Retired CIA operative becomes breakout spy novelist

Written by Muleskinner Staff


(WASHINGTON, AP) — Jason Matthews spent 33 years as a CIA operations officer before retiring to write spy novels. With his second novel, “Palace of Treason,” out this week, he sat down with The Associated Press to discuss espionage, real and imagined. This exchange has been edited and condensed.
Q: What did your training as a CIA case officer entail?
A: Defensive driving was always part of it, also handling weapons, although an average CIA case officer probably won’t put his hand on a gun in five tours. The best self-defense training is the tradecraft we got. Knowing what’s around us, knowing that this dark alley’s got one way out or two ways out. Knowing that the guy you are about to meet is not vetted, and they could have flipped him.
Q: You became a specialist in “denied areas”— places where American operatives were constantly under surveillance. Do those specialists still exist?
A: The denied area game is fading somewhat. What you have to do to successfully to operate in Moscow is a lot different than Damascus these days. One is getting caught and kicked out and the other is getting your head chopped off.
Q: Your books are set partly in Russia, pitting the CIA against a corrupt and thuggish Russian intelligence apparatus. They are richly detailed renderings of the Russian government and intelligence agencies in action. You say you never set foot in Russia. Are those details based on intelligence you reviewed, research you did, or did you make some of them up?
A: It’s a combination of all three. We would go through our career and every case officer dreamed of recruiting a Russian because that was the jewel in the tiara. So everybody knew about Russia and Russians. And then also a novelist’s imagination, and a little research as well.
Q: Your books portray some CIA officers as buffoons. How big of a problem in the agency is incompetence?
A: I don’t think it’s any bigger problem than in the military, when people say, ‘How that guy ever got to general officer level, we’ll never know.’ In any organization you have the good apples and bad apples. But the mosaic, the whole picture, was my celebration of the agency, good and bad — an elite organization doing arcane work serving our country.
Q: Are you concerned that the discipline of gathering human intelligence is slipping?
A: Human intelligence, HUMINT, is the patrimony of CIA. The irony is that the global war on terror has actually taken away resources and institutional focus from classic HUMINT. Classic HUMINT takes a long time. If you’ve got new hires doing mandatory war zone tours, they re-up for a second tour, because it’s heady stuff. Are you going to spend 11 months learning Russian, another 11 months in the pipeline, in order to go to Moscow and have brown tap water coming out of your sink, and maybe after the third month of your tour, you walk into an ambush and they bounce you? That’s not the immediate career gratification that a lot of people look for.
Q: What old traditions are fading from the modern CIA?
A: At the end of a working day in Station X, you’d walk into the chief’s office to say good night. It would be, “Come over here kid, sit down, your job is to shut up.” And for the next two hours, as they pass around the scotch bottle, you heard the history of the world, through their eyes. That doesn’t happen now. Everybody’s busy, and there are 600 people in Baghdad instead of Paris or Caracas or Tokyo. It’s that traditional transmission of culture, of history, of ethos, of the legends, of the lore. The elders sit around the Indian fire and teach the young ones. That, I think, is going.