- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 21, 2007


By David Ignatius

W.W. Norton, $24.95, 349 pages


“All warfare,” the Chinese philosopher and tactician Sun Tzu wrote almost 3,000 years ago, “is based on deception.” History’s greatest warriors understood this simple yet profound exhortation to think outside the box.

Odysseus, who breached Troy’s walls by constructing a huge hollow wooden horse, certainly personified the rare breed of outside-the-siege-tower thinkers. During World War II, a Royal British Navy lawyer named Ewen Edward Montagu pushed the Sun Tzu envelope when he mounted a clever sleight-of-hand operation to convince Germany the Allies were planning to invade the Balkans in 1943 (in fact the target was Sicily). Montagu’s Operation Mincemeat was later chronicled in the book and Clifton Webb movie “The Man Who Never Was.”

More recently, legendary CIA operations officer Duane “Dewey” Clarridge ran an ambitious deception that provoked psychotic paranoia in terrorist Abu Nidal’s mind, causing him to destroy his own organization. “On a single night in November of 1987, approximately 170 [of his own people] were tied up and blindfolded, machine-gunned, and pushed into a trench prepared for the occasion. Another 160 were killed in Libya shortly thereafter,” Mr. Clarridge writes in the 1997 autobiography “A Spy for All Seasons.”

Lately, however, deception operations seem to have fallen out of favor. Whether this vacuum is due to the tsunami of risk aversion that swept over the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1990s (detritus from which still unfortunately clutters headquarters today), the culture of political correctness that eschews the sorts of amoral operations that might offend self-righteous congressional Democrats or the fact that it has become virtually impossible to keep a secret in Washington anymore, is unclear.

The bottom line, however, is simple and unsettling. For reasons unfathomable to a large segment of our most seasoned intelligence professionals both active and retired, we have abandoned a valuable weapon in our arsenal. This deplorable situation is the jumping-off point for David Ignatius’ complex, intricate, Byzantine CIA novel “Body of Lies.”

The novel recounts the story of Roger Ferris, an aggressive young case officer who volunteers for Iraq. Unlike most of his colleagues, who hunker down in the Green Zone and play video games, Ferris is committed to the Agency’s old values: spotting, assessing, developing and recruiting agents to penetrate al Qaeda in Iraq’s networks and provide the irreplaceable human-based intelligence that is so lacking these days.

“Your job is to feed the machine,” CIA’s Near East Division Chief and Ferris’ boss Ed Hoffman tells the younger man. “You’re perfect for the job, you poor bastard.”

Mr. Ignatius explains: “It was true. Ferris spoke Level Four Arabic; he had dark hair and complexion that would allow him to pass as an Arab in his robes and keffiyeh, and he had that essential hunger, which he thought he could satisfy by taking risks.” In Iraq, working out beyond the wire, Ferris is gravely wounded during a botched operation in which he loses a pair of his agents.

But it is not for naught: He comes away having caught a faint whiff of a new al Qaeda network that is planning a series of devastating bombings in Western Europe. The net is headed by a shadowy figure named Suleiman.

After a convalescence at Walter Reed, Ferris is given a new assignment: deputy chief of station in Amman, Jordan. There, he will liaise with Hani Salaam, the sophisticated, urbane, ruthless head of Jordan’s intelligence service who is known as Pasha Hani. After Ferris’ initial Jordanian-based ops to penetrate Suleiman’s network fail — incurring the wrath of Hani — the American comes up with a risky but brilliant idea. Taking a page from the Brits’ Operation Mincemeat and another from Mr. Clarridge’s Psy Op playbook, Ferris conceives a scenario to draw Suleiman out of the shadows.

Through deception — “Taqyiia” in Arabic — Ferris will create a “virtual agent.” He will do so by allowing al Qaeda to find the body of a CIA officer. On the corpse are documents indicating that the Americans have a highly-placed agent inside al Qaeda’s leadership.

As Mr. Ignatius’ NE Division Chief Ed Hoffman puts it: “We have to make Suleiman think we have done the thing we in fact have been unable to do, which is to get inside his net. And then we can play with his mind. Jealousy. Vanity. Pride. These basic emotions will crack Suleiman open like a fat oyster. We will introduce information into his sphere that is so upsetting, so confusing, so threatening that he must find out what it’s about. And at that point, he must contact others. Must. And then he is observable. Quantifiable. Destructible.”

Mr. Ignatius has a wonderfully ironic take on the operation that forms the nucleus of “Body of Lies.” In World War II, Capt. Montagu obtained The Man Who Never Was by appealing to the patriotism of the dead man’s father. Ferris has to steal the corpse. When the English confirmed the Germans had taken the bait, the British chiefs of staff proudly cabled Winston Churchill (who was in the United States at the time), “Mincemeat swallowed whole.” Ferris’ op is so far off the books no one — not even the president — will ever be told.

The problems start almost immediately, of course. Ferris’ life is compounded by a broken marriage and a beautiful American woman he meets in Amman. Things get dicey because Ed Hoffman has his own ideas about how the operation should proceed, and he isn’t worried when Ferris warns that Hani Salaam, whose agency’s cooperation is critical to the CIA’s success in Jordan, may get burned in the process.

Mr. Ignatius juggles things quite nicely. Unlike most of the folks writing fiction about the CIA these days, he understands the gestalt of the place and the internal and external pressure under which the agency’s denizens operate. He doesn’t throw huge clumps of backstory at you, either, but unpeels his characters like onions, adding to their complexity and allowing them to reveal themselves at their own pace.

And just as importantly, Mr. Ignatius has spent enough time in the Middle East to understand its quirks, its habits and its customs and traditions. As Pasha Hani tells Ferris at one critical point, “This is my world, you see. I understand it. You Americans are visitors. You try to comprehend, but it is really quite impossible. You only make mistakes. And you are arrogant, I am sorry to say. You don’t know what you don’t know.”

How true; how absolutely true. Indeed, given the history of America’s recent misadventures in the region, one can only hope they make “Body of Lies” required reading at the NSC and CIA.

Now, there’s a hiccough every now and then. Mr. Ignatius’ hero is subjected to torture that is more than vaguely reminiscent of what George Clooney suffers in “Syriana,” the movie very, very loosely based on former CIA case officer Robert Baer’s book “See No Evil.” Even though Ferris’ American girlfriend works for an NGO involved with a variety of Palestinians and Jordanians that includes members of the Muslim Brotherhood, she is never checked out or vetted by the otherwise meticulous Hoffman.

And the reason for a running joke about Ferris’ ancestry becomes obvious after the third time. But these are quibbles. Mr. Ignatius has built us a wonderful, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of a book, and it’s great fun to watch his characters flailing desperately to put the pieces together.

John Weisman’s latest novel, “Direct Action,” was released in paperback by Avon last spring. He can be reached at black [email protected]

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