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It’s A Mystery: “God was not an intelligence officer.”

By (August 1, 2011) No Comment


By David Ignatius
Norton, 2011

David Ignatius is an award-winning journalist who began his newspaper career covering the Middle East for The Wall Street Journal. His first novel, Agents of Innocence (1987) grew out of that experience. It is a fascinating account of the relationship between the CIA and the PLO amid the political turmoil of the Middle East. The novel gives us an insight into American
foreign policy and the place of an intelligence organization in
its implementation. We are shown the difficulties a case officer faces in an operation and the bureaucratic pressures imposed upon his methods. It was critically acclaimed as a debut novel
of exceptional quality whose authenticity was chillingly real. Ignatius said that his novel “parallels the real history of the Middle East during the 1970’s, and the CIA-PLO relationship is similar to one that really existed. But the characters are imaginary.” It’s a refrain he has stuck with through seven more novels including this latest. It is, of course, an unlikely story.

Since 1986, Ignatius has been a foreign-affairs columnist for The Washington Post. He has spent a quarter-century covering the CIA and the Middle East. His new novel, Bloodmoney, is a breathtaking, heady roller-coaster ride up and down the corridors of power from Washington to London to Pakistan, the novel’s main focus. In a recent interview Ignatius calls Pakistan “the most interesting and potentially dangerous place on the globe today—it’s a place where you can’t be sure what, if anything, is true.” The novel offers a nuanced view of Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal culture often at odds with the larger Punjabi population. (The reader cannot ignore the fact that Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, is now the very place where the diplomatic dust is still settling from the American commando raid in nearby Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden. A current fact that lends extra depth to Ignatius’s portrait of a place where intrigue is synonymous with breathing.)

Bloodmoney takes us under the roof of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) headquarters in Islamabad:

Inside this house of secrets was the office of the director general, …a soft-spoken man named Mohammed Malik….A lieutenant general, his authority didn’t come from his rank in the army, but from his control of information. …General Malik knew more than the people around him….He was not an imposing man, at least in the way of a military officer….It was easy to forget that he was in fact a professional liar….To say that the Pakistani was playing a double game did not do him justice; his strategy was far more complicated than that.

A “double game” is, in fact, the leitmotif of Bloodmoney. The old CIA is seen as a train wreck. Their personnel are at war with each other almost as much as with the enemy. So the new president, post-9/11, has decided to change “the most reviled three-letter acronym in town.” He creates a new agency for covert action operating well beyond the reach of headquarters. Called “The Hit Parade”, it is located in the San Fernando Valley, chosen for its lack of proximity to Washington. This firm according to its Dun & Bradstreet profile sells international music and television rights. Actually, the Hit Parade minions roam the globe under deep cover with bags of cash and unorthodox marching orders: buy peace in the borderlands, warlord by warlord. Even better, it is self-funding. It feeds economically sensitive intelligence to a London hedge fund (chosen with great care by the very select powers that be) and rakes off the lion’s share of the profits, thereby rendering itself completely invisible to Congress and the public.

Escorting us into this marketplace of deception is Sophie Marx an agent whose impressive clandestine accomplishments in Beirut got her pulled by a division chief who lost his nerve. After languishing for two years in a high level but boring desk job, she is hand plucked, so to speak, by Jeffrey Gertz, the man chosen to run this nefarious Parade. His nickname had been “Killer” when he joined the agency fifteen years before:

Gertz believed in lying; that was part of his special aptitude for the job. That was the message of the Chinese quotation framed behind his desk under the big picture of the Twin Towers. It was a passage from Sun Tzu that he had studied after September 11. The translation wasn’t written down, but Gertz had memorized it: “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

(Aside: Ignatius fans, myself among them, have noted in more than one critique that the Ignatius plots follow the precepts dictated approximately 2500 years ago in Sun Tzu’s Art of War.)

Sophie Marx is now Gertz’s “chief of counterintelligence.” For some reason secret organizations like to give out amorphous titles which can never be printed on any calling card. (According to Ignatius, ISI operatives answer their e-mail!) Sophie’s assignment is anything but amorphous. The Hit Parade has sprung a large leak. Its operatives have begun to disappear. Sophie must plug the leak before all of Hit Parade’s people are wiped out or the rest of the world discovers the illegal things they’ve been doing.

As Ignatius asserts, “If a job were simple and above board, then some other entity of the government could take care of it, intelligence officers are supposed to do the twisty thing.”

To keep an eye on everything the Hit Parade was doing, Headquarters selected one of its crustiest old secret warriors, a man named Cyril Hoffman.

He was the associate deputy director, the all-but-invisible number three position in the agency….He was from a famous CIA family, which had sent cousins and uncles into the agency for generations …Nearly everyone at the CIA owed him a favor, as did people in many other parts of the government as well….He knew the real secrets that kept the place running…He understood power was not one big thing, but an accumulation of little things.

Although famous for keeping his head down, Hoffman is something of a dandy, and when dressed to the nines “He looked like an art-history professor at Sarah Lawrence College.”

“If you sup with the devil, you must use a long spoon.” Spies often sup, sometimes without the spoon. Ignatius says of the Pakistanis “They sup with the devil, claiming they’re debriefing him.” But cozying up to the enemy is a fine spook tradition, one that has given me a lot of reading pleasure. Ignatius has Hoffman and Malik, “the intelligence barons” supping like “two old friends making statements the other was quite sure were false.” Lest you think I’m spoiling the suspense, there is a long way to go in Bloodmoney before I can even begin to do that.

I beg to digress, back to days of yore, to Brian Garfield’s Hopscotch (1975) to be exact, which I called “a compelling thriller.” In Hopscotch, Miles Kendig, a CIA veteran is forced to retire, and decides to play his own game and outwit the CIA, KGB and FBI. He threatens to expose the espionage secrets of the major powers and makes himself the target of an international manhunt. Miles is a most endearing whistleblower whose chummy relationship with the head of the KGB, Yaskov, is one of the best portrayals of cozying up I’ve encountered. Hopscotch was made into a fast and funny film in 1980 with Walter Matthau as Kendig and Herbert Lom (who better?) as Yaskov. Garfield wrote the script and it in no way diminishes the novel.

Speaking of uneasy alliances, Hoffman sets Sophie up with Malik, “my source” on the general’s turf in Islamabad:

“My source is in contact with the people who have been killing your colleagues. He tells me that he is prepared to help us, and I believe him. But you are the person who will take the risk.”

“That doesn’t bother me. People in that part of the world are always playing a double game. It goes with the territory. I learned that in Beirut.”

In Islamabad Sophie and Malik play cat and mouse. Things spin out of control. Events occur that none of the players saw coming.

Her security was in the hands of someone she didn’t know and had little reason to trust… But she wasn’t sure where the truth lay anymore. Sometimes it was indeterminate; the closer you got to it, the more you disrupted its pieces, so that it changed its shape and position. The truth wasn’t straight. It had bends and curves…. History was a recording that played continuously, so that you did not realize it was the same song, over and over.

‘Twas ever thus. At least in a novel of espionage so skillfully rendered by one so knowledgeable it is impossible to sort fact from fiction. With Bloodmoney, David Ignatius is at the top of his form.

A coda I can’t resist. At the end of the novel, before he catches his flight back to Washington from London, Cyril Hoffman asks Sophie Marx to come to breakfast at the Travellers Club on Pall Mall. “It was his home away from home, he said: lots of food, badly cooked, and eccentric old men who appreciated the medicinal benefits of alcohol.” Well, I was privileged to lunch there a few weeks ago with some wily, charming rogues who mentioned that the club was a haven for spies. Men could sit on those well-worn leather chairs for weeks imbibing and never talk to one another. I wonder why Hoffman doesn’t mention the spy angle to Sophie. Surely it’s something Ignatius knows about. An interesting sin of omission!

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.