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The Spy Who Couldn't Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code, and the FBI's Hunt for America's Stolen Secrets
     

The Spy Who Couldn't Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code, and the FBI's Hunt for America's Stolen Secrets

4.7 3
by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee
 

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A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

The thrilling, true-life account of the FBI’s hunt for the ingenious traitor Brian Regan—known as the Spy Who Couldn’t Spell.
 
Before Edward Snowden’s infamous data breach, the largest theft of government secrets was committed by an ingenious traitor whose intricate espionage scheme

Overview

A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

The thrilling, true-life account of the FBI’s hunt for the ingenious traitor Brian Regan—known as the Spy Who Couldn’t Spell.
 
Before Edward Snowden’s infamous data breach, the largest theft of government secrets was committed by an ingenious traitor whose intricate espionage scheme and complex system of coded messages were made even more baffling by his dyslexia. His name is Brian Regan, but he came to be known as The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell.
 
In December of 2000, FBI Special Agent Steven Carr of the bureau’s Washington, D.C., office received a package from FBI New York: a series of coded letters from an anonymous sender to the Libyan consulate, offering to sell classified United States intelligence. The offer, and the threat, were all too real. A self-proclaimed CIA analyst with top secret clearance had information about U.S. reconnaissance satellites, air defense systems, weapons depots, munitions factories, and underground bunkers throughout the Middle East.
 
Rooting out the traitor would not be easy, but certain clues suggested a government agent with a military background, a family, and a dire need for money. Leading a diligent team of investigators and code breakers, Carr spent years hunting down a dangerous spy and his cache of stolen secrets.
 
In this fast-paced true-life spy thriller, Yudhijit Bhattacharjee reveals how the FBI unraveled Regan’s strange web of codes to build a case against a man who nearly collapsed America's military security.

INCLUDES PHOTOGRAPHS

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
09/19/2016
Journalist Bhattacharjee skillfully touches all the bases in recounting the story of Brian Regan, who pilfered reams of top secret information from his job at the National Reconnaissance Office and offered to sell them to foreign governments. Regan stole more secrets than Edward Snowden would over a decade later, but few have heard of him because he was quickly caught and imprisoned. Bhattacharjee covers Regan’s unsatisfactory life. He was mired in debt and unpopular at the NRO. In 1999, after studying the techniques of other spies, Regan concocted a bizarre scheme. The result: in 2000 the Libyan consulate received three separate letters containing a sample of secret documents and pages of codes that, when deciphered, described his offer. Sadly for Regan, an informant forwarded them to the FBI, who soon identified him through bad spelling and several clumsy errors. Regan’s arrest was straightforward. Far more difficult was recovering his immense buried cache of documents and other materials, because he had forgotten many of the complex codes needed to locate them. Readers may skim the explanations of Regan’s codes, but they will thoroughly enjoy this fast-moving account of a failed spy who, despite his incompetence, easily filched thousands of secrets. Agent: Lydia Wills, Lydia Wills. (Nov.)
From the Publisher
“An excellent, highly engrossing account of the search for a man who was cunning, avaricious—and a dreadful speller…. It is a pleasure to be in the hands of a writer who so skillfully weaves his assiduous research into polished prose…. The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell presents an estimable, thoroughly enjoyable overview of espionage in the digital age.”—The Wall Street Journal

“Yudhijit Bhattacharjee has brought to light an intriguing tale of espionage and betrayal—a tale filled with twists and turns and powerful revelations.”David Grann, New York Times Bestselling Author of The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

“Brian Regan was an all too human spy, a trailblazer in the digital age—a mole who managed to squirrel away thousands of classified documents—and a brilliant, dyslexic cryptologist who was caught in part because he couldn’t spell. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee has penetrated the FBI and other parts of the intelligence community to write this fantastic true story—a captivating, gracefully-written narrative that is destined to become a classic in the history of code-breaking.”Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize-winning Author of The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames
 
“The cat-and-mouse espionage tale at the heart of The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell is so strange and so riveting that you can’t help but marvel at every turn. Enriched by years of painstaking reporting and a keen eye for detail, Yudhijit Bhattacharjee's true-life page turner explores not only the complexities of modern spycraft, but also the ways in which humans can lose their moral bearings. This is a book to be savored as an expertly crafted thriller, and pondered as a nuanced meditation on the banality of evil.”—Brendan I. Koerner, Author of The Skies Belong to Us and Now the Hell Will Start

“A riveting, fast-paced account of how modern computer forensics and cryptography, combined with old-fashioned detective work, caught a most unusual spy. The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell is a real page-turner.”David Wise, Author of Tiger Trap: America's Secret Spy War with China

The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell is a propulsive read about an insider whose betrayals we’d do well to remember. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee combines his talent as a top science writer with a gimlet eye for intrigue to sculpt a rich, suspenseful narrative.”—David Willman, Pulitzer Prize-winning Investigative Reporter for the Los Angeles Times and Author of The Mirage Man: Bruce Ivins, the Anthrax Attacks, and America’s Rush to War

“Like the FX show The Americans in a contemporary setting, or a John le Carré novel, The Spy Who Couldn't Spell is the dramatic nonfiction story of the pursuit, capture and conviction of United States spy Brian Patrick Regan. . . . Alongside news of WikiLeaks, Snowden disclosures, the Panama Papers, The Spy Who Couldn't Spell is as real as it gets. Cryptography, hard drive scrubbing, server spoor tracking, old-school surveillance tails and wiretaps, psychological profiling and high-definition courtroom drama: Bhattacharjee tells a story that would make a kickass movie.” —ShelfAwareness

“Readers… will thoroughly enjoy this fast-moving account of a failed spy who, despite his incompetence, easily filched thousands of secrets.”—Publishers Weekly

“The author offers a compellingly seedy portrait of Regan, motivated to contemplate treason due to debt, career stagnation, and marital malaise....A well-written...tale of thwarted amateur treason underscoring the disturbing vulnerability of today's intelligence systems.”—Kirkus Reviews
 
“In his first book, Bhattacharjee...will leave readers wondering whether classified information from the U.S. government is always vulnerable to being sold, for the right price....Readers interested in spy thrillers, cybercryptology, and the history of U.S. espionage will find this book to be both entertaining and helpful in understanding today’s complex landscape of leaked classified information.”—Booklist

“What distinguishes this real-world chronicle from similar others...is the author’s humane perspective...Recommended for spycraft buffs and general enthusiasts of U.S. intelligence operations and psychosocial factors behind espionage.”—Library Journal (starred review)

“A gripping tale and a powerful case for spell check.”—Esquire

Library Journal
★ 10/15/2016
When FBI agent Steven Carr received a FedEx package from the New York field office, he didn't suspect its contents would consume his every thought and action. Via a confidential source at the Libyan consulate, Carr held a number of oddly coded letters written by someone claiming top-secret clearance with the CIA and offering gravely sensitive data about U.S. spy satellites, air defense, locations of Middle East underground bunkers, and more—for a hefty price. Journalist Bhattacharjee (staff writer, Science) writes of how, from December 2000 until shortly before 9/11 (and years after catching the perpetrator), Agent Carr's team, various intelligence analysts, and code-breakers spent hours unpuzzling seeming nonsense scripting the whereabouts of downloaded, printed caches hidden by one Brian Patrick Regan—a doltish, ill-socialized worker with the highly secretive National Reconnaissance Office. Regan's dyslexia, hence muddled spelling, might have forever obscured his identity. What distinguishes this real-world chronicle from similar others (James Bamford's The Shadow Factory; Glenn Greenwald's No Place To Hide) is the author's humane perspective. VERDICT Recommended for spycraft buffs and general enthusiasts of U.S. intelligence operations and psychosocial factors behind espionage.—William Grabowski, McMechen, WV
Kirkus Review
Sept. 6, 2016
The account of an eccentric would-be traitor who executed a large-scale heist of American military secrets.In his debut book, Science staff writer Bhattacharjee focuses on cryptographic science and the doggedness of investigators involved in the improbable story of Brian Regan, an embittered Air Force security specialist who decided to pad his retirement by offering classified intelligence to Libya. Although an informant contacted the FBI, Regan had constructed a complex scheme using encrypted ciphers to hide his identity. As the author notes, “Lifting that veil of anonymity was going to be a daunting task.” Bhattacharjee reconstructs Regan’s suburban childhood to discern the roots for his moral lapse; he notes Regan, suffering from dyslexia, was mocked by peers for appearing simultaneously dense and clever, a lifelong pattern persisting through his one-man conspiracy. The author offers a compellingly seedy portrait of Regan, motivated to contemplate treason due to debt, career stagnation, and marital malaise. “As long as he could get away with it, espionage was a legitimate answer to his troubles,” the author concludes. Relying on extensive research and interviews, Bhattacharjee re-creates Regan’s brazen acquisition of bulk intelligence and cinematically documents his pursuit by Steven Carr, a driven FBI agent, with exciting tradecraft set pieces of surveillance and covert entries. But the narrative’s pace slackens halfway through, when Carr apprehends Regan in 2001 prior to an overseas trip to solicit Iraqi or Chinese spy agencies. The author focuses on the details of the government’s aggressive prosecution as well as Regan’s use of cryptography in his audacious fail-safe: he’d buried classified documents in various state parks. However, this negotiating tactic only hardened the government’s resolve, in keeping with the post–9/11 national mood; ultimately, Regan was convicted of attempted espionage and received a life sentence. In exchange for consideration for his family, Regan helped retrieve his caches, resulting in dark comedy when he was initially unable to decipher his own cryptographic clues. A well-written, mostly engrossing tale of thwarted amateur treason underscoring the disturbing vulnerability of today’s intelligence systems.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781592409006
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
11/01/2016
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
38,367
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)
Lexile:
1200L (what's this?)

Meet the Author

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee is an award-winning writer whose features and essays on espionage, cybercrime, science and medicine have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Wired and other U.S. magazines. Yudhijit spent 11 years as a staff writer at the weekly journal Science, writing about neuroscience, astronomy and a variety of other topics in research and science policy. His work has been anthologized in the Best American Science and Nature Writing series. Yudhijit has an undergraduate degree from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and a master's in journalism from The Ohio State University. He lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C., with his wife, his two children and a big red dog.

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The Spy Who Couldn't Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code, and the FBI's Hunt for America's Stolen Secrets 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
scull17 6 months ago
I received a copy of this book from Goodreads Giveaways. A very engaging account of the FBI’s hunt for stolen government secrets. The thief, Brian Regan, was working with “Top Secret” clearance at the NRO (a US intelligence-gathering agency so secretive and shadowy, the American public did not know of its existence for decades) when he decided to sell classified intelligence to Libya, Iraq, Iran, and China: an act of treason that could have had a devastating and deadly impact on American military and compromised the security of the US itself. Bad as that was, his reasoning behind the crime he was committing was also misguided; unlike some spies who were motivated to become moles in the first place because of political or nebulous moral issue against the US, Regan was doing it solely for money. So why do I still feel sorry for this traitor? Perhaps it’s the underdog against The Man aspect of the book; perhaps it’s Regan’s unhappy childhood: the bullies, the abusive alcoholic father, the humiliations he suffered due to dyslexia (the stigma following him well into adulthood where coworkers brushed him off as stupid and slow) and his own efforts even as a child to compensate for the disorder; perhaps it’s his own lawyers’ decision to ironically use his learning disability as a defense during his trial: telling the jury their client is too stupid to possibly pull off a sophisticated and difficult espionage; perhaps it’s the harsh sentence in the end. Lastly, I recommend that people read the “Acknowledgments” section of this book; typically this part is just a whole bunch of names where authors thank everybody and their momma; it’s almost like actors when they win an Academy Award: they go up on stage, then subsequently go on and on and on about every person they’ve ever known since the day they were born. Anyway this is not that. We learn in this section the tragic yet inspiring fate of the lead investigator of the case against the spy who couldn’t spell.
onemused 5 days ago
“The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell” is one of the best non-fiction books I have read in a while. Although it is recapping past events, it reads like a fiction novel, uncovering piece by piece how the FBI uncovered the attempted espionage of Brian Regan and the steps leading up to Regan’s choices/inability to sell America’s secrets (thank goodness). The book covers motives, events, and explains how cryptologists worked on the codes/how they are typically used. It was really fascinating. The book gives in-depth information about Regan’s life and events but also gives some tidbits about the investigators which leads into why things happened and played out the way they did. There were parts that made me laugh out loud, parts that really made me think, and parts that flowed so beautifully it is possible to forget it was non-fiction. The book begins with the opening of the case and goes all the way through prosecution/trial. I really enjoyed every minute of it! This is a really fascinating book- for people who love FBI/CIA, espionage, cryptology, and/or history! Everything flows so beautifully and is really well explained. I’d highly recommend this book! Please note that I received this book through a goodreads giveaway. All opinions are my own.
Anonymous 10 months ago
he Spy Who Couldn't Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code, and the FBI's Hunt for America's Stolen Secrets is a rarity. It is a non-fiction book that reads like a Jason Bourne spy thriller. It is that compelling. In 2001, Brian Regan was a former Air Force sergeant working for the agency in charge of our nation’s spy satellites. He took a walk in a D.C. park and buried thousands of hyper-sensitive documents dealing with China, Libya, Iraq, Iran and China. He planned on selling these documents to the highest bidder. Regan had been trained in cryptanalysis and used this skill to deceive and perpetrate his acts of treason. When he was detained and questioned the investigators found numerous papers containing random words and numbers. Over time multiple codes were cracked and Regan was convicted of attempted espionage. The Spy Who Couldn't Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code, and the FBI's Hunt for America's Stolen Secrets is a most interesting read. It is scary because it reveals how vulnerable we are to anybody who has the desire, ability, and ambition to damage the United States. I heartily recommend this book. It is fascinating and revealing. As to why the book is named what it is, that is a mystery that can only be solved by buying the book.