When Spies Become Novelists

Publishers have developed a taste for tell-all books by intelligence insiders, and former spooks are proving happy to oblige.

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Article created by the The Century Foundation.

Here’s a retirement plan for Porter Goss: Write a spy thriller about an ineffectual CIA director who is forced out of the job.

Even as the Bush administration investigates unauthorized leaks to the press, publishing executives have developed a taste for tell-all books by intelligence insiders, and former spooks are proving happy to oblige. The very afternoon Goss resigned it was reported that former CIA officer Valerie Plame had signed on with Crown to write a memoir for $2.5 million.

In the past, Cold War operatives occasionally emerged from the shadows long enough to publish a single, anodyne recollection of their years of service, bleached by agency censors of any sensitive revelations. But since Sept. 11, a new breed of soldier in the war on terror has started publishing not only memoirs that are deeply critical of the intelligence establishment-but novels as well.

Later this month, former CIA officer Robert Baer will publish ”Blow the House Down” (Crown), an ”alternative history of 9/11.” Baer has already written one memoir cum manifesto, ”See No Evil” (2003)- in which he lambasted the agency, claiming it was overrun by PC desk-jockeys who were ill-equipped to take on al Qaeda-and a critique of America’s over-reliance on Saudi oil, ”Sleeping with the Devil” (2004). Elements of both of these books were fictionalized in the film ”Syriana,” which came out last year.

But now Baer has gone a step further and written a thriller, which his publisher says ”pushes fiction to the absolute limit.” It will join novels by former defense and intelligence officials Richard Clarke, the former head of counterterrorism at the National Security Council, and Dame Stella Rimington, former head of Britain’s MI5. All three authors seek to imbue their fiction with the kind of verisimilitude that only comes with a Top Secret clearance. The result is a new kind of book: Think of it as the War on Terror roman à clef-“The Devil Wears Prada” for the counterterrorism set.

”Fiction can often tell the truth better than nonfiction,” Richard Clarke is quoted as saying on the dust jacket of ”The Scorpion’s Gate” (Putnam), the novel he published last fall. Yet Clarke’s nonfiction bestseller, ”Against All Enemies” (2004), a blistering critique of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policy was hardly restrained. Nor, for that matter, were Baer’s nonfiction screeds. There is a palpable anger in these earlier books about the troubled relationship-at best benign neglect, at worst shameless exploitation-between the political establishment and its spymasters, and if these novels are any indication, their authors are still angry. The current narrative of the Iraq debacle being offered by Bush administration representatives lays a significant ration of blame on the doorstep at Langley, suggesting that the president was misled by faulty intelligence.

Baer and Clarke both try to correct this narrative in their fictions, depicting high-level manipulation of intelligence. Max Waller, the CIA officer at the heart of Baer’s novel, is a jaded lone wolf, a ”cowboy,” who is deeply suspicious of anyone above his pay grade-and rightly so, it emerges. The plot turns on a conspiracy involving stock market speculation on terrorist attacks that is breathtakingly cynical. Clarke’s hero, an intelligence official named Rusty MacIntyre, tangles with an invasion-happy secretary of defense who may ring a bell with readers.

Stella Rimington’s heroine, MI5 terrorist hunter Liz Carlyle, faces a different set of bureaucratic obstacles, chief among them a smarmy MI6 official, Bruno Mackay. One British reviewer pointed out that by the end of the book, the reader feels more antipathy for this pencil-pushing sexist than for the terrorists Carlyle is after. The dispiriting message of these books is that turf wars, office politics, and a rogue’s gallery of Machiavellian bureaucrats pose as much of a threat to national security as terror cells.

But to what extent is that a truth these veterans of the intelligence wars are telling us through fiction, and to what extent is it just a trope-one of the narrative imperatives of thriller-writing? Certainly these books paint a conspicuously jaundiced picture of the defense and intelligence establishments. The only thing our spy agencies aren’t incompetent at is corruption, they seem to suggest.

But that is a standard feature of spy thrillers, from Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series to the latest ”Mission Impossible” installment. Part of what is extraordinary about these books is that they’re not extraordinary: Just as genre writers like John le Carré and Tom Clancy presumably scrutinize the nonfiction accounts of real spymasters in order to tell their tales, it appears that when those spymasters turn their attention to fiction, they look to le Carré and Clancy.

Each of these War on Terror novels features a tortured, introspective protagonist in the le Carré mold-unlucky in love, deceitful by trade-racing against a ticking clock to piece together fragmentary intelligence and prevent an attack. The chapters are short, the dialogue utilitarian, and, in a characteristic genre writing tick, minor figures are often distinguished primarily by their apparel. (Baer is especially guilty of this: From a ”Brooks Brothers pin striper” to a pair of ”faux-Armanis,” the clothes in ”Blow the House Down” appear to make the man.)

As it happens, sticking to this formula pays off: All three books provide a gripping, commuter-friendly read, borne along by realistic detail. Baer’s book, for instance, opens with an engaging spy’s-eye-view of what it’s like to be tailed by a sophisticated surveillance team. (Baer’s tip: Keep an eye on their shoes. They may change clothing as they pursue you, to throw you off the scent, but they rarely change their shoes. Who knew?) But while such tradecraft details make for engaging reading, they aren’t that different from what a reader would encounter in Ludlum or Clancy.

Despite the best efforts of publicists to stress the bona fides of their authors-Baer’s book will include a Q&A with journalist Seymour Hersh to burnish his insider status-it’s not as if these books contain classified information. And while the fact that the writers draw their details not from research but from personal experience is undeniably cool, it doesn’t really tell us anything.

What the books do tell us, and what fiction is distinctly able to convey in a more effective manner than nonfiction, is the variety of wild and disturbing threats we might face in the coming years. The 9/11 Commission concluded that the attacks of Sept. 11 reflected a failure of imagination in Washington, and the fact that former intelligence insiders are devoting themselves to works of imagination-to dreaming up new worst-case scenarios-could elevate these books beyond the constraints of the genre.

”The Scorpion’s Gate” is set in 2010, in a world in which the House of Saud has fallen and been replaced by an Islamic state composed of former al Qaeda leaders. Clarke and Baer both focus on the corrupting influence of oil in the Gulf region, and the behind-the-scenes machinations of Iran. Baer depicts big-money intelligence-industrial complex figures profiting from the war on terror-and from terrorism itself. Rimington describes ”the ultimate intelligence nightmare”-a terrorist who is an ethnic native of the target country, what spies call ”an invisible.”

Jihadist terrorists are above all creative, and novel-writing provides former officials with an opportunity for the kind of think-outside-the-box war gaming that, were it presented as nonfiction, might draw charges of alarmism. From the pen of a professional novelist these sorts of fevered speculations might be easy to dismiss; from Baer, Clarke, and Rimington, they are disturbingly plausible.

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