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Is the CIA bad or merely misunderstood?

By Peter Coates - posted Wednesday, 18 January 2012


In response to this month's OLO Feature seeking reviews of favourite books from Christmases past, or present I offer three intelligence novels by David Ignatius. They are Agents of Innocence, Body of Lies and The Increment. Washington based Ignatius is disliked for his balanced coverage of the CIA and likely wide range of contacts in it.

As someone interested in intelligence matters I'm constantly in search of fiction that (probably) paints a realistic picture of the espionage business. Comparative authenticity is informed by (probably monitored) online contact with current or former security officers who have cropped up from four countries since 2005.

David Ignatius has the best handle on routine espionage (case officer relations with agents to produce intelligence) work that I've seen so far – especially his Agents of Innocence published in 1987. Ignatius' broad knowledge of the CIA has however drawn criticism, from perhaps jealous journalists, that he is a mouthpiece of the CIA. US columnist (and super blogger) Glenn Greenwald dubbs Ignatius "the CIA's spokesman at The Washington Post".

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Ignatius is highly educated (Harvard and Cambridge University) a successful journalist (an editor of The Washington Post) and a successful writer (nine published novels, one made into a movie).

Ignatius however fails to place himself within the large herd of CIA critics whose ritualised(?) aversion to the CIA is only matched by their ignorance of the CIA, government workings and diplomacy. Automatic aversion to McDonalds and most things American probably runs concurrently. Ignatius fails to dismiss the CIA based on the oft-regurgitated menagerie of the CIA's (probably small proportion of) sins usually situated in Latin America in the nineteen seventies and blowback from (jointly) training al Qaida in the eighties. Worse still Ignatius matches broad knowledge of the CIA with an ambivalently critical attitude towards it.

Ignatius' novels bring out intelligence as more about people, discussion, planning and process (in the direction of John le Carré) and less about the late Ian Fleming's gun toting, serial womanising, James Bond formula. However Ignatius has come to realise that a wider readership as well as movie viewers ultimately crave violence, hence Ignatius' intelligence novels have evolved from understated realism to a higher proportion of action.

According to contacts formerly or currently in US security the trick is to work quietly under the radar and not create international incidents. Ignatius first attracted the attention of espionage aficionados in 1987 with Agents of Innocence. Agents of Innocence is the tale of a CIA officer operating out of the US Embassy in (then war-torn) Beirut who skilfully uses agents well disposed to America to gain access to the terrorism plans of the PLO's peak leadership. This CIA officer also enjoys good relations with the PLO's usual enemies: Lebanese Christian militia groups and Lebanese Security Intelligence. There are interesting sub plots about the strains on his family life. The book builds a vivid picture of complexity, danger and amorality experienced by the CIA case officer and his agents.

While Agents of Innocence was a critical success and perhaps quietly praised by intelligence professionals there may have been insufficient shoot-em-up violence to turn this book into a movie.

Ignatius succeeded in bringing his second intelligence novel Body of Lies (2008) to the big screen but the novel itself does not approach the authenticity of Agents of Influence and the plot is a leap of belief in the end.

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His third intelligence novel The Increment (2010) combines authenticity, character development and paramilitary action to attract a wider audience and movie prospects. This presents the scenario of an Iranian scientist at the very heart of Iran's nuclear weapon's program sending Top Secret emails to the CIA website (which incidentally is at https://www.cia.gov/cgi-bin/comment_form.cgi). An MI6-SAS paramilitary team must then enter Iran to talk face to face with the scientist to prove the reliability of his information. This is all in the context of a short countdown before the US launches airstrikes on Iran's nuclear infrastructure in the cause of world peace, of course. What happens next is surprising and resolved by buying the book.

Throughout his first three intelligence novels Ignatius is clearly dissatisfied with painting Muslim characters as stereotypical Mad Mullahs or Jihadist bombers-to-be. Instead he portrays individuals whose motivations and lifestyles are much more nuanced and complex.

In The Increment Ignatius delights in pithy sentences such as (page 166):

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About the Author

Peter Coates has been writing articles on military, security and international relations issues since 2006. In 2014 he completed a Masterís Degree in International Relations, with a high distinction average. His website is Submarine Matters.

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