- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 20, 2006

THE MANDARIN CLUB

By Gerald Felix Warburg

Bancroft Press, $25, 322 pages

REVIEWED BY WILLIAM C. TRIPLETT, II

A first novel by a major Inside-the-Beltway figure is always a significant event, and Gerald Warburg’s “The Mandarin Club” is no exception. Mr. Warburg, a former Democratic Party activist on Capitol Hill, is currently the executive vice president of one of the biggest government affairs shops in downtown Washington. Anyone who has ever worked foreign affairs issues in the past 20 years knows Gerry Warburg.

Someone looking for light summer fare would give “The Mandarin Club” a pass. Yes, it has its share of spies, and American military technology going to the wrong people, and a love-making scene (or three), and a bit of derring-do. And it has a China-Taiwan military clash, as one might anticipate from an author who represents Taiwan entities as well as other foreign interests. But in the scheme of things, these are all relatively minor.

“The Mandarin Club” is designed to challenge the reader. The Club is a group of seven people (six men and one woman) who studied China (or were Chinese) at Stanford in the late 1970s. The book follows the China careers to a greater or lesser extent of all seven characters, but there is one clear standout — Martin Booth.

Not to take away anything from the character development of the other six, but Booth’s internal conflicts and his determination to do what he thinks is the right thing are where the author’s heart is — and where the strength of the book is. Gerry Warburg was the chief foreign policy aide to the late Sen. Alan Cranston, a liberal Democrat from California who ran for president and whose professional concern was the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, particularly by the People’s Republic of China.

It may not be a coincidence that the fictional Martin Booth is the chief foreign policy aide to a liberal Democrat senator from California who is running for president and whose major professional concern seems to be the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, particularly by the PRC. The real Sen. Cranston was a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Martin Booth’s fictional boss is its chairman.

Digressing from the fictional world to unfortunate reality for a moment, a former Department of Defense official is now under a legal cloud for allegedly giving classified information to the government of Israel, using the America Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) as a cut-out. According to published reports, the DOD official felt that his superiors were not paying enough attention to the threat from Iran.

Also currently, a former high-ranking aide to the vice president is under indictment for allegedly giving secret information to journalists. Again, according to published reports, the ex-aide to the veep allegedly felt he was exposing a liar whose dissembling harmed the war effort in Iraq. In both cases, the officials would have taken solemn oaths to protect the integrity of the information they were given. Prosecutors have apparently not claimed that either of the two officials was motivated by money, personal advancement or a similar base interest.

Other officials accused of tossing classified materials to journalists may not have had clean hands or many mitigating factors in their favor. In addition to money and personal advancement, some may be motivated by partisan rage or a feeling of empowerment. But even in these cases they may feel they are doing the right thing, although such thoughts are manifestly self-delusional and contrary to both the national interest and United States law.

It is these conflicting factors that drive Mr. Warburg’s fictional Martin Booth: He has the requisite security clearances, which means he has given his pledge, and he knows the penalties for violating his oath. And yet he has vital, highly secret United States government information about which he believes the administration is lying or not about to act upon. In short, Booth is a leaker.

The picture Mr. Warburg paints of the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee reminds one of the cantina scene from the movie “Star Wars”: “There was a steady stream of visitors to the senator and his aide from obscure research institutes. Swedes. Pakistanis. Israelis. Brits. An eclectic cast of characters they were, too. ‘Retired’ diplomats. Arms peddlers. Awkward professors.

“They were spies, all of them. Plants, sent out by various foreign intelligence agencies to troll for fresh morsels, furnished with their own tidbits to offer up in trade.”

And Martin Booth is at Ground Zero for all of this. Booth’s secret intelligence world includes the NID (the National Intelligence Digest); S407 (“the secret committee room in the attic of the Capitol”); Humint (human intelligence); Sigint (signals intelligence); the National Security Agency; the Central Intelligence Agency; and the “National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.”

As a leaker, Booth first has to decide if his information is valid. Disinformation — the deliberate planting of false information — is a widely used practice by foreign intelligence agencies, and he could be victimized unless he can confirm what knows. If he decides his information is valid and it should be revealed despite the illegality, he can pass it to a journalist or have his boss use it in a question during a public hearing. The timing of a release can be critical, and Booth worries about that continually. Finally, he has to worry about the possibility of getting caught.

Conviction for leaking classified information could, in theory, lead to jail time. To this point, the law in the real world seems not to have been enforced that way or if so, it has been done quietly. Leakers have been fired or lost their security clearances, making them unemployable in their primary professions. Some years ago a senator was removed from the Senate Intelligence Committee, but not thrown out of the Senate, for leaking.

But such a relatively benign attitude may be changing. If news accounts are correct, the Bush administration is cracking down severely. Inevitably, someone is going to face some serious jail time, and equally as inevitable is that the “Yes, but …” defense will be raised. That is, the defendant’s motivation will be on trial. Most of these cases will go before a judge and not a jury, but some juries may have to decide if the defendant was justified or not. In any case, public opinion could be a factor if the defendant has some particularly egregious facts on his side.

Over the years, outraged officials from both Democrat and Republican administrations have charged that unauthorized leaking of classified information has damaged the national interest, primarily through the loss of various sources of information for the future. Two now-former American officials are currently awaiting trial for leaking, and others may be joining them. In some cases, it will be appropriate to throw someone in jail for leaking; in others, perhaps not.

Gerry Warburg’s contribution to this policy issue is to open, through his novel, “The Mandarin Club,” the currents and cross-currents of the foreign policy world where leaks happen; to further public debate and to enhance public education, all appropriate endeavors.

William C. Triplett, II, the former Chief Republican Counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was a Capitol Hill colleague of Gerald Warburg.

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