The CIA Swamp in a Novel Nutshell

An ex-CIA man’s debut thriller dives deep into politics amid foreign threats

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How far would a U.S. government official go to protect secrets and maintain power in the belief that he or she was acting for the greater good? Would they risk their lives? Would they threaten the lives of others? In a divided country, seething with disinformation, who can we trust as the guarantors of American democracy? 

These are the questions raised by former CIA officer Jeff Grant in his thought-provoking debut spy thriller, The Swamp. Lest we harbor any doubts about which swamp we are referring to, the subtitle reads, “Deceit and Corruption in the CIA,” over a cover illustration of a White House sinking in the muck and flying an upside-down American flag, a symbol of distress. But this is a new twist on the Deep State nightmare. 

No subtleties here for Grant, an engineer who spent 21 years at the CIA and then two decades more at Northrop Grumman Aerospace. The two-pronged story line of The Swamp follows Elizabeth Petrov, a Russian-born engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. A gifted polymath and native Russian speaker, she has been recruited by the CIA to analyze the development of a troubling new Russian hypersonic propulsion  system. In the course of her top-secret  research, she stumbles upon shocking information about contacts between Russian officials and a certain U.S. businessman who has decided to run for president.  Who will listen to her concerns and what will happen?

Rings a bell, doesn’t it?

But Grant hastens to describe his novel, the first in a planned series, as “pure fiction,” and names no names—well, except for Vladimir Putin’s. 

“I will say without any equivocation, I know nothing in this book to be true,” Grant said in an interview with Spytalk. “It's just speculation and connecting dots and I'm sure somebody else might have another speculative outcome and connect the dots in a different way.”

In our hour-long conversation about plot points and exotic technologies, Grant said the esoteric tracking devices he introduces in his book were entirely made up, not based on any inside knowledge. He submitted his manuscript, as all former agency employees must, to the CIA’s pre-publication board, which did a quick turnaround, he says, without any deletions.

“I’m sure it went to the director of science and technology,” Grant said. “The folks there probably read it and said, you know, ‘He's crazy!’”

Not so crazy, though, in light of what we’ve been through over the past five years.  And that’s more than enough to rile the insurrectionist crowd. And then there’s this:  Among Grant’s fans is James Clapper, a MAGA boogeyman who served as Director of National Intelligence for seven years, until Donald Trump was sworn in on January 20, 2017. The Swamp may be fiction, but Clapper says it’s “permeated..with the aura of authenticity and realism.”  The book is “a spell-binding spy mystery which has an unnerving resonance with events of the day,” blurbs Clapper,  who early on spotted Trump as a national security threat.  

In his own memoir, Facts and Fears: Hard Truths About a Life in Intelligence, Clapper wrote that Trump’s “first instincts are to twist and distort truth to his advantage [and that] he pointedly refuses to acknowledge the profound threat posed by Russia.”  Since writing that in 2018, Clapper has also said that Putin "knows how to handle an asset and that's what he's doing with [Trump].”

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Dark Paths

Countless former CIA men and women have written about their experiences and concerns over the decades.. Before 9/11, most were set in the clandestine battles of U.S. and Soviet operatives during the Cold War.  Today, agency veterans of the wars in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq are spinning thrillers drawn from their experiences in the field. As an engineer, Grant’s approach hews to his own special expertise, with his protagonist focusing on analysis, tracking secret intelligence reports and real-time listening devices, all in a secure computer terminal at headquarters. He says he felt compelled to share some of his own misgivings about U.S. intelligence capabilities in analyzing emerging technological developments in Russia and China. 

“We're witnessing both the Russians and the Chinese going through very rapid developments in emerging technologies that I think are going to be effective against us,” he tells SpyTalk.  “They're going to catch people by surprise.”  Hypersonic weapons could be one of those arenas. 

Grant’s concern has popped up in recent news. While Putin’s toying with U.S. elections and his relationship with Trump drew most of our attention, he was also following through on public pledges, as early as 2018, that he was developing sophisticated new military technologies. Only now are they getting the attention they deserve, making The Swamp a very timely addition to the news accounts.  

The Russian president announced this month that testing is nearly completed for deployment next year of his country’s Zircon hypersonic cruise missile, part of a move to “create new hypersonic weapons systems, high-powered lasers and robotic systems that will be able to effectively counter potential military threats.” This week a ground-based Russian missile blasted one its defunct satellites into smithereens, scattering debris that created an instant mortal threat to the International Space Station and the seven astronauts onboard. 

Grant faults the United States for falling behind on such technologies. “And while we had our eye off the ball,” he said, “the Russians and the Chinese kept developing.”

 Or, as his protagonist Elizabeth Petrov says: “We’ve been far more interested in watching North Korea and Iran build the systems of yesterday than investigating the Russians  building the weapon systems of tomorrow.” 

Escape from the Cubicle

Her warning is authoritative, but she decides she can no longer be an academic in a cubicle analyzing throw weights and missile payloads. The “unscrupulous American businessman” (who remains unnamed throughout) has been elected president of the United States. She’s listening in to a caricatured Putin celebrating that night. “We have that prick by the balls,” the former KGB agent exults. “We have my bashka [Russian for chump] by the balls! We did it.” 

For the sake of the nation, Petrov concludes she must present  her findings to her CIA director, James Plummer. Plummer soon concludes that he can use the information to his own advantage. The only catch in his plan is that Elizabeth and her boss—and lover, Sandra Friedman—know too much. That sets up a  page-turning conclusion. I won’t give away what happens, but suffice it to say that Petrov survives her decision to speak truth to power. 

 Grant is already well into a sequel. He sees Elizabeth Petrov as a kind of female Jack Ryan, an analyst who is dragged out of the office and into action—a familiar formula that Grant has nicely reimagined. As a former CIA analyst himself, of course, he understandably thinks analysts don’t get enough credit, and he wanted to change the dynamic. His hero is a contemporary patriot, an immigrant and woman who might remind readers of foreign born whistleblowers we’ve come to know in recent years, like Fiona Hill and Marie Yovanovich. 

They deserve more attention, Grant says, especially those that fill the CIA’s cubicles without fanfare.

“One day you’re laboring in obscurity and the next day you’re called upon to brief the President of the United States,” he told SpyTalk. “I delight in celebrating these unsung heroes.” With luck, Jeff Grant’s Elizabeth Petrov might have the same fame. She deserves it.

SpyTalk Contributing Editor Peter Eisner is an award-winning reporter and editor, formerly at The Washington Post, Newsday, and the Associated Press.