The Interrogator

Reviewed by Peter Earnest
Sunday, July 16, 2006


A Novel

By Dan Fesperman

Knopf. 323 pp. $24

The U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- long known in the military as "Gitmo" -- is the stage for Dan Fesperman's tantalizing, timely thriller about an FBI special agent called upon to extract information from one of the alleged jihadists being detained there. Agent Revere Falk's subject is Adnan al-Hamdi, a young Yemeni captured early in the post-9/11 fighting in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and suspected of knowing valuable intelligence about al-Qaeda. Our on-again, off-again access to Adnan's nightly terrors, musings and fantasies is a powerful feature of the early part of the narrative, in which we learn that Adnan harbors a secret that could cast the war in Iraq in a whole new light. Will the patient, Arabic-speaking Falk be able to extract it from him? And at what price?

The Prisoner of Guantanamo fixes its attention largely on Falk, starting at the moment we first meet him in an interrogation session with Adnan. A 15-year FBI veteran, Falk is spending his second stint at Gitmo: He was posted there as a young Marine 12 years earlier, at a time when his off-duty exploits led him to meet a shadowy figure who will re-emerge during Falk's present travails.

In an organization of partners, buddies and specialty teams such as the FBI, Falk is a classic loner. He reveals little about his past or his family. He is now dating Pam, a military interrogator and one of the few unattached women at the base. His work/play routine -- interrogating Adnan and wooing Pam -- is shattered when a military interrogator is discovered dead under mysterious circumstances on the Cuban-run side of the island. Falk is assigned to investigate the case, leaving him caught up in tensions from both the Cold War and the war on terrorism.

While he carries out his assignments with diligence, Falk shows little discomfort with Gitmo or the grimly regimented system as he finds it. He is not one of those U.S. officials writing concerned memos to Washington about alleged abuse of the detainees. Indeed, Falk seems somewhat intimidated by Gitmo, a military-dominated operating environment in which his law-enforcement badge is not always a trump card.

Not long after he is assigned to investigate the possible murder of the U.S. soldier, three senior officials -- from the departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security -- fly in from Washington with vaguely defined agendas and, perhaps, vested interests in the investigation's outcome. Falk reckons that the trio speaks for power brokers in the Capitol. The ensuing action of the novel is dominated by angry confrontations, ambushes and slippery tactics among the members of this team and Falk -- so dominated, in fact, that the trio's individual roles begin to blur. Still, a neat sense of conspiratorial tension pervades the atmosphere, created through overheard, sometimes obscure fragments of conversation. Falk and his monitors employ an impressive array of low-tech but effective espionage techniques against one another as they pursue their conflicting objectives. Fesperman's use of spy tradecraft is good -- even creative -- and never more elaborate than the situation calls for. The high point is a frightening nighttime escape on the open sea, a segment that the author relates with passion and terror, feelings not always present elsewhere in the narrative.

Even though the pace sometimes flags, Fesperman, a Baltimore Sun reporter and novelist, gives us a highly detailed and useful picture of Gitmo and its denizens: the pervasive military infrastructure that determines the daily rhythms of life, the daily turf battles between the competing interrogation teams and their acronym-laden sponsors (DIA, CIA, FBI and so on), and the always looming presence of Fidel Castro's Cuba. To help readers keep it all straight, a "Guantanamo Glossary" and a sketch map of Gitmo appear in the front of the novel.

Strangely, though, The Prisoner of Guantanamo stops short at the doors to the cells. Is deliberate and systemic physical abuse of prisoners going on? Falk sheds light on the treatment of at least one prisoner, Adnan, but Falk's relationship with the detainee seems completely at odds with what most of us fear is actually occurring there. You should enjoy reading Falk's quick-witted escapades on the island as he eludes the Washington team and others who would derail his investigation, but, like me, you may find yourself asking why Fesperman could not have taken on some of the darker issues of that infamous place. ยท

Peter Earnest, a veteran CIA operative and Marine, is executive director of the International Spy Museum.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company