By Mark Henshaw
Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, $24.99 326 pages
The professional rivalry and cultural divide between CIA case officers who work in the field and the analysts who work primarily in front of computer screens at CIA headquarters have been well documented in numerous memoirs, nonfiction books and novels.
According to insiders, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks eliminated much of the rivalry. I recall hearing former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, who headed the CIA’s bin Laden unit, and former CIA field commander Gary Berntsen, who hunted bin Laden in Afghanistan, speak very highly of each other in a public forum in Philadelphia. They also spoke well of each other in my later separate interviews with them. Both Mr. Scheuer and Mr. Berntsen recognize the skill set and contributions of the other, and they realize they need each other in order to fight America’s enemies.
But according to the debut novel of an 11-year veteran CIA analyst, Mark Henshaw, some of that cultural divide at the CIA remains. In Mr. Henshaw’s “Red Cell,” Kyra Stryker is a sort of bridge between the CIA analysts and the case officers.
Stryker is a field officer called in from the cold due to a fiasco in Venezuela. The fiasco is due more to the incompetent CIA Venezuelan station chief than Stryker, but as a junior officer, it is she who is recalled to headquarters.
Kathy Cooke, the CIA director, explains to Stryker that the fiasco could end up being discussed in newspapers and on Sunday morning news programs if there were to be a leak, so Stryker has been called back to headquarters to prevent anyone in Venezuela discovering what actually happened. Cooke tells Stryker that she is being temporarily transferred from the Clandestine Service to the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence. They talk:
“‘I’m not an analyst,’ Kyra replied, dismayed. ‘I don’t know how to do that job. And I’ve never heard much good about analysts anyway.’
“‘Have you heard of the Red Cell?’ Cooke asked.
“’ No, ma’am, I haven’t,’ Kyra admitted.
“‘It’s an alternative analysis unit … not your usual DI shop,’ Cook said. ‘George Tenet created the Red Cell on September thirteenth to make sure the Agency didn’t suffer another September eleventh. Their job is to ‘think out of the box’ - to find the possibilities that other analysts might overlook or dismiss.’
“‘Devil’s advocate? War-gaming?’ Kyra asked. That, at least, could be interesting.’”
At Red Cell, Stryker teams up with Jonathan Burke, a brilliant, independent and unorthodox analyst. After a raid on Chinese spies in Taiwan leads to threats of war between communist China and Taiwan, the CIA director assigns the two CIA officers in Red Cell to find out why China is prepared to invade Taiwan despite the presence of the U.S. Navy, America’s long-standing deterrent.
Do the Chinese have a secret weapon? Is war imminent? The case officer and the analyst believe a top CIA asset in China, code-named Pioneer, may have the answers.
Pioneer is a spy for the CIA for ideological reasons. As a student, he had witnessed the Chinese government’s brutal actions against the protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Two years later, the Ministry of State Security (MSS) recruited him for his skill with computers. By working for the MSS and spying for the CIA, Pioneer believed he was fighting his own revolution against the oppressive Chinese government.
The action in this thriller takes place in the offices and corridors of CIA headquarters, the streets and alleys of Beijing and on the deck and passageways of an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean. (As a former sailor who served on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, I especially enjoyed the carrier action).
The thriller describes real CIA offices and units, including Red Cell, where Mr. Henshaw himself served for three years, and the spy tradecraft is real - up to a classified point. Likewise, the American and Chinese military units and tactics are accurate.
The novel also covers true historical events like the Tiananmen Square massacre and the 2001 aloft collision of an American EP-3 signals reconnaissance aircraft and a Chinese interceptor fighter aircraft.
This realism adds to the suspense and believability of the story.
While most of today’s thrillers deal with the threat of terrorism - a very real threat to be sure - I found it interesting that Mr. Henshaw’s “Red Cell” deals with a sort of Cold War II duel between America and China.
“Red Cell’s” book flap calls Mr. Henshaw “the Tom Clancy for a new generation.” The thriller does in fact remind me of Tom Clancy’s debut novel, “The Hunt for Red October.” Like “Red October,” this is a suspenseful thriller for those interested in espionage and military conflict.
• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism. His blog can be read at https://pauldavisoncrime. blogspot.com/