BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Nearest Exit’

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THE NEAREST EXIT
By Olen Steinhauer
Minotaur, $25.99
416 pages

THE COBRA
By Frederick Forsyth
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $26.95
364 pages

Over lunch earlier this summer, a retired CIA case officer and I talked about the effect of popular culture - books, movies, magazines and the like - on public perceptions of the intelligence community. My friend related an unsettling story. He lectures at a school in Virginia (run by private contractors) that offers courses to people who work, or wish to work, in the intelligence community. At the start of each training cycle, the students complete a questionnaire asking their views on various topics.

To his astonishment, an astounding percentage believe that CIA was complicit in the Sept. 11 attacks and the murder of President Kennedy, among other myths. “And to think,” he said rather sadly, “These are people who already work in the intelligence community, or wish to do so. What does this say about the rest of the country?”

The source of such nonsense comes from such “authors” as Olen Steinhauer, who is responsible for a truly odious piece of political pornography named “The Nearest Exit.” The central character is a CIA hand named Milo Weaver, who formerly worked for an agency unit, a clandestine “Department of Tourism” that is responsible for carrying out killings abroad. To “prove his worth” to new CIA bosses “in the dirty work of espionage,” Weaver is ordered to go to Berlin and kill a 15-year-old daughter of Moldovan immigrants. The body must then disappear. The reason for the killing? “Don’t ask - another Tourism rule. If a girl is to be killed, then she is to be killed. Action is its own reason.”

To be honest, I had been tempted to toss this piece of trash by page four, which discusses “the CIA’s use of Taliban prisoners to harvest Afghan opium that it sold in Europe.” I soldiered on to page 35 before consigning Mr. Steinhauer to the bin. If you wish to find out more about the order to kill the teen, you are on your own.

Or perhaps you could wait for the movie. According to the publisher’s press agent, film rights to a 2009 Steinhauer book that launched this fantasy series, “The Tourists,” went to George Looney (oops, pardon me, make that George Clooney). Reviewers slathered this book with praise. A fellow whom I consider a friend and respect - he was once the speechwriter for a very prominent American - praised Mr. Steinhauer’s “portrait of the CIA as a nest of highly lethal, surpassingly cynical vipers.” He considered “The Tourists” to be “serious entertainment” and wondered whether it reflects “how senior officials of our government viewed the world in 2007.” Oh, bosh.

Unfortunately for reality, publishers dote on writers adept at concocting off-the-wall “thrillers” that read like rantings from a psychiatric ward. Why? Nonsense sells. The Washington writer David Baldacci, to cite one of many such authors, became a rich man with a string of thumb-sucking yarns about government assassins who kill hither and yon without fear of retribution. I have yet to find the slightest hint that Mr. Baldacci knows a whit about the subjects about which he writes so glibly. Much of his nonsense occurs behind the fences of mysterious mansions in the Virginia countryside presided over by Daddy Warbucks monster-villains. In reality, such kings of the paperback racks are viewed as silly court jesters - or worse - by intelligence professionals. In the words of the wily old spymaster Allen Dulles, “The operations of an intelligence service and the plots of most spy stories part company, never to meet again.”

However, there are writers in the intelligence genre who make a point of knowing something about their subject matter before sitting down at the word processor. A king of the pack is the British author Frederick Forsyth, many of whose first 14 books hit the best-seller lists. Mr. Forsyth, too, has written about the down and very dirty world of mercenary soldiers and assassins, beginning with “The Day of the Jackal,” based on an actual plot to murder French President Charles de Gaulle. His “The Dogs of War” is a classic about for-hire soldiers in the interminable African civil wars.

The difference between Mr. Forsyth and the aforementioned imaginative hacks is that he does his homework and relies on factual research, not simply whatever nutty conspiracy nonsense should waft his way. Such is clearly evident in “The Cobra,” which deals with the decision by an American president - a thinly veiled Barack Obama - to go after a Hispanic drug ring that is flooding the United States with cocaine. A retired CIA officer is hauled out of retirement and given free rein - and $2 billion - to carry out a master plan to smash the ring.

Mr. Forsyth proceeds to describe a deception scheme that would bring a smile to the face of, say, Dulles, if he was still around. Without giving away devilish plot details that you will enjoy discovering, suffice it to say that the protagonist baits various drug barons into fighting among themselves, with the resultant carnage more or less putting the cartel out of business. The killing is done by drug dealers, and not rogue Americans. And eventually the top guy, the Cobra, is toppled. Score one for the good guys.

The solution - but not the methodology - bears striking resemblance to tactics employed against the Colombian drug cartels of the 1990s, as outlined by Robert Bonner, formerly head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, in an article in the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs. As. Mr. Bonner notes, a key to success was to “dismantle and destroy” the smuggling cartels, one by one, rather than concentrating on individual traffickers.

Mr. Bonner urges that the same strategy be applied to Mexico. If such a decision is made, “The Cobra” provides a blueprint that could be effective. It’s a first-rate read, and one that transcends fevered fantasies about CIA misdeeds.

Joseph Goulden is a Washington writer. His e-mail is JosephG894@aol.com.

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