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If Tom Clancy wrote a script for The Office.

Intelligence: A Novel of the CIA

Thomas Dunne Books, 2010, 320 pages

A team of intelligence agents tries to prevent an impending terrorist attack, but is thwarted by bureaucratic hurdles in this darkly humorous debut by former CIA agent Susan Hasler.

Maddie James and her colleagues are terrorism experts working in a crumbling intelligence agency. They are certain another big terrorist attack is coming, but in a post-9/11 election year, the administration is stressing its victories in the War on Terror, and few want to hear the team's warnings.

Maddie is given a team of five analysts to focus on the impending threat. The crew labors through bureaucratic obstacles, personal problems, and a blossoming romance between its senior members, Doc and Fran. They come heartbreakingly close to stopping the attack, but fail to predict a surprising twist in the terrorists’ plot.

In the wake of tragedy, the administration pins blame on Iran, despite a lack of evidence—so Maddie and her team try to investigate. With dark humor and a razor-sharp tone, they fight back against office politics, government cover-ups, and blackmail in order to set the record straight. A keenly crafted debut that could only be written by an ex-CIA agent, Intelligence will please fans of Wag the Dog and Primary Colors.

Most of us want to believe that, despite the partisan bickering and blame games and juvenile political pissing matches that go on every day in Washington, that somewhere in the bowels of our multi-billion dollar military-intelligence-industrial-corporatocracy there are actual grown-ups in charge, making the real decisions when the shit hits the fan off-camera.

Yeah, not so much.

In the wake of the spectacularly appalling yet so-bad-no-it's-still-not-funny Hostile Intent, a "novel of the NSA," I was really, really hoping that Intelligence: A Novel of the CIA would be somewhere within an astronomical unit of plausibility. After all, the author, Susan Hasler, actually was a CIA employee for 21 years.

This book is very, very plausible. And true to life. And so damn depressing. Oh, the author tries to make it funny, but while there is a certain amount of dark humor to be had, she was writing from a very dark and non-humorous place and it shows.

At least she does not hide her agenda. Hasler spells it out in the foreword: she resigned from the CIA in 2004 after she could no longer endure the politicization of the intelligence process, and the way that she believed the Bush Administration used, abused, and ignored actual intelligence in order to gin up a war with Iraq. Whether you agree with her viewpoint or not (though really, that much is not debatable; the degree to which certain administration officials and Deciders knew that they were acting on faulty/misrepresented intelligence may be), she presents a pretty realistic image of how things actually work in the cubicles of those three-letter agencies that we like to imagine are working 24-7 with the best and the brightest using the very latest in technology to stop terrorists. But as one character puts it, working for an intelligence agency is not like you see on TV where everyone is tracking realtime satellite imagery on high-tech monitors in a scene out of a Sharper Image catalog. Forget the pretty gym-toned young geniuses standing around in a "command center" that looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. The ones who know what they're doing are middle-aged career civil servants working in cubicle land and thinking about mortgages and sending their kids to college and their side hobbies like possum rescues, and maybe occasionally actually managing to do their jobs.

We, the disgruntled, are legion in the mines. We inhabit forgotten side shafts, hidden pockets, the underside of dislodged stones. By our own stubbornness, audacity, or foul luck, we’ve condemned ourselves in perpetuity to scuttle laterally through the vast intelligence bureaucracy, kept away from the controversial accounts, from the glass-walled upper reaches of management. We wallow in supposed moral superiority and thumb our noses at the eager climbers, glib accommodators, ass-licking yes men and women who pass us on the stairs. We’re bitter, wise, and irreverent. We know where the bodies are buried and have the don’t-give-a-damn gall to joke about it. They never let us brief the Esteemed Legislative Body. They would fire us, but we might write books.

Intelligence is a multiple-POV story. The main characters are a group of "alchemists" (intelligence analysts) who work in "the mines." Hasler describes government agencies and institutions using satirical pseudonyms: instead of the NSA, FBI, and Congress, there is the Ear, the Organ, and the Esteemed Legislative Body. Likewise, Hasler describes the inner workings of the Agency and "the mines" with just enough obfuscation and wordplay to get her book past pre-publication review. Our heroes are cubicle-dwellers working in a windowless basement trying to track and outguess terrorists, still haunted by the intelligence failures of 9/11. Hasler adds human interest by giving each character a quirky inner life: Maddie collects coffee mugs from the units of all her military flings; Vivian is a licensed possum rehabilitator; Vernon is a G. Gordon Liddy wannabe; "Doc" is the aging gentleman scholar who has the hots for Fran, whose son is a Special Forces airman she's trying to fix up with Maddie. It's like The Office, if The Office took place in an intelligence agency and everyone was (mostly) a grown-up.

Along with the alternating first-person narratives of these five protagonists, we get a few written from the POV of a Muslim jihadist who is preparing a second attack in the U.S. He's smart and educated and a great actor with a talent for imitating accents. He relates how in the wake of 9/11, white folks would come up to him and ask "Why do you hate us?" And he'd grin and in a good ol' boy Southern drawl, say, "Why, I don't hate you, ma'am! I'm mad enough to spit myself!" And they'd smile and go away. And he'd think about how much he hated them. He's the bad guy, but he's convincing because he sounds so reasonable, so American, so normal... until he calmly talks about how much he wants to make unbelievers suffer and die.

Equally disturbing, though slightly more comical, are the occasional pretentious excerpts from a book being written by one of the alchemists' managers: "Musings from an Unquiet Grave." He fancies himself a heroic figure standing astride history, legs spread wide apart, and he hates the alchemists, hates his fellow Americans, and echoes the Roveian sneer at the reality-based community. He's supposed to be funny, but reading between the lines, it's pretty clear that, just like Maddie's boss, the cowardly, toadying, evangelical Christian who turns out to be having an affair with Maddie's mother, Hasler is almost certainly caricaturizing someone she actually worked with. Susan Hasler probably did not actually have a Bible-thumping supervisor who slept with her mother, but I'd be willing to bet there are people who recognize themselves in Hasler's novel, and were meant to.

I'm all for a good bit of vengeful satire. Some of the best snarky political humor is pure axe-grinding. And I found all these characters believable.

The book becomes a lot less humorous when the terrorists actually execute their attack. In the wake of another horrible mass casualty event, the alchemists are the ones being hung out to dry for their intelligence failures, and it becomes increasingly clear that the administration wants to go to war with Iran, even though there is no evidence that Iran was behind the attack. At this point, the plot becomes Maddie and her crew trying to get the truth before the Esteemed Legislative Body and the public before the U.S. starts another unnecessary war.

I liked this book overall. The plot was quite suspenseful, both in the days leading up to the terrorist attack, as the main characters almost succeed in figuring out what is happening in time to prevent it, and afterwards, when they are being dogpiled by everyone from their bosses to the administration, and preventing a war hangs on acquiring one little piece of evidence.

That said, while the environment Hasler describes is probably more accurate than you want it to be, she does stretch plausibility a bit here and there, sometimes for the sake of humor and sometimes to plant her knifemake her point. I think she was trying to tell an entertaining story and she did a fair job of balancing humorous and grim, but there were points where her white-hot rage burned through at the expense of the storytelling.

So read this book and consider it somewhat believable, but not too, too believable. One hopes.

Verdict: This is why intelligence agencies hate it when former employees write books. Intelligence: A Novel of the CIA is a fast-paced story that is both a humorous satire of government work and a political thriller about terrorism and just how badly we don't fight it. It would have been better if it had been more funny and less author-working-out-her-issues, but notwithstanding the sharp axe and the made up bits, it may be more eye-opening than you think.



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 28th, 2011 12:56 am (UTC)
Wait a minute, you're saying the CIA is incompetent? Be still my beating heart...

But seriously, I'm now highly tempted to read this book.
Nov. 28th, 2011 12:41 pm (UTC)
Very interesting. Now I'll have to look into this as well. But only after 'The Mossad: Israel's Secret Intelligence Service: Inside Stories'. Country still comes first, after all, and I'd like to know a bit more about our successes and failures.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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