Red Widow

By Alma Katsu – I really wanted to like this book more. Written by a former officer of both the US Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, Red Widow plunges you right into the world of partial information, hidden agendas, latent violence, and self-interested double-dealing.

Lyndsey Duncan is a CIA officer whose romantic attachment to an agent of Britain’s MI6 has put her under a cloud. This, despite her remarkable success on her first overseas assignment. Detailed to the high-stakes Moscow Field Station, she recruited and ran an invaluable asset, Yaromir Popov, a high-ranking officer in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. Now she’s been sent back to CIA headquarters, unsure of her future there, while an investigation drags on.

On the promising side, the Chief of the Russia Division, Eric Newman, wants her help in investigating the disappearance of two Russian double-agents. The coincidence suggests Russian internal security was onto them. And that information on their identity came from within CIA.

In another shock, Eric tells Lyndsey that her prize, Yaromir Popov, has died of poisoning.

Since Lyndsey has been overseas for several years, many of the Division staff she knew have moved on. However, she recognizes one woman, Theresa Warner, whom she knew slightly in the old days. Theresa’s husband was killed while conducting a sketchy Russian operation, and her colleagues regard her simply as The Widow. These two quasi-outsiders, Lyndsey and Theresa, form a friendship.

The extreme compartmentalization of the Agency, particularly Lyndsey’s sensitive task, means not much job-related information can be exchanged, but author Katsu doesn’t give the women any other common interests—movies, tennis—that they could share. As a result, the basis for their relationship is thin and feels contrived.

Katsu does what I assume is a creditable job describing operational constraints and office operations within the CIA—who can talk to whom, when, and about what. The big reveal the women experience isn’t much of a surprise for readers of espionage fiction, nor is what they do with that knowledge.

Additional plot information risks being a spoiler. Suffice it to say that, even if Lyndsey and Theresa’s actions are a tad predictable, they remain interesting characters. The bigger problem is that the male characters didn’t come across as real, three-dimensional people.

Authors worry, maybe a little, sometimes a lot, that friends and family will think they recognize themselves among a novel’s characters. (They’re almost always wrong about this.) Perhaps Katsu was hampered in writing about a world she knows so well, precisely to avoid any such misconceptions.

Reading Red Widow, you come away with a strong impression of what it’s like to work in a clandestine service, the resources at your disposal, those withheld from you, and the cynicism of many of the participants. You won’t develop a strong affinity for many of the people involved, and perhaps that’s part of the game.

Order it from Amazon here or from Indiebound here.

The Rose Code

By Kate Quinn – Spies afoot in World War II, and not all of them are who you think! Most of the story of The Rose Code takes place in December 1939, when three young women converge on Bletchley Park. They’ve been recruited for ill-defined jobs and arrive in a mixture of youthful high spirits, enthusiasm, and uncertainty. Interspersed are chapters from, November 1947, which are a day-by-day countdown to the royal wedding of Prince Philip of Greece and Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, future Queen of England.

Most people today know the story of Bletchley Park (BP): how bright young things learned to decode messages generated by the German Enigma machines. Led by a collection of genius misfits and military leaders, an enormous decryption enterprise was quietly assembled. Quinn’s detailed construction of that world is riveting, not just the technical hurdles overcome, but also the human interactions in that intense and desperate effort.

Osla Kendall’s socialite mother hopes to stash her in Canada to wait out the war, but the sidelines are never a place for Osla, and she returns to London. She’s a goddaughter of Lord Louis Mountbatten and, as it happens, the wartime girlfriend of Prince Philip. (Lest you think this is a fictional bridge too far, the character Osla is modeled on the real-life Osla Benning, “a beautiful, effervescent, Canadian-born heiress and Hut 4 translator who was Prince Philip’s long-term wartime girlfriend,” Quinn explains in an afterword.)

Mabel Churt has none of Osla’s advantages, living in Shoreditch with her mum and younger sister, but she’s bright and hard-working, and, like the many summoned to BP, she’s meant to help the male “brains of the outfit” with administrative and secretarial duties. That restriction doesn’t last.

Mab and Osla are billeted in the spare bedroom of a Bletchley village house, where they meet the shy family daughter, Beth Finch. Beth is their age, but so totally cowed by her Bible-spouting mother, they feel obligated to bring her out of her shell. To her mother’s chagrin, Beth lands a BP job, and she turns out to be the best code-breaker of them all.

The work the women do is fascinating and deadly serious, yet the (mostly) young people they work with are full of life and humor. One by one, the coding systems of the Germans fall to the BP’s round-the-clock efforts. From this vital but obscure corner of the war, you view its stuttering progress: Dunkirk, the bombing of London, the naval battle of Cape Matapan, the United States entering the war, the Germans’ snarl in the Soviet Union, preparations for D-Day—the innate excitement of the story propelling you past one wartime milestone after another. By constantly grounding her plot in real events, Quinn’s narrative feels both believable and significant.

After the war, in the days leading up to the royal wedding, Osla and Mab receive a coded message from Beth. The friends have become estranged, unaware Beth is confined in a particularly horrifying mental institution. She hints at the existence of a Bletchley traitor who sold secrets to the Soviets and recalls their past friendship (‘You owe me.’) Uneasily, Osla and Map reunite, and the hunt for the traitor is on. Without all the resources of BP, they must decipher the Rose Code.

It’s a book that grabs your attention from the beginning and never lets go. I loved it!

A Spy’s Bedside Table

chess

Which espionage books do actual spies read and, ahem, respect? A former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, Emile Nakhleh, kindly provided The Cipher Brief with his list, and I’ve added my own recent faves.

He recommends the first two of these non-fiction books, all three of which have four GoodReads stars:

Non-Fiction

Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, at Home and Abroad by President Obama’s CIA Director John O. Brennan, a leader who was controversial to both political parties and was “in the room where it happened” when many significant security issues were discussed (not all of which he can talk about).

The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future by Chris Whipple. Whipple says the job of CIA Director is “one of the hardest and most perilous in government,” and in this book, he tells you why.

Operation Dragon: Inside the Kremlin’s Secret War on America, by former CIA Director R. James Woolsey and former Romanian espionage chief, Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest-ranking foreign intelligence officer to defect to the United States. They describe Russia’s continuing threat to the U.S., and, in a blockbuster revelation, say Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev personally told Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate President Kennedy, then changed his mind, but Oswald stuck to the original plan.

Fiction

The Order by Dan Silva – Nakhleh recommends it, and I listened to it . Fans of Silva’s Israeli intelligence officer Gabriel Allon will be pleased. He becomes involved in a conspiracy within the Vatican to hide evidence that the Jews were not, actually, responsible for the death of Jesus, two thousand years of violence, hatred, and retribution to the contrary. Again, GoodReads gives it four stars, but I’d say three. Not nearly as troubling as the real-life Gods Bankers.

Agent Running in the Field – John le Carré’s last novel, continuing the string of memorable characters he developed, all the way back to George Smiley and Alec Leamus (my review).

Finally, you might want to save a spot on the nightstand for the October 12 literary debut of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. For her conspiracy thriller, State of Terror, she’s teamed up with crime novelist Louise Penny.

Goalposts Moved for Spy Writers

Desmond Llewelyn, Q, James Bond, Spycraft

The Cipher Brief presentation this week from John Sawers, former Chief of the British Intelligence Service (MI6) covered a lot of ground, including how the world of espionage is changing in the networked age. John le Carré taught us how to understand the motives and tradecraft of Cold War spies, but those days are over. Writers about espionage, like those in the trade itself, must learn new skills.

Tradecraft Trends

Sawers emphasized the shifting importance of the data analyst versus the case officer. In the old days, case officers recruited, trained, and ran their agents. They were, in a way, laws unto themselves. Not any more. James Bond’s “Q” (pictured, as played by Desmond Llewelyn) is no more; agents don’t ask the technologists for help solving a problem, the data analysts and technologists help design the intervention from the outset.

This evolution takes place at a time when the domestic security services of target countries have upped their games considerably. They too may have sophisticated analytic capability, which changes how foreign agents must operate. An example Sawers gave is the availability of facial recognition software and biometric identification. The old methods of disguise—so integral to the spectacular television series, The Americans, set in the 1980s—are next to useless. “The technology is neutral,” he said, and security services have to make it an ally. Our fictional spies can’t put on a wig and run rampant in foreign nations any more.

Strategic Trends

Like many analysts, Sawers keeps a wary eye on China. The country’s behavior around the pandemic has led to “the scales falling from the eyes of EU countries” who’d been less prone to criticize it. While, as writers, we recognize that the Xi Jinping China of today is not the same China that Deng Xiaoping led just over thirty years ago, I admit to being a fan of Tang Dynasty China (700 AD), so I’m really 1300 years behind the times.

Sawers says Western nations are good at identifying security challenges originating from China, but it’s harder to counter Chinese economic strategies, like the Belts and Roads Initiative. Yes, that is an effort to improve the infrastructure of various low-income countries, but it’s also a way to tie the economies of these countries to China and attempt to influence their politics.

Despite recent bumps, the relationship between the US and the UK runs very deep, Sawers maintained, and the two countries’ intelligence agencies’ relationship is solid. The longer-term unease will be between the US and other countries with which it is not as close. Can they trust us not to whipsaw them every four years? That lingering tinge of suspicion should inspire some juicy plot points.

Sawers says the political upheavals and divisions that have occurred in both our nations are at least partly an aftershock of 2008’s economic collapse. This is especially interesting in light of a 2/10 Washington Post report that nearly 60 percent of people facing charges from the January 6 insurrection have a higher-than-average history of serious money troubles: bankruptcies, evictions and foreclosures, bad debts, lawsuits over money owed, or unpaid taxes. Something to keep in mind if these disaffected folk are characters in your new story!

Two Entertaining Listens

Was your New Year’s resolution to get more exercise, and you’re having trouble bounding out of bed with the necessary zeal on these gloomy mornings? Here are two thrillers for your in audio that will get you up and moving, simply because you have to know “What happens next?” These two books are both impeccably entertaining and couldn’t be more different.

Blacktop Wasteland

SA Crosby, Blacktop Wasteland

When Crime Fiction Lover reviewer Rough Justice said “believe the hype” about SA Crosby’s rural noir novel, Blacktop Wasteland, he wasn’t kidding. Suffice it to say that Crosby has achieved that literary ideal—to create the universal by focusing on the specific. The types of challenges faced by Beauregard “Bug” Montage are faced by many sons of missing dads, by many hard-working people of limited means, by many who believe they cannot escape their past.

So much has been written about this multiple award-nominated novel, I won’t rehash the story, but if you like audio books, this is definitely one for your “must-listen” list. Actor Adam Lazarre-White is pitch-perfect, not only when it comes to the Black family at the center of the narrative but also in portraying the white trash grifters and petty criminals with their dubious, dangerous schemes.

Crosby has written his dialog with a precise ear for the rhythms and patterns of speech of his native southern Virginia (the pleading “Just hear me out,” from someone Bug should never in a million years listen to). Combined with Lazarre-White’s talents, Crosby’s characters come to life unforgettably. Good and bad, Black and white, brave and sniveling. They are real people.

Agent Running in the Field

This is John le Carré’s last novel published before his death in December, set in the upper realms of the British espionage establishment. The hero, 47-year-old MI6 agent Nat, is afraid he’s about to be shoved into retirement, but instead he’s given a lackluster post in a local backwater. Maybe this is to keep him out of trouble, but no matter, trouble finds him.

It’s an unsettled time, with Brexit looming and the political establishment, like all of Britain, deeply divided. Though you may anticipate what the sources of Nat’s deepening dilemmas will be, how he goes about extricating himself is exciting reading or, in this case, listening.

Agent is narrated by le Carré himself, and though I’m usually skeptical of an author reading his own work (mostly because I know what a bad job I would do), he offers a persuasive performance. Almost all the characters are British, which may help, or not. (Prof. Henry Higgins would be happy to dissect the regional and impenetrable idiosyncrasies of English speech.) Listening to le Carré read his own words here, quite expertly, as it happens, feels like a kind of good-bye.  

A Question of Time

James Stejskal’s debut espionage thriller takes place in 1979 in a divided Berlin. Located in the heart of then-Communist East Germany, Berlin was notoriously fertile territory for spies. In East Berlin and the country surrounding the city were the Soviets and the Stasi, East Germany’s repressive secret police. In West Berlin, some 180 kilometers behind the Iron Curtain, sat the Allies, with sectors of the city allocated to Britain, France, and the United States. Cold War tensions only intensified in this island of Western influence with the construction of the wall between east and west in 1961.

By the time the novel begins, the written and unwritten rules governing the strange minuet between spies and diplomats have been largely formalized. One key practice is allowing “freedom of passage patrols” by the Western Allies and the Soviets to tour the other side’s occupied zones. By treaty, those patrols could not be stopped or searched.

But what are rules for, except to be broken or at least bent? Chief rule-breaker here is Master Sergeant Kim Becker, a Vietnam veteran and now a member of the US army’s elite Studies and Operations Group. He has a team of creative and not-by-the-book operatives around him, and they receive a special assignment: A CIA asset, an East German high up in the Communist state’s security apparatus, believes he’s come under suspicion. He wants out. It’s up to Becker and his team to develop and implement a plan to extract him.

Stejskal convincingly establishes the riskiness of the mission and its various ingenious stages, as well as the suspect-everyone mindset necessary for people living under such a difficult regime. He doesn’t spend a lot of time on literary flourishes and detailed description, but you will be turning pages too quickly to miss them. Despite the impressive number of contingencies Becker’s team is prepared for and their attention to espionage tradecraft, the unexpected still occurs. Even then, the rescuers aren’t victims of their plan, they have a powerful capacity to improvise.

Modern warrior-hero stories are often either too far-fetched or too poorly written to recommend. In this one, though, the action is described with just enough detail to make it believable and not so much to bog the story down. The writing is clear and compelling and doesn’t get in the way of the telling.

James Stejskal spent thirty-five years serving with the US Army Special Forces. After his military service, he was recruited by the CIA and served as a senior case officer in Africa, Europe, the Far East, and elsewhere. He is now a military historian who has written several nonfiction books. I’d definitely read another about Becker!

Order from Amazon here.

Private Eyes: 2020 Incarnation

spy, espionage, reading

Patrick Radden Keefe in The New Yorker reviews a couple of recent books about the private investigation industry and its changing role. One of them, The Modern Detective: How Corporate Intelligence is Reshaping the World, by Tyler Maroney, was named a 2020 favorite by Kevin Burton Smith, who monitors PI stuff on his web site, for the Private Eye Writers of America, and for Mystery Scene.

More than thirty thousand private investigators are working in the United States, and while some of them engage in the activities that find their way into crime stories—investigating kidnappings, flagging cheating spouses or employees, and finding missing persons—a lot of what modern PI’s do is less juicy corporate work. They check out potential employees, track missing assets, scour proposals for multibillion-dollar deals, assess corporations’ potential partners, engage in (presumably) white-hat hacking, and amass opposition research from the undrained swamp of politics.

These activities are ubiquitous in the corporate world today. Globalization, deregulation, and rapid technological change have created the opportunity for whole new chapters in the secret investigations playbook, as well as new criminal opportunities and strategies.

Despite the growth in that sector of the industry, tales of insider trading, corruption, and fraud are a regular feature of the news media. You have to wonder, is the investigations business simply ineffective in curbing bad behavior, or is the malfeasance we read about only the tip of what would be a glacier-sized iceberg if the investigators’ weren’t on the job?

Says Keefe, the book “is not an exposé. It is part memoir, part how-to guide, a celebration of the analytical and interpersonal intelligence that makes a great investigator.” Those are the traits that have given Poe’s Auguste Dupin and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes nearly a century and a half of popularity. Sounds like a must-read!

World-Rocking Reading List:
The Modern Detective: How Corporate Intelligence is Reshaping the World
Kleptopia: How Dirty Money Is Conquering the World
Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy: The Secret World of Corporate Espionage

Rekindling a Love Affair with Television

Somebody Feed Phil

Thanks to quarantines and streaming services, I’ve been watched more television these last few months than I have in years. Here are series our family found especially entertaining, ICYMT:

Somebody Feed Phil – In each episode, comedy writer Phil Rosenthal (pictured) visits a city somewhere in the world and, accompanied by local restaurateurs and food critics, drops in on local markets and farms, seven or eight restaurants of multiple types and price points, and a few of the unique sights. Phil loves everything he tries (almost), and he tries everything. The humor is broad—OK, it’s corny. A foodie website dissed the show because Phil isn’t a “real” food expert, which shows the reviewer totally missed the point. What he’s demonstrating is that anyone can have a wonderful time when they have an open mind—and mouth. He has fun, and we do too! Plus, I’ll bet he knows a lot more about food than he lets on.(Netflix)

The Americans – about Soviet citizens embedded in American life and carrying out spy things. Based on a real-life Russian program (that was apparently remarkably unsuccessful), the series was every bit as good as all my spy/thriller writing friends have said. It was brilliant to set the series during the 1980s, as the Soviet Union was imploding. But I did wonder why Philip and Elizabeth never seemed to worry much about fingerprints. (Amazon Prime)

Call My Agent – Three seasons of this French comedy series are available, with subtitles, about a quartet of Parisian talent agents. Although they all work for the same firm, they are competitors, and their colleagues better not forget it! The strange deals they get involved in always misfire in some awkward, barely salvageable way. Adding to the fun is having real French movie stars play their clients. There they are, without their makeup or their game face on. Playing themselves, sort of. (Netflix)

The Crown – Now showing: The Diana Years. We especially like Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles. O’Connor played author Lawrence Durrell in PBS’s The Durrells in Corfu, which was a charming series. If flint-hearted Margaret Thatcher (superbly played by Gillian Anderson) mentions her father one more time . . . (Netflix)

The Perfect Weapon

The Perfect Weapon, HBO, David Sanger

In mid-October, HBO released its documentary, The Perfect Weapon, about growing cyber security risks (trailer). A recent Cipher Brief webinar featured David Sanger, national security correspondent for The New York Times, who wrote the book on which the documentary was based, and Mary Brooks, who contributed to both his book and the documentary, and was moderated by Cipher Brief founder Suzanne Kelly.

Creating a documentary based on a detailed, fascinating, and chilling 340-page book is a challenge. It had to be more interesting than 000s and 111s scrolling down the screen. There was a history to lay out. Director John Maggio decided to render the technology aspects of earlier cyberattacks in broad strokes and to humanize the story by focusing on the victims. This approach not only revealed how many sectors of society are vulnerable to cyber criminals, but also how diverse are the sources of these attacks.

The first cyber attack receiving much play in the United States was North Korea’s 2014 takedown of Sony in response to a movie it didn’t like. For that segment, Maggio’s team could interview actors and executives. It was harder to get the story of the next significant attack—this one by the Iranians on the Sands Casino in Las Vegas—because the casino executives don’t want to publicize it.

Since then, attacks have continued, most recently with ransomware attacks on US hospitals already stretched thin by the coronavirus, and on local governments in Florida, for example—after crippling attacks on Baltimore and Atlanta.

Though costly and significant, these episodes have not been serious enough to trigger retribution by the US government. “They are short of war operations,” Sanger said, “and deliberately calculated to be so.” The potential for much more consequential acts definitely exists. It is known, for example, that malware has been placed in the US power grid, where it sits. Officials don’t want to talk about it, or remove it, ironically, because they don’t want the bad actors to understand our detection capabilities.

Of course, the United States isn’t inactive in this arena. In 2010, our government. and Israel used the malicious computer worm Stuxnet to disable Iran’s nuclear program, an action US officials won’t admit to even now, Sanger said. Unfortunately, the destructive Stuxnet code escaped into the wild and is now available to many black-hat hackers. Stuxnet “didn’t start the fire,” he said, “but it was an accelerant.”

Who is behind an attack can be murky. For various reason, organized crime has increasingly muscled its way into the cyber-threat business. Governments hire hackers or external organizations to create havoc, because it gives them deniability. “Not us,” they say.

The US Cyber Command’s goal is to “defend and advance national interests.” However, the job of preventing attacks is difficult. It’s a challenge that requires considerable imagination, given an environment where the risks are escalating rapidly, the technology is improving constantly, and the targets have no boundaries. You may have read about recent threats to COVID vaccine research.

What exactly are the “national interests,” when American businesses have suppliers, clients, and customers all over the world? Companies don’t want to be perceived as working against those relationships. Google, for example, declined to participate in a military program to make drone attacks more accurate. Similarly, though Microsoft and the Cyber Command were both attempting to disable TrickBot in the last few weeks, their efforts were independent and uncoordinated.

Thomas Donahue, Senior Analyst at the Center for Cyber Intelligence has said, “We cannot afford to protect everything to the maximum degree, so we’d better figure out what cannot fail,”

The documentary—and the book—lay out what’s at stake for all of us. Past posts on this topic:
* Our Biggest Threats Keep Growing
* Cyberthreats: Coming to a Company Near You

The Woman Is a Spy

Three women who’ve made outstanding careers for themselves in the intelligence community were featured in a Cipher Brief webinar last Friday, moderated by the organization’s founder, Suzanne Kelly, former CNN Intelligence Correspondent. As a writer interested in that world, I was eager to hear the women’s perspectives.

The women were:

Over the course of these women’s careers, the attitude toward women working in intelligence has evolved, just as it has throughout American society. When they started out in the early 80s or so, the intelligence community was an old boys’ club, and most women were relegated to support staff and administrative positions. The diversity of job opportunities for women is much greater now—after all, CIA Director Gina Haspell is a woman—but vestiges of old attitudes remain.

Thus, the era in which a story is set makes a great deal of difference as to how female characters would be treated. Perhaps engineering backgrounds gave two of these women added insight or practice in breaching institutional gender barriers.

The panelists had all worked in a variety of settings—for both government and the private sector. They change jobs and vacuum up new knowledge and skills. So, if your character needs a particular expertise, it certainly would be realistic to create a previous position where she could have gained it, inside government or not. Or, even in her own security services company.

Savvy women in the intelligence community work hard to develop a network of women in their and other intelligence agencies for all the familiar advice-seeking, moral-support reasons we know. From the perspective of these women, a more diverse workforce—in terms of gender, cultural background, type of education, analytic style, and where people have lived —produces better intelligence outcomes, as intelligence community employers have come to appreciate.

Suggested reading:
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
Bloodmoney by David Ignatius
Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by Lynn Olson