"This book is surely the best portrait of the working C.I.A. we have had in many years." New York Times Book Review
The most riveting and inventive spy novel to come along in years, published as vetted by the CIA itself, An Ordinary Spy is a dramatic portrait of modern espionage, filled with suspense, intrigue, and betrayal.
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About the Author
Joseph Weisberg is the author of the critically acclaimed 10th Grade, which was a 2002 New York Times Notable Book. A former CIA officer, he grew up in Chicago and currently lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
An Ordinary Spy
By Joseph Weisber
Bloomsbury USACopyright © 2007 Joseph Weisber
All right reserved.
Several months before I was scheduled to leave for ***, I was assigned to the *** office in *** Division. Depending on scheduling and other bureaucratic considerations, new case officers ***. In my case, I was shipping out in August, so I would be in *** for most of the summer.
It was a busy time in ***, but the officers running country desks liked to handle their own work. They'd give me an occasional name trace to run, or have me coordinate a cable with another division. But I wasn't busy. I'd read the morning traffic-cables from the stations in ***, and whatever *** traffic was coming in. I'd stop by my friends' offices throughout the building or meet them for coffee in the cafeteria. And one or two days a week, I'd take care of various tasks I had to accomplish before going abroad, like *** and getting my final medical clearance.
Other than that, I spent a lot of time reading. I had a stack of books on my desk about the history and politics of ***, and I wanted to get through them all before I left. People at the Agency weren't really "book people," and when colleagues stopped by my cubicle and saw me reading, they'd usually chuckle or say, "Good for you," in a sort of half- admiring, half "I wonder if you really belong here" way. This was the same attitude I'd gotten from the Chief of *** when I'd needed him to sign off on an *** course I wanted to take at the *** Department. He'd said, "Nobody ever takes these," although after thinking about it for a few seconds he'd signed and said, "See if you get anything out of it."
One day, the Deputy Chief of ***, a bland, decent guy stuck at GS-13 or 14, called me into his office. There'd been some sort of routine request from Congress about *** and ***, and he wanted me to do a file review of all of the office's cases, active and inactive, going back five years, to find the information. He was apologetic about it, since even the words "file review" implied something wasteful and dull. But I didn't mind. I'd read a few case files while working on various matters, and they were an interesting window into the work I'd be doing once I went abroad.
The office's files were stored in long, low cabinets that ran the length of the wall between the Deputy Chief and the Chief 's offices. There were probably about *** of them, going back ten years. Inactive cases older than that were sent to Archives. *** labeled TRBALLOON, pronouncing both of the first two letters, and then the word. *** either typed on a label or written directly on the folder. They varied in length, with the longer ones filling two or three of the orange folders.
Over the next few days, I'd grab an armful of files in the morning, read them, take them back to the file cabinets, and get another batch for the afternoon. I really could have just scanned them to get the information I needed, but as I said, I liked reading them, and nobody particularly cared, or even noticed, how much time I was taking with the assignment.
Like all CIA employees in the Directorate of Operations (DO), I had a Top Secret clearance, which meant that I was cleared to see almost anything. Certain types of information required a special *** clearance- ***. But if you were working on something where that clearance was required, your boss signed a slip, you handed it in to Security, and a day later you had the clearance. It wasn't really a big deal.
There was the idea of "need to know," which meant that you shouldn't see, hear, or read about anything you didn't need to know about in order to do your job. But this was largely ignored. If you were sitting with a friend from a different division at lunch, you'd tell each other about the cases you were working on. You might not do it at a table of five people, but if your boss knew you were talking to other officers about your cases, he almost certainly wouldn't care. He did it, too. The environment was surprisingly open within the Directorate. And in a sense, learning about a wide variety of cases would help you understand your job better, so you could even make an argument that you "sort of needed to know."
In any case, I had no real need to know about the details of these cases I was reading. But I was cleared for them, and they were within my division, and even my office, so I didn't hide the fact that I was reading them much more carefully than I needed to.
Each of the files contained the cable traffic ***. In a lot of the cases, it was determined after a few encounters that the target wasn't susceptible to recruitment, or didn't have access to useful, classified information. These were the thin files. In other cases, there were multiple meetings, and a relationship developed that often produced some intelligence, but the case never turned into a full-blown recruitment. These files were a little bit thicker. Finally, in some cases, an agent was recruited and either run for a period of time or was still being run. These files could be anywhere from *** to *** pages, depending, presumably, on the Chief of Station (COS) and his attitude about Headquarters. Some COSs saw Headquarters as troublesome, bureaucratic, and meddlesome, and felt that only the broad outlines of a case should be reported. Others obviously encouraged their case officers (C/Os) to write in great detail about every aspect of a case, either because it forced the C/Os to be clear and rigorous in their thinking, or as a cover-your-ass maneuver in case something went wrong.
These more detailed files were, of course, the ones I liked reading the most. They were filled with cables that described operational meetings in great detail-what the target or agent was wearing, what their facial expressions were like, how they responded to what the case officer said and did. In just a few months, I'd be running meetings like this, and these real-world examples were an education in how much less formal and systematic the recruitment process was than the way it had been taught in training.
In addition to the operational cables, a file might or might not include intelligence reports. Unlike the other traffic, these ***. It was the information you were actually after when you recruited an agent in the first place. Whether there were a lot of them or just a few of them in the file depended on whether or not the officer at Headquarters in charge of the case was conscientious about putting them in. Most of the intel reports that were there were pretty dull, and it was hard to imagine them being that useful to an analyst. Friends in the Directorate of Intelligence (DI) had told me that the secret intelligence coming from the DO rarely had much of an impact on their analysis, and I could see why. On the other hand, there was an occasional nugget of information that seemed enormously important and useful.
About a week into the file review, I opened a folder labeled TDTRACER (all the cryptonyms, pseudonyms, and names in this book have been changed). The top cable was stamped ***, which was a complete surprise. My heart started racing a little bit as soon as I saw it. *** cables were more compartmentalized than other traffic, and normally they wouldn't be in a regular file. I hadn't seen any of these since starting at the Agency, except to sign for their delivery to the office once or twice. I'd certainly never read one. Arguably, I shouldn't read this one without getting clearance, but here it was in front of me, and I was supposed to be doing the file review.
The cable had originated in ***, where I was going to begin serving in about a month. I was, obviously, particularly interested in cases that took place there, especially more recent ones where the agent might still be active. The cable was dated June 2000, so it was certainly possible that it dealt with an agent who was still being run (this was the summer of 2002). Under the date was the normal range of headers- *** written by a C/O with the pseudonym Franklin D. McCelvoy and then the text of the cable, which ran more or less as follows (***) ***
AS PART OF ONGOING EFFORT TO DETERMINE THE WHEREABOUTS OF STATION ASSET TDTRACER, C/O FRANKLIN D. MCCELVOY RAN A 48-HOUR HOT WATCH OF *** EMBASSY. WATCH BEGAN 6/19/00 AT 2200 ZULU. WHEN C/O MCCELVOY ARRIVED AT WATCH SITE 6/20/00 AT 0800 ZULU TO RELIEVE HEADQUARTERS SPECIAL PROJECTS TEAM MANAGER GRIMES, HE WAS DEPLOYED AT *** IN CONTRAVENTION TO SPECIFIC INSTRUCTIONS GIVEN AT OUTSET OF OPERATION. VISUAL AND *** OBSERVATION GAVE NO SIGNS OF TEAM HAVING BEEN DETECTED.
FOR DURATION OF HOT WATCH, ALL PERSONNEL ENTERING AND EXITING EMBASSY WERE PROCESSED THROUGH *. ALL SUBJECTS WERE EMBASSY PERSONNEL OR FOREIGN NATIONALS WITH ESTABLISHED TIES TO EMBASSY. PICKED UP NO UNUSUAL ACTIVITY ON EMBASSY *. HOT WATCH PRODUCED NO INFORMATION ON TDTRACER. WHILE CONSIDERING FURTHER POSSIBLE COURSES OF ACTION, C/O MCCELVOY AND STATION BELIEVE A PROBABLE LIST OF EXPLANATIONS FOR TDTRACER'S STATUS INCLUDE: ACTION BY *** AS DIRECTED BY ***, IN DE PEN DENT ACTION TAKEN BY ***, OR POSSIBLY ACTION BY THE ***(THE CAUSE OF THIS WOULD BE AS OF YET UNKNOWN). ALSO POSSIBLE IS ACTION TAKEN BY TDTRACER HIMSELF. IF ANY OF THESE EXPLANATIONS ARE CORRECT, SUBJECT COULD CURRENTLY BE LOCATED IN *** EMBASSY IN *** OR NEIGHBORING COUNTRY WHILE UNDERGOING INTERROGATION, ***, OR ANYWHERE IN *** OR THE ***. STATION REQUESTS THAT HEADQUARTERS RERUN *** ON ALL INVOLVED PARTIES, INCLUDING TDTRACER'S FAMILY MEMBERS (ALL *** NAMES WHICH APPEAR IN TDTRACER'S *** FILE), COLLEAGUES IN THE *** EMBASSY, AND LOCAL *** OFFICERS. (APPRECIATE HQS RECENT TRANSMISSION OF ***). REGARDING C/O ANDREW L. SEEGRAM, C/O MCCELVOY AND STATION BELIEVE C/O SEEGRAM HAS KEPT HIS COMPOSURE AND BEHAVED PROFESSIONALLY. BUT STATION HAS SOME CONCERNS ABOUT HIS ABILITY TO BEAR UP UNDER THIS KIND OF PRESSURE IF IT CONTINUES. WILL KEEP HQS ADVISED IN *** CHANNELS.
This was the first case I'd read where there seemed to be any kind of real danger involved. Agents always took a serious risk by working for the Agency, but nothing bad ever seemed to actually happen. I went to the end of the file and started reading back to front, in the order in which the cables came in (new cables were added to the top of a file, so they ended up bound in their folders in reverse chronological order). TDTRACER was a *** national, working as a *** at the embassy in ***. A C/O with the pseudonym Andrew L. Seegram had met him at a conference the *** government had set up on foreign investment. He'd written TDTRACER up as a target with primary access to information on *** economic policy. But he'd also written that TRACER might develop into a source on terrorism (which was a hot-button issue at the time, even before September 11). *** was fighting a separatist movement in *, and their intel service, the *, collected extensively on worldwide terrorism. The hope was that TRACER might have, or might develop, intelligence ser vice contacts within the embassy, or come across some information simply by virtue of being in the embassy. It might have been a bit of a stretch, but adding terrorism to the targets a potential agent might work against helped ensure Headquarters' approval for pursuing a recruitment.
Seegram initially suggested to TRACER that they get together to discuss their respective countries' interest in a trade pact with ***. They had lunch, and when it went well, Seegram suggested they get together again. Over the course of several more meetings, they became quite friendly. TRACER was guarded when discussing *** and his work at the embassy, but that was to be expected. Seegram was concerned that TRACER might be an intelligence agent himself, developing Seegram for recruitment. Likewise, there was a possibility that TRACER might have been a double agent the *** was dangling. But these were always potential concerns, and as Seegram and TRACER spent more time together-primarily lunches and dinners at local restaurants-Seegram became increasingly convinced TRACER was neither an intel officer nor a double agent. Much of this was based on intuition, which is not considered a reliable guide in intelligence. But especially in the early stages of a recruitment, there often isn't much else to go on.
The cables went into less and less detail as the development of TRACER went on. Presumably, Seegram started to ask more and more questions about *** policy and what went on at the embassy, and TRACER responded. In a textbook case, TRACER would eventually cross a line where he was revealing things he should not have been. Seegram would continue to gently guide him down this path. Eventually a formal recruitment would take place.
However it did progress, a cable in December said that TDTRACER had been formally recruited. Subsequent cables ticked off the C/ O's standard work at this point. Seegram moved their relationship into a fully clandestine mode, moving all meetings to secure locations. He trained TDTRACER in the fundamentals of tradecraft, including ***. A form of payment was set up, *** by the case officer.
The operational cables now began to be interspersed with intelligence reports. There were three or four of them on *** economic policy, none spectacularly interesting but one or two containing information that seemed like it would have been of interest to analysts working on ***.
Seegram and TRACER had had five or six meetings since his recruitment, over the course ***, when the cable traffic written by Seegram suddenly stopped. Seegram's last cable detailed a fairly ordinary meeting at which ***. Then came McCelvoy's *** cable, dated two weeks later, in which he reported that TDTRACER was still missing and that the station was losing confidence in the case officer with the pseudonym "Seegram."
I went back to the file cabinet to see if there was another TDTRACER folder. Sometimes folders were misfiled, so I looked all through the cabinets, but there was nothing else there.
Back at my desk, I turned to McCelvoy's cable again. I found the line that was sticking in my head: "SUBJECT COULD CURRENTLY BE LOCATED IN *** EMBASSY IN *** OR NEIGHBORING COUNTRY WHILE UNDERGOING INTERROGATION, ***, OR ANYWHERE IN *** OR THE ***." It was quite a list of possibilities.
There was a contractor working in *** named William. There were a fair number of these guys around, retired case officers who got bored in retirement and came back to work desks in their old Divisions. William was more impressive than most of them. He was probably as close as there was to a George Smiley at the Agency, meaning he was extremely smart and highly compassionate. He also looked the part of the wise old hand, with white hair and square, chunky glasses.
William had taken me under his wing as soon as I'd arrived in the office. Everyone at the Agency was friendly-you called your bosses by their first names, and even the Chief of the Division knew my name. It was a requirement of the culture that you be nice, and people knew how to do it. But William's kindness felt more genuine. He asked questions about my personal life and talked to me about things that had nothing to do with the Agency. He went down to the cafeteria with me for lunch at least once a week. He even invited me to his house for an anniversary party where there were only eight or nine guests. Several of them were very high-ranking Agency officers, and William introduced me to them as "an extremely promising young C/O."
I was also fortunate because William's final tour before retirement had been as Chief of Station in *. I asked him endless questions about the operational environment and the people and the customs, and I felt the things I was learning would allow me to hit the ground running when I got there.
The day after I read the TRACER file, I went over to William's cubicle. He turned away from his computer and motioned for me to sit down.
"I'm working on the file review," I said.
"How's it coming?" he asked.
"Not bad. I'm getting there. I ran into this case-TDTRACER."
William nodded slightly.
"You remember it?" I said.
"Bobby Goldstein's case."
"He was the C/O?"
"Yup," William said.
"Andrew L. Seegram?"
"I think that was his pseudonym. It sounds right."
"You were COS then?"
"It's funny, the last cable is *. And it's by a different C/O. From the way it was written, I thought it might be from the DCOS"-Deputy Chief of Station-"or something. I hope it was okay that I read it."
Excerpted from An Ordinary Spy by Joseph Weisber Copyright © 2007 by Joseph Weisber. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a rather slow thriller. The author tried to tart it up as being from the CIA files by having parts of the text redacted. That starts out cute, but gets to be annoying.
It is a down-to-earth spy story, like those of Le Carre or even more so, which is great. It never really takes off, however, and the censorship gimmick (large parts of the text were censored out by the author himself and by the CIA) gets old and frustrating.
This is the first book I read after spending 6 weeks reading only Walden. I thought it was amazing for about the first 80 pages; then I realized that my enthusiasm was due in part to my relief at reading something other than Walden. After another 100 pages or so, I felt that all spy novels are about the same thing: the psychology, necessity (or not), practice, and morality of deception. This is an engaging exploration of that theme, although the postscript is not convincing.
This an otherwise slow and relatively dull story made harder to read by a multitude of redactions. Had the author chosen to forego those for straight fiction, the book might have had more of a chance.
This is a fast-paced page-turner that feels "real". Perhaps that is because the author is so well acquainted with the CIA. The book puts a human face on those who seek and those who give vital security information. The human tragedy of informants who are no longer useful is heart wrenching. I found the blacking out of classified information a bit distracting; a few chapters had so many passages censored that they made little sense.