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Books: The Increment

The Increment
The Increment (W.W. Norton and Company)

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David Ignatius
Washington Post Columnist, Novelist
Wednesday, May 27, 2009; 2:00 PM

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius was online Wednesday, May 27, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss his latest novel, The Increment, a spy thriller about the CIA and a veteran agent who must go rogue to seek out the validity of a message he receives that reveals Iran is making real progress toward a bomb.

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David Ignatius: Hello to all. Apologies for being late to the discussion but I was off doing my habitual practice of reporting--in this case meeting with the new Indian ambassador. But I am eager to answer your questions about the Increment...and anything else.

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New York City: I have read your columns and articles over the years and appreciated them. As an Iranian-American academic, I am hoping against hope that President Obama would surmount the incredible obstacles he faces to mount a new strategic vision of truly engaging Iran. Given this sensitive climate, how is your novel helpful or unhelpful in the quest to normalize U.S.-Iran relations?

David Ignatius: I hope that The Increment shows the richness and complexity of Iranian life--and in that sense will encourage the process of engagement between the two countries, something I have urged in many columns over the past two years. The novel also offers a frank discussion of the Iranian nuclear program and the dangers of weaponization. That's an issue that has to be addressed as the US and Iran talk. The last thing I should say is...this is a novel. It's written to tell an exciting story. It's not in the realm of fact, but fiction.

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Arlington, Va.: I read your earlier books, "Body of Lies" and "Agents of Innocence," which I think is the best and should be read by all of your fans. I also saw your interview on Charlie Rose where you talk about how you did your research on Iran, but I was curious about how you did your research on the technology and gadgets mentioned in your latest book. I noticed from the various great reviews about your book that this issue was the most criticized. Thanks again for all your great writings.

David Ignatius: I researched the process of weaponization by reading as much as I could, and then by talking with a nuclear scientist from the Energy Department, who helped me through the unclassified literature on this subject. I like to get these details right in my fiction, and I thank this scientist, Dr. John Harvey, in the acknowledgements at the end of my book.

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Frederick, Md.: Your Harry Pappas seems to be anti-James Bond, based more on someone like John le Carre's George Smiley. While le Carre emphasizes a more staid personality, in contrast to Ian Fleming's Bond, doesn't Pappas seem a bit out of place in Iranian-based covert activities with a semi-secret para-military ops group? In essence, should an older bureaucrat stay behind and let a Bond-like character dodge bullets and crawl under barbed wire?

David Ignatius: Well, as a 59-year-old myself, I don't think "older guys" should necessarily be left behind when the fun starts. And I think Harry is doing what a CIA officer would want to do, if he felt he needed to eyeball the source in the field. If you've read the book, you know that Harry is struggling to understand what the intelligence from Iran means--and to avoid making the Iraq WMD rush-to-war mistake. So he really needs to be there.

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New York City: Hello Mr. Ignatius, I just read "Increment" and it was an excellent read. My question to you is: How does the CIA run human sources into Iran if we have no diplomatic relations with that country? We don't have a presence there, so are we just doing it from neighboring countries, like UAE or posting "Non Official Cover" operatives in Dubai? I know this is a sensitive topic, but please say what you can. I can only imagine the CIA must be very burdened by not having a diplomatic presence on the ground in Iran. Thank you

David Ignatius: Well, I'm just guessing, but I assume we run our sources from third countries in the region--places to which our assets can travel. And of course with modern communications gear, the need for face-to-face meetings is much less.

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Boston, Mass.: I have heard that many spy novels have more truth in their fiction than many contemporary news articles about the intel community because the author is much more liberated writing under the guise of "fiction." Is that true in your new book?

David Ignatius: I try to be honest in everything I write. That said, there's no question that fiction offers a broader canvas on which to paint your portraits of people and events. Columns are written with a 750-word limit; a novel is usually 100,000 words or more. So obviously there is a better chance to unpack your ideas.

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Munich, Germany: In Graham Greene's "The Human Factor," a secret service agent betrays his country for love in the midst of the faceless, impersonal Cold War, while a war of influence was being fought by the two monoliths.

The Middle East and Arab World have always been different, haven't they? In your last book, you described how an informant is turned or recruited by having him speak with his mother over a cell phone.

In your experience as a journalist and author, is the so- called "Human Factor" more important in the Middle East than in other parts of the world?

David Ignatius: I am glad you mentioned "The Human Factor," because that's one of my favorite Greene novels, and was something of a model for The Increment. Without giving away my plot, I can say that the two main characters--the Iranian scientist and the CIA officer, Harry Pappas--are each led to "betray" the rules because of what they feel are higher moral obligations. That was the same puzzle Greene was working in his book. I an a HUGE Greene fan. I re-read his novels every few years for inspiration--always a reminder of his genius as a writer and my relative frailty.

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Toronto, Canada: Hi -- I wanted to know if the writer has ever been Iran?

David Ignatius: I spent two weeks in Iran in August-Sept 2006. One of the most interesting reporting trips of my life. I would love to go back. Iran defies every expectation. It's more modern, dynamic, open--with people who love the regime and people who hate it all, eager to tell a visitor what they think.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi! I work in the intel sector and I have to say, I love your books. I've read them all, plus the works of Robert Ludlum, Brad Thor, Vince Flynn, Tom Clancy... you all are fantastic writers. I want to ask you, who are your favorite authors? And also, do you have any others that you can recommend to me? I read so fast that I'm running out of good books! Thanks so much!

David Ignatius: Thanks for your kind words about my books. I like the thrillers written by the former head of the British security service, MI5, Stella Remington. I like the historical spy novels of Alan Furst. I like anything written by Robert Harris, who like me is a former journalist. But my reading tastes, to be honest, tend toward the 19th century. I am currently on a Russian kick, reading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Chacun a son gout.

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Oxon Hill, Md.: My question is simply why? You are such a real time authority, why water yourself down and divert from your mission by writing fiction. I know it is a nice hobby and all but you need to stay focused. Any guilt about wasting your time and effort?

David Ignatius: I love both kinds of writing--the journalism in my columns and the fictional narratives of my books. The two reinforce each other. So no, it doesn't feel like a waste of time. Quite the opposite.

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Washington, D.C.: In a recent column, you stated, "If you read the CIA's careful 10-page summary of the 40 briefings it has given to Congress since 2002 on "enhanced interrogation techniques," it's pretty hard not to conclude that Pelosi is shading the truth to retrospectively cover her backside." But what do you make of the fact that Bob Graham, who is pretty well known for his overall integrity as well as for his scrupulous note-taking, has disputed the CIA's characterization of the briefing they gave him at the same time, as well as whether the CIA briefed him on several other occasions -- a claim the CIA retracted when confronted by him and his notes?

David Ignatius: Given what has emerged, I would take back the word "careful." It looked careful when I wrote my column, but Graham has noted some errors in the document that should embarrass the people at the CIA who compiled it. That said, I still think the record supports what I said, which is that Pelosi's version was "shading the truth."

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New York, N.Y.: Do you know any Iranians, either in Iran or in America, who have read your book? If so, what have been their comments?

David Ignatius: Yes, I showed the book to several Iranians before publication, and I have heard from a number of them since then. To summarize: They thought the book offered an accurate description of the country. One Iranian friend told me, "I felt I was in Tehran." He may have just been being nice to the author, but that pleased me.

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Arlington, Va.: You say you asked a person from Dept of Energy regarding weaponization, but what about the technology regarding satellites, cell phones and e-mail capabilities that the intelligence community can use and exploit, did you have a credible reference? Thanks again!

David Ignatius: I read a lot about the CIA as part of my job, and I drew on that and my own reporting. This is a novel, so much of my story is fanciful. But I do try to get the details right.

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washingtonpost.com: Speaker vs. Spies: A Test for Obama (Post, May 17)

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Fairfax, Va.: Was there any reason to choose the name 'Pappas' as one of the characters? This brings to mind Ike Pappas, the former CBS newsman, who covered a variety of stories over the years and was present when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. Is the name choice any kind of salute to him?

David Ignatius: I hadn't thought of Ike Pappas, actually. I had a friend years ago at the Wall Street Journal named Pappas, and I guess I was thinking of him. But basically, I wanted a down-to-earth character with the cultural anchor of Greek-American life, and that's how I came up with the name.

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Arlington, Va.: David -- How would you compare this book with your older novels?

David Ignatius: I learn something new about writing with each novel. My first book, "Agents of Innocence," was very close to fact in its account of how the CIA developed Yasser Arafat's intelligence chief as a US asset. My subsequent books all draw from real life, but also embroidered it: "SIRO" described agency operations in Central Asia in the 1970s and '80s; "The Bank of Fear" explored Saddam's Iraq and the agency's dealings with that horrific regime; "A Firing Offense" played with information about France, China, biological weapons and my own field of journalism. And so on...As I matured as a writer, I have felt more comfortable

imagining a landscape, and also more committed to deliver the surprises and plot twists that thriller readers (me included) expect from a book.

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New York, N.Y.: In your opinion, how far long is Iran towards building a nuclear weapon?

David Ignatius: My own guess is that US intelligence is right, that the Iranians are somewhere between three and five years from making a deliverable nuclear bomb.

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Rockville, Md.: Dave,

I haven't read "The Increment", but let me guess -- the CIA is loaded with a bunch of careerist screw-ups who are hindering the Jack Bauer-like protagonist. There are some wise, magical people who are there solely to help our hero, and the real enemy is at home. Am I getting somewhere in the ballpark? Thanks.

David Ignatius: Actually, that's not what the book is about at all.

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Reston, Va.: Does this novel correctly represent CIA resistance to unconventional information and interpretations? Is this rigid view the reason why the CIA has ignored the strategic electromagnetic pulse (EMP) threat to the U.S.?

David Ignatius: The CIA is a bureaucracy, for sure. But compared to some parts of our government, they seem relatively open to unconventional ideas. I can't answer about EMP because I don't know the agency's views...but that's certainly an issue that's getting USG attention.

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Toronto, Canada: Do you think Israel would have attacked Lebanon or Gaza had they been able to defend themselves with atomic weapons?

David Ignatius: You are implicitly asking whether nuclear weapons could stabilize the Middle East. I have a hard time imagining that. The likely result of an Iranian bomb (let alone a Lebanese bomb) would be a nuclear arms race in the region that would be genuinely dangerous, imho.

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David Ignatius: So...we have come to the end of the hour and I should sign off. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions. I hope you all will enjoy "The Increment" and will send any comments or questions to my publisher, WW Norton and Co. in New York. Best to all.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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