Thursday, October 13, 2011

Book 85: Comrade J

Comrade J by Peter Earley was a nice balance between a memoire and a more researched history book. It read really well and kept up the flow while at the same time trying to fact check the claims made by Sergei Tretyakov.

So I’m a huge fan of intelligence books. At least books that are based in fact (aka not James Bond). So I was drawn to Peter Earley’s book on two factors. First this was about a Russia spying on the Americans. And two, I’ve enjoyed a book by Peter Earley previously (Confessions of a Spy). He did an amazing portrait on Rick Ames. So I was looking forward to seeing another great portrait on a spy.

Sergei Tretyakov was Comrade Jean for the KGB and the SVR. He ran operations in New York City. So he knew all the key information going in and around the city when it came to the spying game. He shared an amazing amount of information many of it in the recent past (the past ten years) since he was working in NYC from 1995-2000. So many of the books I’ve read about the Russian/American spying game on each other were related to just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. So it was interesting to see how things changed but at the same time they really didn’t change at all.

It was so refreshing to read a book that felt like I was in one of my classes with Sealy. It was about spycraft at its core. But it wasn’t the American spycraft so there were some differences. It was just a fun book that shared a lot.

Throughout the book, I couldn’t believe how many times I thought the Russians were genius and even more often thought that the anecdotes were ridiculous. At times it seemed amazing that the Russians were on of the top intelligence agencies in the world. They feared their own phones were being tapped but they used a pay phone to set up meetings (which are probably just as likely to be tapped thanks to the war on drugs). But then you hear how they have an ambassador who is supposedly still working for the SVR (was former KGB before the break-up of the Soviet Union), using Raul Castro as a trusted friend, and some of the handling of the trusted friends. They could be brilliant.

Comrade J had some distinct problems. First off I think Sergei would exaggerate his ability to persuade his contacts. Some of the stories seemed like they were considering talks and dinners (which are very much in the process of trying to recruit an agent) never really got beyond the recruiting stage. Seemed like his ability to use his analytical skills were stronger then his actual recruitment skill. Which means he was able to really generate a lot of useful information was huge but very difficult to prove. Plus Earley had the issue of when he tried to get proof of Sergei’s stories, a lot of people said we met but I was never his spy. Plus this book didn’t have some background/collaborating information But Earley did even say how he ran into the roadblock of many people pressuring/suggesting that he didn’t return to Russia to make inquires into this case due to the current political situation.

One of the things I respect about this book is how Earley did a great job of managing to tell an engaging story about an interesting man while at the same time, he understood when to limit information. You can tell he respects the intelligence world immensely and doesn’t want to see people be hurt through really bad leaks of information that can endanger people’s lives which is why he didn’t go to Russia like he did for his Rick Ames book. At the same time, he didn’t give an unreadable book or seem to be scoffing at the institution. He did a great job of telling good stories and sharing information that were more personal. He did make it clear that certain parts of the narrative had to be classified by law.

I recommend this book to friends. I found myself talking about it in letters and just casual conversation. It was just a good read. I learned a lot even though I don’t trust all the information. I laughed, I was shocked and I was baffled.

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