Sunday, June 7, 2009

By David Ignatius
Norton, $26.95, 390 pages

David Ignatius’ latest espionage novel, “The Increment,” has been compared to John Le Carre’s seminal “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.” And indeed, there are superficial thematic similarities between the two. But to me, the book whose thesis most resembles Mr. Ignatius’ novel is Patrick Seale’s 1992 nonfiction work “Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.”

Mr. Seale posits that Abu Nidal, the notorious Palestinian terrorist responsible for, among other atrocities, hijacking an Egyptian airliner, assassinating Jordanian, British, UAE, Kuwaiti and PLO officials, and staging simultaneous attacks on the Vienna and Rome airports in December 1985 in which 16 people were killed and 60 were injured, was an agent of Israel’s Mossad intelligence organization.

Mr. Seale’s source for this hypothesis was none other than Salah Khalaf, better known as Abu Iyad, Yasser Arafat’s chief of intelligence. “Every Palestinian who works in intelligence is convinced that Israel has a big hand in Abu Nidal’s affairs” is how Mr. Khalaf put it to Mr. Seale during an interview in Tunis in the summer of 1990. “Abu Nidal,” Mr. Seale’s book concludes, “is a professional killer who has sold his deadly services certainly to the Arabs and perhaps to the Israelis as well. His genius has been to understand that states will commit any crime in the name of national interest.” Including allowing unsavory allies to commit murder, terrorism and other crimes.

Mr. Ignatius’ novel is based on a similar premise. His book’s unsavory ally, Al-Majnoun (“the crazy one”) is permitted to do what he does because while he works as an assassin for the Iranians as well as other shadowy groups, he also works — unbeknownst to all — as an agent of MI6. Mr. Ignatius, incidentally, loosely bases Al-Majnoun on a real, now-deceased Lebanese killer named Imad Mugniyeh. Mr. Mugniyeh, assassinated in Damascus in February 2008, was the Shia terrorist involved in the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and the Marine barracks in Beirut and the subsequent kidnapping and murder of CIA Beirut station chief William Buckley.

Like Mr. Ignatius’ Al-Majnoun, Mr. Mugniyeh was thought to have had multiple plastic surgeries to help him hide in plain sight. Unlike the fictional Al-Majnoun, Mr. Mugniyeh never worked for MI6, but for Force 17, Black September and Tehran. Those similarities aside, Mr. Ignatius also develops a couple of themes he worked into the core of his previous novel, “Body of Lies.”

In both books, the CIA is in decline; a largely toothless shell of an organization in which careerists, risk-averse bureaucrats and politically ambitious backstabbers have, like some insidious pandemic, caused many of CIA’s most capable officers to resign or retire. And in both books, the CIA is the victim of its own naivete when it comes to dealing with other intelligence services. In “Lies,” the wily Jordanian intelligence chief, Hani Salaam, runs circles around CIA supergrades who are so caught up with the alleged brilliance of their Rube Goldbergian operations they cannot see the strategic forest for the tactical trees.

Mr. Ignatius’ current hero is Harry Pappas, an earnest, experienced, field-wise case officer who is chief of Persia House, more formally known as the CIA’s Iran Operations Division. “Harry,” writes Mr. Ignatius, “was a big man in what had become a little institution.” Harry Pappas, who was Baghdad station chief at the same time his young son, a Marine, was killed in Iraq, also understands that Persia House is a joke, a Potemkin Village intelligence operation.

Is Iran developing nuclear weapons? Probably. How close are they? Harry has no idea. After all, he has no agents in Iran; no assets anywhere close to Tehran’s nuclear program. Harry — indeed, the whole U.S. government — is blind when it comes to Iran. In fact, instead of practicing the CIA case officer’s holy trinity of Spot, Assess, Recruit, Harry, like so many others in CIA’s clandestine service, is reduced to checking the Internet for “virtual walk-ins,” foreigners who contact the CIA’s public Web site.

Then an e-mail from one of those virtual walk-ins, someone who calls himself Dr. Ali, lands on Harry’s desk. Harry realizes that the information being offered comes from someone involved in Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. How to exploit this unexpected development? Harry, an experienced field hand, wants to go slowly. Harry’s colleague and CIA adversary, Arthur Fox, wants to take the information straight to the White House — now.

But then Harry is a former soldier who first came to theCIA as a paramilitary officer. Harry understands that recruitment is a long and involved process. Fox, who runs CIA’s Counter-Proliferation Division, is a self-important, tough-talking political animal, “one of those intelligence officers who had never run a big operation, never recruited an agent whose life was on the line.” But Fox is a Princeton man who has friends at the White House. And he, like the poll-conscious politicos, is looking for a reason to take military action against Tehran.

Dr. Ali, argues Fox, has just provided the smoking gun. Except he hasn’t. In fact, no one knows who Dr. Ali is, what he has access to, or is able to explain the underlying significance of his proffered materials. To answer these questions, Harry must go hat in hand to his old friend Adrian Winkler, MI6’s chief of staff. MI6 has assets in Tehran; CIA has none. Adrian Winkler also has access to paramilitary assets, operators from Britain’s SAS, SBS, and 14 Intelligence Company who do off-the-books jobs — snatches, assassinations and the like — for MI6. These assets, known as The Increment, become a vital element in Harry’s search for Dr. Ali.

Mr. Ignatius is one of those rare writers who understands the gestalt of the intelligence community — gets its culture and its modus vivendi spot on. He also draws an accurate picture of life at Langley these days — a life in which real operators are rapidly becoming extinct through micromanagement, risk aversion, political correctness and congressional grandstanding. He also catches another aspect that others miss: Harry Pappas, for all his good intentions, is handicapped because he is an earnest, honest soul. Harry is a handshake-deal guy. Which makes him as Jamesian as Christopher Newman, the feckless protagonist of Henry James’ “The American.”

As such, Harry operates at a distinct disadvantage when dealing with the sophisticated, corrupt European and Middle East practitioners of realpolitik in which lives don’t count for very much, bribery and kickbacks are a way of life, and ethics is a subject for schoolbooks. Our very Americanness, Mr. Ignatius seems to be saying, too often puts us at a disadvantage in the Wilderness of Mirrors. He is correct.

Now comes the downside. While Mr. Ignatius is brilliant at dealing with the gestalt of intelligence, he underwhelms when it comes to writing action scenes. The climax of the book, a covert operation in Iran, is flaccid and unconvincing. Mr. Ignatius obviously knows very little about weapons, or about how top-tier units operate. He doesn’t provide them with the correct kit, or with the sorts of sterile weapons to which they have access. It is a shame, because the rest of the book is artfully and carefully crafted. Which is why “The Increment” is a welcome, if imperfect, read. In a world where so much spy fiction is junk, it’s refreshing to come across a book that enlightens as well as entertains, peopled with believable characters who breathe real air and bleed real blood.

John Weisman’s most recent CIA novels “SOAR,” “Jack In the Box” and “Direct Action” are available as Avon paperbacks. He can be reached at

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