In between his defense of secret prisons, coercive interrogations of al-Qaeda suspects and the shredding of highly sensitive videotapes, former CIA spymaster Jose A. Rodriguez Jr. makes room in his memoir “Hard Measures” to talk about the competition: other CIA memoirists.
These days, there are just so many of them — and so much controversy surrounding them. One measure of the fallout: The CIA is conducting an internal investigation to determine whether some spy memoirs are being censored merely to scrub out embarrassing details about the agency, rather than to protect against the release of classified information. But the CIA doesn’t seem to mind letting former officers praise or slam one another.
In “Hard Measures,” Rodriguez, 63, a Northern Virginian who retired from the agency five years ago, plugs another hot new CIA memoir, “The Art of Intelligence,” published in May by former agency officer Henry A. Crumpton. But Rodriguez also settled some spy scores. Without deigning to utter his rivals’ names or book titles, Rodriguez pilloried “The Interrogator,” a 2011 memoir by ex-CIA operative Glenn L. Carle, and “The Reluctant Spy,” written in 2009 by former agency man John Kiriakou. Rodriguez believes his fellow ex-spies unfairly tainted harsh interrogation tactics — such as waterboarding — that he championed.
“[G]reat pretenders,” the memoirist labels his opposing memoirists.
The proliferation of CIA memoirs has been fueled by the public’s appetite for insider accounts into the country’s war on terrorism — real-life versions of popular shows such as “Homeland.” The books often command six-figure advances, generate headlines and propel their authors onto network television shows.
“There’s never been more interest in the work of the CIA [from publishing houses] as there has been in the last decade,” said Bill Harlow, the former CIA spokesman from 1997 to 2004, who co-wrote Rodriguez’s memoir as well as former CIA director George Tenet’s opus, “At the Center of the Storm,” in 2007.
While not exactly written in the mold of John Le Carré, the memoirs unspool secrets not easily obtainable under the Freedom of Information Act. Tales about recruiting informants or office gamesmanship at Langley often find their way past the agency’s Publications Review Board, which reviews ex-employees’ books and redacts classified details.
“In many cases, they are providing the only account there is, and people read the memoirs to flesh out a sparse public record,” said Steven Aftergood, editor of the Federation of American Scientists’s Secrecy News and a CIA memoir enthusiast. “Now, these authors are competing for control of a certain historical narrative, when even the meanings of ‘torture’ and ‘terrorism’ are contested. These [CIA memoirists] are trying to define those meanings and write the first drafts of history.”
Credit and cash
In interviews, many of the spies-turned-authors say they are tired of ceding their stories to journalists or government officials. They want to correct what they contend are mistakes in the public domain about the work they orchestrated. Or they want to expose the agency’s wrongdoings. Either way, after living so long undercover, the ex-spies want a little credit, even if it means dabbling in public self-glorification, something seemingly antithetical to the agency’s ethos.
There’s also money to be made, though exactly how much is unclear. CIA stars such as Tenet and Valerie Plame Wilson, the former covert operative whose identity was leaked to the media by White House officials in 2003, reportedly received advances of $2 million. But most advances are far more modest, publishers and authors say.
Rodriguez and Harlow sold “Hard Measures” about a week before Osama bin Laden was killed and speculated that they could have gotten a bigger advance had they made their deal afterward.
Rodriguez and Crumpton’s books have performed well. Both authors were interviewed on “60 Minutes.” And both books have made the New York Times bestseller list.
Ex-CIA officials aren’t turning off the tap anytime soon.
Jack Devine, who served for 32 years at the CIA and helped lead the agency’s campaign against the Soviets in Afghanistan, is wrapping up his memoir, to be published early next year by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. (The book is being written with Washington Post local editor Vernon Loeb); John Rizzo, the CIA’s former acting general counsel who supported the agency’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, is racing to finish his manuscript for Scribner by the end of the year. And the Fairfax family of Brian Kelley, a CIA counterintelligence officer who died in 2011 and was once falsely accused of being a Russian spy, is reaching out to literary agents about his unpublished memoir.