An Ordinary Spy
VTR Date: January 17, 2008
Author Joseph Weisberg discusses his novel "An Ordinary Spy."
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GUEST: Joseph Weisberg
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And though over the long history of this program we’ve talked about books and with authors a good many times … the books weren’t often works of fiction, nor my guests often novelists. For which, I suppose, shame on me.
But today we’re rather breaking the mold … for my guest is author Joseph Weisberg, and his “An Ordinary Spy” has been described by a New York Times reviewer as a “beautiful new novel”, by a Washington Post reviewer as a “…well-written and interesting novel, a low-key corrective to all the razzle-dazzle spy tales we’ve read”…and I think it’s one heck of a good read.
Besides, for news geeks like myself, this book obviously is very much about the REAL world … about our own Central Intelligence Agency, where my guest trained and worked in the 1990’s.
Indeed, former CIA counterintelligence Chief James Olson writes about this novel, “Most so-called spy fiction out there today is so far from reality that we pros don’t read it. Joseph Weisberg is a notable exception. He nails it. “An Ordinary Spy” captures perfectly the spy world I lived in my whole career, how we talk, how we think, and how we operate … His book is the best spy story I’ve read in years.”
But with such praise for “An Ordinary Spy” … for its grasp of “the real thing” … I still must begin today by asking my guest why he got into the CIA in the first place … and then, of course, why he got out. Joe, I know that you have restrictions on what you can say and can’t say as a former CIA agent, but I don’t want to know what they are …
HEFFNER: … you’re going to have to point them out as we go a long. So, I’m simply …
WEISBERG: Fair enough.
HEFFNER: going to ask why you got in and why you got out?
WEISBERG: Right. Well, it’s … I think it’s one of those stories that has so many different answers that I, myself, sometimes wonder which is the right one. I’ll tell you what I told myself at the time. I was working in Chicago as a job counselor, working with Soviet immigrants, helping them find jobs, and I was bored. I just didn’t like what I was doing very much, I would sort of get up every morning and not look forward to work. And I saw the years stretching out ahead of me … I was, I guess, 24 years old … and I just … I wanted to do something more exciting, more fun … and I thought … “What would it be? What could I possibly do?”
I’d studied Soviet history in college, I was interested in foreign affairs, I’d loved James Bond movies ever since I was a kid … suddenly it seemed like here was this crazy thing … somebody did it … why not me? Why shouldn’t I try that?
So, that was … that’s one part of what happened. Sort of what I told myself at the time. When I look back now, I would say it has a couple of other sides to it.
One, is I can blame another novelist … it’s not often you can do that, blame another novelist for what you did. But I think John le Carre got inside my head when I was a kid and started working around in there, and by the time he was done I wanted to join the CIA.
I read these … The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the trilogy about George Smiley, I read those all when I was about 12 years old. I fell for them so hard. I loved the stories. I loved the books, I loved the characters … they were filled with these sort of … these very valiant, intellectual men … you know, really brilliant men, who were sort of tough in ways that were very appealing to me. They were very smart, but they could kill somebody with their bare hands, things like that. Which to a 12 year old was … I mean even now there’s a little bit of that …
WEISBERG: … but to a 12 year old it was really appealing. And, I think that that … the world le Carre writes is a very complicated place. I’ve re-read those books recently, and now it seems much darker to me. A place that, if I read those books now … I would never want to be involved in … all the betrayal and the sadness and the tragedy that takes place.
But for a kid … oh, it lit me up. I just loved it. And I … I’m not saying I processed this consciously … but I think that got into me at a young age and really made me want to be a spy.
HEFFNER: Did you find all of that, when you did get in … go into the CIA?
WEISBERG: I would say I found something close to none of it.
HEFFNER: “Something close to none of it”?
WEISBERG: Yeah. Maybe, maybe none of it. Maybe I should go all the way and say I found none of it. I like to say that there was about two weeks … after joining … you know I joined the Agency with a group … we all joined together at the same time. And I like to say that about two weeks in, we simultaneously realized that there was no James Bond there. Nothing like James Bond. We were in a bureaucracy, it wasn’t going to have any kind of that glamour or anything like that. And we sort of as a … and nobody said this … you could just sort of see it in people’s eyes … and we had to kind of adjust to that disappointment.
And after that adjustment we all had sort of turned a corner and become bureaucrats. There was still a question of was there le Carre? I mean, of course, there wasn’t going to be James Bond. You were sort of hoping for it, but … you know … you knew better. But was there going to be le Carre? Was there going to be a George Smiley? Somebody brilliantly manipulating and pulling strings and use very complex operations … not the derring-do of James Bond …but the intellectual, thought-out complicated operations that would be protecting US national security … saving people’s lives, doing all these wonderful things.
And after three and a half years there … it took a while to be more certain about that … but after three and a half years there, I felt there was really none of it.
HEFFNER: Are you sure you’re not fronting for the CIA now …
HEFFNER: … and making it sound oh, so dull to take the, the onus, take the burden off of what the CIA does?
WEISBERG: (Laughter) Well, it’s funny. You know friends of mine accuse me of still being in the CIA. And I say, “Well, if I were still in the CIA I wouldn’t say that I used to be in the CIA because that would be a lousy cover.”
And then they say, “No, that would be the perfect cover”. And I, I can’t quite make up my mind. Maybe that’s right.
But, no, I don’t think I’m trying to… I don’t think I’m fronting for them. No.
HEFFNER: Well, you found that James Bond wasn’t anywhere to be found …
WEISBERG: Right. (Laugh)
HEFFNER: … at the scene. Nowhere? No experience in the CIA, not even talking about your own?
WEISBERG: Well, the … you know, there’s certain things that I really … I was there for three and a half years … I was primarily in training. And after the training I stayed and worked at headquarters on a couple of different desks, and I left before going on my first assignment abroad. So I have to say I didn’t serve abroad. But I spent all my time working on things, from headquarters, that were being done abroad. I saw what was being done abroad. So I don’t think it was going on there either. The only little tastes would be …you know … that you sort of touch the glamour a little bit; some of the training’s fun.
You know, it’s fun to shoot all these different kinds of weapons. And it’s fun to kind of dress up like you’re in the military and have paramilitary training. And part of you … part of me felt at the time, ‘Oh, there is some glamour here.” But, I don’t know … it didn’t … it doesn’t last.
HEFFNER: So what does the title mean? An Ordinary Spy?
WEISBERG: Well, what I wanted to do from the start with this book was write an extremely realistic spy novel. So, as you can tell from everything I’m saying … not only was it going to be … it wasn’t going to be James Bond, it wasn’t going to be le Carre either.
I love le Carre, I practically worship him, but his novels are not realistic. And he says this himself. He says that they are “authentic” meaning they feel real to the reader. But having served in the British Intelligence Service, he admits, himself, that they’re not really realistic. They also, in their own way, are glamorized … or if not glamorized, they at least construct these sort of elaborate plots where things matter more than what’s actually going on in the real world of espionage.
So I wanted to write a novel that was stripped of all that, that really showed what goes on in cases, typically run by the CIA and by cases … I mean where a case officer goes out, develops and then recruits a foreigner to work as a spy for the US government. What that involves, how it takes places and almost most importantly, what kind of information that spy then provides to the case officer to transmit to the CIA, to transmit to the policy makers.
Because that’s … really the proof is in the pudding. Is that information any good or not? And again, as you can tell from what I’m saying, all the intelligence I saw when I was at the CIA, I thought was close to worthless. And so I wanted to show a novel where these very intricate human interactions were taking place.
I mean just imagine two people, over the course of many months … one of them without admitting who he is … without admitting that he works for the CIA … he slowly, subtly trying to manipulate this person and get him into a position where he can ask him to become a paid spy for the US government.
That’s good drama, right? And, and then show what happened when it, when that recruitment actually takes place, what kind of information flows … (clears throat) … excuse me … what kind of danger is or isn’t taking place for everyone involved in that. The reality of it, I think, has a fascination of its own, without the glamour. It’s, it’s a … it’s fascinating as two people interacting with each in a way that you don’t normally see.
HEFFNER: Now, you’re a novelist, you’re not a CIA member anymore …
HEFFNER: What’s your objective? What was your objective in writing the book?
WEISBERG: I think to …
HEFFNER: To write a novel?
WEISBERG: Yes. But I think to tell a story that I don’t think has been told. That, that’s probably why I said to myself I want to write the most realistic spy novel. I didn’t think a story like this had been told before. And I’ve continued to sort of look around … I found some things … there’s a wonderful old Somerset Maugham novel called Ashenden, which I have to admit is pretty realistic as far as it goes.
It’s not a … I don’t think it’s a book that too many people read anymore.
But generally speaking, in terms of the CIA, there have been a lot of novels about the CIA. And a fair number of books by ex-CIA officers as well, including fiction. But I didn’t think that anybody had quite portrayed it the way it actually takes place. And that’s what I wanted to do.
HEFFNER: Now, you took the glamour out of it. That’s certainly what you did. Is there glamour in it?
WEISBERG: Ahem … I, I think just the illusion of glamour. You know I have a scene in the book where the newly minted case officer goes off to the foreign country that he’s going to be serving in … which I’m not saying because …
HEFFNER: Redacted …
WEISBERG: … it’s redacted …
HEFFNER: … it’s redacted …
WEISBERG: … never learn the name of that in the book. And he goes to this cocktail party where he’s going to toil for potential recruits … right … see if he can find anybody who seems like they’d be important in their local government or something of the sort, who could maybe come work as spies for the CIA, after a lengthy developmental process.
And he gets to the cocktail party and it’s at the mansion of this very, very wealthy member of the local aristocracy … I’m catching myself not to give away the name of the country and say it by accident because I don’t want to say it. And it’s, it’s like a castle, really, and it’s at night and there would be security guards roaming all around on horseback and there are torches lighting up the scene. And he goes in and there are all these beautiful women and these Army officers and he thinks to himself, “This is it. This is what I thought it was going to be like. This was my glamorous image of what a … what it would be like to work in the CIA, to go places like this.” And they really, it really does look something like a, a scene out of a movie or a James Bond movie … the fancy cocktail party.
You know, half an hour later, he hasn’t been able to meet anybody, he feels awkward about walking around alone, he’s getting a little bit tipsy, he’s socially more awkward than he’s supposed to be. Things aren’t playing out the way they’re supposed to play out in kind of the fantasy. So, I’d say there are little touches, little traces of the feeling of glamour. I mean and I guess we could get into the question of … “Is glamour a real thing at all, anyway?” But I’d say not that.
HEFFNER: Well, listen don’t … don’t … don’t downplay it. He gets to sleep with this beautiful woman.
WEISBERG: (Laughter) You know well he could have done that without joining the CIA? Couldn’t he have?
HEFFNER: Well, you make it sound as though it’s part of the CIA routine.
WEISBERG: (Laughter) It’s funny. There’s a point where he’s trying to figure out, after he sleeps with the woman he’s developing to be as an asset … he’d like to eventually recruit her. And after, after he sleeps with her … he’s trying to figure out if … how much trouble he’s going to get in. Because you’re really not supposed to sleep with someone who you’re developing as a … who’s a target for recruitment. That’s supposed to be very separate … those two things. So he’s trying to figure it out.
And he thinks to himself, “Well, you know, CIA officers do this all the time. I think.”
WEISBERG: “Do they?” And he realizes he doesn’t know. And I don’t know either.
HEFFNER: Is your objective … not as a novelist … this is a damn good read, it’s a lovely novel, it’s terrific. But now let’s think about the CIA. Is it as banal as you describe it? Is it as effectiveless …
WEISBERG: I think that overall, I’m inclined to say, “Yes.” I have reservations on a couple of levels. One is that I don’t know everything that was going on at the CIA when I was there, obviously.
I felt that the types of cases that I worked on, things that I was exposed to … probably represented 95% of what was going on in the Director of Operations, where I worked.
So I feel pretty confident that that 95%, isn’t really doing anybody any good. But there’s 5% of stuff that was more highly classified that I had no access to.
Various reasons why I suspect that stuff wasn’t much better. But I don’t know for sure. I really don’t know.
My other hesitation is that so much has changed since I was there. CIA now is a, you know, a prime player in this war on terror. And that’s a … I was there in the early 1990’s, the Cold War was ending, nobody was really sure what the CIA should be doing. They have a more concrete mission now, and I don’t know … what … I don’t know in detail what they’re doing in support of that mission.
I look at the Cold War which was the last big mission and I think they were very ineffective.
WEISBERG: Ineffective. Which inclines me to believe they may well be ineffective in the War on Terror as well. But it doesn’t necessarily follow from that.
HEFFNER: In your sense that you develop … in your work about other nations … and their counterparts to the CIA … any way of evaluating better or worse?
WEISBERG: I don’t think so.
HEFFNER: Are we just lousy spies?
WEISBERG: No. I, I think … I don’t really know, because, you know, you have to base a lot of this … certainly about other countries intelligence services on publicly available information. And it’s very hard to come to a solid conclusion based on that.
I mean you have all this mythology about the Mossad. I haven’t got the faintest idea if any of that is true or not. My … if I were to guess, I would say, that if you worked in the Mossad, you would find out it was a bureaucracy and probably not that effective. But I don’t know for sure. You know, I grew up and I always heard about this guy who was considered the most … I think the most important spy the Mossad ever had, who, ah, became close … he lived in Syria, even though he was Israeli, he moved to Syria and acted as a Syrian. Became very close, I think, to the Defense Minister and apparently told Israel all this information that became incredibly valuable to them during … ah, I think it was the ’67 War, it might have been ’73. Anyway, the information was about how they had planted in the Golan Heights, trees to disguise their artillery … the Syrians had.
And then, apparently, the Israelis knowing this, knew where to bomb, were able to take out all the Syrian artillery and it probably changed the course of the war. And without having any background in intelligence, when I started first hearing this story as a kid. I thought, “Oh, that’s incredible, that’s just what somebody like the Mossad is supposed to do. It’s just what somebody like the CIA is supposed to do.” And it confirmed all my suspicions, that secret little inner workings made the difference. Right? You got that spy in there, he told you that odd little bit of secret information, and it made you win the war.
After having worked in an intelligence bureaucracy for a while, I’m … I’ve become … very skeptical. I don’t know … I’d have to learn a lot more about that particular case. But I think things like, “Gee, you know once artillery starts firing, modern armies are able to detect it very, very quickly anyway. How important would it really be to know that the trees indicated where the artillery is.” I don’t know the answer to that, but I really feel skeptical about it.
There are other things about the story that I … they just ring a little bit false. I wonder if … I wonder if the story’s true at all, to a certain degree.
So that’s just one. You know … I’d heard things when I was there about all these other intelligence services, but the CIA would, of course, like to pride itself on being the best. And … I don’t have the information to judge the German service, the British service, the French service. I don’t know.
HEFFNER: What are the limitations that the CIA … that you impose upon yourself when you sign up?
WEISBERG: You mean in terms of what you can speak about?
WEISBERG: Well, when you join you sign a secrecy agreement. It’s one of the first things that happens after you’re hired.
HEFFNER: How did you feel about that?
WEISBERG: (Sigh) I would have to say I liked it. (Laughter) Oddly enough I liked it.
WEISBERG: It helped me feel that I was doing something important.
WEISBERG: If this was so important that a member of the US government was going to put a piece of paper in front of me … a long, complex piece of paper that I had to read very carefully and swear that I would never reveal what I was going to learn when I worked at this place, think how important what I was about to learn must be.
WEISBERG: It must really have to be protected. So I kind of like it. When I left the agency, one of the last things … an exit interview, is they take out this same piece of paper … and they hand it to you … and it’s the exact same one, it’s already got your signature on it … and they have you read it and sign it again. So you put a second signature on it. Even then I felt okay about it.
I was sort of maybe disillusioned with the agency in a lot of ways, but I was very much still a part of the, sort of, culture of secrecy there. And the idea … even leaving… that I would leave with honor and never discuss any of this stuff, that I was not allowed to discuss, etc. I think I still in a certain way liked.
And even now I would be loathe to violate that agreement. I think it’s very … I think I committed myself to it, and I think it’s reasonable that an intelligence agency should require its officers to keep what they learn there secret.
Even if I think the agency is ineffective. And even if they do a lot of things that I don’t think make sense. If you’re going to even try to have an intelligence agency, surely you have to keep secrets.
HEFFNER: Does that mean that you feel that what the requirements are of the secrecy agreement are themselves reasonable?
WEISBERG: Yes. I would say so. It’s sort of interesting because … there was a, a guy recently who came out and did an interview with, I think, ABC News and he talked about his experiences helping to capture a member of Al-Qaeda … one of the two or three who was later water-boarded by the CIA. And he did a very detailed interview about everything that happened with this guy.
HEFFNER: Wasn’t that verboten?
WEISBERG: Well, after the interview …
WEISBERG: … the CIA … somebody there went to the Justice Department and said, “We want you guys to investigate if this guy committed a Federal crime by revealing classified information.”
Then, I would say, essentially for … I think for PR reasons … the CIA backed off. Because better to let it die down than to make even more of a hullabaloo out of it. And I don’t think those cases are easy to win, and I don’t know if they even really deeply wanted to prosecute him. But certainly, I think the general feeling there was that he had revealed classified information.
He responded by saying that although he had not cleared his appearance with the CIA beforehand … as you are required to do, according to the terms of your secrecy agreement … it’s a little more complicated than that … you’re required to … not necessarily clear a specific appearance, but clear information.
Whatever you want to talk about, you have to get permission to talk about it. He said although he had not done that, he knew what the rules were. And I thought to myself, “Well, no he doesn’t.” Because nobody knows what the rules are. Partly because there aren’t really clear rules. The rules are extremely vague, the rules are things like “Don’t reveal sources and methods.”
Well, methods of intelligence collection could be virtually anything the CIA does. So what happens is, the rules are in a sense made up as you go.
For example, when I knew that his book was coming out and I’d want to be doing some interviews and talking about the CIA. I made a list of things I wanted to be able to discuss and I wrote in a little bit of detail. And I submitted them to the CIA for approval or lack of approval, I wasn’t really sure which I would get.
The CIA then decided which of those things were classified and which weren’t. But it wasn’t a case where they could just look at a chart … classified, not classified, classified, not classified. It’s more the case where these very specific things have to be discussed and in, in their ruling …the rules become made … as you go.
So he couldn’t have known the rules ahead of time … they weren’t there. Certainly the stuff he talked about seemed to me to be classified. I didn’t have any question about that.
HEFFNER: Well, now, in your novel … in one of your novelist’s devices is that you redact … you draw black lines through … making me … pause every once in a while … saying, “What was this? Where was this?”
WEISBERG: (Laugh) Right.
HEFFNER: “Who was this?” Isn’t that act of redaction something that they would be concerned about?
WEISBERG: I think I completely freaked them out by doing that …
HEFFNER: I would think so.
WEISBERG: … because I sent them the first draft of the manuscript, which had come pre-redacted by me. And they called me … and normally you communicate by mail or email … I had never got many calls from them, but somebody called from the Publications Review Board, which is the part of the Agency which deals with all of the stuff we’re talking about … manuscripts, clearing talking points … it’s that sort … (excuse me) … and, they called me, “Jeff, you know, Publications Review Board … I wanted to check in with you because we got your manuscript in today and we wanted to make sure you sent us the right thing because this looks like something we send out … not, something we get in”.
And I thought to myself, “Well I don’t think they quite got the joke or the literary device” (laugh) …
WEISBERG: … or whatever it is … I said, “No, no, that’s definitely the right, the right thing.”
HEFFNER: And then?
WEISBERG: Well then they redacted some more.
HEFFNER: No redactions of the redactions?
WEISBERG: That’s an interesting idea. (Laugh) I like the idea that they would say, “You have to take out that redaction and put what was actually there.”
HEFFNER: I would have, I would have certainly thought that would have happened along the way.
WEISBERG: What would that be … a re-redaction? (Laugh)
HEFFNER: What about the future? Are you lifelong bound by the agreement …?
HEFFNER: The secrecy agreement?
WEISBERG: Yes. I hear stories occasionally of ex-employees who decide that because of the process of working with publications … by the way, the process for me of working with them, was an overall positive one. I found them, again, like the secrecy agreement …completely reasonable. I never had a dispute with them. And we went back and forth about a lot of stuff. But I never had a problem with them at all. I found them even nice to work with.
But, it is cumbersome. If you want to write an article, it can take weeks to have it cleared and you might want to have that article printed the next day.
HEFFNER: Well, you’ve done. You’ve written an OpEd piece …
WEISBERG: Which I have. And in that case where there’s more of a time constraint I didn’t like having to submit it and wait and wait and wait … while the issue’s dying down in the news. But that’s the secrecy agreement.
But I’ve heard stories that some ex-employees stop submitting. And just go and do what they want. I’m not sure if that’s true. I would not do that. At least I don’t think I would. It doesn’t seem right to me. I still feel bound by the agreement.
HEFFNER: it’s interesting to me, and that’s why I asked you about how you felt about it. I’ve only once in my life had a similar thing and certainly not a government matter … and I refused to sign it and took the consequences.
And I just wondered what goes on inside your mind, your soul when you know that forever and ever you’ve committed yourself to something. Anything.
WEISBERG: It’s funny … when you talk about your own experience, I don’t know what that experience was, but it made me think of my father … who, as I mentioned to you earlier before used to work for the ACLU.
WEISBERG: And the idea that someone would voluntarily take on a restriction of their First Amendment rights would have, I think, seemed sort of insane to him. But that is how I feel about it. I felt that I did it voluntarily, so it wasn’t like somebody imposed this restriction on me. I wanted to have this job and in exchange for it, I agreed to give up a little sliver of my First Amendment rights. And it seems like such a small sliver, and as I said it seems like a reasonable sliver. So I don’t, I don’t honestly feel burdened by it. It doesn’t feel like a problem to me.
HEFFNER: But there it is forever and ever.
WEISBERG: Yeah, well how long’s forever … I’m already 42 … another 40 years or so … ehh, it’ll be all right.
HEFFNER: Forever and ever, for you as a young man.
HEFFNER: By the time you … forty years from now, you’ll have another 40 to go.
WEISBERG: Well, that’s nice.
HEFFNER: Has anyone been relieved at the instigation of the agency of this …
WEISBERG: How do you mean?
HEFFNER: … of this oath?
WEISBERG: You mean fired?
HEFFNER: No. No, no, no, no. People have been fired.
HEFFNER: Your protagonist here …
HEFFNER: … was really fired.
HEFFNER: And I wondered whether this was a function of great … we only have a minute left … I’m being signaled and I’m just warming up and getting your …
HEFFNER: … potential readers warmed up. Are there many who are fired?
WEISBERG: No. I would say the answer to that is “No”. I mean it’s a very large organization. I can think of two people who I ever saw getting fired or heard word of their getting fired.
HEFFNER: These two … in the novel?
WEISBERG: No. And not me either. Although my sister read the novel and she called me up and she said …
WEISBERG: … I didn’t know you were fired. I said “I wasn’t fired, I had to make it a little more interesting for the book.”
HEFFNER: Okay, you did make it more interesting for the book.
HEFFNER: And the book is an extremely interesting one. And, as I said, we don’t usually discuss novels. I’m awfully glad I read this one, “An Ordinary Spy”. Joseph Weisberg thank you for joining me on The Open Mind.
WEISBERG: Thank you for having me.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And for transcripts of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.