JACK IN THE BOX

By John Weisman

Morrow. 322 pp. $24.95

Ihad a few problems with John Weisman's "Jack in the Box," but it nonetheless wins the first annual Patrick Award for Wildest Conspiracy Theory in a Spy Novel. To wit: President Bush had seven weeks' warning of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but "the vice president and a cabal of hard-liners in the Pentagon" persuaded him to do nothing, so that the attacks would give them an excuse to achieve "American hegemony over the rest of the world" in the name of counterterrorism. This mother of all conspiracy theories is advanced by Edward Lee Howard, the real-life former CIA agent who defected to Moscow in 1985 but in the novel returns to Washington in 2002 to make amends. He tells his bombshell to an ambitious Republican senator who hopes to use it to replace Bush as president. First, however, the senator consults our hero, Sam Waterman, a CIA agent who was forced into retirement because he pushed too hard looking for Russian moles at the agency's headquarters. Waterman loathes Howard and doesn't believe his charge against Bush, but to disprove it he must journey to Moscow, because Howard has fled back there.

Waterman is accompanied by Ginny Vacario, the senator's fetching chief counsel, and Waterman's old CIA colleague Michael O'Neill, now an influential Washington lawyer. In the frigid Moscow winter, romance unsurprisingly blossoms between Waterman and Vacario. The bad news is that two people who could have helped him succumb to murder most foul. He proceeds to Paris to quiz a former Russian intelligence agent, but an assassin kills the Russian and almost kills Waterman. Back in Washington, other assassins try to eliminate Waterman, and yet another vile conspiracy emerges: The incumbent CIA director, one Nick Becker (who seems modeled on real-world incumbent George Tenet) is grossly incompetent, and a plot is underway to replace him with a Russian secret agent. (Then things would really get screwed up!)

Weisman is a former journalist who was co-author of the "Rogue Warrior" series. His novels have won praise from notables ranging from Oliver North to Seymour Hersh, which is ranging pretty far. I am told that in the intelligence community his books are admired for their accurate portrayals of spies and their "tradecraft." Indeed, the novel's main fault is that its emphasis on the nitty-gritty of tradecraft is so great that it often reads more like nonfiction than fiction. Granted, millions of Tom Clancy fans out there don't think this is a fault, but I grew restive the second or third time we were treated to several pages of detail as Waterman moves from Point A to Point B, endlessly changing subway lines and ducking through doorways and putting on and taking off his fake mustache. We are told too often that Waterman hears "pings" on his "sonar," which in simple English means he thinks somebody is following him. And Weisman's editor should have told him it is a bad idea to put footnotes in a novel. The book has 50 of them, and all those little numbers at the bottom of the page play hell with the all-too-delicate illusion of fiction.

Weisman makes much of a bitter rivalry (previously unknown to me) within the CIA between what he calls the Romanoffs and the Brahmins: "Romanoffs . . . had almost completely displaced the home office's original dominant caste, Brahmins. Brahmins were mostly Ivy League. They wore bespoke suits and Burberry trench coats. They had trust funds, they drank scotch, martinis, and twenty-five-year-old cognac. . . . Romanoffs . . . came from schools like Indiana University, Brigham Young, and Kansas State. They wore polyester suits, wash-and-wear shirts, Hush Puppies, and London Fog raincoats. When they drank at all they drank rye-and-ginger or plonk Chablis spritzers." What all this means to our national security I cannot say, so I will only note that Waterman considers himself one of the last of the Brahmins and attributes the decline of the West to the rise of the oafish Romanoffs.

Waterman's most oft-repeated rule of tradecraft is this: There are no coincidences. Which is another way of saying you can't trust anybody. Waterman thinks he's in love with Ginny, but he fears she may be a spy, which is a turnoff. It's also a turnoff when she says things to him like: "You're not making any sense. . . . And your mustache is coming loose." We learn that EMSI is the tradecraft acronym for Ego, Money, Sex and Ideology, the four reasons why people betray their country. Elsewhere, tradecraft can be all too basic: "The toilet seat was up. That told him that the last person to use the safe house was a male." Eventually, Weisman wraps things up with a shootout that eliminates several villains who richly deserve their fates. And no, there is no evidence that George W. Bush knew in advance of the Sept. 11 attacks, although Waterman does pass on a rumor that Bill Clinton was an agent of the Chinese. Just whose payroll Hillary was on is left unexplored.