was. This dark blot on the escutcheon was the fact that my great-grandparents had divorced, a scandal that apparently shook late 19th-century St. Louis society, not least because he divorced her, which to all intents and purposes branded her a Scarlet Woman. A veil is drawn across what actually happened, but the point isn't what in fact actually happened - with a lot of spadework, my sister Bea has dug out the details - but that everybody felt it was too shameful, it had to stay hidden, it couldn't be talked of. Like the madwoman in the attic, Mrs. Rochester. There's more than a little of the Gothic, here.

It turns out there really is somebody in the attic, too, now you mention it. My grandfather, my mom's dad, the aforementioned Charles Homer Haskins, came down with Parkinson's. He had to give up teaching, and the slow degenerative process wore him down. It killed him at 66. For the last years of his life, he lived on the third floor of the house in Cambridge he and his wife had built early in their marriage. As a boy, I'd always found my grandmother's house spooky and dark, haunted not too strong a word. And it was only years later, when the house was being sold, that I ever ventured up to the third floor. To my enormous surprise, it was filled with light. Made me feel a lot better, truth be told, to know he wasn't left in darkness.

There's another legacy of shadow, the troubled relationship between their children, my mom and her two brothers. My uncle Charlie was the middle one, and from all the evidence a mediating influence. My uncle George was the oldest. Seen at this remove, a bully, emotionally abusive, a predator. Nothing to be done about it now. Not that I'd have a problem pissing on his grave. My real revenge would be to write a book about it, and cast him as the heavy.

It's odd to realize you get material out of this. If not the actual, the impulse. All that compacted sadness. It's not right, somehow. Or maybe we're making amends. That sorrow isn't of our making. It's gone, it's done, it's well beyond our control, it was never ours to begin with. Perhaps this is how we claim ownership, the way we bear witness. Survivors' guilt. We owe them. This is the coin we carry for the ferryman, to pay for our own crossing.

13 April 2017

"Afternoons in Paris" by Janice Law


You remember Francis Bacon:
  File:Pourbus Francis Bacon.jpg  No, not that one, this one:  

Francis Bacon, artist.  Francis Bacon, gambler.  Francis Bacon, bon vivant.  Francis Bacon, gay, asthmatic, Irish, autodidact, devoted to his Nan, louche, rough, crazy...

Well, HE'S BACK!!!!



Yes, my favorite gay artist adventurer is back in Janice Law's "Afternoons in Paris".  Francis is 18 and in the City of Lights, and very glad to be there after the craziness of Berlin (read Janice's "Nights in Berlin":  the book and David Edgerley Gates' review).  Now he's on his own, working for a decorator/designer by day (the somewhat susceptible Armand), visiting galleries with the motherly Madame Dumoulin, and cruising the city by night with the totally unreliable Pyotr, a Russian emigre who, like Francis, has a taste for quick hook-ups and rough trade.

Pyotr has two Russian friends, Igor, who's sinister, and Lev, who's quickly assassinated.  After getting robbed (by Pyotr), beaten up (by 'Cossacks') in Montparnasse, and finding two more waiting to do the same at his lodgings, Francis tries to avoid Russians by moving in with Madame Dumoulin and her brother, Jules, who needs a caretaker.  Well, it could be argued that Francis is the last person to be anyone's companion/caretaker, but our boy knows how to be appreciative.  And Jules, although a traumatized WW1 veteran, is an innocent (at least compared to Francis):  much like Mr. Dick in "David Copperfield", he builds complex machines and flies kites.  Francis can enjoy both.

And then Jules gets a chance to design machines for the theatre group Les Mortes Immortels, and it's back to Paris for all.  Jules' machines are the best part of a production about as audience-friendly as "Finnegan's Wake"; that and the character of Human Hope, played by Inessa, a Russian Helen of Troy who enraptures everyone around her.  Except for those who are using her.

Russians are everywhere, and they're all dangerous:  Pyotr; the NKVD assassin Alexi; the NKVD blackmailer Anoshkin; Inessa's missing brother, Pavel.  And, wouldn't you know it, who's up to his neck in all of this but Francis' Uncle Lastings?  Now known as Claude, art dealer and bon-vivant, but still up to his neck in intrigue, scams, sex, and spying.  Francis has a lot of fast talking, fast running, fast thinking, and fast acting to do to survive...

Soutine's Chemin de la Fontaine
des Tins at Ceret - Wikipedia
As always, it's fascinating to see the world through Francis' eyes, especially at 18, when he is still at the beginning of creating himself.  He has a knack for noticing details, from the "distinctive stink of French drains" to the "most brutal and vigorous thing I'd seen in France" - a dead rooster, painted by Chaim Soutine.  When he writes to Nan that "a glance at her makes me feel more hopeful", we know that Inessa is indeed a remarkable woman, someone to pay attention to.  And, when told that Pavel can't be wandering Paris without proper papers, Francis' reaction is "My own experience in Berlin led me to believe that Monsieur Chaput was exaggerating.  A teenage boy has a number of ways of eluding bureaucrats and busybodies."  And he would know.
Image result for jessie lightfoot
Nan

Emotionally, Francis is still developing, or is he?  At one point he says, regarding his commitment to Jules:  "I had promised Jules, and I believe in friendship.  It tends to be more stable than romance." Not to mention family. As he writes to Nan about his uncle, "I know this is a surprise, but He Who Must Not be Named has secured a job for me, and this time, I have asked to be paid half in advance. You can see I am getting wise to the ways of the world." In fact, the only person Francis trusts implicitly is Nan, in "Afternoons in Paris", "Nights in Berlin", "Fires of London", "The Prisoner of the Riviera", "Moon over Tangier" and in real life.  She will always be the most stable person in his life, not excepting himself.

But even at 18, Francis is already witty, sarcastic, honest, observant, hungry, lustful, reckless, and utterly sure that he will never be among the bourgeoisie. (And how right he is.) He always gives a master class in the art of survival.  Francis Bacon and Paris in the 20s - it's hard to ask for anything more.







27 July 2016

Giving Up The Ghost


I happened on a thriller writer named Chris Morgan Jones, who has three books under his belt, all of them about a private security outfit that takes on corporate espionage - which generally means Follow The Money. I liked what I read, and checked out his website, where he lists a few of his influences, along with how and why. This then prompted me to send him a letter, as follows:

Dear Chris,

   I'm very much in agreement with your listed influences - although I might have chosen OUR MUTUAL FRIEND over BLEAK HOUSE - but I was brought up a little short by HARLOT'S GHOST. I have to say, with all due respect, that I think the novel strikes a false note from beginning to end.  It's only fair that I explain.

   This is awhile back, mind, but I lived in Provincetown at the same time as Norman Mailer, and we knew each other very slightly, friends of friends. The guy I knew better was Peter Manso, who was working on a Mailer biography, and had Mailer's confidence. (They had a bitter falling-out later on, but this was then.) Mailer asked Peter if he knew anybody who could recommend some reliable source material on CIA, and Peter said he did, meaning me. I suggested Thomas Powers' THE MAN WHO KEPT THE SECRETS, which is still the best go-to, and somewhat mischievously, Edward Jay Epstein's LEGEND, a speculation about whether Lee Oswald was ever under KGB discipline. As it happens, the Epstein book is fascinating, but you have to be pretty drenched in the literature to benefit, and it ain't for the fevered brow.

   The eventual result was HARLOT'S GHOST. There was a later Oswald book, but the point here is that Mailer simply didn't absorb the basics of what Powers and Epstein had to say, particularly about the character of the intelligence community. Mailer went off on his usual belligerent conceits, the voices in his head drowning out anything he might have learned from listening to someone else. I'm not pissed off that he didn't take my advice - strictly speaking, I didn't give him any - but it's aggravating that he paid no attention at all. His notions were too firmly fixed. CIA people, the received wisdom has it, can only be hollow men, without inner gravity. Spare me.

All the best,
DEG

*

A few years ago (and a few years later than the events above), I went to a reunion in San Antonio. It was personnel who'd been stationed in Berlin at the 6912th, my former outfit, but not necessarily all at the same time, so it was a grab-bag. Different ages, although mostly in their fifties and sixties. Probably a hundred or so people. By and large, they'd gone career military, a twenty-year hitch, and then quite a few of them had transitioned over to NSA, as intelligence analysts or instructors, for another twenty, so we're talking about a lifetime in the spook trade. Which got me thinking. Why a book about the morally exhausted, cynical and world-weary? Done to death. Why not a story about commitment, a duty to something larger than ourselves, pride of ownership?

During the reunion, we took a field trip out to Lackland AFB to watch a graduation ceremony, new recruits trooping the colors after completing Basic, and then we went to a less publicly-traveled part of the base, where ISR is housed - Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, which is what they call the USAF Security Service nowadays. The event was a memorial. The commanding officer read a list of names - going back to the beginning, in 1948 - the officers and enlisted killed in the line of duty. There are more than you might think, but most of them flight status, killed in aircraft shoot-downs, the Baltic, the Black Sea, the Sea of Japan, off Vladivostok or Sakhalin Island, the coast of Viet Nam. Their families wouldn't have been told about the classified missions they were flying, or that they'd come under attack by Russian pilots. Too sensitive, at the time.

It was sunny and hot, noonish, but early October, so it isn't stifling. The air was still. Quiet corner of the base, not a lot of ambient noise. You can hear a couple of jets taking off from Kelly, the runways a mile or so away. The names are read, we have a moment of silence. The bagpipes start up, "Amazing Grace." And then, right overhead and coming in low, a formation of four fighters in a diamond pattern, the same planes we'd heard taking off. Just as they go over, the plane in the tail position does a flip-up, pulling sudden G's, out of the formation. This maneuver is called The Missing Man, signifying a flyer lost in action, and I'm not the only one starting to get weepy.

The experience reinforced something I already knew, which is that choosing to go career military is like it or not about duty, pride in the mission, accepting a larger responsibility. It's a concept that may have fallen out of fashion in some quarters, and of course it always smacked of self-aggrandizement or suspect sentimentality, if you happened to voice it aloud. I've never know a single lifer who'd own up to this, at least not without a knowing half-smile, and a degree of irony. That said, when I wrote THE BONE HARVEST, it turned out to be very much about the lifer community. Not in the same way as a novel like Sarah Bird's YOKOTA OFFICERS CLUB, but maybe its second cousin.

THE BONE HARVEST takes place in the early months of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, beginning on Christmas Day 1979, and the book is about mounting an intelligence operation in hostile territory. It's an educated guess that such an operation was in fact mounted on the ground in Pakistan, but I'd be very surprised if I'd guessed wrong. more than this, the book might be considered kind of a course correction to all the egregious eyewash that gets written about the spy biz. Not the James Bond stuff - there's nothing wrong with derring-do, even if it borders on the fantastical, and Bond after all isn't a spy, he's a hit man - but the tired drivel that keeps being trotted out as received wisdom, the opportunistic cubicle rats with no moral compass, or misguided zealots bent on jihad, field agents burned or corrupted or gone rogue, assets abandoned, the whole a Darwinian lottery, predator and prey.

It makes for good theater, no argument, but it's lazy. I wanted to come up with something more original, or maybe more retro - John Buchan, say - but with contemporary hardware, state-of-the-art for that period in the Cold War. On the other hand, you can't be a total gear freak. How much is enough, giving it the right feel, and how much is too much, when people's eyes start to glaze over? That one telling detail is often all you need.

I've quoted le Carré before, to the effect that it doesn'd have to be authentic, it has to be convincing. My point here isn't to disrespect anybody, my point is that far too often I'm left unconvinced. For me that's the kiss of death, getting something wrong that's easy to get right, or simply being wrong-headed. I could care less about your politics, or whether you set the table with the salad fork on the outside, but there's one inflexible rule. Don't play fast and loose with the reader's confidence. Once you lose it, you'll never win it back.



I began with Chris Morgan Jones, and took the long way around to get where I was going, so let me wrap this up by saying I enjoyed THE SEARCHER enormously, and have now gone back to read the first of his three novels, THE SILENT OLIGARCH, which came out in 2012. It's always a pleasure to happen on a new writer - or at least somebody new to us. This guy delivers. 
http://www.chrismorganjones.com/

04 May 2016

Spying on Chicago, for a Good Cause


Take a look at the photograph on the right.  Notice the store I am standing in front of?  Or of which I am standing in front?  Boy, was that awkward.

Okay.  Last month I visited Chicago and wandered, not for the first time, into the Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Company.  You are probably thinking that it is a spy shop, selling listening devices, cameras smaller than a grain of rice, and the like.  You are, of course, wrong.

As the employees confidentially explain to each newcomer: the store is a front.  It is secretly the headquarters for 826CHI, "a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write." So anything you buy in the shop (mostly writing-related material) supports the real work of the organization, which is encouraging kids to write.  Pretty cool, huh?

There are actually seven 826 branches promoting writing in different cities, and each has its own cunning disguise.  For example, in San Francisco 826 Valencia hides behind the Pirate Supply Store.  Clearly these people take kids seriously, but not themselves.

Among the merchandise for sale in the Secret Agent Supply Shop is a small selection of books, including the works of novelist Dave Eggers, which is fair because he is one of the two founders of the organization.  More power to him.

But I was more interested in another book I saw there.  I picked it up and told the enthusiastic salesperson "I have a story coming out in the 2016 edition!"

"Really?  That's great!"

Out of Print Clothing Company
"Yup, and the same story has been selected for the Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror collection."

"Oh, now you're just bragging."

"Damn straight," I said.  "I've been writing for forty years and this is my first best-of appearance.  Of course I'm going to brag about it."  Which, you may notice, I just did.

Of course, I had to buy something and I did.  See the photo.

Next time you are in Chicago I recommend you drop by.  You don't even need a secret password.

09 March 2016

Gen. Hayden Comes Out


A lot of stuff happened on Michael Hayden's watch - or watches. 40-year career military, he retired with four stars. He served as Director of the National Security Agency (DIRNSA) from 1999 to 2005, Deputy Director of National Intelligence (DDNI), 2005 to 2006, and Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), 2006 to 2009.


The last ten years of Hayden's career are, um, interesting, a period that was a particular challenge for the American intelligence community - and for Hayden personally, a time when he became a senior placeholder and the brand label for an emerging subset of spycraft, the Information Domain.

Hayden commanded the Air Intelligence Agency before moving up to NSA. This is one of the three military cryptologic units (each of the major branches have one), and in fact it's my old outfit, the USAF Security Service, dressed up in new clothes and renamed. the basic mission is much the same, but as the electronic battlefield has gotten more sophisticated and elusive, the targeting and analysis strategies have kept pace. Hayden's assignment to AIA was a bellwether of his later tenure as DIRNSA. Although he seems to have miraculously few serious enemies in and around the Beltway, he's known to take no prisoners.

Air Intelligence apparently became something of a test case, both for Hayden and the secret world at large. It's a commonplace that generals fight the last war, and it's just as true of the secret intelligence community. Hayden brought a different mindset to AIA. The enemy was no longer state-sponsored. The environment was target-rich, but suddenly diffuse, amorphous and unfocused. Hayden didn't invent the concept of metadata, but he understood how it could be a useful tool. The problem wasn't too little intercept, it was too muchYou needed a way to shape the raw material, to give it context and collateral, and put the dirty bits in boldface.

Otherwise, your 'product,' in the jargon, turned lumpy and indigestible, like a cake that's fallen in the oven, and your consumers would spit it out. You're only as good as your box office. Hayden understood the relationship was market-driven.

Let's cut to the chase. There's a cloud over Hayden's job performance as DIRNSA, and then as DCI. The complaint is that he was, in effect, a Good German - that he turned a blind eye to excesses. Now that Hayden's published a  memoir, PLAYING TO THE EDGE: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror, he gets to tell his side of the story, or at least blow some smoke our way.


Let me 'splain something here, Lucy. Spook memoirs are a mixed bag, a specialized genre like the campaign biography, with peculiar ground rules. There are the outright fabrications, like Kim Philby's MY SILENT WAR, which was ghostwritten by his KGB handlers. On the other hand, some are entirely reticent. Dick Helms' A LOOK OVER MY SHOULDER is so dry you wonder if the guy even has a pulse, until he gets to Nixon and Watergate, and his fury boils over. They usually split the difference, between a poison-pen letter and a sanitized employment application. It helps if you're familiar with the background landscape, and the supporting cast, which of the stories have been told before, from which perspective, and who's gone into Witness Protection. Valerie Plame Wilson and Scooter Libby are going to have two very different recollections of similar events, let's face it, and the possibility of active disinformation is never far from mind. You have to sort it out, and separate the self-serving from the malicious, or purely deceptive.

'Frank' isn't a word that trips immediately off the tongue when you consider Michael Hayden, but the book is revealing in ways he maybe isn't aware of. It surely displays the quality of his mind, and it also betrays an impatience with fools, which is no bad thing. I was put off, though, by a certain rigidity of temperament, or even spirit. Hayden doesn't seem to entertain much self-doubt. He's not a second-guesser. He weighs the arguments, he calls heads or tails, and then the tablets are written in stone.

A case in point is PRISM, the eavesdropping program I've described previously. Hayden refers to it as STELLARWIND, which is how the product was labeled, and although he admits there were some privacy concerns, it was simple necessity to use it. Okay, take his word for it. Then let's talk about Enhanced Interrogation. Opinions vary, but a lot of professional interrogators say torture doesn't get the needed results. Hayden says different. Again, is this philosophical, or metaphysical? Depends whose ox is being gored. If you're the guy on the operating table with water running out your nose, you're in no position to argue. We could also get into the nuts and bolts of the drone program and how targets for elimination are selected.


The larger question here, aside from specific issues, is transparency. Hayden's read on this is spectacularly tone deaf. When he took the helm at NSA, he made an effort to drag them kicking and screaming into the daylight. This was simply good public relations, to position the agency as a visible presence, and sitting with the grown-ups. He'd also inherited a recalcitrant and ungainly command and reporting structure, so Hayden's reorganization went some way toward establishing his own independent power base. What didn't happen, though, was any change in his baseline metabolism. The habit of security, circling the wagons, is ingrained, it becomes second nature.

Hayden falls back on the Honorable Men defense. This is the title of William Colby's memoir of his years as DCI - and comes, in fact, from his testimony in front of the Senate Select Committee. We work in secret, Colby's train of thought goes, and the American public has to trust us to be honorable men, that we know right from wrong. Or, as Mike Hayden puts it, quoting an unexpected source, "To live outside the law, you must be honest."

Stop me if you've heard this. It sounds much the same, set to new music, and sung in the key of Tuned Out.

01 November 2015

The 5¢ Misunderstanding


A couple of weeks ago, I saw Bridge of Spies with friends Sharon and Steve. Using desaturated color and retro photography, the film offered a 1950s-60s Len Deighton / John le Carré glance backwards at the Cold War. A sprinkling of fiction and shortcuts found their way into the movie, but over all, it followed the history reasonably well.

Except, one key episode was compressed, condensed, conflated… the part about the hollow nickel. The truth is far more fascinating– and funny– than the script let on.

Fisher/Abel (Soviet stamp)
Abel (from Soviet 5к stamp)
Rudolf Ivanovich Abel (aka Willie Fisher) never saw the hollow nickel. Instead, it was handled… or rather mishandled… by the clumsy Russian spy who turned Able in.

His name was Reino Häyhänen, a Finnish Soviet Lieutenant Colonel. Recruited by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, he served in Finland before he was called to Moscow for training and reassignment to the United States where he assumed an American identity of Eugene Mäki.

In Manhattan, his first handler turned out to be Mikhail Nikolaevich Svirin who served as the first secretary to the Soviet United Nations Delegation in New York City. Upon Mikhail’s departure, Häyhänen was turned over to Able/Fisher, code name ‘Mark’.

If you believe the James Bond stories, spies are obsessed with babes and booze, and Lt. Col. partook more than his share. ‘Mark’ complained bitterly about Häyhänen’s lackadaisical attitude, poor work ethic, consumption of alcohol, consorting with prostitutes, and refusal to take spying seriously.

During this period, the Soviets utilized a number of clever spy toys that Q might have envied. One such gadget was a 2-inch screw that itself could be unscrewed, revealing a hollow core in which messages might be passed. These secret containers were left in ‘dead drops’, places unlikely to be thought of as spy caches.

In 1955, the bumbling Häyhänen established a cache in Prospect Park, Brooklyn in a crack in steps of a tenement. Häyhänen dropped in a hollow screw with a coded message awaiting pick-up. However, the landlord proved more fastidious than Häyhänen imagined and filled in the crack with cement. There the message remained encased in concrete until the FBI recovered it two years later.

Hollow Screw

But this was hardly Häyhänen’s worst flub in what became known as the Hollow Nickel Affair. Häyhänen’s first assignment in the USA instructed him to pick up a hollowed-out coin, open it, and decode the message. Häyhänen managed the first part– he obtained the nickel– but then he promptly spent it before realizing his mistake.

For eight months, the 5¢ piece floated around New York, used for purchases and tips numerous times until an observant newspaper boy received the coin in change on 22 June 1953. That day, fourteen-year-old Jimmy Bozart, a delivery boy for the Brooklyn Eagle, collected subscription fees from ladies at 3403 Foster Avenue, Brooklyn.

As Jimmy jostled the coins, one seemed slightly lighter than the others. He flipped the nickel on the sidewalk where it split in two. Thomas Jefferson departed Monticello once and for all.


Häyhänen’s coin
Häyhänen’s coin

Jimmy told a friend, the daughter of a NYC police officer. The story worked its way up the chain of command until it reached a detective who told FBI Special Agent Louis Hahn, who confiscated the coin.

The device turned out to be made of two coins, the front half a 1948 nickel and the back half from a late WW-II issue. A tiny hole had been drilled in the R of TRUST to facilitate separating the halves. Inside, they found a square of microfiche with a numeric message.

207
14546 36056 64211 08919 18710 71187 71215 02906 66036 10922
11375 61238 65634 39175 37378 31013 22596 19291 17463 23551
88527 10130 01767 12366 16669 97846 76559 50062 91171 72332
19262 69849 90251 11576 46121 24666 05902 19229 56150 23521
51911 78912 32939 31966 12096 12060 89748 25362 43167 99841
76271 31154 26838 77221 58343 61164 14349 01241 26269 71578
31734 27562 51236 12982 18059 66218 22577 09454 81216 71953
26986 89779 54197 11990 23881 48884 22165 62998 36449 41742
30267 77614 31565 30902 85812 16112 93312 71220 60369 12872
12458 19081 97117 70107 06391 71114 19459 59586 80317 07522
76509 11111 36990 32666 04411 51532 91184 23162 82011 19185
56110 28876 76718 03563 28222 31674 39023 07623 93513 97175
29816 95761 69483 32951 97696 34992 61109 95090 24092 71008
90061 14790 15154 14655 29011 57206 77195 01256 69250 62901
39179 71229 23299 84164 45900 42227 65853 17591 60182 06315
65812 01378 14566 87719 92507 79517 99651 82155 58118 67197
30015 70687 36201 56531 56721 26306 57135 91796 51341 07796
76655 62716 33583 21932 16224 87721 89619 23191 20665 45140
66098 60959 71521 02334 21212 51110 85227 98768 11125 05321
53152 14191 12166 12715 03116 43041 74822 72759 29130 21947
15764 96851 20618 22370 11391 83520 62297                 .
––––––––––––––
Ж 12740/622
Häyhänen’s code

For four years, the FBI could make nothing of the code until Häyhänen defected and deciphered the message originally meant for him.

  1. We congratulate you on a safe arrival. We confirm the receipt of your letter to the address `V repeat V’ and the reading of letter number 1.
  2. For organization of cover, we gave instructions to transmit to you three thousand in local (currency). Consult with us prior to investing it in any kind of business, advising the character of this business.
  3. According to your request, we will transmit the formula for the preparation of soft film and news separately, together with (your) mother’s letter.
  4. It is too early to send you the gammas. Encipher short letters, but the longer ones make with insertions. All the data about yourself, place of work, address, etc., must not be transmitted in one cipher message. Transmit insertions separately.
  5. The package was delivered to your wife personally. Everything is all right with the family. We wish you success. Greetings from the comrades.
    Number 1, 3rd December.
Häyhänen’s message

The US knew nothing about this until the USSR recalled Häyhänen to Moscow for good… or bad. Fisher/Abel (aka Mark) had complained of Häyhänen’s incompetence, and at best, Häyhänen would not be allowed to return to the US, which he’d grown fond of. At worst, Häyhänen might have ended up on the wrong side of a KGB interrogation, and he was also fond of his own skin.

As Häyhänen reached Paris on his journey, he resolved not to return to Moscow. Instead, he defected to the Americans who returned him to the US, where Häyhänen proved more helpful than he had with the Soviets. He was able to identify his handlers, dead drops, and the technology the Russians were using. It brought about the exposure and capture of Colonel Rudolf Abel, who was eventually exchanged for Colonel Gary Powers of U-2 notoriety.

And it all began with a nickel that proved a lot less– and a lot more– than 5¢.

19 July 2015

The Spy Who Bagged Me


by Leigh Lundin

Zoya Voskresenskaya
Anna Chapman
Anyone who’s watched a James Bond or a tacky Derek Flint film knows the Russians have licentious taste in spies… well, perhaps not Rosa Klebb, more like famed Zoya Voskresenskaya (Zoya Rybkina, Зоя Рыбкина, née Воскресенская). Deported Anna Chapman wasn’t a very good spy, but her incompetence and stunning looks inspired the New York Post to ask “But can we keep her?”

Such a wistful propensity may have prompted other New York-based spies to opt for Hooters as a clandestine meeting spot. Hooters?

Code name Green Kryptonite

Meet Naveed Jamali. His parents owned a specialty store, Books & Research, in Dobbs Ferry, Westchester, New York. In the latter 1980s, a known Russian agent strolled into the bookshop and asked for arcane but legally obtainable reports available from a proprietary government database run by the Defense Technical Information Center. The FBI asked the family to fulfill those requests and notify the FBI as to Russian interests.

This continued for twenty years until young Naveed took over the store. Motivated by a desire to join Naval Intelligence, he leveraged his relationship with the FBI into becoming an amateur– but authentic– spy, complete with an audio recording watch Q himself might have designed.

Double-O-Nought

The FBI targeted the latest of a series of Russian agents, a trade mission attaché and seasoned operative, Oleg Kulikov. Diplomatic immunity meant the FBI couldn’t arrest Kulikov, but they could bring his career to a close. Considering occasional spy swaps, it was a smart move by the Feds.

The plan called for Jamali’s arrest at Pizzeria Uno in the presence of Kulikov, but at the last moment, the Russian opted to return to Hooters, putting the operation at risk. Nonetheless, federal agents swooped in and handcuffed Jamali in a fake apprehension, thus ending Kulikov’s espionage and usefulness as a clandestine operative.

Look for Naveed Jamali's book about his experience, How to Catch a Russian Spy. Fox Entertainment has negotiated film rights for the story.

Spies Through the Pages


Last year saw the release of a wonderful film about Alan Turing, The Imitation Game. For another great read and a chance to meet Turing’s competition in wartime British Intelligence, read Leo Marks’ autobiographical Between Silk and Cyanide.

06 July 2015

Why Don't You Write Like A Girl?


Mystery Author Jan Grape Gayle Lynds has done it to me again. Her new thriller, The Assassins, a July release from St. Martin's Press, opened, grabbed me by the throat and kept me up late two nights in a row. As much as I love sleep, this is a superb read and one missing a few hours of sleep over.

The story opens in 2003 with the assassins, who each had done jobs for Saddam Hussein and none had received their final payment before Saddam was ousted. That's just not the way to do business with these guys.The usual operating procedure for an assassins contract is to be given half of the agreed monies with acceptance of the contract and the remainder when the job is finished. Seems Hussein liked to stiff on a contract or he had too many problems to take care of business.  Eventually, they are contacted by one of their number who has located a General, who had been in the Special Republican Guard under Saddam. The General says he can get them into the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, before the Americans arrive and where they can steal a priceless antiquity which then may be sold for billions of dollars.They can divide the money and go happily on their way.

The assassins don't know each other personally, but they are acquainted with each other's work. None would trust the others with the theft so the plan dictated all would be in on the heist. Every thing was working fine until...okay, I won't spoil here.

Next, enter CI agent, Judd Ryder, last seen in The Book of Spies.  And Eva Blake, who was a book curator in Book of Spies who is now training to be a CIA operative. Together with Judd's old boss and mentor Tucker Andersen and various CIA pals there is a concerted effort to discover what the assassins have been up to all these years later. Judd and Eva had dealt with one assassin The Carnivore once before and nothing was exactly fun and games. But they are soon drawn into the fray even without trying.

From Washington, DC to Paris, to Baghdad to Marrakesh the assassins are pitted against each other because everyone wants a piece of the missing billion dollar fortune. With Eva and Judd trying to unravel the plots and counter-plots while caught in the crossfire of men who think nothing of killing for money, you are swept along and reading pages as quickly as you can.

Gayle Lynds is one female thriller writer who had the background and knowledge to write a spy thriller as good as anyone. Don't ever tell me women can't write thrillers. I would love to write one myself, but I honestly have no education, training or knowledge for espionage.

Gayle Lynds worked for a think tank in Washington and is a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. She was married to the late Dennis Lynds who wrote wonderful spy and mystery stories and books. She worked with Robert Ludlum. Gail and David Morrell co-founded International Thriller Writers. So it's no wonder she doesn't write LIKE a girl. Which is a dumb way to speak of any writer, I've read many thriller books by women.  Look it up if you don't believe me.

Two years ago, Gayle met and married John Shelton and moved from CA to Maine. John is a former prosecutor, defense attorney and judge, and writes articles for Law Journals. She says John is her first reader and helps with certain legal fact and brain storming.. Oh yeah, she and John have collaborated on three short stories. She has traveled overseas to research the great locations in her books. I learned much about cities and countries I've never been able to see. She captures all the sights, sounds and feelings of those cities.

If you've never read Gayle Lynds before, try The Assassins, The Book of Spies, The Last Spymaster, The Coil, Mesmerized, Mosaic, or Masquerade.  With Robert Ludlum: The Hades Factor, The Paris Option, The Altman Code.  If you like spy thrillers like I do, you'll definitely enjoy everything by this talented writer.

A little personal note: Tomorrow returning from a Grape Family Reunion. Yes, I know, a bunch of Grapes, descended on Memphis, TN I'll have to tell you about it next time and maybe I'll have pictures, too.

20 June 2014

....and Handlers


(cont'd from two weeks ago)

If an agency doesn't have good procedures and controls in place for their assets and their Handlers, then they are looking for trouble in an area where trouble is easily found. Every agency now probably has its own system and policies in place, but the basics are generally the same, so let's take a look at them.

For security, it's best to give the informant, or asset, a code number to be used in all activity and debriefing reports. Within this code number file should be the informant's fingerprints, which may also help ensure he is who he says he is; a personal history or background, info needed to check up on him now and maybe in the future if he goes on the run; a records check to find any crimes charged with or convicted of in the past; a color photo; and a debriefing report to determine what value the informant may have to your agency.

Also in this file, it would be smart to have a signed copy of the Informant Agreement. This document lays out the parameters of what the informant will and will not do, such as realizing that he is NOT law enforcement, nor is he an agency employee. He also agrees not to break the law, unless specifically authorized, else face possible prosecution if caught.

Special permission is usually needed from some authority before a Handler can use a juvenile, a two-time felon, a drug addict, someone on parole or probation, a current defendant or a prison inmate. Doesn't mean a Handler can't use people in these categories, it merely means that extra steps must be taken and permission from the proper authority is required before use. Why? Because inherent problems need to be addressed before these people can be activated. For instance, use of a parolee requires permission of the affected parole or probation agency, a defendant requires permission of the prosecuting attorney and use of an inmate requires permission of that prison's authorities. The spy world has their own policies on restrictions and categories, which are considerably looser.

Two Handlers should be present at every meeting with an asset in order to prevent false accusations of wrongdoing on the part of the Handler, especially during those times when a Handler is paying funds to the asset. (This may not be feasible in some spy situations.) Informants are paid out of agency funds (or reward money) with paperwork and signatures to document the payments.

Handlers should not engage in personal socializing, joint business ventures or romantic entanglements with the asset, nor should they receive gifts from the asset. I think you can figure out some of the bad possibilities for these situations.

Informants should be searched before and after each controlled meeting with a targeted individual, thus if the informant brings back evidence from that meeting, the presumption is that evidence came from the target, not planted by the informant.

The asset should be debriefed at least every ninety days for new intelligence, else placed on inactive status. Supervisors should review informant status and manage controls.

The Handler should try to independently verify any information received from an informant to ensure it is good intelligence.

NOTE: Private investigators are not held to the same high standards as law enforcement, while spy agencies may have exigent circumstances allowing looser controls and procedures for use of informants.

How do things go bad? Ask the FBI agent who went to prison from the way he handled mobster Whitey Bulger as an informant.

And then there was the state agent who got his informant pregnant, lost his job and had to testify to all those facts during a defendant's subsequent trial in federal court.

We sometimes had one informant buy from another informant who was trafficking while working for us. The second guy went to prison.

Knew a state informant who without his Handler's knowledge, wired up his own house with hidden cameras and microphones and proceeded to act like his favorite movie character when dealing with other criminals.

One informant with a felony record which prevented him from carrying a gun, we soon discovered would sometimes show up at our meetings with his girlfriend who was carrying two concealed automatics.

I think you're starting to see why tight controls are necessary, cuz things can go really bad in a heartbeat. All of which could make good fodder for a crime novel. So, if you get any good writing ideas from the above, feel free to use them.

12 June 2013

The Haunted Wood


The hysteria of the Red Scare in the 1950's is a sad chapter in recent American history. Joe McCarthy was a blowhard and an opportunist, who targeted the innocent along with the merely suspect, and destroyed the careers of honorable people, inside the government and out.

To take one example, it was an article of faith on the Left for many years that the Rosenbergs were railroaded to the electric chair. And likewise, that Alger Hiss was the victim of a smear campaign by the despicable turncoat Whittaker Chambers. The fact that the Hiss case gave legs to Richard Nixon's early political career is only proof positive that the bottom-feeders of the Far Right have no shame, and are happy to use the basest of lies to promote a culture of fear.




Slight cognitive dissonance, here. What gets lost in the shuffle is that Stalin had in fact mounted an enormous clandestine espionage operation inside the United States in the postwar years. Not that McCarthy made a dent in it.

Which brings us to THE HAUNTED WOOD.  In 1995, the FBI began to release the declassified transcripts of the Venona intercepts. Venona was a U.S. counterintelligence program that decrypted cable traffic, specifically Soviet agents reporting back to Moscow. The authors of THE HAUNTED WOOD were given access to KGB archives, and cross-collateralized with Venona, they reconstruct a secret world.



There's an obvious question of provenance. To what degree are the KGB documents---or the FBI documents, for that matter---redacted, or sanitized, or doctored? No security service wittingly gives up material that makes them look bad. The answer seems to be that when both versions of the traffic are available---e.g., the original Russian in Moscow's archive, and the FBI translations---the content matches, with only minor differences such as wording, small errors in vocabulary or grammar that would naturally creep in. A non-native Russian speaker (like this writer, for instance) is bound to make some mistakes. In other words, the resulting analysis is trustworthy. The authors haven't been led down the garden path.

THE HAUNTED WOOD makes a hash of the apologists' case. Alger Hiss, for one, was alomst certainly recruited by GRU, Soviet military intelligence, in the 1930's. And the Russians, of course, found other sympathizers among the anti-Fascist Left, particularly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. You could ascribe this to idealism, or naivete, or a thirst for social justice. There were a lot of people on the Left, in the '30's, who saw the rise of Hitler as the handwriting on the wall, nor were they far wrong. It took a willing blindness, though, to see Stalin as a champion of the oppressed, and as time passed, many of these former willing acolytes fell away from the faith. After the arrest of the Rosenbergs, the Moscow intelligence apparat discarded well-intentioned Old Lefties and turned to pros. Rudolph Abel established a spy network out of Brooklyn that lasted nine years before the FBI rolled him up. Soviet illegals, working under deep cover, weren't a fabrication of J. Edgar Hoover's fevered reptile brain.




None of this is meant to be an alibi for malignant windbags like McCarthy, or the moral cowardice of his enablers. It's widely accepted that the Red-hunters never exposed a single agent of Communist influence. It was all smoke and mirrors. What they did do was create an abiding climate of mistrust, and enshrine the habit of betrayal. It's not a stretch to say that the hearings themselves, with their odor of Stalin's purge trials, the posturing, the parade of friendly witnesses, the public disgrace of others, and the blacklist, the fruit of a corrupt bargain, did more to damage the American political fabric than any number of actual enemy subversives could have hoped for. It poisoned the well for a generation.

The war in the shadows went on. A long stalemate, between two adversaries who each recognized a genuine threat in the other, and found, it seems, their mirror image. This is not in any way to suggest a moral equivalency, but there's a lesson to be taken from the Cold War. We were looking into the past, and trying to see the future through the wrong end of the telescope.




08 May 2013

The Beachcomber


This is a true story.

Years ago, I went down to the U.S. Virgin Islands on a brief trip, and I'd been told to look a guy up. He lived on St. John, above Cruz Bay. I flew into Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas.

Back in those days, the islands were nowhere near as developed as they are now. You took a bus to Red Hook, at the east end of St. Thomas, and caught a ferry over to Cruz Bay. There was no marina at Red Hook, then, just a jetty and a parking lot of beaten earth. There was a gal who sold sodas and sundries out of a shack. The ferry wasn't a high-speed catamaran, either. It was a water barge, with low gunwales and a one-lunger diesel, the skipper and a crew of three. It didn't make more than five knots, so it took maybe forty-five minutes to get across. That early in the day, I was the only passenger.
Red Hook


Cruz Bay was a sleepy little town. A few miles up the coast, RockResorts was breaking ground at Caneel Bay, but that was the first sign of bigger investments to come. It says something about my lack of local knowledge that I'd assumed I could rent a car. No such luck. The lady at the rental agency, which served more than one purpose, she was the postmistress, too, among other hats she wore, explained kindly that they only had a dozen or so vehicles, and they were spoken for weeks in advance.  I asked her, by chance, if she knew somebody named Yuri Ivanov. Why, of course she did. She pointed me up the hill. Not far at all.

It was dusty. It was hot. The sun in the Caribbean is a lot more intense than you expect, if you're not used to it. But it was a nice walk, some scattered shade along the sandy path, the climb gentle. There were few people about. How he knew I was coming I don't know. He didn't have a phone. It didn't look like anybody did. There he was, though, standing outside a small cottage tucked into the hillside, as if he were waiting for me. I called his name, and scrambled uphill the last twenty or thirty feet.

He wasn't unwary, but neither did he seem surprised. I wondered how many visitors he got, in this out-of-the-way place.  Hot and bright, with the sea on every side, a quiet kind of exile. I'm a friend of Gorodny's, I told him.

"Aah," he said, smiling, and we shook hands. "I took you for KGB. You're so pale, you could have come straight from the winter streets of Moscow."

He was short, and thick through the chest, wearing a pair of cut-offs, and flip-flops. I guessed him to be about sixty. His skin was sunburned darker than walnut. I found out he snorkeled the reefs, almost every day. I asked him if he saw many sharks. "The water's full of them," he said to me, with his quick smile.

We sat on the flagstone patio in front of his cottage. The sun beat down. He was used to it. I felt a little faint. There were sea-grapes growing all around. Ivanov suggested we move our chairs into the shade.
 St. John


"How do you know Gorodny?" he asked. He was one of my Russian instructors, I said. "Nu, govorite po-Russki?" Da, nemnozhka, I answered. "Khorosho," he said.

He got up and went into the cottage, and came back with some herring sandwiches. "Selyedka," he said, putting them down. Where did he get the black bread?  He baked it himself.

After elevenses, we went down the hill a few yards to the pump house. Ivanov brought a dented metal pitcher. Inside the little stone building, there was a fifty-five-gallon drum on a wooden cradle. He drew a pitcherful of Bajan rum the color of molasses. Well, it was made from molasses.

We sat under the sea-grapes, drinking rum and grapefruit juice. There was no ice. The sun passed the meridian. As the day drifted toward afternoon, his English got shakier, and my Russian got more persuasively fluent, or at least that's how it seemed. We were drug s drugom, fast friends. I was also half in the bag. The rum, the drowsy heat.

Ivanov drew me out, my family, where I'd studied Russian, what I figured to do with my life. He was an easy listener and asked only the simplest of questions. Finally, it was late afternoon. "Well, you'll miss your ferry," he said. He walked me back down to the harbor, waved me on board the water barge, and wished me well. "Do svidanya," he said.


Cruz Bay

Next time, I thought. I was in a stupor. Back across the channel, I bought a Coke from the woman at the beachfront shack in Red Hook. She fished it out an ice-cold cooler the size of a coffin. I went to wait for the bus.

It came, I got on, I found a window seat at the back. It was all local people, Thomians, women for the most part. A very nice lady sitting opposite me remarked that they didn't see that many tourists off the cruise ships at this end of the island. I didn't tell her I wasn't off a cruise ship. She offered me a slice of fresh mango.

Sitting there, looking sleepily out the window, my fingers sticky with fruit, the bus yawing through the curves on the one-lane macadam, back to Charlotte Amalie, I was thinking to myself, Boy, that was the worst debrief ever. I got nothing out of the guy, and he got everything. I must have been a slow learner.

The lesson is, when you match wits with an old pro, he's going to take you into his confidence, and win your trust, and turn you inside out like a sock. Or, as the saying has it, when you sup with the Devil, use a long spoon.

NOTE:  I've changed the names, although they say you can't compromise the dead, but who knows? Any embarrassment here is my own.

16 April 2013

Smiley's Series


As part of its Pioneers of Television, PBS did a segment on the miniseries, a dramatic form that was extremely popular in the late seventies and all through the eighties. It's a shame that it isn't more popular today. Some of the failed Lost clones, like FlashForward and The Event, might have succeeded as miniseries. Viewers might have been more willing to invest their time if they'd known that the big questions posed by these shows' high-concept premises were going to be resolved in a reasonable amount of time and without endless (and increasingly crazy) plot complications.
During its heyday, the miniseries usually focused on sweeping, multigenerational sagas, but mystery novels were occasionally included. I remember a late seventies adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's The Dane Curse starring James Colburn. And there were the two BBC productions I revisited this past winter, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People, which were both based on novels by John le Carré. The inspiration for my video trip down memory lane was the much more recent film version of Tinker, Tailor, which starred Gary Oldman. I enjoyed the movie, but it left me nostalgic for the 1979 miniseries, in which Alec Guinness played George Smiley, "retired" spy.

If that reference to Smiley's profession (or your own knowledge of le Carré's works) has you thinking that these books are espionage stories and not mysteries, you're half right. They're espionage stories and mysteries. In fact, Tinker, Tailor is a whodunit, as were le Carré's two earlier Smiley books, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality. I still remember the suspense that slowly built during the original broadcast of Tinker, Tailor (which didn't occur in the U.S. until 1980) over the true identity of Gerald, the Russian mole inside British Intelligence. Reviewing the miniseries courtesy of Netflix, I felt that old suspense again. (Netflix did its best to encourage this by only entrusting me with one of the series' three discs at a time.)

Smiley's People is somewhat less satisfying as a story but just as well adapted. (Both series were scripted by le Carré himself.) There is a murder to be solved, but Smiley is more interested in why it happened than in who did it. Though made three years after Tinker, Tailor, Smiley's People reunites many members of the original cast. In fact, the casts of both miniseries are uniformly excellent. They include future stars Alan Rickman, doing a bit as a desk clerk, and Patrick Stewart, in the nonspeaking (!) role of Russian master spy Karla. Two of the strengths of Smiley's People are some great location shooting and an increased amount of screen time for Alec Guinness, who functions like a loner P.I., warned off the case by the authorities and hunted by the bad guys.

It would be hard to overpraise Alec Guinness's two performances as George Smiley. Guinness was an actor who could play broadly if the role called for it, but his real forte was underplaying. His talent for quiet was put to good use here, as George Smiley is one of the great listeners of popular literature. Both miniseries feature powerful scenes in which some other, more flamboyant character wanders far from the point of the conversation while Smiley sits quietly, waiting to draw him or her back. Depending on the situation, he might cajole or flatter or wheedle or simply will the wanderer to focus. I've written that sort of interaction many times, as has any writer of detective fiction, and it's a pleasure to see it done this well. And Guinness/Smiley's reactions to the constant references to his wife's infidelities--tiny winces or a slight narrowing of his eyes or just blank resignation--are equally wonderful.

I'll mention one last point of interest, at least for the writer of historical fiction. There are only two types of films and television shows: those done as period pieces and those that become period pieces over time. Smiley's miniseries are in the second group. I'd forgotten that the three-year gap between the two series marked a sea change in men's fashions. In Tinker, Tailor, wide, loud ties and wider lapels predominate. By Smiley's People, styles (or should I say widths?) had returned to a more classic look.

The late seventies might have been a bad time for clothes, but it was a really good time for long-form dramatic television. If you haven't seen these two examples recently, check them out.

13 March 2013

VALERIE PLAME WILSON: Fair Game


Let's talk about lies.

It's a widely-held article of faith, particularly on the Left, that the Bush administration falsified intelligence to get us into the Iraq war.  I don't completely subscribe to this, for reasons I'll go into. But the purpose of this post is to examine one of the more puzzling sideshows in the run-up to actual combat operations: the full-court press by Vice President Cheney's office to discredit Valerie Plame Wilson, a career CIA officer, and her husband Joe, a retired diplomat.
Valerie and Joe Wilson

In discussing whether or not the Iraq intelligence was 'stovepiped,' an expression Seymour Hersh was the first to use, it might help to review, first, the culture of CIA, and secondly, the mindset of the Bush security team.  Richard Helms, a former Director of Central Intelligence, once remarked that the DCI has only one consumer, and that he serves only one president at a time.  In other words, the job description is to give the president the best available analysis of sometimes conflicting intelligence product, and reconcile any disagreements.  State and Defense may have competing agendas, and they're free to make their own arguments, but the DCI shouldn't be swayed by policy differences. In practice, however, it's more about political survival.  George Tenet, Bush's DCI, had extraordinary access to the Oval Office, and the president trusted his advice.  The brute fact, though, is that you can't keep bringing your guy news he doesn't want to hear, or he's simply going to stop listening.  Tenet wanted to protect his place at the table, and it led him to start shading or deflecting unwelcome truths.  His own people at Langley were the first to realize he was insulating himself from failure.  He couldn't afford to have Bush turn a deaf ear.  We hang on prince's favors, Wolsey tells us, but when we fallwe fall like Lucifernever to hope again.

George Tenet
Tenet, to be fair, had no mean adversaries, chief of them Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, and Rumsfeld had a deep bench to draw on.  He set up a spook shop at the Pentagon, run by an undersecretary named Doug Feith, who reported personally to the SecDef.  (As an aside, and because I can't resist, Gen. Tommy Franks, later commander of the forces in Iraq, was to characterize Feith as "the dumbest fucking guy on the planet.")  The point of the exercise is that they didn't trust Langley, so they mined the same raw data and then came to a radically different conclusion, one more to the liking of the Cabinet war party headed up by the vice president.

Both interpretations of the evidence turned on the trustworthiness of the clandestine Iraqi source codenamed CURVEBALL.  CIA considered him a self-aggrandizing phony and his stuff utterly unreliable, but DoD was ready to cut him more than a little slack.  CURVEBALL gave legs to the story that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling chemical and biological agents, the so-called WMD. There's an apposite quote from the late James Jesus Angleton, legendary chief of CIA counterintelligence (and Angleton will return, in a subsequent blog entry).  "Not every story we wish to be true," he said, of a KGB deception, "is necessarily false."

Rafid al-Janabi a/k/a CURVEBALL
Which brings us to the notorious episode of the Nigerian yellowcake.  A report surfaced that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy enriched uranium from Niger, which could be turned into fissionable material for a nuclear weapon.  CIA decided to send Joe Wilson, a former ambassador, who had experience and connections in Africa, to check it out.  If true, here their smoking gun.  It's an axiom, in intelligence, that you can't prove a negative, but Wilson didn't find anything to support the story.  So we've got an ambiguous result.  Wilson couldn't say for sure the Iraqis didn't try to acquire yellowcake, he could only say there was no evidence that they had, in fact, tried.  "Highly doubtful," he told CIA.

The next question in this little drama is how the Nigerian yellowcake found its way into the State of the Union address.  CIA fact-checks a draft of the speech, and Tenet says the offending lines have to come out.  They do. But then, by all accounts, the vice president and the SecDef insist they go back in.  In the event, Bush utters the fatal words, "Saddam Hussein recently bought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."  Joe Wilson, watching the president on television, goes WTF? Disgruntled, or disappointed, or just plain pissed off, he writes an Op-Ed that comes out in the New York Times, disputing the whole nine yards.  There's nothing, he says, to suggest any truth to this yellowcake moonshine.

State of the Union
You with me so far?  Because it gets murkier.

Now, to coin a phrase, the fur hits the fan.  Dick Cheney is reportedly ripshit. Joe Wilson, in his opinion, has stabbed them all in the back.  You don't, for Christ's sake, take your grievances to the God damn New York TIMES.  Joe's gone over to the enemy.  At this point, it's not a dispute about the intelligence, and this is where I put in my own two cents.  Honest men can disagree.  I stepped on my dick about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, in 1968. I didn't think they'd pull the trigger, and I was proved wrong.  Older, wiser heads were right. This isn't by any means an exact trade.  You make the best guess.  In this case, Cheney's being dishonest.  It's not really about Niger.  It's a grudge match.  Joe Wilson's in his sights.

The rubber meets the road.  Joe Wilson's wife, Valerie, is a serving CIA officer.  She's worked covert, overseas.  Her present post is at Langley, in non-proliferation.  Scooter Libby, the vice president's chief of staff, blows Valerie to a Washington columnist, Robert Novak.  The deception they're floating is that Valerie persuaded the powers that be to send Joe to Niger with the express purpose of spiking the yellowcake rumor.

I told you it was complicated.

Let's, for the moment, ignore the facts.
Cheney and Rumsfeld

What's the narrative Cheney's suggesting?  First, that CIA's a hotbed of Lefties, who don't whole-heartedly believe in a war with Iraq. Joe Wilson's another ComSymp.  His wife gets him the gig.  The two of them are in bed together, in more ways than one.  Bottom line, Valerie is soft on Iraq, and so is Joe. Between the two of them, they wanted to sabotage the war effort.

There are a couple of things wrong with this picture.

Valerie didn't pick Joe for the mission, and Joe didn't have a horse in the race.  We're talking apples and oranges.  Valerie, by her own account, really liked her job, and believed in it.  I take her at her word. Duty is, perhaps, a careworn expression.

What was the point?  Or the object.  What is Cheney trying to accomplish, and who would care? Who'd even understand the Byzantine reasoning behind this stratagem?  Nobody outside the Beltway.  Cheney's an inside guy.  He doesn't come right out and say, Joe Wilson's soft on Iraq. He moves in on the oblique.  Which might lead us to believe his target audience wasn't the general public at all, but Congress, particularly the ranking members of the armed services committees. These are the people who'd vote on any Iraq war resolution, and the vice president wants their votes in the bag.  Anything else would be noise.

Push comes to shove, sacrificing Valerie Plame's career or Joe Wilson's reputation is small potatoes. They get thrown under the bus to Baghdad.

Full disclosure. I've met Valerie Wilson since she and her family moved to Santa Fe, and have had some passing conversations with her– not, as it happens, on these particular questions. In their own words, here's a recent article Valerie and Joe wrote for THE GUARDIAN.