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.

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