- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2008

AN ORDINARY SPY

By Joseph Weisberg

Bloomsbury, $23.95, 278 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN WEISMAN

Spies, I am convinced, exist in a different universe from the rest of us. What it comes down to is that spies see things differently. They have been blessed — or cursed — with a second sight that is the result of tradecraft training and the quasi-paranoia of operating in a professional environment in which everything you say and everything you do is filtered through the prisms of cover for status, cover for action and plausible deniability.

To the spy, parks aren’t places for relaxing walks or lovers’ trysts, but potential dead drop and letterbox locations, or segments on those planned, timed courses known as surveillance detection routes, or SDRs, during which you give yourself the opportunity to spot hostile surveillance.

When you spy, you don’t make friends so much as you cultivate potential sources. You “get close” in order to “elicit information” that will allow you to determine whether your contact is “suitable for development.”

This alternate universe of smoke and mirrors, of denial and deception, is the universe occupied by Mark Ruttenberg, the protagonist and narrator of Joseph Weisberg’s jewel of a novel “An Ordinary Spy.” As Mr. Weisberg’s 2002 novel “10th Grade” was framed as the writing-class journal of a 10th grader named Jeremy Reskin, “Ordinary Spy” is Mark Ruttenberg’s first-person memoir of his short and doomed CIA career, complete with redactions allegedly made by CIA’s Publication Review Board.

The “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” aspect of the book is compounded by the fact that Mr. Weisberg is himself a former CIA officer. And so, the manuscript of “Ordinary Spy” really did have to be submitted to CIA’s Publication Review Board. Trying to figure out which redactions are Mr. Weisberg’s creations and which are the PRB’s makes “Ordinary Spy” a literary Sudoku, leaving readers to fill in the blanks wherever they can. It’s a provocative and often bedeviling technique.

Let me demonstrate. The novel is set during Mark Ruttenberg’s first overseas tour, in 2002-2003. Ruttenberg is assigned to the country of Xxxxx, where he works under Xxxxxxxx xxxxx, interviewing xxxx xxxxxxxxxx all day and working the diplomatic and expatriate circuits at night as cover for spotting xxxxxxxxx xxxxxx. So, where in the world is Mark Ruttenberg?

Well, unredacted prose lets us know that the capital of the country to which he’s been assigned is tropically hot, that it has unique vegetation, that there are large numbers of beggars on the crowded streets, that “waiters covered your table with enormous silver bowls of every imaginable kind of xxxxx,” that “half the dishes were so spicy that I’d usually be pouring sweat after just a few minutes.” And that after a day of walking those streets your “clothes are coated in yellow dust” and you can’t get “the smell of excrement out of [your] nostrils.” Any guesses?

Bangladesh? Could be, except Xxxxx has mountains. Indonesia? Brazil? Both unlikely, because we are told that for assignment to this particular post there’s no special language training required. That means we can forget South America and most of Africa. India is a possibility of course. Food — hot curry — is served in silver bowls in India, and there are beggars aplenty. Still, as Yul Brynner says in “The King and I,” it is a puzzlement.

Not the only one, either. Just prior to his overseas assignment, Mark works on the XX desk at CIA headquarters, where he comes across a case file of an agent cryptonymed TDTRACER. TRACER was run out of New Delhi, the same station to which Mark is being assigned. Reading the file, he discovers that TRACER went missing on his case officer (C/O) and was possibly being interrogated by his home country’s intelligence service. The TRACER case and another, an agent crypto’d LXMALIBU, resulted in the firing of Bobby Goldstein, the officer who ran both agents. Goldstein, like Mark, was mentored by the same CIA Old Boy, a now-retired station chief named William.

After a few months in Xxxxx, Mark meets “Daisy,” a young woman who works as a secretary at the Xxxxxxxxx embassy. He spots her and begins to work her as a potential developmental. And then things go terribly wrong. Like, he sleeps with Daisy, a firing offense.

For good reason. As Llewellyn F. GRANVILLE (a pseudonym), a veteran case officer, once put it to me, “I mean, it’s obvious: if a case officer sleeps with an agent, it can mean that all the agent’s information, every bit of it, is suspect. For Christ’s sake, don’t you want to please the person you’re sleeping with?”

It isn’t always like that. Mr. GRANVILLE cites the story of a case officer in Paris who slept with both a Xxxxxx developmental and a Xxxxxxx scientist. Instead of being fired, the officer was actually promoted, and, Mr. GRANVILLE harrumphs, is “probably Senior Intelligence Service by now.”

Not in “An Ordinary Spy.” When Mark Ruttenberg’s chief of station discovers what he’s done, the young officer is immediately sent back to Washington and canned.

What develops next is a long, forensic dissection of TDTRACER and LXMALIBU, the two case files Mark discovered prior to his posting in Xxxxx. Mr. Weisberg peels them like an onion, unwrapping fascinating layer after fascinating layer. There is conflict, and there is resolution, and there is also at one point, a lovely epiphany about how long a quiet, off-the-books covert action operation can actually go on.

In the end, “An Ordinary Spy” is a well-wrought, beautifully crafted, incisive book about the huge emotional and psychological tolls the craft of spying can take from those who practice it, and a remarkably honest and revealing picture of those who shouldn’t have become spies in the first place.

As the CIA Old Boy William puts it to Mark, “There are a lot of C/Os … it’s not that they don’t care, but they can take it. They can lose an agent and feel terrible and get up the next morning and go to work. I don’t think you’re built for that, Mark. Any more than Bobby was. So you shouldn’t feel too badly about the way things turned out. At the end of the day, this wasn’t where you belonged.”

Case officers, William seems to be saying, are sometimes called to act as ordinaries — the priests who minister to condemned prisoners, preparing them for death. It takes a special kind of priest to be an ordinary, just as it takes a special kind of person to be a spy. Like the “Men In Black,” those white-shirted Ray-Banned gumshoes chasing extraterrestrial aliens through Midtown Manhattan right under the noses of oblivious civilians, life in an alternative universe — especially the one composed of smoke, mirrors, denial and deception — ain’t easy. Only a few have what it takes to be an ordinary … spy.

John Weisman’s latest CIA novels, “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action,” are currently available as Avon Books paperbacks. His email is blackops@johnweisman.com.

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