Thursday, July 23, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: Iranian Intrigue in David Ignatius' The Increment

David Ignatius wrote this book before the eruption of street protests in response to the rigged elections in Iran and the Iranian government’s subsequent violent crackdown on the protestors.

The Increment (Norton), a political novel as much as it is a spy thriller, concerns an Iranian scientist, “Dr Ali,” who contacts the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) via their public web site and offers to provide information about Iran’s nuclear program.

The responsibility for handling the “virtual walk-in” agent falls to Harry Pappas, a veteran CIA officer who is the chief of the agency’s Iranian Operations Division, known within the CIA as the “Persia House.”

Pappas, described by Ignatius as a big man in what has become a little institution, is a somewhat burned-out officer. His greives for his son, a marine who died in combat in Iraq, and for the current sorry state of the CIA.

Pappas must share the handling of Dr. Ali with Arthur Fox, the chief of the CIA’s Counter-Proliferation Division. Fox, who has political connections in the White House, sees Dr. Ali as a “smoking gun,” which he hopes will push the president towards war with Iran to prevent them from having nuclear weapons.

Pappas, the old field intelligence officer, wants to move slow and he states that they don’t know who Dr. Ali is, nor do they know what he knows. Without CIA officers or local agents operating in Iran, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to learn more about Dr. Ali and his access to nuclear weapons development.

The CIA director, a Navy admiral more suited for the bridge of a ship than the leadership of an intelligence agency, acknowledges that Fox has the upper hand with his White House connections, but he allows Pappas to pursue an avenue with his contacts in the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). Pappas knows that SIS, also known as MI6, the British equivalent to the CIA, has “assets” on the ground in Iran. Pappas sets out to use those assets to contact Dr. Ali.

His contact in SIS is Adrian Winkler, the chief of staff. Winkler, a poster boy for upper class Brits, was Pappas’ old friend and colleague. They served together in Moscow and Iraq while each represented their respective intelligence service. Winkler tells Pappas that they do indeed have agents in Iran, and they have much more - they have the Increment.

“We use soldiers from the Special Air Service, mostly,” Winkler explained. “Black ops people, highly trained. Many of them are from the - forgive the term - former colonies. Indians, Paks, West Indians, Arabs. They all speak the languages fluently, like natives. They can operate anywhere, and more or less invisible. Or so we like to think. They are seconded to SIS for certain missions where we have to get into a denied area, do something unpleasant, and get out. They have the mythical 007 “license to kill,” as a matter of fact. I like to think of them as James Bond meets My Beautiful Launderette. They give us certain capabilities that we would not have, even under our own rather expansive rules. You don’t know about the Increment because, strictly speaking, there is no such organization.”

Winkler provides Pappas with a trio of operators from the Increment and they are dispatched to Iran to make contact with Dr. Ali.

David Ignatius, 58, is a columnist for The Washington Post. He writes about politics and international affairs for the national newspaper. He has also written six previous novels.

Body of Lies, his previous novel, was made into a film with Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe.

Ignatius has covered the Middle East and the CIA for more than 25 years and he knows both well. Much of his new novel is based on facts, including the Increment.

Having performed security work as a young sailor in the U.S. Navy and later as a Defense Department civilian employee, I’ve met CIA officers. I’ve attended CIA briefings and I’ve been trained by CIA officers. As a writer, I’ve interviewed a good number of retired and active duty CIA officers.

I know them to be patriotic public servants. I believe they have been poorly portrayed in books, films, and on TV. The Bourne film series, for example, portrays CIA officers who spend countless time and effort trying to track down and kill one of their own officers. What nonsense. Have we run out of terrorists and criminals to serve as bad guys in this world?

Ignatius offers us believable characters and realistic situations. This is an interesting novel. I only wish he had written more about the Increment in action.

Ignatius, who is to the left of me politically, is against military action to thwart a nuclear Iran. He subscribes to the wait and see school of thought. I’m waiting to see if Israel will launch an attack on Iran, just as they attacked Syria and Iraq when they attempted to develop nuclear weapons in the past.

With protestors on the streets in Iran in the news, this is a good time to read The Increment, even if you don’t agree with Ignatius’ world view.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

My On Crime & Security Column: Protecting Trade Secrets From Thieves & Spies

The web site published my On Crime & Security column today.

The column covered how to protect your trade secrets from thieves and spies.
You can read the column via the link below:

Monday, July 13, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: The Vietnam Spy Who Betrayed Us

While serving as an 18-year-old sailor aboard an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, I witnessed a bevy of journalists coming aboard as the warship was anchored in Da Nang Harbor in South Vietnam.

I worked in the USS Kitty Hawk's radio communications division and we were told to keep the journalists clear of our top secret areas. As I planned to major in journalism in college after leaving the Navy, I was interested in our visitors from the major newspapers and TV networks..

I don’t recall Pham Xuan An, a TIME correspondent at the time, being one of the journalists who came aboard that day. Which was good – as we later discovered that An was a spy for the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese communists.

In the annals of modern espionage, Pham Xuan An (1927-2006) ranks as a top spy. During the Vietnam War, An befriended, guided and advised journalists and American and South Vietnamese military and government officials. He obtained vital intelligence from his many “friends” and passed it on to the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese.

Larry Berman, a professor of political science at the University of California who opposed American involvement in Vietnam, was chosen by An to be his American biographer. Berman interviewed An in Vietnam before the spy died. His book is called Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of  Pham Xuan An, TIME Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent.

This book is a gushing, loving and uncritical view of the spy. It ought to be called Perfect Spy, Perfect Fools. Like many of the reporters An befriended during the war, Berman’s left-wing, anti-war views cloud his judgment of An.

An was by all accounts a likable, earnest, humble and helpful friend to all those he came into contact with. Just like any good con artist - or spy.

A spy since 1952, An was sent to study journalism in the United States as part of his training and cover story - or "legend," as they say in the trade. With his American friends and his insights into all things Vietnamese, An took jobs with Reuters, the Christian Science Monitor and then TIME. For the elite of the American press corps, An was the go-to-guy.

An's critical intelligence aided the communists throughout the war, especially during two key battles: the 1963 assault on Ap Bac and the 1968 Tet Offensive. Countless South Vietnamese and American soldiers died in these bloody battles thanks in large part to An.

Even today An's journalist friends refuse to believe that he misled, used or betrayed them. "Who in our egotistical trade would admit to being a dupe, conscious or otherwise?" veteran journalist and author Joseph C. Goulden wrote in his review of Berman's book in the Washington Times.

Goulden also noted that Arnaud de Borchgrave, a Newsweek correspondent during the war, disagreed with his colleagues and accused An of spreading disinformation to American officials and journalists.

Thomas Bass' The Spy Who Loved Us: The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An's Dangerous Game is a bit more balanced than Perfect Spy.

Like Berman, Bass interviewed An in Vietnam before the spy died. Bass writes that when An was working for Reuters in the 1960s: "He was the irrepressible man about town who knew everything and everybody and was seen everywhere, in all the city's best restaurants and cafes, chatting and joking with everyone from generals and ambassadors down to the local cyclo drivers and dance hall girls. An established himself as the go-to-man for newly arrived Americans who needed a tip. He was always generous with his advice and stories, always a good source of local color. The news reports filed out of Vietnam that started with an anecdote provided by An must number in the thousands."

Bass notes that although An rarely claimed to have done anything more during the war than observe and analyze events, there were times that he "reached behind the curtain to adjust the scene."

One example was the battle of Ap Bac in 1963, where the Viet Cong at battalion strength defeated the South Vietnamese, who were supported by American air and artillery. Bass writes that two Viet Cong soldiers received the North Vietnamese Military Exploit medals for the victorious battle. One was the commander of the communist forces. The other was An, who devised the winning strategy.

An also helped plan the Tet Offensive in 1968, in which eighty thousand communists troops simultaneously attacked targets in South Vietnam. The communists briefly held the city of Hue, but the popular uprising planned on didn't happen and the overall attack was a military defeat.

Bass notes that the communists lost more than half of their troops in the south and perhaps a quarter of the North Vietnamese Army forces from the north.

"The offensive destroyed the Viet Cong as a fighting force," An admitted to Bass. "Then the United States introduced the Phoenix Program, which was extremely effective in assassinating thousands of Vietnamese communists and neutralising the operation in the south."

But despite the military failure, Tet was considered to be a success for the communists, as the fighting viewed on TV and the negative reports by anti-war journalists eroded the American public's confidence in the war. Tet provided the communists with a major psychological victory.
Bass wrote that An’s intelligence reports were read by the top North Vietnamese leaders General Giap and Ho Chi Minh.

“We are now in the United States’ War Room!” Giap and Minh are reported to have said, rubbing their hands with glee.

That An was a good spy should not be surprising, as we helped train him. Prior to traveling to America to study journalism, An worked for the legendary intelligence officer General Edward Lansdale. Lansdale, an Air Force officer attached to the CIA, was an expert on counterinsurgency and was one of the most knowledgeable Americans about Vietnam. Lansdale and his crack team instructed An in psychological warfare and intelligence tradecraft.

An went on to betray Lansdale and many other American and Vietnamese friends. An also betrayed his journalist colleagues, yet many of them continue to admire him.

“I began to suspect that I had fallen into the same trap as An’s former colleagues,” Bass wrote in his book. “They had swapped ignorance for willful ignorance and remained charmed to the end by An’s smiling presence.”

Not all of An's colleagues felt that way. Beverly Ann Deepe, a reporter with the New York Herald Tribune, was angered at An's betrayal and Murray Cant, the chief correspondent for TIME, called An an SOB and said he'd like to kill him.

Zalin Grant, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer, journalist and author of Over the Beach: The Air War in Vietnam and Facing the Phoenix: The CIA and the Political Defeat of the Untied States in Vietnam, wrote that he thought An was a communist hero, but not an American hero.

When an excerpt from Bass' book appeared in The New Yorker in 2005 and quoted journalists singing An's praises, Grant wrote a letter to the magazine editor.

"It was one thing to have been against the Vietnam War - many of us were," Grant wrote. "But quite another to express unconditional admiration for a man who spent a large part of his life pretending to be a journalist while helping to kill Americans."

In his Washington Times review of Berman's book on An, Goulden wrote that a thought kept crossing his mind as he read the book.

"Would the journalists who now praise An as a patriot be equally forgiving of a colleague who turned out to be working for the CIA at the same time he was reporting on the war?" Goulden asks. "Think about it," he added.

Note: The above column originally appeared at   

Saturday, July 11, 2009

My American Crime Column: Dillinger Was A Vicious and Murdering Criminal, Not a Folk Hero

With Michael Mann's film Public Enemies out this summer I've read a good number of pieces on the film and I've become cross at the good number of times that John Dillinger has been described as a folk hero.
As a life-long student of crime and a writer who has covered crime for more than 20 years, I will admit that Dillinger was, and is, an interesting character.

But to adore or admire this self-centered, vicious, calculating and murdering sociopath is quite another matter.

As I note in my Crime Beat column, Dillinger and his gang killed 10 men, including police officers, during his short-lived crime spree.

He also terrorized countless people who were on the scene of his many robberies and shoot-outs with the police.

One of his first crimes involved the bashing in the head of a family friend in a botched robbery. He would have killed the man if his gun functioned properly.

Is this an admirable act?

Is murdering police officers an adorable act?

One can say that this was only a movie, but it is a sad commentary that many people know history only from movies.

If you would like to read more about the real Dillinger, you can read my columns at:  

Thursday, July 9, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: Quantum of Solace and Ian Fleming's Other Short Stories

"Bond,” said the dark, cruelly handsome man in a tuxedo as he lit a cigarette languidly. “James Bond.”

And so film-viewers in 1963 were introduced to the suave yet rugged fictional British secret agent James Bond. Portraying Bond in the film Dr No was a young Scottish actor named Sean Connery.

Dr No and the subsequent Connery-Bond films in the 1960’s inspired millions of film-viewers to go on and read Ian Fleming’s thrillers.

I was one of them.

According to a recent Conde Nast survey, since the first Fleming thriller, Casino Royale was published in 1953, Bond has generated nearly $14 billion from the books, movies and video games. Bond is the world’s most enduring, and profitable, fictional character.

I recently watched the latest Bond film, Quantum of Solace again on DVD. Although I was pleased that the film producers made a thriller rather than a silly, action-comedy, I have to give the film a mixed review.

It’s a well-made film, but it lacked character and Ian Fleming’s classic trademarks. Daniel Craig is fine, although he does not look like Fleming’s Bond. I would have casted Clive Owen in the role.

The title of the film baffled many viewers. The title comes from a Fleming short story and the film makers took the title but chose to write an original screenplay for the film.

After viewing the film I picked up my copy of Quantum of Solace: The Complete James Bond Short Stories (Penguin Books) and reread the story.

Penguin’s soft cover edition features Fleming’s nine short short stories about Bond, some of which were originally published in a 1960 collection called For Your Eyes Only and others were published after Fleming’s death in a 1966 collection called Octopussy.

One short story, 007 in New York, appeared in Thrilling Cities, Fleming’s 1963 collection of travel pieces he wrote in 1959 and 1960 for the London Sunday Times.

According to Ben Macintyre, a columnist for the Times of London and the author of For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond, Fleming’s short story Quantum of Solace is the strangest of all his James Bond stories.

“In place of the traditional Bond fare of spying, violence, women and dry martinis,” Macintyre wrote in his column, “Fleming served up a profound reflection on longing, marriage, society and passion. The “quantum of solace” to which the title refers is, bizarrely, a mathematical measurement of love.”

The quantum of solace, Macintyre explains, is a precise figure defining the comfort, humanity and fellow feeling required between two people for love to survive. If the quantum of solace is nil, than love is dead.

The story is set in the Bahamas after Bond has completed an assignment. Bond attends a dinner party where he finds the people boring. Bond has an after-dinner drink with his host who goes on to tell him a story about a failed marriage.

Macintyre wrote that the short story was Fleming’s attempt to write a more serious story in the manner of Somerset Maugham, but it was also a reflection on his own turbulent marriage.

Although the story is not a traditional Bond story, I found it interesting. The other stories in the Penguin collection are about crime and espionage, Fleming’s traditional fare. The stories in the collection include:

From a View to a Kill

For Your Eyes Only


The Hildebrand Rarity


The Property of a Lady

The Living Daylights

007 in New York

Some of the story titles may sound familiar as the film producers cherry-picked titles, characters, and plots from the short stories for the film series.

Bond in the short stories, as well as the novels, is more human, less promiscuous and less flippant than the film character. Bond is an extraordinary character in the stories and he encounters extraordinary people and lives through extraordinary events, but he is not Superman or a cartoon character.

Fleming wanted Bond to simply be a blunt instrument in the hands of the government and let the action of the book carry him along, but Fleming also infused Bond with his own ”quirks and characteristics.”

“Fleming was able to peer beyond the Cold War limitations of mere spy fiction and to anticipate the emerging milieu of the Colombian cartels, Osama bin Laden and, indeed, the Russian Mafia, as well as the nightmarish idea that some such fanatical freelance megalomaniac would eventually collar some weapon-grade plutonium,” Christopher Hitchens wrote.

Ian Fleming (1908-1964) was a British naval intelligence officer in WWII and a journalist before and after the war. He often told friends that he was going to write “the spy story to end all spy stories.” And he did.

Raymond Chandler, perhaps our greatest crime writer, was a friend of Fleming’s and a fan of Bond.

“Bond is what every man would like to be,” Chandler wrote in a review in the Sunday Times. “And what every woman would like to have between her sheets."

So if you only know James Bond from the movies, you might want to read the short stories and then move on to Ian Fleming’s novels.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: Due Dillinger: A Look Back at John Dillinger, America's Classic Bank Robber

"John Herbert Dillinger is America's classic bank robber," wrote Jay Robert Nash in his excellent book, Bloodletters and Bad Men: A Narrative Encyclopedia of American Criminals From the Pilgrims to the Present.

"No other criminal ever approached his exploits and reputation," Nash wrote. "Within the space of twelve months Dillinger robbed more banks and stole more money than Jesse James did in the sixteen years he was at large. It took the combined forces of five states and the FBI to pressure his criminal operations to a halt."

According to the FBI, Dillinger and his gang killed ten men and wounded seven other. They robbed banks, police arsenals and staged three jail breaks. They killed a sheriff during one jail break and wounded two guards in another. They also killed a police officer during a robbery and killed a detective who stopped Dillinger's car.

With the release of Public Enemies, a Michael Mann film starring Johnny Depp as Dillinger and Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent who hunted him, I felt a look back at the notorious criminal was in order.

Mann's film is based on the book, Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and Birth of the FBI, by Bryan Burrough.  Burrough's true crime book covered the years 1933 and 1934, the years of the Depression-era's bank robbers' crime spree and the birth of the FBI. The book chronicle's the crooks and the lawmen who hunted them. Mann, however, chose to concentrate his film only on Dillinger, his girlfriend Evelyn "Billie" Frechette and Purvis.

Dillinger was the most famous, or infamous, of the Depression-era criminals. He was born in 1903 in Indianapolis. His mother died in 1907 and he was raised by a 15-year old sister. Unlike other Depression-era criminals, Dillinger was not poor. He was born into a middle-class family.

After graduating high school, Dillinger was uprooted by his grocer father, a stern disciplinarian, who purchased a farm and moved the family to Indiana. Dillinger refused to work the farm and found a job in Indianapolis.

In 1923 Dillinger stole a car and then joined the Navy to avoid arrest. He later deserted and returned to Indiana. Hanging around poolrooms in 1924 he and another crook planned the robbery of a grocer. The grocer was bludgeoned and Dillinger pulled out a pistol, but the grocer knocked it away as it fired. The robbers then ran off. Dillinger, 21 at the time, ended up in Indiana State Reformatory with a severe 10-to-20-year sentence.

He was later transferred to Michigan City Penitentiary where he met the men who would shape his life, Homer Van Meter and Harry Pierpont. Pierpont, who worked with the legendary "Baron," Herman K. Mann, taught Dillinger the Baron's technique for robbing banks. The education was offered in return for Dillinger's promise to break Pierpont and his gang out of prison after he was released.

Dillinger was paroled in 1933. With his gang Dillinger began robbing small stores, businesses and banks. He was later arrested and jailed. While Dillinger was in jail, Harry Pierpont and his crew broke out of prison. Pierpont and the gang then broke Dillinger out of jail, killing the sheriff in front of his wife during the break-out.

Dillinger, a natural leader, led the gang as they robbed more than 30 banks in only a few months. Dillinger and members of his gang were arrested in Arizona and he was transferred to a jail in Indiana. Legend has it that Dillinger broke out of jail with a gun carved from a block of wood, but in fact he simply bribed a guard.

The escape made headlines and Dillinger's reputation. He became the most wanted man in the country and the FBI, under agents Samuel P. Cowley and Melvin Purvis, hunted him and his gang across several states.

As the Dillinger gang was hiding out at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin, Purvis and the FBI moved in. There was a full-scale shootout, but Dillinger and five others managed to escape through a back window before the FBI could surround the lodge.

Dillinger later had plastic surgery on his face to alter his looks and he moved in with a young woman named Polly Hamilton in Chicago. Hamilton had a roommate named Anna Sage. Sage, who was facing deportation to Romania, discovered who Hamilton's friend was. In exchange for dropping the deportation proceedings, she offered to assist the FBI in capturing Dillinger.

Purvis accepted the deal and Sage told him that Dillinger planed to take her and Hamilton to the movies at the Biograph or the Marbro Theater the following day.

Although legend identifies Sage as "The Lady in Red," she actually wore an orange dress in order to be recognized by the law enforcement officers.

On Sunday, July 22, 1934, Purvis saw Sage enter the Biograph with a man and another woman. The film showing was Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable.      

Purvis and his fellow agents waited until the film ended and the trio came back outside. Purvis lit a cigar to let the other agents know it was Dillinger. According to the FBI, Dillinger reached for his gun and the agents opened fire. Five agents fired five shots and four bullets hit Dillinger. He collapsed and died on the street.

Burrough wrote that people who met Dillinger remember him for years afterward - "the courtesy, the easy wink, the whiff of manly joi de vivre."    

Burrough also wrote that Dillinger craved respect. he wanted to be the type outlaw people admired. Many people today still regard Dillinger as a modern-day Robin Hood.

Others, me included, see Dillinger as a murderer and armed robber who terrorized countless innocent people during his short-lived crime spree.

Note: The above column was published at in 2009. 

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Lore and the Lure of 20th Century Outlaws

Great History published a good piece today by Jay Wertz on the film Public Enemies and the previous films on John Dillinger and the other Depression-era gangsters and bankrobbers.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

My On Crime & Security Column: Extortion Should Not be a Cost of Doing Business published my On Crime & Security column today.

The column is about extortion of business people, from cyber-extortion to the old fashioned physical variety.