Spies X 3

spy, espionage, reading

****Spy’s Fate

Overhearing someone talking about you can be both unsettling and revealing. Arnaldo Correa’s novel, full of observations about the US and its spycraft, from the point of view of a Cuban intelligence operative, is another such revelation. While there’s plenty of ineptitude and bureaucratic blindness on one side or the other, the main character, Carlos Manuel, is an expert at exposing and outwitting it. For a book about a Cuban spy stranded in Miami with a vindictive CIA agent on his trail, there’s quite a bit of humor and a heartwarming romance too. I really enjoyed this book. First published in 2002, it was Correa’s first novel translated into English. Available here from Amazon.

***Spies

This Fiction River special edition, edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, includes 15 short spy stories by a range of authors. If you think the short story form doesn’t provide enough space to explore the long con of espionage, these tales may change your mind. Rusch says that what links them, besides their topic, is “their willingness to look at the world in all its messiness,” without flinching from the corrosive effects of secrets on everyone involved. My favorites included two historicals—the clever and very British “Our Man in Basingstoke” by Sabrina Chase, set during World War II, and “The Message” by CA Rowland, set during the Civil War—and Ron Collins’s “The Spy Who Walked into the Cold,” set in racially divided Chicago a few decades back. Get it here.

****From the Shadows

Spies needn’t be government agents or involved with great sociopolitical questions. Spanish author Juan José Millás’s novel (translated by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn) barely escapes the bedroom. Damián Lobo, a youngish man down on his luck and out of work, entertains himself by carrying on pretend conversations with a famous talk show host. This fantasy so preoccupies him that, in a rash moment, he steals a tie pin he believes the tv star would like. The police chase him through an outdoor market and he ducks inside an old wardrobe on display. Before it seems safe to emerge, the wardrobe is trundled away, loaded onto a truck, and delivered to its new owners’ bedroom, with Lobo still inside. As it turns out, there’s never a good moment to climb out, and through an elaborate ruse, Lobo makes his home there, listening in on all the family’s intimate secrets. An amusing tale that Kirkus Reviews calls “spectacularly bizarre.” Millás has won numerous literary prizes; this short novel is his first published in North America. Loved it! Available from Amazon.

Photo: David Lytle, creative commons license

This is Gomorrah

night sky, light pollution

By Tom Chatfield – The potentially nefarious capabilities of the Internet have seeped from science fiction to technothrillers to non-fiction to the morning news. Now comes a debut novel on the topic by someone who is not only a technology expert but an entertaining storyteller.

Azi Bellow is a 34-year-old hacker holed up in a garden shed in South London with a load of computer equipment, exploring the dark web. In Azi’s world, it’s hard to know whom to trust, but he does trust his online friend Sigma. She feels the same, and when she finds herself in trouble asks for Azi’s help. She’s assembled extensive evidence that 50 confirmed Islamic martyrs are not actually dead but have acquired new identities. Naturally, no security service is looking for them.

Sigma believes these terrorists obtained fake IDs from Gomorrah, the darkest corner of the dark web, but now she’s on the run. Almost immediately Azi’s inner sanctum is invaded by a woman named Anna who makes it clear that he must help Sigma or Anna will reveal his quasi-legal and illegal activities to the authorities.

Thus is a thrilling cat-and-mouse game launched, with the urgency of Sigma’s situation prying Azi out of the shed into the real world. They flee England, and later he seeks refuge in Athens and, finally, Silicon Valley. It’s hard to stay ahead of Gomorrah.

Chatfield’s writing is full of sly commentary on technology and human (mis)behavior that will leave you laughing, crying, or both. While Anna and her team aren’t very likeable, Azi is, along with his venal childhood friend Ad and the desperate Sigma. All are experts at manipulation and establishing “…a context within which someone’s only choice is to do what you want, even if (especially if) they believe the decision is up to them.”

Tom Chatfield is the author of several nonfiction books (and TED talks) exploring digital culture. He’s been a visiting associate at the Oxford Internet Institute and advises numerous organizations about technology and media. He was a launch columnist for BBC’s worldwide technology site, BBC Future. In the acknowledgements he says, “Unlike reality, fiction has an obligation to make sense.” And for most of This is Gomorrah, Chatfield’s constructed reality does make sense. By the time it becomes too crazy, you will have already decided to trust him and just go with it!

Photo: woodleywonderworks, creative commons license.

Another Day, Another Film

popcorn

You could call it a “self-curated film festival” or you could just call me lucky to have two top-notch independent movie houses nearby. Whatever you call it, five movies in five days is a lot of popcorn-eating opportunity. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of these very different films if they sound like your thing. Two here, three next week.

Official Secrets

Gavin Hood’s film (based on a true story, whatever that means these days) centers on a woman (Keira Knightley) working for British intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war (trailer) . A memo comes through asking analysts to dig up information the Americans can use to pressure UN Security Council members to support the War. A Security Council endorsement would give the Bush Administration and the Blair government much-needed political cover.

But it’s wrong, and she leaks the memo, in violation of Britain’s strict Official Secrets laws. Matt Smith and Rhys Ifans are helpful and entertaining investigative reporters. She has a Muslim husband (Adam Bakri) a rights lawyer (Ralph Fiennes), and between them, they give fine and timely speeches about loyalty and treason. I was on the edge of my seat. Generally, I don’t like Knightley, but she’s great here.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 82%; audiences 89%.

Judy

Rupert Goold’s film, written by Tom Edge, about Judy Garland’s sad last days doesn’t contain plot surprises (trailer). It’s showstopping strength is Renée Zellweger’s amazing performance. You know Judy’s going to crash and burn, and you so, so, don’t want her to. It’s painful to watch.

She scrapes herself together at times, which gives you hope that she can fulfill her contract with a London theater for five weeks of sold-out performances. They’re bringing in the cash she desperately needs in order to reclaim her two younger children from husband #4, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell).

Zellweger doesn’t try to imitate Garland’s voice, but she’s got the mannerisms cold, and the way she belts out the songs, no wonder fans adore her. Flashbacks provide a cold appraisal of Hollywood’s exploitative star system, where her addictions began.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 83%; audiences 86%.

****The Paris Diversion

cafe

By Chris Pavone – The Paris Diversion is the followup to Chris Pavone’s popular and award-winning debut thriller from 2013, The Expats. In the new book, former CIA agent Kate Moore is living in Paris with her husband Dexter when the ghosts from that earlier story come in search of her. A lot of action and a great many characters are packed into the twelve-hour period this novel covers. Along the way, you’re treated to a granular depiction of Paris—not just monuments and streets, but the way of life.

Kate doesn’t know whether she still works for the CIA. She’s a one-woman operation, head of something called the Paris Substation, and has ample money to hire all the help she needs to carry out assignments, though who and where do these orders come from? Dexter works from home, day-trading, and scheming to find a get-rich-quick idea. He thinks he’s found one.

In a recent panel discussion, author Pavone said he was drawn to writing thrillers because the characters lie so much. He’s brought that tendency to a high art in this novel with Kate and Dexter’s innumerable secrets and reflexive avoidance of the truth.

Dexter plans to sell short a large hunk of shares in a company called 4Syte. It will make him a massive profit as long as those shares drop in price as insider information predicts. 4Syte’s president, Hunter Forsyth, is an arrogant high-flyer, who Dexter believes was “born on third base, believing he hit a triple”—such a perfect description I laughed out loud. Forsyth is so convinced of his invincibility he doesn’t realize he’s been kidnapped.

The ominous sound of sirens pervades the book’s early chapters. Several bombs have been found in strategic spots around the city, and a Muslim man wearing a suicide vest has taken up a position in the plaza outside the Louvre. Rooftop snipers have him in their sights, though shooting him may merely precipitate the catastrophe. The petty arguing among the various police departments regarding whether to shoot sounded exactly right, with the ironic touch that the sniper is Muslim too.

Pavone’s secondary characters are strong, especially Forsyth’s assistant, Colette. Coolly French, married, she’s the object of Hunter’s lustful imaginings. The suicide bomber is another good character, knowing he will die, but not when, and with unexpected reasons for strapping on the vest.

You may want to stop reading this fast-paced novel occasionally to ask yourself, “What just happened?” as layers of the complex plot come into focus. A few aspects of the story—especially the idea that there are multiple off-the-books spy agencies operating around the world—may stretch credulity, but you probably will be turning pages too fast to worry about such things.

Photo: Dan Novac from Pixabay.

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War

Author Lynne Olson drew a standing-room-only crowd at the Princeton Public Library this week to hear her discuss her latest book, a biography of a mostly unheralded Frenchwoman, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. Fourcade ran a loose network of 3,000 spies within Vichy France during the Nazi occupation, and Olson calls it the most influential organization spying on the Nazis in the war.

Born in 1909 to wealthy parents and raised in Shanghai, she married a military intelligence officer at age twenty, and ultimately had three children. During the war, she sent the children to Switzerland for safety and did not see them for years at a time. Sometime in there, Olson says, she had an affair with pilot hero and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Le Petit Prince, et al.) She survived the war and many harrowing experiences and died in Paris in 1989.

The French Resistance movement, uncoordinated and spotty though it was, came in three flavors. Two have received considerable attention in films. First, sabotage—blowing up train tracks and the like (the Sebastian Faulks novel and film Charlotte Gray depict this nicely). Then there were the heroic efforts to help downed British and American pilots escape. The third, less cinematic job of the Resistance was intelligence gathering. Where are the troops headed, the armaments stored, the ships docked? This is the kind of information the Allies badly needed and Fourcade’s huge network collected and passed on.

You’ll recall that de Gaulle was in London during the war, but when Fourcade’s brother traveled there to offer the network’s services, characteristically, he would not cooperate. But MI6 would, not realizing for quite a while that the group’s leader, code name “Hedgehog,” was a woman. She was arrested several times and escaped twice. After D-Day, she was again captured, but that night she stripped down, held her dress between her teeth and wriggled through the bars of her cell, put her dress back on, and walked away.

She and one notable young woman who worked for her were able to get the information they did from unsuspecting Germans because, for the most part, no one took her seriously because she was a woman. She’s nearly forgotten today, Olson believes, for the same reason. After the war, de Gaulle created an organization to honor the war’s heroes—1032 of its 1038 members were men.

Olson’s conclusion is reinforced by the experience of another unheralded WWII spy, American Virginia Hall. One of the several new books (movies in the making!) about her is titled A Woman of No Importance.

****The Fourth Courier

By Timothy Jay Smith – Take a walk back in time to Warsaw, 1992, with Timothy Jay Smith’s new crime thriller. The Cold War has recently ended, but average citizens struggle to figure out the new economic realities. Nothing quite works yet, and the gray concrete dullness of Soviet brutalist architecture is made even harsher by the dismal April weather. Politically, old relationships are unraveling, and chaos in the former Soviet Union and some of its satellites raises an important question, who’s watching the nukes?

Warsaw police, meanwhile, are dealing with a baffling series of murders. Over just a few weeks, three unidentified young men have been shot to death, their bodies abandoned on the banks of the Vistula River, one cheek slit open, all labels expertly cut from their clothing. Now they’ve found a fourth victim, older this time. By chance, the forensic pathologist noticed the third victim’s hands bore traces of radiation. Whatever he’d been smuggling, Poland’s new Solidarity government wants help to stop it.

American aid comes to them from the FBI in the person of Jay Porter, who in turn calls on the expertise of the local CIA officer—a gay black man named Kurt Crawford—and the genial Ambassador. There are good interactions and good humor among the three Americans. They all want to put an end to what seems to be nuclear material being spirited out of the former Soviet Union—but each has a totally different way of going about it.

Porter meets an attractive Polish woman, Lilka, who, he learns, is divorced from her abusive husband, but the apartments in Poland are so few and so small, so they still live together. The American starts seeing Lilka, which gives author Smith a vehicle for introducing realistic aspects of everyday Polish life—the shortages, the cranky cars, the small indulgences, and the stresses immediately post-communism—one of the most interesting aspects of the book, in fact.

Perhaps there are a couple too many plot coincidences and intersections among the cast of characters. All of them remain distinctive and interesting, though, even the minor ones. Smith’s well described settings put you right in the scene, whether it’s the drably elegant hotel favored by a Yugoslav general, a seedy bar in the bowels of the train station, or the riverside wasteland where the corpses keep washing up.

Photo: “Soviet buttons” by seitbijakaspars, creative commons license.

Cybersecurity: What the Experts Say

cyberspace

If only I were as clever as Brad Parks who took his outrage over the pass given to Wachovia and Wells Fargo Bank execs who laundered many millions of dollars for a Mexican drug cartel (and they’re still at it) and turned it into a fantastic new thriller, The Last Act (my review here). What you’ll read below has the seeds of innumerable great and terrifying stories, but when I read it, I start spitting. These quotes were a handout for my Great Decisions group, a discussion program sponsored by the Foreign Policy Association

 “Our adversaries and strategic competitors will increasingly use cyber capabilities—including cyber espionage, attack, and influence—to seek political, economic, and military advantage over the United States and its allies and partners. China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea increasingly use cyber operations to threaten both minds and machines in an expanding number of ways—to steal information, to influence our citizens, or to disrupt critical infrastructure.” Daniel R. Coats, Director of National Intelligence statement to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence as he presented the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of worldwide threats, 29 Jan 2019.

“Few Americans realize the extent to which foreign intelligence services are stealing our most important secrets.” And “China is without question the number one counterintelligence threat facing the United States.” James Olson, former CIA Chief of Counterintelligence

“The Russian intelligence services, the inheritors of the legacy of their Soviet forebears, are our inexorable adversaries. They have at one time or another penetrated every significant organization and agency in the U.S. Government and, as evidenced by their recent efforts to undermine American democracy, are the most professionally proficient intelligence adversaries we confront.” Mark Kelton, former CIA Deputy Director for Counterintelligence

“Foreign cyber criminals will continue to conduct for-profit, cyber-enabled theft and extortion against U.S. networks.” And “Terrorists could obtain and disclose compromising or personally identifiable information through cyber operations, and they may use such disclosures to coerce, extort, or to inspire and enable physical attacks against their victims.” Daniel R. Coats

“The sheer acceleration in the number of attacks, and their rapidly changing goals, is one of several warning signs that we all are living through a revolution, playing out at digital speed.” David E. Sanger, The Perfect Weapon

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

Read More

I highly recommend Sanger’s The Perfect Weapon, P.W. Singer’s Like War: The Weaponization of Social Media, and if a well-constructed fictional scenario holds more appeal, P.W. Singer and August Cole’s 2015 near-future thriller, Ghost Fleet.

Photo: openDemocracy, creative commons license

****A Long Night in Paris

Written by Dov Alfon, translated by Daniella Zamir – Lots of action is packed into Dov Alfon’s debut novel, A Long Night in Paris, Israel’s bestselling book of 2016-2017, now available in English. It’s hard to believe so much can happen in little more than twenty-four hours!

The story begins one morning when a gregarious Israeli software engineer disappears from the arrivals hall of Charles de Gaulle Airport. An irrepressible flirt, he peels off from a group of colleagues to link up with a beautiful blonde before the two seemingly disappear into thin air.

Police Commissaire Jules Léger grudgingly organizes an investigation, predictably hampered by too many cooks: airport security, the Israeli police representative for Europe, a mysterious Israeli security colonel named Zeev Abadi, and, most uncooperative of all, El Al security.

Abadi is a Tunisian Jew raised in the Paris suburbs. Not until midnight does he assume his official role as the new head of Israeli intelligence’s SIGINT unit. Temporarily in charge of the unit back in Tel Aviv, with minuscule bureaucratic power, is Lieutenant Oriana Talmor.

At the airport, Abadi uncovers footage showing the hapless Israeli attacked by a pair of Chinese thugs and thrown into a sewer pit where survival is impossible. Abadi soon realizes the attack was a case of mistaken identity. He must figure out who was the actual intended victim and calls on Talmor her team back in Israel for help. Separated by more than two thousand miles, the two try to uncover the identity of the intended victim, his current location, and the reasons he’s a murder target.

Although most of the short chapters are written from the point of view of Abadi, Talmor, or Léger, some are from clueless higher-ups in the Israeli and French governments, the various criminal operatives involved, and the real quarry of the killers, a young man named Vladislav Yerminski. What you mostly learn about him is that he’s checked into an expensive hotel with a suitcase full of electronic gadgetry. (I forget how that bag got through Tel Aviv’s airport security, if I ever knew.)

It’s a multinational cast of characters and you’re well along before you realize what game Yerminski is playing and who’s behind the mysterious gang of Chinese pursuing him. All the bureaucrats are busy trying to spin the first victim’s undignified death in a way that masks the shortcomings and errors in their own intelligence work. Even though I couldn’t quite believe in the criminal mastermind whose Chinese assassins murdered the wrong man, I totally believed that they work in a rogue system that does not tolerate error.

Alfon came to the writing of this book with the perfect resume. He knows Paris, having been born and raised there. He is himself a former intelligence officer in the Israeli Intelligence Corps’ Unit 8200, which is responsible for signals intelligence (SIGINT) and code decryption. His political acumen was honed as a former cultural observer and editor in chief of Israel’s major newspaper, Ha’aretz, and he served as an editor for Israel’s largest publishing house. The translation flows smoothly as well.

Cyberthreats: Coming to a Company Near You

The absurdity of a Seth Rogen movie precipitating an international incident may have obscured that episode’s significance as a bellwether in international cyberterrorism. Companies around the world have experienced massive thefts of intellectual property and disruption to their operations. Yet there’s no clear way forward for them. Three dramatic episodes illustrate.

Destruction of a Target’s Network

Remember Sony’s 2014 dust-up with North Korea? Given the reviews, The Interview would likely have quickly sunk into obscurity had The Hermit Kingdom not made an escalating series of threats, saying release of the film would be considered an act of terrorism. While the U.S. State Department was telling Sony it wasn’t in the business of censoring movies, North Korean hackers were penetrating Sony’s computer system top-to-bottom.

Our government was clueless about the company’s peril. Says David Sanger, “hackers working from laptops somewhere in Asia were not the kind of security threat [the NSA] was established to detect. And movie studios weren’t the targets the American intelligence community was focused on protecting.” The result was a worldwide takedown of the company’s computer systems.

Proliferating Malware

The NotPetya code, the malicious product of Russian military hackers, ultimately hit two thousand targets worldwide and cost companies an estimated $10 billion. Among the worst affected were the U.S. pharmaceutical giant Merck, FedEx’s European subsidiary, a French construction company, and Danish shipping company Maersk. Maersk, which lost some $300 million, salvaged its business only because a domain controller in Ghana already had been knocked offline when the malware struck.

Corporate Espionage

You’re probably familiar with how three Chinese hackers stole some 630,000 computer files related to the development and design of Boeing’s C-17 military transport plane, saving the Chinese government decades and billions in R&D. When the Chinese plane—the Xian Y-20—debuted at a Zhuhai air show, parked near the American C-17, the similarity between the two planes was inescapable. A gift to the Chinese from U.S. taxpayers.

According to a recent Wired article by Garrett M. Graff, “China’s extended campaign of commercial espionage has raided almost every highly developed economy, but far and away its biggest targets have been the military secrets of the United States.” He says many American companies were aware of the hacking, but have kept quiet to keep the huge China market.

What Next?

Such intrusions demonstrate that it isn’t enough to assume every company can (or will) sufficiently protect its own networks. “An individual company simply doesn’t have the resources or the capabilities to defend against a committed nation state attacker,” said Jamil Jaffer, founder of George Mason University’s National Security Institute in a recent Cipher Brief interview. Yet, for a host of reasons, government can’t do protect every business either.

Jaffer believes companies in key industries must start sharing threat data with each other. Though that’s against the grain, in a small way, it’s beginning to happen. Government may have a role, too, in some cases, depending on the target, the severity of the threat, and applicable law. But this strategy will take time, and as all these complex relationships and responsibilities are being debated and worked out, the hackers hurtle full speed ahead.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases—a few pennies to put in a jar to pay my WordPress bills. When you make a purchase through the link on my website, you help me fill the jar. Thank you!

*****LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media

In David Sanger’s chilling book about the dangers of cyberweapons, reviewed here last week, he includes the impact of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, but P.W. Singer and Emerson T Brooking focus laserlike on them in LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media. If you want to know chapter and verse about the barrage of efforts to manipulate American opinion in the election of 2016—and risk of even more in future—this is the book for you.

Singer and Brooking’s book, like Sanger’s, pulls together in one place the various threads of information about cyberthreats from the last few years, weaving them into a coherent, memorable, and understandable(!) whole. All these authors provide exhaustive lists of sources. It’s incumbent on responsible people to understand the tactics of information warfare, because, “[recent Senate hearings] showed that our leaders had little grasp on the greatest existential threat to American democracy,” said Leigh Giangreco in the Washington Post.

These ill-intentioned manipulators understand the human brain is hard-wired for certain reactions: to believe in conspiracy theories (“Obama isn’t an American”); to be gratified when we receive approval (“likes”!); to be drawn to views we agree with (“confirmation bias”). If we feel compelled to weigh in on some bit of propaganda or false information, social media algorithms see this attention and elevate the issue—“trending!”—so that our complaints only add to the virality of disinformation and lies. “Just as the internet has reshaped war, war is now radically reshaping the internet,” the authors say.

Contrary to the optimism of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who saw social media as a positive, democratizing force, this new technology is being used to destructive effect at many levels of society. At a local scale, for example, it bolsters gang violence in Chicago; at a national scale, it contributed to the election of fringe politicians; at a regional scale, it facilitated the emergence of ISIS; and at an international scale, it undergirds the reemergence of repressive political movements in many countries.

How to be a responsible citizen in this chaos? Like it or not, “we’re all part of this war,” the authors say, “and which side succeeds depends in large part on how much the rest of us learn to recognize this new warfare for what it is” and how ready we are for what comes next. Start by reading one—or both—of these important books.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases—a few pennies to put in a jar to pay my WordPress bills. When you purchase this book by clicking on the photo above, you help me fill the jar. Thank you!