Re­tired CIA op­er­a­tive be­comes break­out spy nov­el­ist with movie adap­ta­tion out soon

The China Post - - LIFE - BY KEN DI­LA­NIAN

When Ja­son Matthews re­tired af­ter more than three decades as a CIA op­er­a­tive, writ­ing fic­tion proved a form of ther­apy.

Living in Los An­ge­les, cut off from the agency and its se­crets, Matthews chan­neled his en­ergy into the 2013 novel “Red Spar­row.” It be­came a best-seller and crit­i­cal suc­cess, re­sult­ing in a re­ported seven-fig­ure movie deal.

“I started think­ing about war sto­ries,” he said in an in­ter­view. “Pretty soon I blinked and I had like 300, 400 pages.”

Five years on from his re­tire­ment, Matthews is back this week with a se­quel, “Palace of Trea­son,” set in Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia.

And the most in­ter­est­ing ac­co­lades are com­ing from CIA in­sid­ers, who marvel at how he man­ages to slip so much past the agency’s cen­sors, por­tray­ing the heart-pound­ing rhythms of onthe-street es­pi­onage bet­ter that any nov­el­ist in re­cent mem­ory.

They’re not alone: The New York Times dubbed Matthews’ new book “en­thralling” in a re­cent in­ter­view.

Matthews, 63, spent most of his ca­reer over­seas spe­cial­iz­ing in “de­nied ar­eas,” places where Amer­i­cans were closely watched and their move­ments re­stricted. He is part of a long line of for­mer spies who turned to fic­tion but the first to have spent a full ca­reer at the CIA, ris­ing to man­age­ment, and then emerge to write with such com­mer­cial and crit­i­cal suc­cess.

First Spy-Turned-Writer with Full Ca­reer at CIA

Matthews speaks six lan­guages and helped man­age seven CIA sta­tions, some­times work­ing in tan­dem with his wife, Suzanne, also a re­tired CIA of­fi­cer. They raised two daugh­ters in coun­tries they aren’t al­lowed to name. At one point he was op­er­a­tions chief in the counter-pro­lif­er­a­tion di­vi­sion, tasked with slow­ing Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram, among other things.

He says his books amount to “a love let­ter” to the Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency of his mem­ory, one that he fears is slip­ping away. His spe­cialty was clas­sic es­pi­onage — sneak­ing around for­eign cap­i­tals per­suad­ing sources to be­tray their coun­try.

It’s a dif­fer­ent dis­ci­pline than that em­ployed by the many CIA case of­fi­cers who spent the last decade do­ing tours in Bagh­dad and Kabul, of­ten con­duct­ing source meet­ings in an ar­mored ve­hi­cle with a mil­i­tary es­cort. Nor does it bear much re­sem­blance to the man-hunt­ing in­volved in track­ing ter­ror­ists to tar­get in lethal drone strikes.

Hu­man in­tel­li­gence, or HUMINT, is the “the pat­ri­mony of CIA,” Matthews says. “The irony is that the global war on ter­ror has ac­tu­ally taken away re­sources and in­sti­tu­tional fo­cus from clas­sic HUMINT.” Matthews’ nov­els are a cel­e­bra­tion of HUMINT — the art and science of gath­er­ing it, the con­se­quences when it goes wrong. He found an amenable set­ting in mod­ern Rus­sia, which is prov­ing an in­creas­ingly net­tle­some U.S. ad­ver­sary. Un­like parts of Syria and Iraq, the CIA can still send Amer­i­cans to spy in Rus­sia, where the big­gest risk to an op­er­a­tive with diplo­matic im­mu­nity is be­ing sent home.

The hero in his new book is clever, com­pe­tent Natha­nial Nash, ev­ery­thing one would want in a CIA case of­fi­cer ex­cept per­haps for the for­bid­den love af­fair he car­ries on with his as­set, Do­minika Egorova, a for­mer bal­le­rina and trained se­duc­tress who dis­patches at­tack­ers with a lip­stick gun and her bare hands.

Matthews, who could pass for an in­sur­ance sales­man but for the thick-framed, fash­ion-for­ward glasses, spares few de­tails in his steamy sex scenes. “I’ve read a lot of thrillers, and some of the sex is al­most off­hand and em­bar­rass­ingly vague,” he says. “So I wanted to go to the other end of the spec­trum and be em- bar­rass­ingly graphic.”

The Amer­i­cans are the good guys in th­ese books, while the Rus­sians are mostly cor­rupt tor­tur­ers and thugs. Putin, a cen­tral char­ac­ter in “Palace of Trea­son,” is por­trayed as amoral, ve­nal and para­noid.

Agency re­view­ers have fo­cused more on scenes that de­picted the main char­ac­ters us­ing dis­guises and care­fully read­ing faces dur­ing hours­long sur­veil­lance de­tec­tion routes to get “black” be­fore a se­cret meet­ing. Th­ese “are ac­cu­rate, richly de­tailed ren­der­ings of anx­i­ety-filled tasks con­ducted daily by in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tives around the world,” for­mer CIA of­fi­cer Jim Bur­ridge and an un­named em­ployee wrote in a re­view of “Red Spar­row” on the CIA’s Web site. That book won Matthews the Edgar Award for best first novel by an Amer­i­can and a rep­u­ta­tion among his for­mer col­leagues. The agency re­view­ers mar­veled at how Matthews got all the trade­craft, as spies call it, past the CIA’s Pub­li­ca­tions Re­view Board, which re­serves the right to black out se­crets in any­thing writ­ten by a for­mer em­ployee.

Matthews said he hit a snag, how­ever, with his fol­low-up novel and was forced to fly to Wash­ing­ton and change part of his end­ing to get fi­nal sign off.

Still, the nar­ra­tive bris­tles with re­al­ity. When a Rus­sian mil­i­tary of­fi­cer won­ders why his CIA han­dler isn’t of­fer­ing him fre­quency hop­ping mo­bile phones like the Rus­sians use, the CIA man mar­vels to him­self: “If they (only) knew how the FBI and the NSA were crawl­ing up their fre­quency-hop­ping” pos­te­ri­ors.

‘Em­bar­rassed bad peo­ple and elim­i­nated other peo­ple.”

Matthews de­picts plenty of buf­foon­ery by se­nior CIA of­fi­cials, too, in­clud­ing a blus­ter­ing, dan­ger­ously un­qual­i­fied Moscow sta­tion chief whose in­abil­ity to spot sur­veil­lance puts op­er­a­tions at risk. At head­quar­ters, the chief of op­er­a­tions is caught in fla­grante delicto with his fe­male as­sis­tant.

Matthews’ in­sti­tu­tional crit­i­cism doesn’t ex­tend to the agency’s harsh treat­ment of al-Qaida de­tainees, ex­co­ri­ated in a re­cent Se­nate re­port. Although he played no role, he de­fends his friends who did. The sum to­tal of the CIA’s work has been a force for good, he said. “Some of the things that we’ve ac­com­plished are ab­so­lutely mag­nif­i­cent, and have kept the bad guys at bay,” he said. “You never ac­tu­ally win 100 per­cent, but we’ve pushed (weapons) pro­grams back, and we’ve em­bar­rassed bad peo­ple and elim­i­nated other peo­ple.”

From June 10 to 20, Takuya Nezasa, ex­ec­u­tive sous-chef of Grand Hy­att Tokyo’s Shun­bou, is guest chef at Grand Hy­att Taipei’s (台北君悅酒店) Irodori Ja­panese Restau­rant (彩日本料理).

Chef Nezasa be­lieves that true Ja­panese cui­sine should fol­low the sea­sons. In fact, his forte is the in­cor­po­ra­tion of lo­cal in­gre­di­ents into his dex­ter­ously crafted dishes. With such pre­ci­sion and care­ful­ness in choos­ing only the most sea­sonal in­gre­di­ents, Chef Nezasa will be sure to de­light cus­tomers dur­ing his stay here.

Dur­ing his ten-day pro­mo­tion, chef Nezasa will pre­pare more than 30 clas­sic fam­ily-style Ja­panese recipes, in­clud­ing mixed veg­etable tem­pura, seafood tep­pa­nyaki, braised sea bream, and boiled chikuzen, to em­pha­size the theme of home. In ad­di­tion, Chef Nezasa will present a popular an­cient Ja­panese dessert — the warabi mochi, a jelly-like dessert made from bracken starch and topped with sac­cha­rine soy­bean flour. The warabi mochi was re­port­edly one of the fa­vorite desserts of Em­peror Daigo, 60th em­peror of Ja­pan.

From Mon­day to Fri­day lunchtime, lunch and din­ner at Irodori are NT$1,200 per per­son. Fri­day din­ner as well as lunch and din­ner on the week­end are NT$1,400 per per­son. All prices are sub­ject to a 10-per­cent ser­vice charge. For more in­for­ma­tion, please visit http://taipei.grand.hy­att.com

or call (02) 2720-1230

AP

In this June 4 photo, CIA op­er­a­tive turned best-sell­ing au­thor Ja­son Matthews, a 30-year CIA vet­eran and au­thor of the new novel, “Palace of Trea­son,” poses for a por­trait in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

(Above) The Irodori Ja­panese Restau­rant of­fers true Ja­panese cui­sine should fol­low the sea­sons. (Right) Takuya Nezasa is the ex­ec­u­tive sous chef of Grand Hy­att Tokyo’s Shun­bou.

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