Recent reading 2: Spooks

For the record, herewith brief reports of recent reading of books on espionage:

  • Michael Holzman [2008]:  James Jesus Angleton:  The CIA, and the Craft of Counterintelligence. (Amherst, MA, USA:  University of Massachusetts Press).   A fascinating topic, not given justice in this poorly-written account.  Sentence without verbs.  Not fond of. I.   The author claims to have undertaken interviews with key players (although I only noticed one reference to such an interview), but the book is almost entirely written from secondary sources.    This means it has no new insights.  On some issues, the book is not up to date – eg, on the Nosenko affair, the author seems not to have seen Bagley’s book (see below), published a year before.  The writing is very vague about dates (a rather important failing for a writer of a history book), and lots of information is only provided en passant;   for example, we only learn about Angleton’s first child well after its birth.   Perhaps that is an editor’s failing, as much as an author’s.  There are worse problems:  the author appears to have a very unsophisticated understanding of marxism (p. 103), and his description of the Bay of Pigs invasion puts all the blame on Bissell and colleagues (p. 187), when some of it rightly belongs in the White House, including with JFK himself.    Relying on secondary sources and without new insights, Holzman could have shown us how Angleton’s literary training helped him in the world of intelligence.  Despite repeated claims that his literary education did help, we are not ever shown it doing so, nor given a detailed explanation of how it helped.   To show us this, Holzman would have needed to provide a detailed presentation of at least one theory of intelligence and counter-intelligence; this is something that would have been very interesting and very useful in itself, yet is also lacking from the book.
  • Tennent H. Bagley [2007]:  Spy Wars:  Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games. (New Haven, CT, USA:  Yale University Press).  An insider’s account of the Nosenko affair, which I have blogged about here and here.  Bagley argues compellingly that Yuri Nosenko was a KGB plant, not a genuine defector.   From this he concludes that CIA should not have accepted him as a genuine defector.  As I argue, it is not certain that CIA did in fact accept him as such, despite what it looks like, and the benefits of accepting him (or appearing to accept him) may have outweighed the costs.  An intelligence agency needs to think through the wider consequences of its beliefs and of what are believed by others to be its beliefs, in addition to considerations of simple truth and falsity.
  • S. J. Hamrick [2004]:  Deceiving the Deceivers:  Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess. (New Haven, CT, USA:  Yale University Press). Hamrick argues that British intelligence knew that Philby, Burgess and Maclean were Soviet agents several years before their public exposures, and during this period used them to securely transmit messages — both information and disinformation — to the Soviet leadership, knowing it would more likely be believed if it came from the Soviets’ own agents.  If Holzman’s book about Jim Angleton (above) had included some discussion of theories of intelligence and counter-intelligence, this is just the type of case that such a theory would seek to account for.    The (alleged) facts of Hamrick’s book are fascinating, but the book itself is poorly-written, repetitious, acronym-rich and comes with added right-wing tirades.  There are even anti-Catholic tirades against the novelist Graham Greene and —for goodness sake! — the poet-priest Robert Southwell SJ (p. 32), who was executed in 1595.  These tirades are not only out-of-place here, but replete with errors.   One has to wonder at the immense power of a Catholic missionary that he can still provoke such an irrational rant four centuries after his murder by Elizabeth’s police-state. I am certainly one of Southwell’s admirers (see, for example, here), but there cannot be more than a score or two of people alive who even know of him.
  • Valerie Plame Wilson [2008]: Fair Game:  How a top CIA Agent was betrayed by her own Government. (New York, USA:  Simon and Schuster).  Published with CIA redactions shown.   Very well-written and her life story is fascinating.  Shame about her Government.
  • Tim Weiner [2007]:  Legacy of Ashes:  The History of the CIA.  (London, UK:  Allen Lane).  The best single-volume history of CIA, at least as far as an outsider can judge.  Well-written and thorough, although I would have liked more on Africa.  On page 80, Weiner claims the only two successful CIA-sponsored coups were both executed under Eisenhower, but what of Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire in 1965 (see Devlin’s book below), and Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973 (and perhaps Malcom Fraser in Australia in 1975)?
  • Larry Devlin [2007]:  Chief of Station, Congo:  A Memoir of 1960-67.  (New York, USA:  Public Affairs).  An insider’s account of the role of CIA in putting Mobutu into power in Zaire.   Having once met Mobutu, I found this account fascinating, although, of course, I have no idea how honest or comprehensive it is.
  • Markus Wolf  and Anne McElvoy [1997]:  Man Without a Face:  The Autobiography of Communism’s Greatest Spymaster. (New York, USA:  Public Affairs).   A riveting read, which I read in a single day.  Markus Wolf presents himself, I am not sure how sincerely, as a reform Communist, an admirer of Andropov and Gorbarchev.
  • David C. Martin [1980]:  Wilderness of Mirrors. (Guildford, CT, USA:  The Lyons Press).  A detailed account of the relationship between Jim Angleton and Bill Harvey.  Well-written and an easy read.  However, the chronology of the events in the George Blake affair (pp. 100-102) is inconsistent.
  • Milt Beardon and James Risen [2003]:  The Main Enemy:  The Inside Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB. (New York, USA:  Ballantine Books).  Although mostly riveting, I skipped over the history of 1980s Afghanistan.   Reading of KGB watching CNN during the attempted coup of August 1991 to learn what has happening was very amusing.   The book would have been better if more had been included on the post-1990 period:  just when events get interesting, the book ends.

Recent reading 1

In a world more perfect than this one, I would have time to write lengthy reviews of the books I’ve been reading recently.  In this world, all I have time for is a brief mention.

  • Tristam Hunt [2009]: The Frock-Coated Communist:  The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. (London, UK:  Allen Lane).  A superb and sympathetic biography of Engels, written by an historian very empathetic to the rise and culture of 19th century industrialism.   My only (minor) criticisms arise from Hunt’s infrequent, but jarring, use of slang (a failing common in English-educated writers under 40, I have found) and the occasional reference to something which the author thinks he has mentioned previously, but has not.  Perhaps the editor was asleep.
  • Ian Leslie [2009]: To Be President:  Quest for the White House 2008.  (London, UK:  Politico’s).  An account of the 2008 US Presidential election by British journalist Ian Leslie.  No surprises for those of us who followed the race as it happened, but well-written, and good to have on record.
  • Charles McCarry [1995]:  Shelley’s Heart. (New York, USA:  Overlook Press).  A riveting political thriller from this master writer of espionage, about an attempted take-over the US administration by the extreme left through mostly constitutional means.    Well-written, and almost devoid of implausible events or inconsistencies.  (On page 304, in the one slip I found, we read of “both Presidents’ eyes”  in a scene where one President had already left the room.)  The main implausibility concerns the very nature of the conspiracy, which seems to have been prepared for years in advance, yet depended on the chance nomination of one person to the Supreme Court. Surely, truly-serious plotters would not have left step 1 of the masterplan to the whims of people outside the circle.  The characters, however, especially those on the left, are mere caricatures, and lack the greater depth which McCarry’s spy-fiction regular participants typically reveal.   Although he seems to have tried hard to appear politically neutral in this book, it is clear from this (and from his other novels), that McCarry’s own sympathies are with the right.  He also does not like modern art.
  • Helen Vendler [1997]:  The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Cambridge, MA, USA:  Belknap Press).  A superb commentary and detailed analysis of Shakespeare’s masterwork, which I have read, one sonnet and commentary per day, over the last half-year or so.   There is no question, after reading this, of the intellectual, linguistic and emotional heft of the Sonnets.    It is undoubtedly Marlowe’s best work!