David Wise blew up the Chesapeake Bay Bridge as a favor to his wife, but it was his own idea to make the director of the CIA as nutty as a fruitcake. After 20 years of writing nonfiction about the espionage establishment, he'd decided to have some fun.
The result is "Spectrum," a novel in which a dashing CIA station chief, chagrined to learn that his agency has become a nuclear power, takes on the deranged CIA director in a transatlantic battle of wits, shellfish-toxin "nondiscernible microbioinoculations" and cryptography while the future of the world hangs, as they say, in the balance.
"Spectrum" has been in the bookshop windows since Friday, and its author will be talking it up on the "Today" show at 8:30 this morning. But the novel might be just another spy thriller if David Wise, at 53, did not happen to be an investigative reporter with five books out.
With his partner Robert B. Ross, he wrote "The U-2 Affair," "The Espionage Establishment" and "The Invisible Government," an account of American spying abroad that became a best seller in 1964. Since then he has published "The Politics of Lying," which argued that government deception has resulted in massive public distrust, and, in 1976, "The American Police State," an account of how recent administrations suppressed dissent and harassed their critics.
Until now, however, Wise was unable to reveal that the CIA had stolen enough uranium to become the first nuclear-tipped Washington bureaucracy. Such are the encumbrances of nonfiction, he conceded with a grin.
"However, it is true that in 1965, 381 pounds of weapons-grade uranium did disappear, or was stolen, from a plant in Apollo, Pa., as I say in the book. And we haven't been told what happened to it yet. In 1968 the CIA concluded that the missing uranium went to the Israelis, who used it to become the seventh nuclear power in the world."
And how does Wise know that?
"There was testimony before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by a high official of the CIA, who said that Richard Helms went to LBJ and told him that. And LBJ said, 'Don't tell Rusk. Don't tell McNamara.'"
Helms said that?
"Helms says he doesn't remember," Wise replied. "But Helms doesn't remember a lot."
Did the CIA in fact steal the uranium?
"I don't know."
Is the CIA, at the moment, armed with nuclear weapons?
The novelist only laughs.
Wise insists, however, that after covering spy stories for 20 years, he did not have to invent much when it came to decorating his thriller with the doodads and gizmos of clandestine tradecraft.
For example, when one of his characters considers hijacking a nuclear weapon from a transport convoy, he learns the escorting guards are equipped with M16s that fire gallium arsenide laser beams for targeting; that the missile trailers are unmarked; that the escort vehicles are ordinary campers. Furthermore, the convoy trucks are designed to withstand penetration by drills, explosives or blowtorches for one hour, and to survive a head-on collision at 60 miles an hour and a 1,900-degree fire for 30 minutes. If a hijacker did gain entry, sensors would automatically set off sprays and chemical foams to further confound him. Meanwhile, the trailer wheels would lock.
"That's all completely true," Wise said. "The laser beams are just for computing the target, of course. I got a lot of that from material the Nuclear Regulatory Commission put out, and also from the Department of Energy. Almost all the James Bond stuff in the book is literally true."
Including the poison dart gun with which Wise's CIA hero nearly gets bumped off?
"Of course," Wise said. "It shoots a tiny fleshette. And they really call it a 'nondiscernible microbioinoculator.' The CIA loves phrases like that. They also have a Health Alleviation Committee. Its purpose is not to improve your health, but to alleviate it."
"I also looked into shellfish toxin, which the agency likes to use a poison. I did my own research, I checked with a doctor and with an author. Shellfish toxin comes from Alaskan butter clams or Pacific Coast mussels, after they've ingested what they call 'red tide.' One mussel wouldn't kill you, but what the agency does is extract it from hundreds, and then it's extremely lethal. I confirmed by research that someone who was administered this stuff had symptoms indistinguishable from cardiac arrest."
Nevertheless, the business about the cats is surely made up -- right?
"Oh no," Wise exclaimed. "Although maybe it goes better in a work of fiction than in the real world. You see, somebody at the agency decided that if you wired up a cat with a transmitter, he'd be the perfect eavesdropper. Maybe sitting right on the suspect's lap. Who'd suspect a cat? Well, as a matter of fact I would. I have two cats, and I'm extremely suspicious. But yes, the fact is the agency was actually cutting up cats."
"The reason I know the cat stuff is true is that it was cut out of Marchetti's book." (Victor Marchetti is a former CIA agent who, with John Marks, published "The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence." All former agents are required to submit manuscripts to the agency for review and deletion of material deemed unacceptable. Wise, who says he has never been employed by the CIA, is not subject to such review.)
This brings us to the part where somebody asks if Wise hates the CIA and is out to destroy it, subvert its purpose and generally make fun of the vast cloak-and-dagger bureaucracy unsecretly located behind a conspicuous sign on George Washington Memorial Parkway that reads "CIA." c
After all, it is possible to write a thriller about espionage and not have the villain be the head of our own team, eh?
For example, a novelist could pit the CIA against the KGB, making a case for our moral superiority over the Godless Russkies, as Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss did recently in "The Spike." Or one can follow the lead of William F. Buckley, and fantasize about dashing Yale-accented intellecto-studs in postgraduate cold-war combat. Even Ian Fleming's James Bond, though he perhaps served Nietzsche better than Albion, was at least kind to Miss Moneypenny. In fact, the more literary the spy story, the darker the ambiance -- so that in Le Carre and Graham Greene, betrayal and nihilistic gamesmanship exact a greater cost than the occasional silencer-equipped handgun. Thus do both patriots and wisenheimers flirt with the genre.
Ah, but no. Wise says he believes in a clandestine service -- honest he does.
"When 'The American Police State' came out, Newsweek said it read like an espionage thriller," Wise explained. "So I said, why not? Then I asked myself what would happen to a CIA man, who feels as I do that we need a CIA but we don't need the assassinations and the covert operations that have brought it such criticism, if he knew some dark secret about the agency?
"What if he had to bring out that secret -- 'the family jewels,' as Bill Colby used to say -- in order to clear the slate and start anew. What would the CIA do to such a guy?
"So then I needed a secret, and I came up with the uranium that disappeared and is still unaccounted for. The story flowed from there. I didn't begin with the character of the director."
In America, it is possible to ask the CIA what it thinks of a novel. To do this, you get the CIA phone number from information and call the agency up. Through this method of investigative reporting it was learned yesterday that the CIA has not read Wise's book. although it "has seen a couple of reviews," according to Dale Peterson, public information officer. As for the disappearance of the uranium in 1965, the CIA is aware of press coverage on the subject but "generally has no comment on Apollo or on charges that the Israelis got the missing uranium." As for testimony about what Helms said to LBJ, the agency "is not aware of any such testimony or reports in the public domain." Nor is the agency without a sense of humor. Informed that in Wise's novel the director is a nut, the CIA replied that "even if it was true, we would certainly deny it."
However, Wise is not exactly a frequest guest at CIA HQ in Langley, and he says that if he did go to luncheon there, "I suppose I would bring an official taster with me." He expects no trouble as a result of the novel, however.
"As a matter of fact," Wise said, "I was talking with Director William Casey after a radio show not long ago, and he said he'd read all my books. He described me as an expert on the CIA. However, in the old days there were accusations that I got my information by hanging around bars and overhearing agents talking. The fact was that I was hanging around the Georgetown garden of Allen Dulles, listening to Allen Dulles talking."
Wise said, however, that 20 years of covering the spy service "does make one a little cautious."
"I remember in 1964, I told my publisher, which was Random House, that the CIA might try to get a-hold of my manuscript. People there just smiled. Well, sure enough, the agency got unauthorized galley proofs, and tried to have changes made.
"I later obtained part of my file under the Freedom of Information Act, and learned that a whole 'task force' had been assigned to me. One phrase stated that the agency 'should contact such assets as it has in the press to try to secure unfavorable book reviews, and so discredit author.' They also ran a legal study to see if they could lawfully buy up the entire first printing. Bennett Cerf, who was quite a funny guy, said fine -- maybe they would buy up the entire next printing, too."
Meanwhile, the new novelist was basking in his apparent success ("Spectrum" will enter The Washington Post's best-seller list soon as No. 6) and waiting for the weather to warm up so he and his wife and two boys could return to their summer haunt in Lewes, Del. It is that drive that gave Mrs. Wise a distaste for the Bay Bridge, and its spectacular destruction a place in his novel's denouement.
Ingratitude, perhaps, is the soul of fiction (perhaps the Wises don't remember the ferry). But of course in the duplicitous world of the veiled and the surveiled, nothing is ever what it seems.
Wise concedes that there is no way he can prove he is not, novel as it might seem, himself a witting asset of central intelligence.
"I can't see what good I've done them," he said, relishing the conundrum, "but it's true, you can't prove a negative. The best I can say is that, to the best of my knowledge, I've never worked for the CIA."