Book Review: 'Intelligence: A Novel of the CIA' by Susan Hasler
Review by Susan Grigsby
Early in my senior year in high school, the FBI came calling on Career Day. I don't know if schools still offer this opportunity, but in 1966, government agencies were welcomed to the school to address, and yes, recruit high school students. The presentation by the FBI was one of the most popular, held in a gym to accommodate all who wanted to attend. I was one of a handful of girls there that day, it was 1966, after all.
After showing us a film of all of the wondrous history and marvelous opportunities that the agency offered, the floor was opened for questions. When none were forthcoming, I bravely raised my hand, was recognized, and asked about opportunities for women in the FBI. Clearly glad to have any question, the agent started talking about all of the jobs that women could hold in the agency: typists, secretaries and file clerks.
Exciting, yes? I mean, I could file fingerprint cards! As a follow-up I asked directly if women could become agents. He chuckled and said that No, there were no women accepted into the FBI for work as field agents. (He didn't say, little girl, but it was implied). So I asked if the CIA would take us. Although my classmates enjoyed the question, he turned a most unbecoming shade of red and suggested that I ask them.
I decided instead to join Maxwell Smart and fight KAOS.
Susan Hasler did not have to make that choice. After graduating from the University of Virginia with a Bachelors Degree in Russian language and literature, she earned a Masters in Slavic languages and literature from the University of California in Berkeley.
Then she joined the CIA in 1983, simply because she needed a job. Working as an analyst and as a speechwriter, she eventually joined the Counterterrorism Center in 2000 before leaving the Agency in 2004, somewhat unhappy with the Bush Administration's response to 9/11.
I think she gets a little sweet revenge in her first novel, a political thriller, Intelligence, A Novel of the CIA.
Susan Hasler creates her own vocabulary to describe the CIA in her debut novel set five years after 9/11. The CIA is now the Ministry of Intelligence and the Operations Directorate is the Black Mine, the analysis section is known as the White Mine. The terms are all mine related, analysts are known as alchemists, working groups tasked with future threats are canaries, as in canaries in the coal mines. The FBI is known as the Organ, Congress is the Esteemed Legislative Body, and PentCOW is the Pentagon Council of the Wise. A handy glossary appears at the end of the novel.
Intelligence follows the activities of five alchemists in the Mines who suspect that another terrorist strike is being planned to take place in the near future. Led by Maddie, an angry alchemist with issues (her bunny, her annoying mother who decides to move in with her and fill her home with ugly pink bunny tchotchkes - Maddie hates pink - her ex-husband whose father happens to be one of her colleagues and a mentor, her commute, and a flickering light bulb above her desk), the team of canaries meet in a crowded conference room and try to piece together a plot based on fragments of intelligence.
We, the disgruntled, are legion in the Mines. We inhabit forgotten side shafts, hidden pocks, the underside of dislodged stones. By our own stubbornness, audacity, or foul luck, we’ve condemned ourselves in perpetuity to scuttle laterally through the vast intelligence bureaucracy, kept away from the controversial accounts, from the glass-walled upper reaches of management. We wallow in supposed moral superiority and thumb our noses at the eager climbers, glib accommodators, ass-licking yes-men and -women who pass us on the stairs. We’re bitter, wise, and irreverent. We know where the bodies are buried and have the don’t-give-a-damn gall to joke about it. They never let us brief the Esteemed Legislative Body. They would fire us, but we might write books. - Doc - Intelligence: A Novel of the CIA
As time is running out on the team, they find their efforts thwarted by a federal bureaucracy more interested in covering its ass that in national security. A PentCOW advisor is not satisfied with a report showing no connection between Iraq and the 9/11 terrorists and continues to request a report showing a connection. Pulled from the ongoing investigation to write yet another report showing no connection, Maddie's bitter anger increases.
Written in the first person from five different points of view, the novel sometimes feels like the pieces of different puzzles all mixed together, which is how Susan Hasler once described the analyst's task at the CIA.
In real life it's like somebody is pouring boxes of puzzle pieces from a jigsaw puzzle and they're pouring continuously and you don't have the picture to go by. And one piece might belong to this puzzle, it might belong to another puzzle.
Fortunately for the reader, all of the voices belong to this story. The audio book uses different narrators for each voice which made the action very easy to follow. The differing points of view, which include the voice of the terrorist, allows the reader to put the story together before the alchemists can. The portrait of the terrorist feels very, very creepily realistic.
Hasler left the CIA in 2004 feeling that the level of politicalization was untenable. Information was not being included in the President's Daily Brief because the Agency was told that "the President does not want to hear that." She explains in this C-SPAN BookTV interview that there had always been a certain level of politicalization as the agency wants to keep a foot in the door and be listened to by the current administration, but once George Bush got into office, it became rampant. Especially after 9/11, when they should have been working overtime to seek out new plots, the analysts were instead called upon to provide cover for the politicians in the White House and to find those ties to Iraq. Which did not exist.
The book has much of the same biting humor that made Catch 22 such a popular novel. And anyone who has ever worked for a large national corporation will recognize the characters that show up in any management structure. Although labeled as a thriller, the suspense never really gets a chance to build as, like the alchemists, the story is side tracked by the internal politics. But those politics and the way they are presented make the novel worth reading.
Unless of course, you do believe that Saddam Hussein really did support the 9/11 hijackers, in which case you will be terribly disappointed in Intelligence.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.