- - Tuesday, September 29, 2015


By Jason Matthews

Scribner, $26.99, 470 pages

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Given the superb credentials of the author — a top CIA operative for 33 years — one is tempted (and with justification) to read this novel as a roman a clef, and especially in its depiction of the Russian criminal state assembled by President Vladimir Putin. One minor disappointment: Putin is on the verge of seducing a beautiful Russian counterintelligence officer who is also a CIA penetration agent, but must desist at the very last minute.

No matter. Enough insider information is contained about the corrupt court of Putin — is it heresy to term him Vlad the Terrible? — to make one suspect that much of the material is based on reports from the agency’s Moscow station. One little secret about Langley is that our spies love trafficking in salacious gossip about foreign leaders that would not be out of place in the New York Post’s Page Six column. Jason Matthews was CIA chief in Moscow during a career spent mainly in the so-called “denied areas” subservient to the old Soviet Union. And his book has an authenticity seldom encountered in spy fiction.

At the outset, cast aside uninformed Washington chatter about a “detente” among spies. Mr. Matthews depicts an intelligence battle in which the CIA and the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (SVR), the Russian foreign intelligence service, successor to the late KGB, compete with Cold War fervor.

“Palace of Treason” features two central characters who Mr. Matthews introduced in his best-selling first novel, “Red Sparrow.” The luscious Capt. Dominika Egorova, is an SVR counterintelligence officer turned into a penetration agent by the CIA. (To start her career, she underwent “sparrow” training in the art of sexpionage, which is exactly what the name implies.) Her chief CIA handler — and lover — is Nate Nash. That they are lovers breaks the rules, of course, but such is Eros.

Among his many references to CIA tradecraft, Mr. Matthews offers intriguing hints as to how the Moscow station manages contacts with covert operatives. He tutors Dominika in how to employ communications equipment that can be loaded and unloaded from a distance. Imagine a hand-sized sensor that can be buried a few inches within line-of-sight of a busy highway. (Does the CIA actually have such equipment? I surmise that Mr. Matthews’ description is of a technique that is a generation or so dated.)

Dominka is motivated by her disgust with the “successors to the sclerotic Soviet Politburo — the cashiered KGB hustlers, and the thirsty oligarchs, and the crime lords, and the poker-faced president with his trademark sidelong glance .” Keen-eyed for pretty women, Putin takes an interest in Dominika, to the distress of jealous SVR superiors.

A particularly fascinating riff deals with the CIA tradecraft involved in protecting an in-place defector — i.e.., a Soviet who willingly reveals top-secret materials, but does not want to leave Russia. The dissident is a high-level Red Army general disgusted with the false and unfulfilled promises of communism. When his exposure seemed imminent, Dominka helps engineer his defection via a submarine off St. Petersburg. That she does so while en route to a house party at one of Putin’s many residences squashes SVR suspicions about her loyalty.

In another operation, CIA exploits Putin’s material greed in crippling Iran’s nuclear ambitions. An Iranian nuclear scientist is caught on film in a sexual tryst with a Soviet woman, an encounter engineered by Dominka. He is blackmailed into revealing plans for an advanced nuclear facility.

Putin and associates are conned into purchasing German-made equipment for the new facility at an inflated price. He and SVR cronies share the illicit multimillion-dollar proceeds. And, sure enough, in due course the deliberately flawed German apparatus explodes into a fireball. (Here one detects a distinct echo of Operation Farewell, a Reagan-era scam engineered by officer Gus Weiss to sell the Soviets equipment designed to fail).

While pointing out that the SVR is laden with incompetent officers, chiefly KGB holdovers whose hands are still stained with torturer’s blood, Mr. Matthew does not avoid criticisms of the U. S. intelligence community. By his account — and he sounds credible — the CIA over the years has been cursed with the presence of non-performing officers, hypercautious twits who shun dangerous “street work” and who still manage to land cushy chief-of-station assignments.

Indeed, one of his characters is a malcontented officer who contacts the SVR with the intent of exposing Dominika as a covert CIA operative. This lout is clearly modeled on the FBI traitor Robert Hanssen, down to the strip-club girlfriend.

As authentic a spy novel as you are ever apt to read, rendered in exciting prose by a master who helped craft the rules by which spying is conducted. A ten-cloak, ten-dagger read.

Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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