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Spy vs. Spy vs. Spy

THE COMPANY: A Novel of the CIA, By Robert Littell, Overlook Press: 894 pp., $28.95

June 09, 2002|EUGEN WEBER | Eugen Weber is a contributing writer to Book Review.

On Friday, July 4, 1862, on a golden afternoon, the Rev. Robinson Duckworth of Trinity College, Oxford, and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a fellow of Christ Church College, took Lorina, Edith and 10-year-old Alice, the daughters of Henry Liddell, dean of Christ Church, boating on the Thames. "On which occasion," Dodgson noted later, "I told them the fairy tale of Alice's adventures underground." Unlike most children's stories of that day, the tale that Dodgson told and the expanded version that he published as Lewis Carroll had no moral and did not teach anything. Which may account for its success. A moral-free universe is an important lesson unto itself, especially when reading Robert Littell's "The Company," even though this hefty tome shares little of its predecessor's frisky whimsy.

The saga comes to us first as an ill-camouflaged docudrama about the history of the Cold War. It breaks for commercials on international conflicts, national and foreign politics, patriotism, opportunism, treachery and underhanded activity on all sides. It also offers a gripping tale of derring-do, office politics and intramural warfare within "the company." Subtitled "A Novel of the CIA" (and of the KGB, Mossad and MI6), it rides comfortably--though not comfortingly--on current tides of questions about what our intelligence agencies achieve. The litany of lapses and precarious feats that Littell lays out doesn't do much to reassure, but it stirs empathy in poor souls addicted to fumbling and misjudgment. As W.S. Gilbert might have said but didn't, "A spook's life is not a happy one."

"The Company" also provides a trove of tradecraft and trade lore: "legends," the pseudonyms and pseudo-identities agents assume; "serials," the fables they try to pass off as information; "cutouts" that stand between moles and those who handle them; lies and "fluttering" lie-detector tests. If that's not enough, there are also deceptions, betrayals, defectors and false defectors, smoke and mirrors everywhere and quite a lot to drink. Nothing succeeds like excess, and the CIA is there to prove it. So is "The Company."

Like foreplay, the CIA had to be invented as we went along. Like foreplay, it had of course been conjured up before. The United States boasted no peacetime intelligence establishment until after World War II. The Office of Strategic Services, improvised in 1942, could not have been expected to predict the attack on Pearl Harbor but it might have been expected to forecast the German offensive in the Ardennes in 1944 and the Battle of the Bulge that followed. It didn't. On the whole, though, stumbling through mined terrain, it proved no more blunder-prone than other spy covens, and it gave rise, in September 1947, to the Central Intelligence Agency, intended to coordinate all national security work.

A camel, someone has said, is a horse designed by a committee. Committees and compromises delivered the CIA as part of a hodgepodge that includes separate Army, Navy and Air Force intelligence departments, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, State Department intelligence, a Department of Energy nuclear intelligence unit, the FBI and other morsels of alphabet soup. Soon, thanks to the Cold War, the new agency grew like Topsy, reaching some 20,000 in the United States and thousands more overseas. Littell mercifully does not go into these details, though his 1997 novel, "Walking Back the Cat," seemed to display his views in a nutshell: "overpriced, inefficient and messy, it makes big mistakes.... But it happens to be the only intelligence industry we have." And so a lot of CIA retainers, especially those of the Operations Directorate better known as the Department of Dirty Tricks, figure in his past novels.

Still more teem in "The Company's" multitudinous cast. They include real-life characters like James Jesus Angleton, the obsessive mole-hunting head of counterintelligence; and semi-fictional characters that (unlike real-life operatives!) don't mind breaking rules to press their covert actions in the field. For amateurs of spy-counterspy doings, there's plenty of dry cleaning (evasive action to avoid being followed), walking back the cat (going over an operation to see where it went wrong), wetwork (assassination) and overall experience, which is what we call our mistakes.

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