BLOODMONEY: A NOVEL OF ESPIONAGE
By David Ignatius
W.W. Norton, $25.95, 372 pages
One of the delights of a David Ignatius’ spy novel is that the reader never knows where the plot is going; further, one emerges unsure as to exactly what he saw along the way. Mr. Ignatius’ plots, indeed, seem to follow the precept dictated centuries ago by the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu: “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
In “Bloodmoney,” we find Mr. Ignatius at his best. This is an account that makes one think, “This must be based on an actual CIA operation, but reality and common sense say otherwise.” Well, perhaps. A hallmark of an Ignatius book, given his intimate knowledge of the intelligence community, is determining where fact ends and fiction begins.
The nugget of reality in Mr. Ignatius’ plot is that intelligence agencies prefer the shadows, being accountable to no one, much less meddling government bureaucrats. For instance, according to the 2010 “authorized history” of the British Secret Intelligence Service, officers once considered investing much of their annual appropriation in stocks, relying on their business acumen - and insider knowledge - to earn funds that could be spent off the books.
In “Bloodmoney,” a central character is a case officer named Sophie Marx, who seems modeled loosely on the real-life Dayna Baer, who wrote about her CIA career in the recent book “The Company We Keep.” Marx works in a Los Angeles CIA office disguised as “Hit Parade LLP,” which, according to Dun & Bradstreet, sells international music and television rights. In truth, the office runs covert officers around the world.
After Sept. 11, the CIA was tasked with fighting terrorism, but because of its rough (albeit justifiable) activities, it was “sent to the stocks for a public beating.” Frustrated, agency elders then created off-the-screen enterprises, reasoning, “Let the old CIA tramp steamer rust away at the dock, and meanwhile we’ll launch a stealthy new speedboat.”
One of Marx’s operatives is a man named Howard Egan, who ostensibly works for a London hedge fund named Alphabet Capital, which manages billions of dollars. She wonders “how much of [th[<]t-6 e hedge fund] was real, and how much was a cover for intelligence operations.”
And away we go. Egan goes missing in Pakistan, and Mr. Ignatius’ story suddenly is as timely as the front page of today’s paper: citing the testy relationship between CIA and Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). As a foreign-affairs columnist, Mr. Ignatius travels frequently to Pakistan, and ISI officers talk with him. A scene in which the ISI director confronts the CIA chief of station about whether the agency is sending officers into his country “outside the normal CIA cover channels” has the ring of authentic dialogue.
When another officer disappears, Marx is suddenly neck-deep into the affairs of Alphabet Capital, chasing leads in various capitals. Sure enough, the fund is, in fact, a CIA front, operating under the elastic provision of the National Security Act of 1947 that the National Security Council may authorize “other such intelligence activities as may be required.”
The driving force is Jeff Gertz, who delights in pressing rules close to, if not past, the breaking point. As he explains to Marx, he works through the fund president, Thomas Perkin. Because of agency resources, “we know things that move markets. We tell him. He makes money, some for him, and some for us, thank you very much.” Why? “If you hadn’t noticed, we have agents all over the world who are paying people large stipends. Bribes, to be blunt. Where do you think the money comes from - given that we don’t exist? We do it the old-fashioned way. We earn it. Perkin provides the structure. We provide the information. Put them together, and you have a money machine.”
But terrorist groups learn the same money-tracking techniques that the CIA uses against them, and they begin tracking down dispatched officers all over the world - and killing them. Just how Mr. Ignatius manages to unravel this spider’s web of spy-versus-spy intrigue is best left for your summer beach reading.
A cautionary note: Perhaps because of the company he keeps, Mr. Ignatius is a realist who understands why things happen in the world of intelligence that make some people flinch. As he writes, the CIA routinely breaks other countries’ laws: “If a job were simple and above board, then some other entity of the government could take care of it. Intelligence officers [are] supposed to do the twisty things.” Amen.
Joseph C. Goulden’s revised edition of SpySpeak: The Dictionary of Intelligence will be published by Dover Books in the fall.