Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Story Behind the Story:
“Twice a Spy,” by Keith Thomson

Author Thomson standing in front of a military drone called the MQ-9 Reaper at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. He writes: “Note my ID badge hung behind me for the photo, so that terrorists who see the picture can’t copy the coding and sneak onto the base.”

(Editor’s note: This new entry in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series comes from Alabama author and former newspaper cartoonist Keith Thomson, whose second novel, Twice a Spy [Doubleday], enjoys its official release today. It’s the sequel to Thomson’s 2010 thriller, Once a Spy, which made the New York Times’ bestseller list. In addition to penning fiction, Thomson writes about intelligence and other matters for The Huffington Post.)

People always ask me: Were you in the CIA?

Usually it’s the first question in the Q & A after a public reading. More than once, I’ve heard it afterward, from a guy lurking outside the bookstore. And I understand: I write CIA-intensive spy novels and I report on national security with a focus on the CIA.

Always, I answer: No.

To which they say: But if you were in the CIA, of course you’re going to say no, right?

Me: Not necessarily. I would be proud to have served in the CIA.

Them (now convinced I’m a spook): Or you’d say that.

They have a good point.

Just this one time, if only so we can move on to the real subject of this essay--how my books were inspired by my ex-girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend’s father, whose name I don’t know and whom I’ve never met--I’ll tell the whole, unexpurgated story. As long as we keep it on The Rap Sheet, OK?

Here it is:

I was in the CIA.

On the night of December 13, 2008.

For a conference.

The highlight came during the reception afterward: I got to share a drink with the director of the agency at the time, General Michael Hayden. Actually, we each had our own drink.

Sources like General Hayden have informed my writing, but no one has been more influential than the aforementioned dad.

Here’s how that happened:

I was once dating a young woman--let’s call her Bridget--whose prior boyfriends were a Big 10 All-Conference quarterback, one of the youngest Fortune 500 CEOs in history, and a comparably successful venture capitalist whose long list of abilities included fluency in six foreign languages. I suffered from comparisons to this Murderers’ Row of boyfriends until Bridget told me something that happened when the venture capitalist took her home to Virginia to meet his family the previous Thanksgiving.

Sadly, Alzheimer’s disease had sent his father into retirement in his early 60s. The older man had managed office equipment manufacturing plants for--let’s say--Xerox, in a slew of foreign countries. While living abroad, with his son soaking up cultures and languages en route to becoming a worldly sophisticate, the father demonstrated Archie Bunker-level xenophobia, meanwhile going to great lengths to watch NFL broadcasts and procure six-packs of Budweiser. Always, he adamantly stuck to speaking English.

As a result, during that Thanksgiving dinner in Virginia, the dozen friends and family members gathered around the table were surprised when the father began speaking French.


Taking in all the eyes big as plates, he switched to German.

Like a regular Kaiser.

Evidently, xenophobic Xerox plant manager and Bud Man had been a cover.

Bridget’s account led me to wonder what the CIA does when its operatives lose the ability to retain important secrets.

From books (really), I learned that enemy intelligence services mount incredibly elaborate operations just to have a conversation with CIA officers. But once that officer has leaped from the passenger seat of a speeding car, been replaced by a jack-in-the-box-style pop-up replica of himself in order to dupe the FBI agents surveilling him (the CIA’s Edward Lee Howard actually did this), and been spirited to a safe house, where he is talking a classified blue streak, the bad guys can’t be altogether sure what’s actionable intel and what’s calculated misinformation.

It’s easier and more efficient to go after spies whose mental governors aren’t functioning properly. Accordingly, U.S. intelligence services keep close tabs on them. I interviewed a longtime CIA operations officer, who told me that whenever someone is going to be in situation where he might inadvertently babble, as little even as being under anesthesia at a dentist’s office, there’s always a “babysitter”--an agency-dispatched minder--present to make sure he doesn’t divulge classified information. On top of that, family members monitor disabled officers, with specially screened doctors and hospitals on the case.

But what happens when the officers retire or otherwise leave the fold? It turns out that there are so few long-term cases of inadvertent babbling that no official countermeasures exist--no babysitters, no tracking system, no satellite-based surveillance with recognition software that sounds an alarm at Langley when a retired operative is approached at a lunch counter or the shuffleboard court by a Chinese Ministry of State Security agent.

Another CIA Clandestine Service veteran told me that with older operatives, keeping secrets is practically ingrained. You also have to take into account the relative sensitivity of their secrets: Generally, when these men and women leave the field, they spend years consulting for the CIA or for outside firms. During that time, the sources and methods that they’re obliged to keep secret change at a head-spinning rate. When the former spies’ minds begin to fail, decades have passed, at which point they could dictate their memoirs to Chinese agents and cause little damage, if any.

But there are some retired spies, ripe for the plucking, with minds still chock-full of valuable intel. Like William Colby. He was director of the CIA from 1973 until 1976, then remained actively involved in national security matters. On the afternoon of April 27, 1996, he went canoeing by himself near his Maryland home. That evening, the canoe was found, but he wasn’t. After just an hour without a trace of him, the intelligence community feared the worst: Enemy operatives had him in a covert interrogation facility.

A week passed, with investigators failing to turn up so much as his paddle. Were inquisitors from one of the other teams taking their time extracting secrets from the relatively fragile 76-year-old?

Colby’s body turned up in the water two days later. Although suspicion of foul play ran rampant, an inquest established that he had suffered a heart attack or stroke and fell out of the canoe, dying from drowning or hypothermia.

What if the suspicions have merit, though? Along the same lines, what if someone like Bridget’s ex-boyfriend’s father went for a stroll on his country lane in Virginia one afternoon and didn’t return? Alzheimer’s sufferers sometimes depart for the corner deli and, weeks later, are found halfway across the country. The ex-boyfriend’s dad might still be close enough to his espionage days that he could rattle off entire rosters of American operatives abroad to captors, compromising operations and costing lives. Alternatively, as a consequence of his condition, the old spy might spew erroneous information and even outright fantasies, and his captors might take it for gospel-grade intel. It could prove to be the counterintelligence coup of all time for the United States.

Then again, what if the worst-case scenario transpired? That question intrigued me enough to write two novels about a spy in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease--Once a Spy and Twice a Spy, both published by Doubleday. In them, ex-CIA operations officer Drummond Clark is seen as a risk to leak an especially ultra-classified secret, to anyone, be it the hot dog vendor on his Brooklyn street or an enemy spy disguised as a hot dog vendor. So his former colleagues decide it best to neutralize him (that’s spook parlance for “kill him”).

This is fiction, of course, but it contains a significant portion of reality--I talked to a wide array of international intelligence community personnel ranging from a temp at the National Security Agency to the director of the CIA, General Hayden, plus several spies so bright and dashing and heroic that I would bet at least one of them dated Bridget. And all of this was strictly research, much as I might wish it had been conversation while ducking bullets in the course of a clandestine op.

* * *

GET YOUR FREE BOOKS RIGHT HERE: Thanks to publisher Doubleday, we have five free copies of Keith Thomson’s Twice a Spy available to Rap Sheet readers. To enter this latest book-giveaway competition, you need only e-mail your name and snail-mail address to jpwrites@wordcuts.org. And please be sure to write “Twice a Spy Contest” in the subject line. Entries will be accepted between now and midnight next Monday, March 14. Winners will be chosen at random, and their names listed on this page the following day.

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