- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 25, 2002

By Tom Clancy
Putnam, $28.95, 618 pages

Some fairly silly flak has been aimed at Tom Clancy of late for lending his name and fame to books he did not actually write. "Franchising his name" is among the unkind epithets tossed his way. Well, relax. The real Tom Clancy is back, in another episode of the Jack Ryan saga that will excite his aficionados, among whose ranks I happily count myself.
Mr. Clancy the past several years has struggled to produce a Ryan encore in his new book "Red Rabbit." After all, what follow-on can be contrived when your central character has worked his way up from history professor to CIA analyst to president of the United States, and much of official Washington perishes when terrorists crash an airliner into the U.S. Capitol during a joint session of Congress? The late British writer Patrick O'Brian groused in his latter years that he made the mistake of starting his Jack Aubrey series of maritime thrillers when his hero was in mid-career, thereby foregoing the chance to write about the early years of a sea captain.
Facing somewhat the same problem, Mr. Clancy resorts to a bit of literary audacity. He simply picks up Jack Ryan and seamlessly sets him back in history a decade or so. Ryan is once again a junior CIA analyst, working in London on loan to MI-6, the British Secret Intelligence Service. His very first day on the job, a sobering memorandum crosses his desk. Pope John Paul II has sent the Kremlin a letter threatening to resign the papacy unless the USSR halts its repression in his native Poland.
KGB chairman Yuri Andropov recognizes the bombshell impact such an event would have on a Soviet empire that is already staggering. As Premier Leonid Brezhnev states at a Politiboro meeting, "If Poland falls, then Germany falls" and then the rest of the Warsaw Pact. Andropov sets into motion a plot to have the pope murdered, turning the dirty work over to the Dizhavna Sugurnost (DS), the Bulgarian secret service.
Sound familiar? Such is the rough outline of what many persons in the intelligence community feel really led to the abortive attempt on Pope John Paul II's life. The hit man who wounded the pope had links to the DS, and much circumstantial evidence pointed to Bulgaria's complicity. But what the spooks out at Langley would call "a strong probably" isn't enough to risk plunging the world into war as could have happened had the USSR been called to task so the near-murder slipped away into the crevices of history.
Mr. Clancy's strength, both in this book and previous works, lies in his ability to explain with exacting accuracy how intelligence operations are mounted. He does his homework before he sits down to write, and his tradecraft authenticity impresses people who do shadowy things for a living. Or so they tell me.
The first part of Mr. Clancy's scenario details how Andropov uses various cut-outs to enlist Bulgarian support, and how he insures that the paper trail of responsibility is minimal. But an unexpected weak link appears in the form of a KGB code clerk who deduces the meaning of vaguely worded messages between Moscow, Rome and Sofia.
This man, Oleg Ivanovich Zaitzev, already had qualms about the hollow corruption of the USSR. He muses: "Just as the princes under the czar rarely if ever considered the effect their rule had on the serfs, so the new princes of Marxism never question the system that gave them their place in the world. How did the murder of a priest serve the Soviet State? How did it serve him and his wife and his little daughter? By feeding them? By giving him the ability to shop in the "closed" shops and buy things that other workers could not even think about getting for themselves?" Further, "to kill a harmless man is a crime."
Enter now characters from earlier Clancy works, Ed and Mary Patrick Foley, whose roles are equal to that of Ryan. He is chief of CIA's Moscow station, working under cover as a press officer (which gives Mr. Clancy the chance to take some wicked jabs at journalists). His wife, granddaughter of Russian immigrants, is a skilled case officer whose cover she says so herself is that of a ditsy blonde who speaks stumbling Russian and walks around looking beautiful.
How Mr. Clancy brings Zaitzev and the Foleys together strains credulity, but let's give him a pass on the point. In any event, Zaitzev becomes a "rabbit," in spook parlance a possible defector who wants to flee the country. With adroit tradecraft that parallels a caper the SIS actually did years ago, the Foleys exfiltrate their "red rabbit" and wife and small daughter out of the USSR and thence to England. He reveals not only the Papal plot, but also the existence of KGB spies high in the governments of both the United States and Britain.
Now the moral dilemma shifts: Does protecting an intelligence source warrant withholding information that could save a life? The Soviets think that Zaitzev and family perished in a hotel fire. Warning the pope's security detail of the murder scheme will tip the KGB that he survived and harm chances of ferreting out the moles. Arguing for non-disclosure, one high CIA official argues, "Our primary duty is to our flag, not to any religious figure." Whereupon Jack Ryan asks the obvious question, "how will it look in the papers if it becomes known that the CIA had data on the threat to the pope and we just sat on our hands?"
Let's stop the plot summary right there. Let Mr. Clancy resolve it on his own, in one of the slam-bang climaxes for which he is famous. No crashing airliners, to be sure, but a twist that will leave you satisfied that the bad guys actually lost.

Joseph C. Goulden is working on a book on intelligence operations that helped win the Cold War.

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