Leaks, Spies, and Lies, Oh My!

State Department Counterintelligence: Leaks, Spies, and Lies

State Department Counterintelligence: Leaks, Spies, and Lies

When many glance at Robert David Booth’s new work and read the “Counterintelligence” slab squared on the center of its cover, the glaring image of a Hollywood spy likely enthralls their imaginations. However, as Booth documents, the special agent’s actual work is anything but that. In a speech before the International Spy Museum, Booth noted this widespread misconception with his line of work: “I just saw [Pierce] Brosnan, James Bond, driving with his right hand, shooting out with his left hand, that is not counterintelligence. Counterintelligence is in fact… really pretty boring.” But while his work may not capture the adulation of a generation of moviegoers across the country, the threats and leaks Booth documents in this riveting read are nonetheless just as precarious as 007’s and vital to national security interests. Since 1974, the author has worked in an array of countries serving the United States and thrillingly recalls times when he protected domestic interests from a seemingly endless wave of dangers.

Booth’s work took him around the globe with postings in Switzerland, Japan, and elsewhere. But in the end, his goals remained singular throughout his tenure: garner as much foreign information as possible while preserving the secrets of the United States. With this in mind, Booth explores likely a fraction of his exploits in counterintelligence while shedding light on the clear threats poised against the United States from all regions and levels of personnel.

The former government official segments his work into three divisions and begins by elucidating his role in a mission similar to that of TV’s Homeland, the discovery of an American traitor named Walter Kendall Myers. After graduating from Mercersburg Academy and Brown University, Myers joined the State Department and met his wife Gwendolyn. Together, they journeyed to Cuba where they believed they saw the true underbelly of the United States: a conglomerate of powerful organizations working within a corrupt political system. The two then began leaking valuable information to the Cubans. Only years later was Booth assigned to find ‘Agent 202,’ the secret mole that had caused an unfathomable amount of damage to the American homeland. After a great deal of analysis, the target was finally acquired during an FBI sting operation. Poising as a Cuban official, an agent was able to extract a clear confession, which came very useful in trial. Both Myers and his wife were prosecuted and sent to prison, with Walter receiving a life sentence. But perhaps the most chilling element for Booth and the readers is the incentives that encouraged the perpetrators deception. Despite risking their lives over a span of years, the Myers did not accept a dime from the Government of Cuba and worked purely for ideological reasons.

This theme of discovering a ‘traitor’ is repeated in the second section of the work in the case of Donald Keyser. Though Booth estimates that only 5% of spies in US intelligence are discovered, this is likely as big as they come. Keyser by all accounts appeared to be a friendly affable man before his colleagues realized that his mistress worked for the Taiwanese National Security Bureau (NSB) and that the US official had been leaking secret documents to her. Unfortunately for him, his third wife divorced him as he was sent to prison.

It is just as entertaining to read the lows to which such moles will stoop as it is to read about Booth’s struggles to find them. Often grappling with ‘black dragons,’ unidentified, high-level officials in intelligence, Booth must circumvent numerous obstacles while remaining as secretive as possible. Exchanging winks and secret phrases, the author mechanically recounts how he was able to aid in the discovery of duplicitous agents with everything on the line. But in this case, Keyser likely made the same mistake many Dartmouth students do every day—forgetting that the institutions to which they belong have unfiltered access to all of their e-mails.

But what seems to be the most dangerous aspect to national security in the book is the leaks. Though many see them as beneficial in creating a more transparent world, to Booth, it can make life substantially more difficult. In fact, the author suggests that Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, among others, are the primary reasons for recent revolutions that have rumbled the groundwork of international diplomacy.

But of those, he recounts, the discovery of leaks can be both simultaneously amusing as well as embarrassing to intelligence services. Perhaps this is epitomized in the finding of classified state department documents in a Virginia prison. Much to Booth’s horror, a prison guard called him one day asking about the classified documents circulating the reading tables in the correctional facility and whether the State Department would like them back. The answer was a fast yes. As embarrassing as this anecdote was, it paled in comparison to the discovery that Thai fisherman were wrapping their catches in similarly classified documents. Fortunately for the intelligence community, most of them were illiterate.

Such a reality frames Booth’s world. He is never able to fully trust any of his colleagues for fear that they could betray him and his country in a moment. With that frame of reference in mind, readers have an opportunity to glance at news publications like The Guardian through a new lens. Though respective winners of Pulitzer Prizes, in the end, they may serve to jeopardize ongoing operations while prohibiting men and women here and abroad from fully protecting the United States’ interests.

What perhaps remains a subtle theme throughout the work is the idea of sacrifice. Money and the power to effect world events can corrupt upstanding citizens in the State Department. Regardless of whether such discrepancies are a result of limitations in terms of polygraph tests or the culture of intelligence, it is abundantly clear that challenges like this still exist beyond the Cold War and into the present. Thankfully, there are Americans like Robert David Booth working tirelessly to confront them.

Overall, State Department Counterintelligence: Leaks, Spies, and Lies is a great read. In applying a sly humor to what is a traditionally a dense subject, Booth allows readers to immerse themselves in the mindset of intelligence community and understand the rational behind the decisions that influence our day-to-day lives. With it, he gives us the tools needed to look at news reports differently and understand the emerging dangers that shape national security.