Tiger Trap

In preparation for posting a review shortly of David Locke Hall’s Crack99, I’m posting another review about Chinese malfeasance.

From April 12, 2012 …

Review: Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War with China, David Wise, 2011.Tiger Trap

The ongoing struggle – whether acknowledged or not by our governments – of America with China is the subject of several books, and the cyber attacks and espionage of China against Western targets has gotten a fair amount of coverage. And that subject is even covered in this book’s last chapter.

China’s more traditional espionage activity has been less well covered and that is the subject of this book which ranges in time from the possible 1960s affair of Richard Nixon with a Chinese agent to 2009 espionage prosecutions. Wise bounces back and forth in time as he covers two major cases of Chinese espionage: a double agent for both the FBI and the MSS – China’s organization for gathering foreign intelligence – and a Chinese-American scientist suspected of providing details of America’s most sophisticated nuclear weapons to China. Because Chinese espionage operations often seem to overlap somewhere, these two cases, code named Parlor Maid and Tiger Trap respectively, also introduce us to other cases including perhaps the most famous – the matter of the reputedly innocent Wen Ho Lee.

There are several points of interest in Wise’s caroming narrative. Continue reading

The Venona Secrets

Traitors, of course, imply treason and that is exactly the charge Romerstein and Breindel substantiate in this book. Specifically, that the American Communist Party was a knowing tool for Soviet espionage; that the alleged anti-fascism of American Communists was a facade unsupported by their behavior during the German-Russian Non-Aggression Pact; that American Communists probably supplied Nazi Germany with military secrets during that period; that the U.S. government of the 1940s was riddled with Soviet agents including Alger Hiss and Harry Hopkins, personal friend and advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and that J. Robert Oppenheimer was among the Soviet spies on the Manhattan Project.

The decoding of Soviet messages from 1940-1948, coupled with documents from the Communist governments of the former Warsaw Pact, provides the evidence for these charges.

Romerstein and Breindel write in a clear prose, and this book can be read fairly easily cover to cover in a few sittings. However, its organization seems more that of a reference book for scholars of Soviet espionage and U.S. political history rather than a straightforward narrative. The individual chapters cover the most famous spy rings operating in the U. S. during the years of the Venona messages, espionage directed toward stealing nuclear secrets, anti-Trotskyite activities, and co-opting journalists for propaganda purposes. The index is comprehensive and includes listing for the many code names used by the NKVD and GRU.

There is some interesting material on the struggle to root Communists out of American unions. The question of Jewish involvement in Soviet espionage is briefly and unsatisfyingly touched on. The authors acknowledge that Jews had a heavy and disproportionate involvement in the early Soviet intelligence services. But it is also true that Jews later became a target of those same organizations and Jews were purged out of them. What was the initial attraction to begin with?

However, there is a repetition of details about individual agents from chapter to chapter and no attempt to give a chronology of their activities. I suspect the authors organized the book around the idea that their fellow scholars would simply pick individual chapters to read depending on their interests rather than completely read the book.

This is not a biographical look at spies. For instance, we get almost no idea why Elizabeth Bentley went from NKVD agent to double agent for the FBI. It was perhaps because her NKVD lover/controller Jacob Golos had died, and she was miffed at the NKVD’s lack of confidence in her ability to continue to run agents. Likewise, we are presented with no explanation for Jack Childs remark “What took you so long?” to the FBI when they confronted him about decades of spying for the USSR.

While the book offers a brief explanation on the interception and decoding of the Venona messages, there are certainly better accounts of it elsewhere.

The book does have a nice appendix where we are presented with several photocopies of the decoded Venona messages so you get a feel of the raw data the authors worked with and what the NSA and its predecessor, the U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Service, produced in a job that lasted until 1980.


The Espionage page.


The Third Man

Just when you were getting used to Cthulhu Mythos and World War One reviews mixed in with your science fiction, I jump to another topic.

That’s the way things work here.

This retro review from December 18, 2005 covers a biography of famous spy Kim Philby. It is by no means the first work I read that dealt with Philby. That was probably Tom Mangold’s Cold Warrior: James Jesus Angleton — The CIA’s Master Spy HunterIt argues that Kim Philby’s betrayal cranked up James Jesus Angleton’s professionally useful paranoia to a dangerous level.

With the exception of The Sword and the Shield, most of the titles below come from the source notes in Tim Powers’ excellent fantasy spin on the life of Kim Philby and his father, Declare. (My favorite Powers’ title)

Review: The Third Man: The Full Story of Kim Philby, E. H. Cookridge, 1968.

This book is very dated in some aspects. Anthony Blunt, one of the Magnificent Five as the KGB called the Cambridge Spy Ring, gets a one sentence mention as someone who occasionally hung out in fellow spy Guy Burgess’ apartment. There is a far too kind portrayal of Donald Maclean as a conflicted man — he loved his commendations from the King and hated Britain’s captialist society . But, instead of a tragic figure blackmailed by Burgess into spying during the latter years of World War Two, Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin’s The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB shows him voluntarily starting his espionage work in 1934. And, of course, its date of composition means the full life of its main subject, Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby, is not covered. Nor is there much on the specific clues, like the Venona intercepts, that led American intelligence officials to suspect Philby. Continue reading

The Big Time, or Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Since From Couch to the Moon and I have been talking about Fritz Leibers The Wanderer, I thought I’d continue with more Leiber.

The Big Time is not the small time.

It justifies another round of Reviewer Parallax so check out From the Couch to the Moon’s review. Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased also reviewed it.

I forgot this one has some World War One content, so I’ll be returning to it at some point for my World War One in Fantastic Fiction series.

A retro review from August 5, 2010.

Review: The Big Time, Fritz Leiber, 1958.

Big TimeSay you’re about to die in a few minutes, maybe, like our narrator Greta Forzane, after ten minutes of being raped to death by soldiers of a Third Reich that goes from the salt mines of Siberia to the cornfields of Iowa. And then you are offered an opportunity to escape your fate – an opportunity no one ever refuses. Of course, you have to enroll with the Spiders or the Snakes, become a Demon in their eternal Change War, a vast cosmic struggle across millions of years to change history to … well, no one is really sure what the war’s point is. You just serve your side as a Soldier or an Entertainer.

Greta’s an Entertainer, one of the staff in the Place, a zone outside of regular time and space, an R&R stop for the Soldiers back from missions to terminate the Roman Empire early, nuke Ancient Crete, or kidnap a baby Einstein. History is a stubborn, hard thing to change. And, if you succeed, there’s always the blowback of the Change Winds which may you take you into nonexistence. Continue reading

The Secret War Against Hanoi

This retro review, from July 31, 2000, is before the huge explosion in books about modern Special Forces operations. They are, of course, the product of the War on Terror.

And I have not read a single one of them.Secret War Against Hanoi

Review: The Secret War Against Hanoi: The Untold Story of Spies, Saboteurs, and Covert Warriors in North Vietnam, Richard J. Schultz, Jr., 2000.

Don’t read this book expecting 408 pages detailing the adventures of individual SOG soldiers and their missions. There is really only one chapter, “Crossing the Fence” with its details of SOG operations in Laos, that fits that bill. What Shultz details, using unprecedented access to recently declassified Pentagon documents and interviews with many of the participants in SOG operations, is the complete story of the origin, operations, successes, failures, and lessons of the Studies and Observations Group. His prose may not be scintillating, he may repeat himself frequently, and the beginning of the book may bog down occasionally with flow charts of command, but Shultz isn’t writing a popular history. He’s writing a policy review of SOG’s operations for future civilian and military leaders who may turn to covert operations and unconventional warfare to get themselves out of diplomatic binds. The final chapter of the book summarizes these lessons.

Still, this book is worthwhile reading even for ordinary civilians. Continue reading

The Black Book of Communism

What better way to celebrate May Day than a retro review of The Black Book of Communism?

From March 13, 2001 …

Black Book of Communism_Review: The Black Book of Communism, ed. Nicolas Werth, et. al., 1999.

“If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.”, The Beatles, “Revolution 1”.

Unfortunately, those who blatantly profess their allegiance to communism still get seated at the polite tables of civilization. Continue reading

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “Far Below”

Far Below”, Robert Barbour Johnson, 1939.

One of the most popular stories ever published in Weird Tales

My suspicion is that this story lies fairly far upstream in the tributary that became the X Files and the Hellboy and MIB series: secret government guardians protecting us from a weird menace.

Here the scope of operation is one subway line beneath New York City. The agency is the Special Subway Detail.

Skillfully told almost entirely in dialogue between a man visiting his friend at work — where his friend leads the Special Subway Detail, the organization he started 25 years ago, the menace and its past and future are revealed. There is a nice section with adumbrations of the menace’s history. H. P. Lovecraft even gets a mention as a character. So does Washington Irving, and I’m not sure, in that case, exactly what Johnson is alluding to.

The story’s only real fault is that bits of Lovecraftian prose, phrases and adjectives, seem a bit out of character for the diction of the main speaker.

The World War One content is brief. At the beginning of the story, the leader of the Special Subway Detail talks about how the menace came to the city’s attention:

“To his time — man, Walker hadn’t served his first term as mayor when this thing started! It goes back to World War days — and even before that. The wreck of the train, I recall, passed as a German spy plot to keep us from going in with the Allies. The newspapers howled bloody murder about alleged ‘confessions’ and evidence they claimed they had. We let ’em howl, or course. Why not? America was as good as in the war anyhow, by then. And if we’d told the people of New York City what really wrecked that subway train — well, the horrors of Chateau-Thierry and Verdun and all the rest of them put together wouldn’t have equaled the shambles that rioting mobs would have made of this place!”

The references to Chateau-Thierry and Verdun are pretty standard uses of the Great War (hence the “and all the rest of them”) as ready metaphor.

The “German spy plot” makes reference to the German sabotage efforts against American industry and horse raising which were supplying the Allies. America may have been technically neutral, but the British blockade made that neutrality a dead letter.

I talked about this sabotage effort in my review of Howard Blum’s Dark Invasion: 1915: Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell In America.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: Yes.
  • On-Stage War: No.
  • Belligerent Area: No.
  • Home Front: No.
  • Veteran: No.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.

The Gestapo


I’m not much interested in World War Two.

Or, to be precise, I’m not really all that interested in reading about World War Two.

Now part of that is, in grade school, I read all 33 volumes of Colonel Dewey’s “Young People’s History of World War II”. At least that’s what my memory says it was called. I’ve never been able to actually find any reference to such a series. [Update: I discovered, in a bookstore last week, that this series was not by Colonel Dewey but Colonel Trevor N. Dupuy. It was the 18 volume Military History of World War II and not intended for just juvenile readers. What does it say about my memory that 18 books became 33?]

In high school, I read some of Time-Life’s series on World War Two.

As an adult, though, I can’t remember any books I’ve read solely on World War Two. The books I’ve read that touch on the subject deal mostly with espionage: John Keegan’s Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaedavarious biographies of Kim Philby, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB by Christopher Andrew.

Part of my disinterest in reading about the subject is that American culture has a lot of information about the war that can be absorbed casually via tv documentaries, magazines, and even movies.

Part of my disinterest is that I simply don’t come from a family with a large military tradition. Continue reading