The Good Spy

Since I reviewed Gray Day, I decided to fulfill – however late – my reviewer duties for a couple of other titles on espionage history before returning to William Hope Hodgson.

Review: The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, Kai Bird, 2014.Good Spy

Books about Israeli-Palestinian strife are way down on my list of interests. However, this was a book about a CIA agent who, while unknown to the world, was a major player in Middle Eastern politics for a while, so I was mildly interested.

It’s possible this book may incite some strong feelings for those who do care about those politics.

For the record, my own biases are that Israel has way too much influence in American affairs. It is not the 51st state. It has not been a staunch ally. It is capable of taking care of itself. On the other hand, I really don’t care what Israel does with their Palestinian or Arab neighbors. The necessity for America to insert itself in this conflict is non-existent in a post-Cold War era where America produces so much of its own oil.

Robert Ames, a CIA employee from 1960 to his violent death on April 18, 1983 when the United States embassy in Lebanon was bombed, was not a neutral in that conflict. He sympathized with the Palestinians. He was a romantic Arabist, a lover of the Arab street though, in his later days, he did empathize with Israeli concerns too. Continue reading

Gray Day

This one came to me through Amazon’s Vine program.

Review: Gray Day: My Undercover Mission to Expose America’s First Cyber Spy, Eric O’Neill, 2019.Gray Day

Since I followed the Robert Hanssen espionage case when it broke and have seen Breach (where O’Neill is played by actor Ryan Phillippe), I was hoping to learn something new about Hanssen the man and the details of the secrets he passed.

This book succeeds on those accounts.

The secrets Hanssen passed, starting in November 1979 and continuing through 1999, included FBI and CIA assets in Soviet and Russian intelligence, nuclear weapon information (though how he got a hold of those is not revealed), continuity-of-government plans by the US government (essentially plans to prevent a “decapitation” of leadership in a nuclear war), methods and operations, and the existence of a secret FBI and NSA tunnel under the Russian Embassy in Washington D.C.

Hanssen, a CPA and holder of an MBA, joined the FBI in 1976. He had a life-long interest in spying. But, though “smart, technically proficient, and analytical” and good with computers, the FBI bureaucracy shunted him aside. As O’Neil says, Hanssen joined the FBI to become a spy. They made him a librarian. Continue reading

A History of the First World War in 100 Objects

Review: A History of the First World War in 100 Objects, John Hughes-Wilson, 2014.History of the First World War in 100 Objects

A remarkably complete history of the war covering every major combat theatre – Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East – from mining operations below ground to air combat and bombing, from under the sea to the Battle of Jutland. It covers weapons and war financing, logistics and espionage, home front politics and war production, mutinies, the soldiers’ life in combat and behind the trenches and on leave, and artists and the war.

The format is simple. Each chapter has a full-page picture of an object, an inset talking about it, and anywhere from one to six pages of text, often with additional, smaller photos, covering the subject the object represents.

The objects are not always what you expect. For instance, a “body density map” is shown for a chapter on Western Front casualties, a fullerphone (a scrambler for voice and Morse signals passed on a wire), Lieutenant Augustus Agar’s boat (used in a raid on the Bolshevik fleet for which he won “the mystery VC”), and a harpoon gun used by interred German sailors at Scapa Flow to supplement their meagre rations with birds. Continue reading

What If?

The alternate history continues with a collection of essays from various historians and popular writers, a modern sequel of sorts to If It Had Happened Otherwise.

There was a follow up volume I have not read.

Raw Feed (2004): What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, ed. Robert Cowley, 2000.what-if

“Introduction”, Robert Cowley — A cursory look at the current state of academic “counterfactual” writing, teasers for the essays in the collection, and a brief discussion of their genesis in the special tenth anniversary edition of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History.

Infectious Alternatives: The Plague That Saved Jerusalem, 701 B.C.”, William H. McNeill — Not surprisingly McNeill, the historian who really first put forth the idea that disease epidemics affected many events in history, chooses a plague as his turning point. We don’t really know why the Assyrian king Sennacherib abandoned his investment of Jerusalem. We know his army suffered severe losses, and it is probable that it was due to disease. McNeill briefly sketches, in cultural and religious terms, the consequences of the Assyrians taking Jerusalem and, thereby, killing Judaism as a cultural force for good. (It really isn’t that much of a stretch. The splinter kingdom of Israel had abandoned Judaism and disappeared in 722 B.C. Several cities in Judah were taken, and the King of Judea ended up paying tribute to the Assyrians.) McNeill sees the main effect of Jerusalem being taken is that the Jewish faith looses further confidence. The unique universal monotheism of Judaism is weakened. When the Jews are taken off in the Babylonian captivity, they become just another locally centered, ethnically based faith and exert no influence on the following centuries.

A Good Night’s Sleep Can Do Wonders“, Barbara N. Porter — A very brief alternate history that imagines the possible consequences (actually, it spends most of its time recounting the historical record and not imagining alternative outcomes) of the Lydian King Gyges not getting a good night’s sleep and impatiently attacking the Cimmerians before he was ready. The Lydians don’t form an alliance with Assyria and, years later, nascent Greek culture is overwhelmed by the expanding Cimmerians. Continue reading

Cold Warrior

And a final look at espionage histories touching on Kim Philby.

Raw Feed (1995): Cold Warrior: James Jesus Angleton — CIA’s Master Spy, Tom Mangold, 1991.Cold Warrior 

Fascinating story of one man’s obsession and paranoia and how it greatly crippled the CIA’s intelligence work against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

After reading this book, it’s a wonder we fared as well as we did against the Russians then, and it is an explanation for why human intelligence operations against the U.S.S.R. so miserably failed to see the crumbling of the Soviet Empire and its economic weakness or the crushing of the Czechoslovakian revolt. Angleton, head of CIA’s Counterintelligence Staff for 20 years (1954-1974 and the first to hold the position), crippled the agency by his paranoia and obsessions; yet, as Director of Central Intelligence William Colby said, it’s doubtful he actually caught a single spy. He was a brilliant man at bureaucratic intrigue and Machiavellian intrigue. Many people who worked at CIA never met him; he would direct counterintelligence operations against US citizens and CIA officers and leave no paper trail linking it to him as shown by his clever scheme to sell out Yuriy Loginov (an alleged KGB double agent) to his former masters. He was worshipped as a master of Counter Intelligence by his peers in Canada, Britain, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa; a man with intimate contacts with Israeli intelligence.

The tale is simple in its outlines and fascinating in its details. Angleton felt severely betrayed when his colleague and friend Kim Philby turned out to be a KGB double agent. He even went so far as destroying all the voluminous records of his conversations with Philby out of embarrassment over what secrets he spilled. When egomaniacal KGB defector Anatoliy Golitsyn came over to the CIA with grandiose notions of knowing the KGB’s inner workings (he had only been a relatively low ranking KGB officer who did no operational work in the field) and revelations of a “monster plot” run by Philby, he found a very – disastrously so – ready ear in Angleton. The monster plot had three main elements: the Sino-Soviet split was a fake, the KGB was mounting a massive penetration of Western intelligence services, and – most importantly for later developments – that all defectors after Golitsyn would be fake. (In some ways, I find this notion the most incredulous and wonder how even a suspicious counterspy could presume to predict the motives of any possible future defectors.) Angleton swallowed it all. Suspicions were cast on loyal CIA officers and agents and agents at friendly agencies. Angleton did much to sour relations between French and American intelligence agencies with accusations of Soviet moles. Careers were ruined; people were falsely imprisoned. Particularly shameful was the case of Yuriy Nosenko who was imprisoned for 4 years by the CIA because it was believed, as per Golitsyn, that he was a double agent for the KGB – this despite the fact that he helped uncover major KGB moles with much more specific information than self-proclaimed expert of KGB operations Golitsyn (not to mention the vital information he had on Lee Harvey Oswald’s lack of ties to the KGB). Continue reading

Deadly Illusions

I’m continuing with the Kim Philby theme.

Raw Feed (1995): Deadly Illusions: The KGB Orlov Dossier Reveals Stalin’s Master Spy, John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, 1993.Deadly Illusions

An interesting collaboration between Costello, an English journalist/historian specializing in espionage history, and Tsarev, an officer with the KGB’s (now SVRR) Press Department.

The book details the career (and very little of the personal life since it is drawn almost entirely from KGB, FBI, CIA, and INS records) of Alexander Orlov, the most famous pseudonym of an NKVD officer thought to have defected from the Soviet Union in 1938. What this book reveals is that Orlov (in 1938 the head of Soviet activity aiding the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and on-site director of purges against Marxists Stalin regarded as competitors in Spain) merely fled Stalin’s mad purges of the NKVD and was, as the KGB files put it, a “non-returner” and not a defector. During his time in hiding in America from 1938 to 1973, he never revealed anything of value to the CIA or FBI interrogators though he wrote two books, one on Stalin’s crimes, the other on guerilla warfare and counter intelligence. He exposed only spy rings, operations, and agents already “blown” and nothing of what he did know which was quite a lot.

He helped organized the Rote Kapelle, Red Orchestra, the very successful NKVD spy ring in Nazi Germany till 1942. He founded most of the Oxford-Cambridge spy ring. He did not recruit Philby though he did tell Philby he was working for the Soviet Union and not just anti-fascists. I found the “Oxbridge” part of the book most interesting not only for its revelations as to how agents are recruited, motivated, and supervised and for showing that MI6 never caught all the ring’s members but also how it depicts the zeal with which its members embraced Communism as a religious faith for their alienated, spiritually vacant lives. It also showed how seductive Communism was to the rationalistic mindset, particularly among scientists, of Cambridge. I was also interested to see that not only was Communism fashionable in academic circles but fascism had its devotees in government. The lax security that afforded Donald Maclean such easy access to classified documents shows a typically British blindness regarding class. It was simply assumed that only gentlemen worked for the Foreign Office and, therefore, wouldn’t steal documents.

Orlov also knew of the effort to kill Trotsky and personally helped purge people in Spain. One can’t feel sorry for Orlov’s near death at the hands of Stalin. Like so many revolutionaries since the French Revolution, he thought he could ride the tiger and ignore or even approve of the bloodshed around him – until it became his turn. But Orlov cleverly evaded a trap for him and blackmailed Stalin and the NKVD by stating that, if he died, secret operations – like the Rote Kapelle, purges in Spain, and the “Oxbridge” ring – would be exposed. Stalin took no action against him. The blackmail letter, quoted here, does not explicitly make such a threat but it is heavily implied and certainly NKVD records show that’s how it was taken. Orlov never exposed those operations though pretending to be a defector. (The FBI suspected he was holding out and had ran assassination squads in Spain but couldn’t prove it.)

He died a dedicated communist and was described by one CIA officer as the single most versatile (he ran guerilla operations, counter-intelligence, and intelligence), powerful, and productive agent the Soviets produced.


More reviews of espionage related works are at the Espionage page.

Treason in the Blood

Tim Powers’ Declare certainly was not my first exposure to Kim Philby’s story, but I did seek out several of the Philby biographies Powers mentions in his notes.

This one, however, was the only one I made notes on.

Raw Feed (2003): Treason in the Blood: M. St. John Philby, Kim Philby, and the Spy Case of the Century, Anthony Cave Brown, 1994.Treason in the Blood

This is the first book length treatment I’ve read of Kim Philby’s story. Prior to this my exposure to him came in books about other espionage figures who crossed paths with Philby: John Costello and Oleg Tsarev’s Deadly Illusions (about Alexander Orlov, one of Philby’s NKVD controllers) and Tom Mangold’s Cold Warrior: James Jesus Angleton, The CIA’s Master Spy Hunter (Angleton being a figure of key importance in the Philby story).

The inspiration for reading this book was its mention in Tim Powers’ note in the Afterword of his excellent Declare. After reading this book, I can understand the attraction of Philby’s story. This dual biography is more than just a gimmick to distinguish itself from the rest of the horde of Philby biographies. St. John Philby (who has already had biographies done on him) turns out to have been a figure of major importance in Middle Eastern politics, particularly the formation of the House of Saud and how American oil companies got the oil rights in Saudi Arabia. He was a learned man. Brown introduced me to a lot of early 20th century Middle Eastern colonial history I was not aware of: communist conspiracies in India, the British rule in Iraq, and the backpedaling of Britain and France in keeping its political promises to its Arabian allies of World War I. Continue reading


Another book I got through the Amazon Vine program. While I’m interested in history and archaeology, I mainly got it for the espionage angle.

A retro review from February 18, 2013.

Review: Jungleland: A Mysterious Lost City, A WWII Spy, and a True Story of Deadly Adventure, Christopher S. Stewart, 2013.Jungleland

Don’t come to this book expecting much about the wartime espionage activities of Theodore Morde. Apart from an episode in Istanbul where he talks with Franz von Pappen, Germany’s ambassador to Turkey and an old spymaster himself, about assassinating Hitler, this book has little to offer in that area, and you’d be better off just going straight to the listed bibliographic sources.

While I didn’t get the espionage history I hoped for when picking up this book, I still enjoyed it. Stewart moves his narrative along quickly, alternating between Morde’s life – particularly his 1939 expedition to the Mosquito Coast -and his own expedition (with archaeologist Chris Begley as a guide) to that area 70 years later. Stewart juggles so many things in this book – archaeological discovery, self-discovery, Morde’s life, espionage, and Honduran history – that, if you’re bored with one subject, your area of interest quickly shows up again. The flip side of that is, of course, that it’s more of an appetizer than a meal, but it’s still an enjoyable book and not a major investment of time. I particularly enjoyed the encounters with Hondurans (and tourists) in both time periods.
And, yes, there is a resolution of sorts to the matter of whether Ciudad Blanca exists.


More reviews of espionage titles are indexed on the Espionage History page.


There’s probably not going to be a lot of new stuff written in the next few days, so I’ll be dipping into the archive of old reviews.

This one is from June 30, 2012 …

Review: Enemies: A History of the FBI, Tim Weiner, 2012.Enemies

Weiner’s book has one great strength. It rests entirely on on-the-record statements and recently declassified FBI documents. There is no questionable Bob Woodward secret sourcing going on.

Weiner’s book is also well-written and moves quickly – perhaps too quickly when one comes across an area where more detail is sought. However, that’s where the extensive footnotes come in with a great deal of the declassified documents to be found online. And this is, after all, a one volume history with a great deal of ground to cover: the existence of the FBI as a secret intelligence and security service. This book is not at all interested in the FBI investigating conventional crimes.

The FBI came into existence in July 1908 as the Bureau of Investigation in the Justice Department – after Congress had refused to appropriate money for keeping tabs on anarchists, foreign-born radicals, and politicians and developers looting public lands. In typical fashion, Theodore Roosevelt simply waited until Congress adjourned, dipped into a Justice Department’s expense account, and created the agency anyway. It was never created by a Federal charter and still doesn’t have one to this day. From its beginnings, it was there to gather intelligence on suspected and actual subversives.

J. Edgar Hoover, the man synonymous with the FBI, joined the Justice Department in July 26, 1917 at age 22. At age 23, he was overseeing the thousands of Germans interned in government camps during World War One and surveillance of hundreds of thousands of U.S. residents. On August 1, 1919, the 24 year old Hoover was made head of the Justice Department’s new Radical Division which, under the guise of the 1917 Espionage Act – still on the books but rarely enforced – spied on thousands of Americans thought to be violent anarchists or members of a “Red” communist conspiracy. It was in the time of a massive Wall Street bombing and the attempted assassination of several government officials via mailed bombs. The government responded with the famous Palmer raids, massive arrests followed, in the case of the foreign-born citizens, by occasional deportation. But those raids were actually directed and organized by Hoover. Continue reading


Review: Crack99: The Takedown of a $100 Million Chinese Software Pirate, David Locke Hall, 2015.Crack99

These are the kind of books I like to review – short, informative, a recap of news I missed, and a source for follow up reading.

And I don’t I have to pay for it since this was a review copy from Amazon. Because these books always seem a bit overpriced considering they are short and summarize a lot of news. This one’s fairly cheap though.

As our subject, Xiang Li, the man behind the titular software cracking site Crack99, might say, “The product is pretty. You be pleased. Go tell other people.”

As you would expect from a longtime Assistant US Attorney used to bringing juries to the desired conclusions, Hall recounts his case against Li convincingly and clearly.

He takes us through Homeland Security Investigations (HSI – Homeland Security’s investigative arm that finds it more amenable to pursue counterfeit purses than illegal aliens) showing him the childish looking Crack99 site.

The software it sold for one percent of retail were not versions of Microsoft Office or Adobe products. These programs were very expensive – tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars each – and used for very sophisticated engineering and manufacturing uses. Generally, for a lot of this stuff, you need to, as a mere prerequisite, be an engineer or physicist.

Hall takes us through the legal facts, questions, and obstacles to prosecuting someone running a software pirate site: establishing identity, location of the criminal, criminal intent, establishing whether selling pirated software – sans any physical product but just file transfers over the internet – is stealing. And, of course, there is the not trivial problem of physical getting the cuffs on Mr. Li and taking him back for trial in America.

Hall is a personable fellow who seems to have led an interesting life outside of being a lawyer and he drops in some “war stories” at the beginning of each chapter. That causes a bit of a problem on the concise narration front because one such story is actually a chapter on the arrest of an Iranian arms merchant, Amir Ardebili. (A story covered in John Shiffman’s Operation Shakespeare: The True Story of an Elite International Sting.) Granted, it’s there to show how you go about arresting international criminals on foreign soil and extradite them with the cooperation of other countries, but it’s also 32 pages out of a 290 page story.

Hall is hardly the first ex-public servant to use a book to push his ideas of reform. It’s hard to argue that Chinese industrial espionage goes hand in hand with their military spying and poses a very real threat to American economic and military (and, thus, national) security though Hall makes clear that he has no certain proof that Xiang Li had ties to the Chinese government. Hall wants more people in the US Department of Justice and military to follow his lead and prosecute these software pirates.

Brief Additional Thoughts

Though my time in government has been at a completely different level and involved in the enforcement of completely different laws, some of Hall’s experiences are familiar.

Reluctance to do the hard work. Hall labels this, in the world of law enforcement, “big cases, big problems” or “junk food” — quick and not the best for the public. Some people refer to this as the Easier For Them explanation of government behavior. I call it going after the soft targets.

Evil metrics. (Hall doesn’t use the “e” word, but I will.) Governments love to use metrics because it sounds oh-so-private sector and official and accountable. Well, government is not a business. Its “customers” don’t usually have a choice in using or paying for its services. Metrics can be gamed in so many ways — and are by so many government agencies — that you might as well not use them. (Sir John Cowperthwaite collected almost no statistics when he governed Hong Kong.)

I liked Hall because he reminded me of some of the older men I’ve worked with in government who had “war stories” to tell — literal war stories as well as things they did in their career before management became so rigid and ignorant.

Which brings me to Hall’s boss who “knew nothing about the Chinese government’s sponsorship and encouragement of cyber intrusion and espionage”. I didn’t quite take the time to break down who this was (Hall never names his bosses), but obviously giving even a cursory glance at the day’s newspapers is not a prerequisite for a US Attorney.

Hall calls the Chinese government “totalitarian”.  I wouldn’t go that far, but I would call them fascistic in the sense that their governments and businesses are closely co-ordinated to pursue national ends. Both co-operate in espionage as shown in David Wise’s Tiger Trap.

And I’m suspicious of those ends. China is full of smart people who resent that their civilization was eclipsed by the West and are determined to catch up and, to my mind, dominate the world. (Though that is merely a suspicion.  People who know China way better, out of experience and study, than me disagree on the future of U.S. and China relationships.)

Just as U.S. political circles asked “Who lost China?” when the Communists came to power there, I suspect future historians will be busy cataloging the foolishness of our trade and immigration policies with China. As Pat Buchanan has pointed out, free market Britain was eventually eclipsed by not so free traders Germany and America. American dominance was partially the result of an industrial espionage program that, for its day, was rather like China’s now.  Peter Andreas’ Smuggler Nation talks about this briefly.

I’m not the only one seemingly unkeen on a future dominated by China. Given the number of Chinese women practicing obstetric tourism, many of them may not be keen on it either.

Finally, in a two page argument, Hall thinks perhaps  we “might be doing something wrong” because black and Hispanic men are convicted of certain crimes in a greater proportion than whites. I have a suggestion to Mr. Hall in his retirement — glance at a map of world homicide rates and ponder the patterns. While you’re there, follow up by reading the FAQ at the esteemed blog of JayMan.


The Espionage page.