- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 21, 2002

By Robert Littell
Overlook Press, $28.95, 894 pages.

By John Altman
Putnam's, $25.95, 259 pages.

A decade or so ago, John le Carre opined that the U.S. versus U.S.S.R. spy thriller would not survive the end of the Cold War, and that he was turning his own novelistic skills to other subjects. My eyebrow twitched with suspicion at Mr. le Carre's sweeping statement. After all, kids of my generation doted on cowboy-and-Indian movies at the old Lynn Theater in Marshall, Texas, more than half a century after such shenanigans ended. Was he prematurely burying a genre?
Now we have a vigorous rebuttal of the le Carre thesis from Robert Littell. His smashingly gripping novel, "The Company," is the best read you're ever going to find on how the Central Intelligence Agency waged and helped win the Cold War. "The Company" weighs in at almost 900 pages, and I wish it could have been twice that length.
Mr. Littell's story is told primarily through the careers of two officers who entered CIA in 1950 from Yale and who are involved in a wide swath of Cold War action. Their experiences begin at Berlin Base, seat of ongoing clandestine struggles with the KGB, and move on to the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the Bay of Pigs, the successful war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the Gorbachev putsch that led to the toppling of President Reagan's "evil empire."
As a spook buff, what I admire about Mr. Littell is his grasp of the tradecraft used by field operatives, a skill that adds special authenticity to his story. He evokes the boredom of sitting around a safe house, waiting for an asset to appear grimy places that smell of dust and someone else's dirt - and of the adrenalin producing excitement of making a brush-pass in Moscow knowing that the fellow standing over on the corner might be a watching KBG agent. Heady stuff, and Mr. Littell does it to near perfection.
(I have one minor quibble. I don't think that the KGB would let low-level couriers know the exact identity of penetration agents for whom they do pass-along work. But the Robert Hanssen case showed that spies can break rules and still succeed.)
Mr. Littell's cast is comprised of both fictional and historical figures, and he alters some historical events to give his characters a role. Oddly, he uses what the agency would call a "work name" for the one of his major characters, the legendary William Harvey, who was simultaneously one of CIA's more cunning case officers and more raging drunks (and believe me, in the latter category he faced serious competition). In the book, Mr. Harvey becomes "Harvey Torriti," but his rowdy personality is unchanged. One person who retains his real name is Frank Wisner, longtime head of clandestine services.
Mr. Littell uses a Wisner lecture to a group of recruits to state the Cold War fears that gripped Washington in the early 1950s, and how the CIA was what he called "the central figure of American foreign policy" in the Truman Doctrine's defense of Western Europe. Mr. Wisner declares, "Make no mistake about it Western civilization is being attacked and a very thin line of patriots is manning the ramparts. We badly need to reinforce this line of patriots, which is why you've been invited here today."
A sub-theme of "The Company" is a decades-long search for a Soviet mole believed to be inside CIA. Inevitably this brings in James J. Angleton, legendary chief of CIA counterintelligence. Burned badly by the British traitor Kim Philby, Mr. Angleton never really trusted ANYONE again, much less men who showed up claiming to be KGB defectors. Again, Mr. Littell gives us insider's reality, via what people in the agency grew to call The Lecture: Mr. Angleton expounding his thesis that everything the Soviets did publicly since 1919 was part of a disinformation campaign to mislead the West.
When I read pages 671-672, I closed my eyes and again heard the just fired Mr. Angleton's voice over a table at The Company Inkwell in Arlington in 1974. Through a haze of smoke and whiskey fumes, I listened to The Lecture for three hours and afterwards still wasn't sure exactly what he was saying. I mentioned the long afternoon to a friend who scoffed, "Three hours? You got the truncated version, he can make it last for six hours easily." But Mr. Littell is going to surprise you with the outcome of his Angleton episode, and beyond that, I sayeth naught.
The last scene has the Bill Harvey character on his deathbed, talking with one of the Yalie characters about why the West won the Cold War. Cynical to the end, Mr. "Harvey" states, "We screwed up less than they did. That's why we won."
The Yalie differs. "Russia," he says, "wasn't a country. It was a metaphor for an idea that may have looked good on the drawing board but in practice was deeply flawed. And flawed metaphors are harder to slay that flawed countries. But we clobbered them in the end." And that we did.
Such disparate spy fiction experts as Yale professor Robin Winks and CIA officer David Atlee Phillips (now deceased) several books ago declared Mr. Littell as tops in the genre. Move over, Mr. le Carre, the Cold War might be over, but it still can produce good yarns.
Which brings us to a newcomer in the trade, John Altman, whose "A Game of Spies" comes from the same house that published Mr. Littell. The book jacket photo shows Mr. Altman to be a youngish man, which frightens me somewhat. Why?
Because Mr. Altman has devised a story with such a devilishly wicked ending that one wonders just what mischief the fellow will contrive when he is a bit older. The novel is set in wartime Berlin, with the British and the Germans caught up in a classic double-agent wrangle. I'll say it first: Mr. Altman is on the track to become "the next Robert Littell," which is the highest compliment that I have around the office this afternoon.

Joseph C. Goulden just started a book on intelligence operations that helped win the Cold War.

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