What We Expect of Spies

Tom Kean, a mild-mannered pol and popular governor of New Jersey in the 1980s, had a conventional view of the Central Intelligence Agency, based mostly on reading spy thrillers and going to the movies. He assumed the agency employed some highly talented spooks--maybe not James Bond or "24"'s Jack Bauer exactly, but professional spies who could cleverly steal the enemy's secrets. After 9/11, Kean was appointed head of the presidential commission to look at what went wrong, not because Kean knew much about intelligence or national security (he didn't) but because he is a fair-minded consensus maker with a grasp of history.

After a good deal of dickering with the White House, Kean was permitted to see the President's Daily Brief, the compendium of intelligence reports served up to the president every morning. When Kean looked at President Bush's PDBs for the summer of 2001, the months while Al Qaeda was getting ready to attack, he was shocked. "He found himself terrified by what he was reading, really terrified," writes Philip Shenon of the New York Times in his probing new book, "The Commission," a well-told tale of the making of the 9/11 Commission Report. "There was almost nothing in them. 'They were garbage,' Kean said of the PDBs. 'There was really nothing there--nothing, nothing'."

Kean was learning the dirty little secret of the secret world of intelligence. Spying is much, much harder to do in real life than it is in the movies. A new novel by a former CIA case officer, Joseph Weisberg, appropriately called "An Ordinary Spy," shows why. CIA case officers are smart, hard-working and patriotic. But they have a hard time recruiting people to betray their country. (If you are on the inside of a police state, enjoying the perks but always fearful of a purge, why risk it?) And even if the agency does recruit an agent or asset, how do the spooks back at Langley know the man or woman can be trusted? During the cold war, as Weisberg pointed out in a recent Washington Post op-ed piece, almost all the Cubans recruited by the CIA were double agents, and at least half the East Germans. In Iraq before the 2003 invasion, the CIA recruited a top official close to Saddam--Foreign Minister Naji Sabri--who told them that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction. But the CIA didn't trust him. They thought, not unreasonably, that Sabri was feeding them disinformation. In a spare but beautifully written book, Weisberg captures the paranoia and frustration, if not the futility, of the real world of spying, telling the story of a young case officer who sleeps with one of his potential recruits and gets caught up in a web of lies and unintended consequences.

Both Shenon and Weisberg will be read with some skepticism by the spymasters at Langley. Shenon is by trade a dirt digger who looks for the worst, and Weisberg quit the agency and never worked overseas; his knowledge is based on reading case files back at headquarters. But the two books shed some useful light on a world that is too often a source of fantasy and misunderstanding. The CIA has done little over the years to dispel the myth that it is all-knowing--which is good for morale and helps secure government funding. These new books can bring a sense of reality that the CIA should welcome. We need to lower our expectations, even as we support the spooks with the resources to keep on trying.