Doc Reviews “Against All Enemies” by Jeffrey M. Carney

cfDoc finished reading “Against All Enemies” by Jeffrey M. Carney several nights ago, and have been trying to put into words enough thoughts on the book to make a somewhat coherent review. Doc’s struggle comes from the fact that the Carney is not only a convicted spy, but also someone with whom Doc worked and, at one point or another, may have had a beer or two. True story. So I finally gave up trying to be coherent in the review, and will simply offer my thoughts. It’s still a review, of sorts. You know how Doc can be.

Bottom line up front: This is a well-written piece of historical fiction. In the book, Carney writes down his version of his life, from his formative years growing up in Ohio and Florida, to his enlistment in the United States Air Force, through his decision to illegally cross the border into East Berlin and begin a career spying for the MfS (what most of us know as Stasi) in East Germany. He details his arrest (“kidnapping,” in his words), his trial, and life while incarcerated at Quantico and Fort Leavenworth. There’s also a very brief glimpse of life after Leavenworth.

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Before getting into the details of the book, let me offer two observations that are apparent from the start. Jeff is a very good writer; I believe the book has not been ghostwritten – there is no indication in the book or by doing a thorough Internet scrub; I believe these really are his words, and he’s got a really good style for getting his writing to come off the page. This includes sprinkling his pages with some pretty dark but often brilliant humor. Describing one of the Special Agents from the USAF Office of Special Investigations during his trial, in which the SA appears to be rather full of himself and tries to project his importance by deepening his voice, Jeff describes the SA as reacting with surprise at how his voice sounds, comparing it to a dog hearing itself fart out loud for the first time. In the middle of a grim scene, this line just jumped out, and I laughed. There are comparable lines throughout.

Another observation is that this book was in desperate (and unrealized) need of a good editor. No, even a so-so editor would have done. Based on the lack of evidence of a publisher’s name on the copyright page, you can tell this isn’t even a “vanity press” publication – it’s self-published, and I am assuming that, back in the day, it was rushed to publication just a bit in order to cash in on the Manning and Snowden frenzy, which carried along with it the misguidedly gullible audience that believes these two people are somehow heroes. Perhaps I’m taking too great a leap. Regardless, the misspellings and awkward grammar can sometimes be forgiven, but punctuation errors gallop across the page like a gazelle with its ass on fire. You’re welcome for that visual.

For the most part, Jeff only uses first names and last name initials. Those who worked in Berlin during these years will no doubt recognize a lot of names and personalities. The dialogue Jeff provides, like narrative bubbles in a comic book, do not ring true, but that can be written off simply as poetic license. There are others (not co-workers) whose last names appear – I’m not sure why that decision was made, but it tended to slow me down, as I wondered if there was an agenda I was missing. No idea. For what it’s worth, Jeff has nothing overly negative to say about his Berlin or Goodfellow Air Force Base co-workers on an individual basis, at least for this publication.

ceA final observation on the publication before diving into the text: a number of sections, we are told, were redacted by intelligence agencies during the standard counterintelligence review to ensure no sensitive or classified information makes it to publication. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the redactions – Jeff leaves black spots where the cuts were made, and the majority of information represented by these spots are painfully obvious to those who worked with him. Cutting out the word “Tempelhof” or “TCA” or “Marienfelde” seems trivial and silly. I’ve seen this review process in action, and I don’t doubt that they honestly were the result of the review of a number of agencies, as Jeff says; these reviews rarely make much sense, and it’s not unusual to see the exact same information that had been redacted on page 122 to show up in all its glory on page 126. It can be distracting for the reader, but it can also be a bit of fun to try to figure out what puzzle piece goes in the blank.

Jeff’s account portrays him being raised by a sadistic bully of a father and a simpering victim of a mother, afraid to leave the brute she married for a number of reasons. Jeff eventually escapes after a series of episodes that, if true, are astonishingly tragic – even more so, since he is unable to rescue his two younger brothers from that nightmare of a household; he is able to enlist in the Air Force, and in short order finds himself enjoying the needed structure of basic training. Get used to that concept of “structure”. It pops up again and again throughout the book.

Once in the USAF, Jeff seems to settle into a regime. His modest German skills allow him to move ahead in his training, and his sharp observations on life during tech school (English class, target language training, and his arrival to Goodfellow for his final round of training before his first field assignment) bring back a lot of memories for Doc. His description of his arrival in Berlin is similarly well-handled and allowed me to reminisce.

There are a lot of inconsistencies between Jeff’s recollection of events in Berlin and how they actually went down, especially when it comes to timelines. We both got to Berlin around the same time (I arrived the day before he did), and while a lot of events aren’t exactly chiseled in the stone of my memory, I still have a good grasp on the timeline and the outcome of most of them. There is no point in Jeff having made stuff up with the events in question, I think he may have either a) a faulty memory or b) simply shifted things around to tell what he thought was a more compelling story. Either option is not what you look for, however, when you’re reading a non-fiction book in search of facts or, for that matter, motive when it comes to little things like espionage. Still, I will give him a pass on this.

Searching for real motives is a tricky effort with Jeff’s version of events. In his words, he wanted to make sure that neither side had the advantage over the other in the race to destroy the world and everyone living in it. His work as a linguist in a classified facility helped keep the Warsaw Pact at bay, and the only way he could make sure the playing field was level was to engage the other side. There’s also a lot of “I was always misunderstood” and “my work and efforts are unappreciated” (along with, by his own admission, too much beer and self-pity) that strengthened his walk through Checkpoint Charlie.

The “impact” of one of the more telling episodes that he relates is brought up a couple of times in the book. He points to an example of what, in actuality, was standard operating procedure back in the day on the part of both Soviet and American military border “showdowns,” as well as those Warsaw Pact and NATO forces. In Jeff’s version, this was a massive one-off exercise on the part of the American cowboys in the White House and DoD that he knew would very likely trigger nuclear war; his breathless account of how he spent the day after his mid shift (when he learned of the exercise) trying to alert his handler is entertaining reading, and perhaps it really did go down the way he described it, but I can’t help but wonder why his handler didn’t laugh in his face at the information.

There are a number of timelines in his story that I was looking forward to reading in the book, considering I only had my own point of view as a frame of reference. When I got to those sections, Jeff did not disappoint.

cgFirst, the way he went about his espionage activities while assigned to Marienfelde. A lot of rumor (and some interesting OSI briefings) pointed those of us who worked with Jeff in the right direction, but the level of detail he’s able to provide (even with redacted parts) was impressive. Someone in my position cannot help but feel at least a little anger when reading the casual way in which he got away with his activities, and the pride with which he details their accounts, but at some point the mature reader has to set aside personal emotions and look at it, if nothing else, from a counterintelligence aspect and use it as an exercise in “lessons learned”.

Along the same lines, his work for the MfS at Goodfellow was also well-documented, including trips to meet with his handlers. It was nice to read of some of his intelligence failures, as well – the effort to replicate highly classified documents on microfiche is one example. Along these lines, the section detailing his circle closing in on him at Goodfellow, along with his desertion and arrival back in East Germany, was worth reading as well – he doesn’t provide specifics that explain why the lead-up events in Texas occurred, but he lets the reader in on the fact that he had obviously been acting in a manner that had his supervisors so concerned that he had been scheduled for a battery of psychological evaluations.

Another section of the book I was looking forward to was the run-up of events which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the impact that those events (along with reunification) had on his life in East Germany. It was at this point that Jeff reveals that he felt almost as betrayed by his bosses as he himself had betrayed his co-workers and country years before. He conveys the true sense of panic he must have been feeling when he realized he was headed down a rabbit hole, that he needed to give up everything he had been working for with the MfS and find a new home, a new organization that could use his skills. But with freedom sweeping across Eastern Europe at the time, his options were obviously quite limited.

The events leading up to Jeff’s capture are not accurately told, but it’s probably the official version that Jeff was given; this keeps a lot of good people from having their names published. The true story of his discovery and capture are probably classified, so I’ll leave it at that. Suffice to say, his capture and subsequent movement to the US, and inevitable incarceration, all make for an intriguing read. The structure provided by his incarceration, in very different ways at the Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force levels, also helped him keep moving forward and helped him survive. The book’s afterword (a Berlin-based dialogue between him and his son, after his release from prison) appears to be a contrivance, but I suppose I’ll never know if that’s the case. Either way, it’s not a bad couple of pages of writing, and its purpose is to cement your understanding of Jeff’s desire for a world free from the threat of nuclear holocaust.

When I closed the cover, I thought back on what I might have learned from reading the book. What stood out to me more than anything was Jeff’s sense of self-worth. I don’t doubt that he was viewed as an important figure to the East Germans, but I got the feeling that he viewed himself as the sun, the moon, and the stars to their intelligence collection efforts. I suspect that is far from the case, for a number of reasons. In addition, whether intentional or not, Jeff portrays himself as pretty much a prick. He’s often the smartest guy in the room, no matter who else is there, and that his emotions carry a hair-trigger – he explodes in fury when his concerns are dismissed or when he feels he is not being treated properly or in accord with his imagined sense of self-worth.

I think Jeff expected a lot more attention from the publication of this book than I imagine he’s gotten here stateside. I can picture him waiting for interviews from the major news outlets (he’s been interviewed on German television, but I expect Wolf Blitzer hasn’t had a chance to return his calls), and that the American public, once they hear his side of events, would be understanding and actually consider him a bit of a hero for keeping the world safe from nuclear war – but, to be fair, the American public hasn’t heard ANY side of events, not so much because the government wanted to protect all the damage from revealing the stuff he sold, but because he’s really not that big of a rat in the lab of espionage. He is not Ames, Hansen, Walker, Manning, or Snowden, not by a country mile.

Finally, I think he realistically knew that his former co-workers would not be lining up to tell him “Whoa! Now I get it! All’s forgiven.” He alludes to this a number of times in the book. The true betrayal in all of this was to the folks who worked with him, and whom he never gave a true chance to be a part of. But in one of his prison interviews with the military’s counterintelligence folks, he offers that if someone, anyone, had just reached out and said “Hey, Jeff, is everything okay?” that could have been the turning point, and he wouldn’t have turned out the way he did. Maybe I’m cynical, but I think that’s a nice convenient cop-out. Laying the blame on co-workers, even partly, is not only disingenuous, it’s chicken-shit.

Doc would recommend this book be read with an open but sharply-focused eye. And Doc recommends finding a library or otherwise free copy, because Doc doesn’t condone funding the chest-thumping of spies.

On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being shabby, 10 being snappy, Doc awards this book a B-.  It’s well-written, poorly-published claptrap disguised as non-fiction.

So this just happened.

Not sure how ol’ Doc’s gonna be able to sleep for the coming damned four and a half months.  I’m hoping (against hope) to get an advance copy to read of this particular book.  You’ll be the first to know if that’s the case.  But it won’t be.

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If you ain’t squealing like a baby piglet right about now, check your pulse.  This is huge.

Doc Reviews “This Census-Taker” by China Miéville

ccLet’s imagine a world in which Virginia Woolf and Neil Gaiman had a baby that they taught to write like Kafka. That baby, at least this go-around, is the blazingly brilliant China Miéville. Mr. Miéville presents us with a slim story about a boy who lives in a surreal land that is sparsely detailed but richly embodied, a boy who may or may not have witnessed his father murdering his mother. The authorities from the town in whose outskirts the boy lives are outraged, having apparently had bad dealings with Father before – but there is hesitation to arrest Father for two reasons – no body, and (possibly more importantly) Father is a local key-maker. The keys Father makes are not the sort to unlock doors, but are based on emotions, dreams, and desires; he crafts these into metal fetishes which he then sells to the citizens to satisfy their desire for love, a good crop, a healthy milk-cow, or revenge. He is eyed by the townfolk with suspicion, but no one wants to have this craft turned against them. The boy is sent back to live with his father.

The story is covered in a dream-like gauze, with more than one suggestion that our narrator (the boy) is not the most reliable reporter of the goings-on in and around home. But Mother is most decidedly missing.

Miéville has always had a knack for drawing me into a story; like Gaiman, he introduces a child-like voice that insists on being heard, and that begs to be protected. He also fiddles a lot with time and a seeming stream-of-conscious storytelling, presenting the narrator in first, second, and third person throughout the book. This is a book with puzzle pieces scattered at the entrance and all over the hallway, clear through to the exit. The climax is satisfying with a single read, but the volume is slim enough that it is worth your while to go back through that passage and look for all of the puzzle pieces a second time through. It’s definitely one to keep on the bookshelf for revisiting, over and over.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a punch in the nose by a surly drunk, and 10 being a gentle massage with a nearby snifter of tawny port, Doc gives this fine read a solid A.

Doc Reviews “We” by Yevgeniy Zamyatin

cdIt’s not often that you can grab a book free (legally so) from the Information Superhighway that is famous for having influenced Aldous Huxley, Ayn Rand, Ursula K. LeGuin, George Orwell, Vladimir Nabokov, and Kurt Vonnegut. But you can – the magnificent “We” by Yevgeniy Zamyatin, an early 20th century dystopian novel that seems to spell out the road to post-Soviet Russia. It’s a pretty great read.

The book differs greatly from “1984” and “Brave New World” because it addresses its topics with a rather wry sense of humor. I hope Zamyatin had a good time writing this novel and inserting his inside jokes and nodding winks to the readers in the know, because the novel very well may have led to his ruin. It certainly was the impetus for his downfall in Russian literary society and his subsequent deracination to Paris, with the gentle assistance of Maksim Gorky.

“We” takes place in a world ruled by OneState, a thousand years after that body conquered every country on the entire planet. Everyone is assigned an alphanumeric designator, rather than a name, and our narrator, D-503, matter-of-factly points out the differences between his world and what we have come to know as our own. He brings up his world’s history and its unique style of government not because he is writing for an audience in the past (us), but because he is providing his account for the future readers – his journal will accompany the spaceship Integral (which D-503 is helping to develop) to other planets, which OneState plans to conquer.

D-503’s girlfriend (for lack of a better term), O-90, has been assigned to him by OneState to serve as his lover. Sex nights are pre-assigned affairs, largely passionless events which are viewed for the most part as a citizen’s duty. D-503 shares O-90 with another OneState citizen, R-13, who is a poet. R-13 performs his verse at public executions. A charming trio, these three.

ccEnter the mysterious I-330. I-330 is a female who appears to work very hard at flirting with D-503. She also engages in illegal activities – smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and possibly worst of all, invading D-503’s dreams (dreams are viewed as a sign of mental inferiority, so for obvious reasons, D-503 is mum on that account). We soon learn that I-330 is actually recruiting, as she is part of a revolutionary group hoping to overthrow OneState and re-introduce passion and humanity to OneState’s citizens. She leads D-503 to a city outside the Green Wall, which surrounds OneState, and introduces him to her organization, the Mephi.

Things become hectic in the final act, with O-90’s desire to become pregnant with D-503’s baby (another illegal activity, as O-90 is deemed too short and, therefore, unfit to carry a new OneState citizen) is fulfilled. A frantic effort to remove O-90 to the Mephi is undertaken, with D-503 at odds with his conscience, which tells him that the protection of OneState is the single constant in his life that he can rely on. Does he turn his back on O-90 and I-330? Does he rat the Mephi out to OneState? I’m not going to spoil the fun by revealing that – it’s worth picking up the book yourself and giving it a go.

ceZamyatin seemed to be itching for a fight by writing this book. One would suppose that he felt the brand new Soviet Union’s leaders had a fanatic edge to them, hoping that they too could overthrow the rest of the world with their vision of a Metropolis-like worker state, but without the other side of Metropolis, the elite that are authorized access to the outside world. I enjoyed this book for a lot of reasons; in spite of its age, it seemed fresh (certainly, there are some rather clumsy translations out there that will sound awkward to the 21st century reader’s ear, but at times that can be part of the book’s charm).

Since Doc’s a translator himself, he would be remiss in not mentioning the translation of this work.  I read a recent translation (2011) by Grover Gardner, who does just an excellent job turning the dialogue and gritty descriptions in this book into something fresh and fun.  He explains in his preface that there are some serious differences between his choices of words and those of his predecessors who translated the book before him.  Of note is his decision to name the Big Brother-like government OneState, rather than what had been used up to this point – United State.  He felt that this was too close to United States (in fact, he rightly pointed out that, in reading the older versions, the mind fills in the last missing “s”), something that Gardner feels is not in keeping with the spirit of Zamyatin’s original text.  Mistaking the Big Brother for the United States, rather than the intended Soviet Union, would be a disservice to his memory.  There may be truth to this; all I know is that the book was translated with a level of grace and elegance that the book demanded.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a filthy diaper in a rest-stop parking lot, and 10 being a diamond tiara, Doc gives this awesome read a solid A-.

Here’s a link where you can grab your own free pdf of this book today.  It’s an older translation, but still an excellent read.

Snow? Opportunity.

Doc’s trapped (well, allowing himself to be trapped) in another blizzard in northern Virginia.  Stumbled upon this nice little graphic that speaks to Doc’s heart.  Not sure if I can actually accomplish the goal, but I’m willing to give it the old college effort.

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Good luck with your own version of The Blizzard of ’16, even if you’re tucked away in warmer climes.  We can get through this.  Keep the faith.

Doc’ll be back tomorrow, if the power stays on, with a new review.  See ya then.

Doc Reviews “Bridge of Spies” by Giles Whittell

ccPretty good book. Doc hasn’t seen the moving picture of the same name, with that Tom Hanks fella from “Big” and a handful of other pictures, but when I cracked this book open, I was expecting the Hanks character to have a hell of a bigger role, assuming the movie previews were any indication. Man, was I wrong. And that don’t matter a lick, I just thought it was worth tossing out there.

Bridge of Spies” is an excellent read about the events leading up to the first event that’s come to be known as “spy-swaps” between the US and the Soviet Union. Drawing heavily on the author’s personal interviews with some of the main players 50 years ago, as well as letters and memoirs of those no longer with us, the book walks us step-by-step through the circumstances that found the three men accused of espionage to begin with and who would become part of this swap meet. The Hanks character, James Donovan, doesn’t really make much of an appearance until the final chapter.

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Francis Gary Powers

The character we already know the most about, probably because of the amount of chatter he created this side of the Iron Curtain at the time of his capture, was Frances Gary Powers. Powers was a former Air Force pilot who signed on with the CIA to fly the Lockheed’s new U-2 high altitude photo reconnaissance plane under the aegis of collecting weather data. The only weather he was collecting was “weather” or not (heh heh) the Soviets had the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles Khrushchev was trying to frighten the West with at the time. Our analysts at the time surmised that, based on the Soviet leader’s statements and other information deduced, the Reds had probably targeted the US with anywhere from 200 to 400 missiles capable of flying that far to deliver destruction. Hindsight being a funny little thing, as it turns out, Khrushchev only had 4 such missiles. But it’s for purposes of collecting that ground truth that our U-2 pilots were asked to penetrate Soviet airspace and put their lives at risk.

Powers did just that, and for a number of reasons or as the result of curious circumstances, his U-2 was brought down in pieces. Whittell provides an outstanding retelling of Powers’s struggle to free himself from the U-2, which without its wings turned out to be as aerodynamic as a dumpster. Eventually he does free himself, where he is shortly met by friendly Russians whose eyes must have popped when they discover he’s an American. Shortly after his recovery, and being relieved of his handgun, he is whisked away by the Soviet authorities. In short order, Khrushchev uses him deftly as a pawn in his chess match with Eisenhower, who shortly after Powers was shot down, believes (along with almost everyone else in Washington) that the pilot had died in the crash. No pilot (so the line of thought went) could survive a fall from 70,000+ feet. Even so, had the pilot survived, the unwritten rule was that he would make use of the pin dipped in a deadly amount of curare, thus avoiding pesky interrogations and ungainly torture. And of course, to preclude any embarrassment to the US. Funny thing about unwritten rules, though – if they ain’t written down, they’re tough to know about, and even tougher to enforce.

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Rudolph Abel

Another player traveled through the book with about twelve names, the most famous of which was Rudolph Abel. Abel, born Willie Fisher, was a Soviet intelligence officer who, by all accounts (and it goes without saying, very much so in Whittell’s eyes), was as sloppy a spy as they come. Tom Hanks, who operates under the name James Donovan, elects to be Abel’s lawyer when he is arrested and charged with conspiracy. Donovan is an insurance lawyer at this point, but it would appear that he’s got some serious Washington DC connections. He’s not the greatest lawyer, but it can be argued that he kept Abel’s neck out of a noose when his espionage activities started to come to light. Because he was working for the USSR, and because this book is written primarily in English, Abel is the least sympathetic character in the book, just ahead of Ike.

 

The third of our choirboys is actually the least likely to have been an actual spy. Frederic Pryor had the poor fortune to be in Berlin when the first barbed wire genesis of the Berlin Wall appeared; stopped at the border, his car was found to be loaded with his economics notes – surely, as damning a block of evidence as you can find. As Whittell explains in the book, it’s not so much that Pryor was spying, as reading books (and taking notes from them) that he wasn’t given permission to access. He wasn’t prevented from it – they were simply available on a bookshelf that he wasn’t told he could use. As a result, he found himself a guest of the Stasi (East Germany’s State Security) in a cell where he began wasting away, wondering what the hell just happened.

Of all the people in this Cold War cocktail, it’s actually Powers’s cantankerous father, Oliver, who came up with the idea of swapping Abel for Powers – in fact, he wrote directly to Abel, asking what he would think of such an arrangement. The CIA felt peeved that Abel was being contacted out of the blue by the parent of a high-profile prisoner in the Soviet Union, and possibly a little out of sorts that they hadn’t thought of it first. Donovan, meanwhile, as Abel’s lawyer, caught wind of the letter, and tried to move things in that direction – not so much because he felt that what had happened to Powers was a travesty of justice, but (according to Whittell) had political aspirations, and felt this might be his foot in the door.

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Tom Hanks

In two shakes of a year and a half, the exchange is happening. Pryor was fortunate enough to be thrown in, since it would be considered a valuable and easy way to show that the US views East Germany as a legitimate government by negotiating with them at this level. Still, as an also-ran, Pryor suffered the indignity of being moved through Checkpoint Charlie, and not on Berlin’s Glienecke Bridge. Pity for him, because he never got to meet Tom Hanks.

Doc’s one of them folks who likes facts to be facts in his non-fiction.  Something happens in real life, and it’s being documented in a book that purports to be non-fiction, you’d sort of expect it to either be left out if it ain’t all that important, or to be rendered with some level of accuracy if it’s deemed worthy of inclusion.  In his Epilogue, Whittell talks about what happened to each of the main characters in this tale. I came to a screeching halt when I read that Powers died in a helicopter accident in 1975 – he actually died in 1977. How can such a rudimentary fact be erroneously written down? Wish I knew. And stuff like that tends to call other details into question. But I’m going to give Whittell the benefit of the doubt. He deftly juggles three storylines and a broad cast of characters not seen since the likes of ‘War and Peace’. I’ll spot him this one. But if I find out that Powers never actually did get released, Whittell’s going to have some serious damned explaining to do.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the dog’s breakfast and 10 being dinner at the Ritz, Doc gives this gripping read a solid B+.

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