Although he’s published just two spy thrillers, former CIA officer Jason Matthews is a contemporary master of the genre, drawing on a career in covert operations to produce gripping but believable plots, compelling characters, swift pacing and even a dose of levity.
His tandem efforts “Red Sparrow” and “Palace of Treason” generally eschew the darkness of his progenitor John le Carré – who also started out in the business – but they just as deftly capture the British author’s ear for bureaucratic infighting and paper-pushing that reminds readers the espionage game is hardly all femme fatales and dry martinis.
Matthews’ books depict in some detail the tradecraft of post-Cold War spooks, to a degree that required several rounds of Agency review before the government would allow their release. But perhaps most realistic of all, however, is the Kremlin-centered narrative at the heart of his novels, and the informed presentation of Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s revanchist worldview and the modern-day czar’s penchant for micromanaging intelligence operations.
The Putin in “Sparrow” and “Palace” is an amoral, cold-eyed killer, and Matthews should know. He spent the better part of his three-decade career in clandestine services facing off against Russian opponents in the KGB and its successor FSB, witnessing both the utter corruption and ruthlessness of the spies in their ranks, which at one time included, of course, the Russian president himself.
From before the Soviet Union’s birth, the Russians and their client states have been aggressive practitioners of disinformation, blackmail, political subterfuge and, not infrequently, assassination.
So no one should be surprised that Putin and his henchman have been messing with a foreign nation’s political parties or electoral process – in this case, ours. To borrow a line from the GEICO commercial, it’s what they do.
Indeed, the furor and shock over Russia’s likely hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign staff belies that country’s track record as well as the ease by which many recent cyber crimes against individuals and businesses appear to have occurred.
It doesn’t require any historical knowledge to point out that former NSA analyst Edward Snowden continues to this day to reside in comfort in … Russia, a welcoming host for the American traitor. (Worth noting is the often positive media characterization of Snowden’s broadcast of top secret US intelligence-gathering methods, a treasonous act that has been celebrated in left-leaning circles.)
Snowden’s actions seriously damaged national security; the same cannot be said of the Russians mischievous leaking of embarrassing political gossip.
And it was only a handful of years ago that the FBI exposed a Russian sleeper cell featuring the voluptuous redhead Anna Chapman. This was a sophisticated, straight-from-Hollywood gambit that counterintelligence officials say was succeeding in embedding agents into positions of influence in American society and government – a most pernicious, humanoid kind of malware.
A ‘greatest hits’ of Russian recruitment and penetration of our intelligence services and government agencies includes two particularly well-placed spies who for years provided fatally critical top secret information to them: CIA officer Aldrich Ames and FBI agent Robert Hanssen. There is of course the Soviet’s surreptitious funding of radical American student and peace groups throughout the 1960’s and before that the running of the infamous Alger Hiss, a socially-connected State Department staffer instrumental in the creation of the United Nations. The granddaddy of them all might well have been Vice President Henry Agard Wallace, a dreamy Soviet apologist who served one-term under FDR before being shooed off to run the Commerce Department when his coziness with the Russians caused alarm inside Roosevelt’s inner circle. (Random Delaware connection: the Iowan Wallace and his family founded Pioneer Hi-Bred International, one of the world’s biggest seed companies that was acquired by DuPont in 1999 for billions – that’s my kind of commie!)
More recent Moscow perfidy includes the dozens of “unsolved” murders of Russian journalists since 2000 and the gruesome polonium-210 poisoning in London of former FSB officer and Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko.
As for hacking, it’s a game everyone is playing. The North Koreans are believed to have gone after Sony Pictures, China, the US Office of Personnel Management and for Pete’s sake, two teenagers nicked into the personal email account of CIA director John Brennan.
Our own government is obviously actively executing cyber intelligence programs with foe and friend alike, including, as the world now knows, tapping the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But drawing a direct line from the summer 2015 hacking of the DNC to Russian designs for a Donald Trump presidency (or Putin’s supposed “beef” with Hillary Clinton) requires multiple leaps.
Whatever the motive, while the Russians are great chess players, if they were smart enough then to predict Trump would be the Republican nominee, why is it that they still can’t build a decent appliance?