Spies, Terrorism and Russia on a Lazy Sunday

New, recent, and forthcoming books, films and TV shows provide a feast for national security professionals and addicts

I don’t know about you, but the common practice now of news organizations posting a deluge of important stories online days ahead of their appearance in print has largely made the Sunday papers largely irrelevant for me. Except….

Except for the book reviews, which I still much prefer to digest leisurely in print along with my Sunday eggs Benedict, home fries, a sliced tomato and a Bloody Mary. (Alas, with autumn upon us, the opportunity for savoring such lovely comestibles in socially distanced outdoor cafe seating will soon be all but extinguished (except for the maskless and foolhardy). A gas fireplace and a comfy couch will have to suffice.)

But I digress. Here’s what I’m reading and watching, or hope to soon, in the espionage and national security realm. A few have been out for awhile; others are soon to arrive in stores or on screen. So take it as an ICYMI. No doubt you, Dear Reader, will ping me with overlooked titles or complaints about my choices. Fine, bring it on.Let’s get a conversation started. Until then, here are a few of my choices.

First and briefly, because it’s happening this week: Agents of Chaos, a two-part HBO documentary film on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, “with revelations confirmed by the recently released Senate Intelligence Committee report, and an urgent warning to Americans in the lead-up to the 2020 election,” according to the HBO release.  Because it’s directed and produced by the artful, authoritative and prolific Alex Gibney, you know it’s at least going to be well worth watching, if unlikely to get much notice amid the torrid news environment. You can see a gripping preview of the September 23 show here

Quick Clips: The Trial of the Chicago Seven, coming October 16, starring Eddie Redmayne, Alex Sharp, Sacha Baron Cohen and Frank Langella, among others, as the colorful anti-Vietnam War defendants, their lawyers and prosecutors. 

Why should anybody care about a half-century old trial? In an era when the Trump administration is threatening to prosecute leftist and Black Lives Matter protesters on sedition charges, I’d argue that the prosecution of the defendants on charges amounting to inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic Party convention is uncannily timely. Produced and directed by Aaron Sorkin, C-7 promises to be a lively, probably nostalgic take on the rebellious Sixties, but no less a healthy reminder of how authoritarian presidents go overboard.

But was it torture?

Speaking of new relevance, one of the most important books of the season, largely overtaken by recent events, is a new, unredacted version of former FBI counterterrorism agent Ali Soufan’s memoir, The Black Banners: How Torture Derailed the War on Terror after 9/11. For many years, the managers of the CIA’s so-called Enhanced Interrogation program, chiefly José Rodriguez, head of the agency’s Counterterrorism Center, have claimed that the slapping, boxing up with insects, “walling,” sleep depriving, waterboarding and the like of terror suspects not only “worked,” they prevented future attacks and breakthroughs in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.  

Investigations by the Senate Intelligence Committee and CIA inspector general  blew holes in such assertions, which were aided by the agency’s heavy hand of classification, including swaths of blacked out passage in the 2011 edition of Soufan’s book. Yet Rodriguez and his allies have continued to heap scorn on Soufan and his testimony that building rapport with the captured Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, in particular, not only gleaned valuable intelligence and prevented attacks but that the CIA’s later repeated torture of him produced little if anything. 

(In Chris Whipple’s otherwise valuable book,The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future, Rodriguez calls Soufan “a dick.” That alone speaks volumes.)

Now, however, with Soufan’s book unredacted in a new edition, readers can judge for themselves who’s telling the truth. And there’s no doubt now who it is.

SpyTalk checked in with the former FBI man, whose Soufan Group has been issuing a steady stream of important reports on terrorism and extremism, a few days ago.

“I think he has no credibility on this,” Soufan says of Rodriguez. “He has been lying his ass off continuously on these issues. And I think the fact that the book has been un-redacted now is very bad timing for José because...people can look at the facts that have been [previously] classified on national security grounds.” (For more, easily digestible details about the coverup, see the 2019 docu-drama, The Report.

Why do we care? Constant claims by Rodriguez & co., amplified by such hit movies as Zero Dark Thirty, not to mention President Trump himself, keep reinforcing the notion that torture not only works, it’s preferable to the elicitation techniques long practiced successfully by Soufan and the FBI. It’s worth considering, especially if Trump is re-elected and appoints even more toadies to run U.S. intelligence. 

And how, by the way, is the once vaunted “war of terror” going? On 9/11, Soufan told SpyTalk, Al Qaeda “had probably about 400 members...Today the membership of al-Qaeda is probably about 40,000 and it's spread all over the Muslim world.” The Islamic State has proved resilient, too, across the continents.

Back to the future

Another new book that revisits the past with  implications for the present is Robert Draper’s To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq. The catastrophe began, of course, with a tragically wrong conclusion by the CIA that  Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. 

The Los Angeles Times’s Bob Drogin, himself author of an important book on the run-up to the Iraq invasion, noted a while back that, “Two decades on, there are no new headlines to be pulled from the toxic personal and policy disputes of the Bush era.” So why now? Because “Draper has written a compelling narrative of just how calamitous an ideology-first approach to fact-finding can be in the White House, and why Americans were so badly deluded.”  

Today, we hear echoes of that in the Trump administration’s bellicose approach to Iran and China (though not so much on North Korea, much less Russia). 

Douglas London, a recently retired former senior CIA operations officer, worries that today’s CIA leadership is bending to the will of an ideologically driven White House yet again.

“It would seem that despite Trump’s record in bullying, berating, and investigating the United States Intelligence Community, when it comes to Iran, the CIA’s leaders have been among the enablers of his more hawkish tendencies,” London wrote recently for the Middle East Institute, in a rare frontal attack from a senior insider on the agency’s director, Gina Haspel. “They have instilled in him the confidence that ‘maximum pressure’ is winning,” London wrote. 

“I’ve been critical of Gina,” London added in an interview with SpyTalk, “because she’s smart, competent and knows better. What bothers me is how she's chosen to stick with Trump and put her ambition above the mission and our agency. By doing this, she has unfortunately continued to compromise the agency's integrity in terms of what it does, how it does it, and its responsibility to the nation.”

Speaking of Iran, a new memoir by former Israeli Mossad boss Shabtai Shavitt, Head of Mossad: In Pursuit of a Safe and Secure Israel, includes a fascinating account of his time undercover there from 1966 to 1968.

And speaking of compromise, former FBI agent Peter Strzok, the poster boy for “deep state” malfeasance against Trump and his allies, describes in his new book a chilling scene at headquarters in early 2017 when top officials gathered to discuss the unnerving web of contacts between Trump, his campaign aides and the Russians.A white board on the wall listed them all, starting with “DJT”: Paul Manafort. George Papadopoulos. Mike Flynn. Carter Page.

“All had something in common,” Strzok writes in Compromised: Counterintelligence and the Threat of Donald J. Trump: “we had received credible counterintelligence allegations against each individual.” They thought it was “conceivable, if unlikely” that Russia was somehow controlling Trump after he took office, that he was a “Manchurian candidate” installed as America’s commander in chief.

To his critics (and not just Trump fanatics) Strzok and the FBI were guilty of anti-Trump overreach, not to mention troubling shortcuts and bureaucratic incompetence in their investigations. Readers can judge for themselves on that score. But anybody who thinks covert Russian operations here are a mirage manufactured by anti-Trump partisans is living in an alternate universe, as other chapters in Strzok’s book demonstrate beyond a doubt. Given the curious facts at the time, ignoring what looked like a longtime Kremlin campaign to cultivate the President of the United States and a number of his aides would’ve amounted to counterintelligence malpractice.

The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett, meanwhile, is out this week with a startling new take on the FBI and the Hillary Clinton emails, October Surprise: How the FBI Tried to Save Itself and Crashed an Election. In an excerpt in Sunday’s paper, Barrett offers a riveting and troubling account of what happened following FBI agent John Robertson’s discovery of some “600,000+” Clinton emails, “20 times more emails than [FBI Director James] Comey testified to,” on the personal laptop of Anthony Weiner, the disgraced husband of Clinton’s top aide Huma Abedin. When his report up the chain on his discovery earned only “crickets,” he suspected a fix was in. If it was, it soon enough unraveled, throwing a last-minute hand grenade into Clinton’s campaign. The resulting fandango, worthy of thriller, delivered the election to Donald Trump.

Ghosts in the wires.

If you haven’t had enough of “Russia, Russia, Russia,” as Trump likes to say, say, say, maybe pick up The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age, by David Sanger, the longtime national security correspondent and senior writer at The New York Times. Sanger revisits the Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee, but there’s a bigger, more important story,” at work here, as the Wilson Center think tank in D.C. put it: “Within that same year, the Russians not only had broken into networks at the White House, the State Department, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but had placed implants in American electrical and nuclear plants that could give them the power to switch off vast swaths of the country.” And in case you haven’t noticed, there’s a vast, dangerous cyber war going on, beyond the mind space of most Americans, among Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. I guess we’ll know when the lights go out and the ATMs stop working.

Have a nice week. More books and movies—some even reaching back to World War Two spy cases—next Sunday, inshallah.

Share SpyTalk