The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books:
- Jason Matthews : Red Sparrow (New York: Simon & Schuster). A debut spy-thriller by a 33-year CIA clandestine service veteran, this book is well-written and gripping, with plot twists that are unexpected yet plausible. The book has placed the author in the same league of Le Carre and McCarry, and I recommend the book strongly. As so often with espionage and crime fiction, the main weakness is the characterization – the players are too busy doing things in the world for us to have a good sense of their personalities, especially so for the minor characters. Part of the reason for us having this sense, I think, is the sparsity of dialog through which we could infer a sense of personhood for each player. And the main character, Nate Nash, gets pushed aside in the second half of the book by the machinations of the other players. In any case, the ending of the book allows us to meet these folks again. Finally, I found the recipes which end each chapter an affectation, but that may be me. The author missed a chance for a subtle allusion with solo meal cooked by General Korchnoi, which I mis-read as pasta alla mollusc, which would have made it the same as the last meal of William Colby.
- Henry A. Cumpton : The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service. (New York: Penguin). A fascinating account of a career in espionage. Crumpton reports an early foreign assignment in the 1980s in an African country which had had a war of liberation war, where the US had a close working relationship with the revolutionary Government of the country: The only candidates that seem to fit this bill are Zimbabwe or possibly Mozambique. Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF Government was so close to the USA in its early years that the Zimbabwe Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) had only two groups dealing with counter-subversion: a group seeking to counter South African subversion and a group seeking to counter Soviet subversion. Indeed, so great was the fear of Soviet subversion that the USSR was not permitted to open an embassy in Zimbabwe for the first two years following independence in 1980.
The book has four very interesting accounts:
1. Crumpton’s perceptive reflections on the different cultures of CIA and FBI, which are summarized in this post.
2. The account of the preparations needed to design, build, deploy, and manage systems of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs, or drones) in Afghanistan. The diverse and inter-locking challenges – technical, political, strategic, managerial, economic, human, and logistic – are reminiscent of those involved in creating CIA’s U2 spy-plane program in the 1950s (whose leader Richard Bissell I saluted here).
3. The development of integrated Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for tactical anti-terrorist operations management in the early 2000s. What I find interesting is that this took place a decade after mobile telecommunications companies were using GIS for tactical planning and management of engineering and marketing operations. Why should the Government be so far behind?
4. An account of CIA’s anti-terrorist programs prior to 11 September 2011, including the monitoring and subversion of Al-Qaeda. Given the extent of these programmes, it is now clear why CIA embarked on such an activist role following 9/11. George Tenet remarked at the time (in his memoirs) that such a role would mean crossing a threshold for CIA, but until Crumpton’s book, I never understood why this enhanced role had been accepted at the time by US political leaders and military leaders. From Crumpton’s account, the reason for their acceptance was that CIA was the only security agency ready to step up quickly at the time.
- Paul Vallely : Pope Francis: Untying the Knots. (London, UK: Bloomsbury). A fascinating account of the man who may revolutionize the Catholic Church. Francis, first as Fr Jorge Bergoglio SJ and then as Archbishop and Cardinal, appears to have moved from right to left as he aged, to the point where he now embraces a version of liberation theology. His role during the period of Argentina’s military junta of Jorge Videla is still unclear – he seems to have bravely hidden and help-escape leftist political refugees and activists, while at the same time, through dismissing them from Church protection, making other activitists targets of military actions.
Bergoglio seems to understand something his brother cardinals appear not to – that the Catholic Church (and other fundamentalist and evangelical Christian denominations) are not seen by the majority of people in the West any longer as places of saintliness, spiritual goodness, or charity, but as bastions of bigotry, irrationally opposed to individual freedom and to human happiness and fulfilment. In its campaigns against gay marriage rights, euthenasia, abortion, and other private moral issues, the Church opposes free will not only of its own clergy and lay members, but also of other citizens who are not even Catholic adherents. Such campaigns to limit the freedoms and rights of non-believers are presumptious, to say the least. The Catholic Church does a great deal of unremarked good in the world, work which is sullied and undermined by the political campaigns and bigoted public statements of its leaders.
The book is poorly written, with lots of repetition, and several chapters reprising the entire argument of the book, as if they had been stand-along newspaper articles. The author clearly thinks his readers have the minds of gold-fish, since interview subjects are introduced repeatedly with descriptions, as if for the first time.
The photo shows one of the demonstrations of the The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, held weekly since 1977 to protest the junta’s kidnap, torture, and murder of Argentinian citizens. We should not forget that the military regimes of South America, including the Argentinian junta of Videla, were supported not only by the Vatican and most local Catholic clergy (with some brave exceptions), but also by the US intelligence services, including during the administration of Jimmy Carter.