Book review: 'Intelligence,' by former CIA analyst Susan Hasler
By Susan Hasler
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's. 310 pp. $24.99
Susan Hasler, who toiled at the CIA for 21 years, has written a first novel called "Intelligence" (an ironic title if there ever was one) that's a biting satire of the agency she once called home. Maddie James, Hasler's 38-year-old heroine, is a little bit crazy. Her work as an "alchemist" in the "Mines" -- an analyst for the CIA -- has left her that way. Among the things that drive her mad are her pantyhose, her nutty mother, her worthless ex-husband and her mostly nonexistent sex life. She talks a lot to her pet rabbit, Abu Bunny, and bases some of her predictions about possible terrorist attacks on nightmares that have their origins in her having been terrified by the flying monkeys in "The Wizard of Oz" when she was 6.
But Maddie's biggest frustration is that, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, she and her fellow alchemists were right. They insisted that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the attacks and possessed no weapons of mass destruction, but the Bush administration ignored them and persisted in launching a war against the wrong country. The novel's biggest villain is an unnamed "VP" who battered CIA directors into submission and forced alchemists like Maddie to suffer in silence. Be it noted that Hasler resigned from the CIA in 2004, the year after the ill-fated invasion of Iraq.
The main action of the novel comes a few years later in the Bush administration, when Maddie and her fellow alchemists become convinced that a new attack on American soil is at hand. They have a certain amount of chatter to go on -- fragments of intercepted cellphone talk -- and are trying desperately to connect the dots. We readers know Maddie and her fellow alchemists are right because Hasler takes us into the mind of a young Arab who is planning a suicide attack here in Washington. This young man, after a wretched childhood, seeks peace in jihad. He is thrilled by the prospect of taking thousands of Americans to their deaths and indifferent to his own: "For what I must do," he thinks, "my individual, personal life has to be abandoned like the useless trivia that it is."
As Maddie and her friends attempt to thwart this plot, the author treats us to a take-no-prisoners portrait of the CIA. Although right about the Iraq war, Maddie and her fellow analysts are mostly hapless eccentrics. (One is a "licensed opossum rehabilitator.") Even their sex lives are presented as comic relief. Hasler saves her most pointed attacks for the agency's political masters. The thuggish VP and the president himself are only glimpsed from afar (a report that "The President doesn't want to hear this" dooms their impassioned case against the invasion of Iraq); but two others, a woman and a dead man, are roasted at length.
The dead man is a former CIA director who sounds a lot like William J. Casey, the Reagan pal who headed the agency when Hasler joined it in 1983. This character is presented as a cynical manipulator who twisted facts to suit his political ends -- and his sins are rewarded with an inglorious death by doughnut. ("The man collapsed at his desk, falling forward into a large powdered doughnut filled with raspberry jam.") The other villain is a woman called Dr. Beth Dean (a.k.a. Death Bean), a comely young Bush foreign-policy adviser who is "a rich, spoiled political appointee" and sports "a blond helmet" and "the requisite triple strand of Republican pearls." Is it my imagination, or is this woman still out there making anti-Obama pronouncements on cable news shows?
Along the way, Hasler offers mostly despairing insights into the CIA. Maddie says, "If there is one hard lesson I've learned in this town, it's that ass-covering trumps national security every time." "There are no policy failures, only intelligence failures," Hasler tells us twice, meaning that the White House and Congress never make mistakes, only drones like Maddie. The terrorist attack that Maddie is trying to prevent leads to a spectacular event -- no more details will be revealed here -- that the Bush administration tries to use to justify an invasion of another Middle Eastern country. Is history about to repeat itself? Or will Maddie and her fellow alchemists be able to prevent another disaster?
Of course, if you think the invasion of Iraq was necessary, even wise, you'll hate this novel. But if you think it was a tragedy brought about by top-level arrogance and deceit, you'll probably savor Hasler's bitter comedy. It's a very funny book about a deeply unfunny slice of recent history. Read it and weep -- but you'll be laughing too.
Anderson reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Post.