Retired CIA operative becomes breakout spy novelist
WASHINGTON (AP) — When Jason Matthews retired after more than three decades as a CIA operative, writing fiction proved a form of therapy.
Living in Los Angeles, cut off from the agency and its secrets, Matthews channeled his energy into the 2013 novel "Red Sparrow." It became a best-seller and critical success, resulting in a reported seven-figure movie deal.
"I started thinking about war stories," he said in an interview. "Pretty soon I blinked and I had like 300, 400 pages."
Five years on from his retirement, Matthews is back this week with a sequel, "Palace of Treason," set in Vladimir Putin's Russia.
And the most interesting accolades are coming from CIA insiders, who marvel at how he manages to slip so much past the agency's censors, portraying the heart-pounding rhythms of on-the-street espionage better that any novelist in recent memory.
They are not alone: The New York Times dubbed Matthews' new book "enthralling" in a recent review.
Matthews, 63, spent most of his career overseas specializing in "denied areas," places where Americans were closely watched and their movements restricted. He is part of a long line of former spies who turned to fiction but the first to have spent a full career at the CIA, rising to management, and then emerge to write with such commercial and critical success.
Matthews speaks six languages and helped manage seven CIA stations, sometimes working in tandem with his wife, Suzanne, also a retired CIA officer. They raised two daughters in countries they aren't allowed to name. At one point he was operations chief in the counter-proliferation division, tasked with slowing Iran's nuclear program, among other things.
He says his books amount to "a love letter" to the Central Intelligence Agency of his memory, one that he fears is slipping away. His specialty was classic espionage — sneaking around foreign capitals persuading sources to betray their country.
It's a different discipline than that employed by the many CIA case officers who spent the last decade doing tours in Baghdad and Kabul, often conducting source meetings in an armored vehicle with a military escort. Nor does it bear much resemblance to the man-hunting involved in tracking terrorists to target in lethal drone strikes.
Human intelligence, or HUMINT, is the "the patrimony of CIA," Matthews says. "The irony is that the global war on terror has actually taken away resources and institutional focus from classic HUMINT."
Matthews' novels are a celebration of HUMINT — the art and science of gathering it, the consequences when it goes wrong. He found an amenable setting in modern Russia, which is proving an increasingly nettlesome U.S. adversary. Unlike parts of Syria and Iraq, the CIA can still send Americans to spy in Russia, where the biggest risk to an operative with diplomatic immunity is being sent home.
The hero in his new book is clever, competent Nathanial Nash, everything one would want in a CIA case officer except perhaps for the forbidden love affair he carries on with his asset, Dominika Egorova, a former ballerina and trained seductress who dispatches attackers with a lipstick gun and her bare hands.
Matthews, who could pass for an insurance salesman but for the thick-framed, fashion-forward glasses, spares few details in his steamy sex scenes.
"I've read a lot of thrillers, and some of the sex is almost offhand and embarrassingly vague," he says. "So I wanted to go to the other end of the spectrum and be embarrassingly graphic."
The Americans are the good guys in these books, while the Russians are mostly corrupt torturers and thugs. Putin, a central character in "Palace of Treason," is portrayed as amoral, venal and paranoid.
Agency reviewers have focused more on scenes that depicted the main characters using disguises and carefully reading faces during hours-long surveillance detection routes to get "black" before a secret meeting. These "are accurate, richly detailed renderings of anxiety-filled tasks conducted daily by intelligence operatives around the world," former CIA officer Jim Burridge and an unnamed employee wrote in a review of "Red Sparrow" on the CIA's Web site.
That book won Matthews the Edgar Award for best first novel by an American and a reputation among his former colleagues. The agency reviewers marveled at how Matthews got all the tradecraft, as spies call it, past the CIA's Publications Review Board, which reserves the right to black out secrets in anything written by a former employee.
Matthews said he hit a snag, however, with his follow-up novel and was forced to fly to Washington and change part of his ending to get final sign off.
Still, the narrative bristles with reality.
When a Russian military officer wonders why his CIA handler isn't offering him frequency-hopping mobile phones like the Russians use, the CIA man marvels to himself: "If they (only) knew how the FBI and the NSA were crawling up their frequency-hopping" posteriors.
Matthews depicts plenty of buffoonery by senior CIA officials, too, including a blustering, dangerously unqualified Moscow station chief whose inability to spot surveillance puts operations at risk. At headquarters, the chief of operations is caught in flagrante delicto with his female assistant.
Matthews' institutional criticism doesn't extend to the agency's harsh treatment of al-Qaida detainees, excoriated in a recent Senate report. Although he played no role, he defends his friends who did. The sum total of the CIA's work has been a force for good, he said.
"Some of the things that we've accomplished are absolutely magnificent, and have kept the bad guys at bay," he said. "You never actually win 100 percent, but we've pushed (weapons) programs back, and we've embarrassed bad people and eliminated other people."