Thursday, December 09, 2010

Book Review: "Blowing My Cover", by Lindsay Moran

Near the end of her memoir, Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2005), Lindsay Moran describes what the CIA does as “A little boys’ game that men continue to play as adults”, and then writes: “The CIA was, and still is, made up of men who are loath to give up playing their game.”

These were her thoughts near the end of her CIA career, which lasted only a few years, in the wake of 9/11 and as she tried to figure out why the United States didn’t know that the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. were coming. They were somber reflections for a somber time, and were part of what led her to resign as a CIA case officer after working in Eastern Europe for several years.

They were appropriate thoughts assessing a career that she had never been completely convinced that she should enter. After filling out her first application to work at the spy agency, she decided not to sent it in and only actually submitted an application a few years later. Even as she was undergoing training to be a case officer - those are the folks who work in other countries and attempt to recruit the real “CIA agents”, what they call assets, who they then encourage to discover and sell their own nation’s secrets, sometimes for a lot of money. She questioned, she says, why she should ask someone else to do something, betray their own country, that she was not willing to do herself. She doubted what she would be doing seriously enough that she discussed with her agency mentor the possibility for working for the agency in another capacity.

But if you expect to find only deep, soul-searching contemplation in Moran’s book, you’ll be disappointed or surprised, depending on your disposition, to find that Moran’s memoir has its share of comic moments, especially as she describes the long course of training she and her cohorts endured on their way to being spies. She spends more than half the book on the training period, which lasted over a year. For example, did you know that CIA trainees hold practice cocktail parties, where they try to recruit their instructors as spies. They also learn extreme driving, how to know when they’re being followed, and cross-country path finding, among many other skills. All of which make more sense to me than cocktail party practice, to be honest.

There were also things in the book that, quite frankly bothered me. One was the confirmation of the idea I’ve had for a long time that at least a certain segment of the CIA community seem to see their activities as a game, something that makes me uncomfortable when you consider that this “game” of theirs sometimes costs real people their lives. And then there the story she told about one of the assets she tried to recruit near the end of her time in Eastern Europe, an individual who had previously been friends with some folks that most likely had ties to al Qaeda. After the 9/11 attacks, she thought it would be helpful to get information from people who knew terrorists and might be able to report on their activities.

In the instance, however, headquarters refused her request and ordered her to cut off contact with the individual she was trying to recruit because he “may at one time have had terrorist ties.” As she asked a colleague, “And how are we going to find anything out if we avoid all the people with terrorist ties?” Which was exactly what I was thinking as I read that her request had been denied. Perhaps if the CIA really didn’t have any intelligence pointing to the attacks, that was the problem. Certainly, she had a point considering some of the people her superiors at the CIA wanted her to keep a relationship with, who clearly didn’t know anything of value and stood little chance of learning such information.

To be honest, I picked Moran’s book up off the shelf at the library primarily because the title interested me. That is, in fact, the way I’ve found some of the best books I’ve ever read. I didn’t really expect much of it, but found that it is compulsively readable. Moran is a good writer and balances the serious and comic aspects of her experience well. It probably isn’t a book that I would be inclined to re-read, but I’m glad I read it.


You know, I haven't meant to turn this into a book review site, and I don't intend to now. But I've been reading some good books lately and feel like sharing. I hope you all don't mind. I'm just glad that I've finally started finding books again that I'm interested in reading. For several months, I went through a period in which I started more books than I can recall and couldn't think of a good reason to finish any of them. Fortunately, I don't feel the need to finish a book I don't like just because I've started reading it.

My question to you is, do you feel free to put a book that you aren't enjoying down? Or do you feel obligated to finish a book once you start it?


cripple mode core said...

Hi that was an interesting review or non-review or whatever.

As to the question of putting a book down.

I have a question- I always do this and annoy people- a question to answer a question. But, here goes.

Which would you rather have -as an author? A book no one can put down or one that someone praises with the statement this book is long but its one of those you can put down and just come back to anytime.

Just a bit of perspective.

Incidentally I'd love to see what you manage to do on sffchronicles but I've been banned from there for speaking my mind. That's a bit of a caution for you.

littlemissattitude said...

That's an interesting question, actually.

I love reading books that I just can't put down, that keep me reading long into the night because I keep telling myself "just one more chapter". So, I suppose I'd rather write a book that people do the same thing with. That would mean that the reader finds the book so exciting that they have to find out what happens next.

My worry with a book that can be put down and come back to is that, even if the reader thinks the book is "good", and would say that they like it, they won't come back to it for some reason. It would be nice that they feel that if they do put it down, they can pick up and continue reading it with no problem. But they might not come back, not because they don't like the book, but because things just get in the way.

I've done that before, more than once. As an example, I started reading Ken Follet's "The Pillars of the Earth", and really enjoyed it for as long as I kept reading. But one day, about halfway through, I put it down and I've never gotten back to it. That doesn't mean I don't think it's a good book, and doesn't mean I didn't enjoy reading it. I just got sidetracked. But because of that, I'd hesitate to buy another book of his, or check it out of the library to read. As a writer, I wouldn't want readers to regard my books that way.

Thanks for coming by and commenting. I'd still like to hear whether you have to finish a book once you've started it or feel free to set it aside if you don't like it.


cripple mode core said...

So it's been a while and I was just clean up some older posts and realized I hadn't followed up on this comment.

To answer your question: I feel no obligation to finish a book after starting it; but I have finished ones I don't like because I was supposed to do a review and I won't do a review of one I don't finish, because of an incident when an author took umbrage with my not finishing and then reviewing.

I have a stack of books I haven't finished because they just didn't do it; but that's from long ago and recently I seem to be better at selecting book.