- - Friday, June 21, 2013

NO WAY BACK
By Andrew Gross
William Morrow, $27.99, 342 pages

Given their lack of legal standing to launch libel actions, America’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies are a lush target for hack writers who concoct outlandish schemes involving nefarious agents and officials.

In this genre of books, casual murders by the CIA is a given, as is its penchant for betraying its own officers and maintaining millions of dollars in illicit offshore accounts. The FBI? An aggregation of arrogant (and ignorant) drones in dark suits and crewcuts who lord over local police and use savage interrogation techniques that would gag the Marquis de Sade.

So perhaps it was inevitable that a relatively new federal agency, the Department of Homeland Security, should fall victim to a trash writer, with sins far more dire than requiring graying grannies to doff their orthopedic shoes at airline security checkpoints. In “No Way Back,” DHS, through its adjunct, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), has chosen to give a powerful Mexican drug cartel the guns it needs to destroy a competitor.

To be sure, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been under fire lately because of Operation Fast and Furious, in which firearms were sold to known drug dealers in the hope that agents could trace how they were circulated in Mexico. Fast and Furious went horribly awry when one of those weapons was used to kill an American border agent.

Andrew Gross bloats that episode a thousandfold into a wide-ranging conspiracy that involves both high-ranking officials and working agents. As he outlines the imagined conspiracy, “It wasn’t just the illegal selling of guns to the cartels. That was just the first course. The main event was that they [the DEA] had taken sides. That the United States government was secretly arming a cadre of murderous thugs and abetting drug traffickers across the border. That they were spilling blood and had their own hands in dozens of hooded assassinations and bodies left headless on the road. All in the hope that one billion-dollar narco-conglomerate would destroy its rivals, and there would be stability there [in Mexico].”

In his fictional presentation, Mr. Gross makes a broad-brush smear of the thousands of men and women who risk their lives protecting American borders, truly one of the more dangerous jobs in the world. He writes, “It was stated that almost 30 percent of the DEA or the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) border guards were on the payroll of the cartels, paid hundreds of thousands to look the other way when shipments crossed the border.” Directing this supposed mass conspiracy was a woman who ran the important El Paso, Texas, office of the DEA.

So, what is the problem? Mr. Gross‘ novel is clearly labeled fiction, and writers are presumed to be entitled to unlimited literary license. In this instance, however, as is true of all too many “thrillers” dealing with intelligence and policing, Mr. Gross smears the reputations of anyone working for the U.S. government, especially those who wear a badge along the border.

Oh, well, one could say: The fellow is simply trying to sell some books. What is wrong with that? Simply put, a reader who is soaked in such nonsense — even if he recognizes that the medium is fictional — cannot help having his judgment tainted by the false information. Lies repeated often enough, regardless of the origin, take on a patina of truth, even among persons of sound judgment.

For years, the CIA maintained an informal repository of wild yarns circulated about the agency — ranging from folks who claimed they had been implanted with miniature transmitters to monitor their activities, to secret domination of the world economy through holdings in foreign banks. Anyone who served as director of central intelligence could count on an under-the-table annual income of millions of dollars. Or so Dame Rumor had it, in any event. Scanning these reports is akin to walking through a madhouse.

If Mr. Gross had made such charges of criminal misconduct in a book labeled as nonfiction, I wager that the unions representing border guards would have him on the witness stand in an instant, demanding that he substantiate what he wrote. I doubt that he would have any answers.

According to the jacket blurb, Mr. Gross is one of the typists (I shan’t misuse the word “writer”) who grind out the books published with the James Patterson imprimatur. If you like Mr. Patterson, this one is for you. Otherwise, keep your distance.

Joseph C. Goulden, the author of 18 nonfiction books, writes frequently on intelligence and military affairs.