THE KREMLIN’S CANDIDATE
By Jason Matthews
Scribner, $26.99, 435 pages
An ever-present nightmare for an intelligence agency is the prospect of an enemy officer winnowing his or her way into a position where he or she can endanger operations.
High-level traitors are not unknown in the trade. Consider the British officer Kim Philby who spied for the Soviets while working in counterintelligence for his country’s Secret Intelligence Service.
Author Jason Matthews posits an even more audacious penetration in his delightfully-readable novel in which Russia has positioned a candidate for the position of director of Central Intelligence.
Mr. Matthews writes with the insider-authenticity of an officer who served for 33 years in the CIA’s Operations Directorate, specializing in denied-area assignments.
“The Kremlin’s Candidate” is the third book in his Red Sparrow series, with carry-over characters, but nonetheless a stand-alone work. It reinforces Mr. Matthews’ dominance as a writer of intelligence fiction.
Mr. Matthews also works in a naughty sub-plot: The indifference — even hostility — with which several high Washington officials view the intelligence community.
He depicts CIA colleagues who are unhappy with a president who is rather dense on foreign affairs, and whose National Security Council is dominated by “the twentysomething English majors” who advise him on such matters as Middle East policy.
When accused of skullduggery, the DCI replies heatedly, “We don’t steal secrets. Everything we do with consistent with U.S. law. We uncover, we discover, we reveal, we obtain, we solicit.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin also takes some whacks. He mulls an order to murder the agency’s current director, a former operations officer who is an adversary of his own intelligence service.
Putin is also alarmed that CIA is aware of the billions of dollars of personal wealth he has siphoned from the Russian economy to support sumptuous living.
(Footnote: A January report from the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee estimated his net worth between $40 billion and $200 billion.) He fears that exposure can drive him from office.
Warned about consequences of killing a CIA director, Putin scoffs, “The U. S. administration will hitch up their skirts in panic, and Congress will blubber until it is time for them to go into their next recess.”
Soon thereafter the DCI is indeed killed when an assassin drags him from a small fishing boat in Maryland and he drowns. The context is obvious: Vladimir Putin’s threat has become reality.
Thus the Kremlin has cleared the way for a turn-coat as a replacement: Audrey Rowland, a female officer who is both a brilliant scientist and a lesbian.
During a brief early assignment to Moscow, she is lured into a honey-trap romp by a seductress. The XXX-rated scene is taped by the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (SVR), the successor to the KGB in foreign intelligence.
Thereafter the threat of blackmail puts her in bondage to the Russians, even as talent propels her to the rank of rear admiral, and a key position in the national security establishment. (She keeps her sexual preference a deep secret.)
However, Dominika Egorova, the woman who seduced Rowland years earlier is herself a CIA asset who has worked her way up the SVR hierarchy.
Her motive for switching side? Disgust with the dirty-work assignments she draws because of her training as a “swallow” to seduce both men and women for blackmail purposes. Her dilemma is how to warn her CIA handler of the DCI replacement scheme.
Mr. Matthews’ plot, albeit complex, flows smoothly between the Kremlin, wharfs in Turkey, CIA headquarters in northern Virginia, Turkey, Hong Kong and Vladimir Putin’s czar-quality seaside mansion.
Sprinkled throughout are discourses on the tradecraft case officers rely upon to survive in the field.
Want to shake off a surveillance team? Mr. Matthews’ account is as detailed as an Espionage 101 course. He drops in some agency jargon. North Koreans, for example, are “NoKos.”
Soviet operatives cleverly eliminate two other persons being considered for the DCI slot. A leftist congresswomen is dropped when a correspondent for a Moscow newspaper wheedles dumb anti-CIA comments from her self-important aide. False information about a Russian grain deal sinks a businessman who is the other contestant. Adm. Rowland seems certain to get the post.
In the climactic section, Mr. Matthews’ entourage assembles at Putin’s lavish estate on Cape Idokopai, on the Baltic coast. (I could have done without a scene where Putin rapes Dominika Egorova of the SVR. No matter. A small diversion.)
All the while, a CIA team (present under various covers) works feverishly to get their mole to a submarine and safety.
I shan’t spoil the climax, which adds a heaping dollop of literary license to reality. But when all is done, only a dunce would doubt that the Cold War rages on, even if on a different level.
Five cloaks, five daggers. The intel read of the year.
• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military affairs.