The Juggle

Posted November 11, 2009 by mikec
Categories: Uncategorized

Not the WSJ’s feature column, actual juggling.  In college I learned three and four-ball juggling (pretty much all I learned freshman year, in fact).  Lately I’ve taken up clubs, and after a few months I can keep three airborne fairly well.  Double-spins are coming along, and I’ve just started to manage two-in-one-hand — left and right.

Crosswords don’t actually prevent Alzheimer’s, and juggling isn’t going to stave off arthritis.  But there’s something to be said for practicing a small skill, and getting better at it.

It would be nice to think writing is like that.


Posted November 10, 2009 by mikec
Categories: Uncategorized

Someone’s blockbuster plot is assembling itself in Pakistan. Officials are openly talking about the possibility of a coup, or of radicals within the military taking over the country’s nuclear arsenal.

As usual Seymour Hersh has elicited some striking off-the-record comments.  From a “Special Forces advisor”:

We are playing into Al Qaeda’s deep game here.  If we blow it, Al Qaeda could come in and scoop up a nuke or two … The Pakistan military knows that if there’s any kind of instability there will be a traffic jam to seize their nukes.

That’s a nice image for the elevator pitch.

DEA, Abroad Again

Posted November 10, 2009 by mikec
Categories: Uncategorized

Twenty years ago, the Drug Enforcement Agency began sending paramilitary teams abroad, to conduct “counter-drug” operations at the source.  These efforts, begun during the Reagan administration and known as Operation Snowcap, ended in 1994, after a plane crash in Peru killed five DEA agents.

It turns out the DEA teams were revived and have been back in action for more than five years, in Afghanistan.  Known as FAST — “Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Teams” — the agents seem to be involved in rather more than giving advice.  Interestingly, although the DEA is part of the Justice Department, the FAST teams are largely funded and supported by the Pentagon.

Who’s Who in the IC

Posted November 10, 2009 by mikec
Categories: Uncategorized

I read a British thriller recently that included an American covert-operations team — the usual black-bag stuff, infiltration, assassination, like that.  The author must have had a tight deadline, because he made these operatives employees of the National Security Agency.

I guess to a foreign audience that sounded good enough, but of course the NSA doesn’t do any of that.  They hire cryptographers and network analysts, not ex-SOF paramilitaries.

But it’s easy to get confused.  The US has a vast, sprawling, and almost incomprehensible range of organizations involved in intelligence.  Broadly speaking they may be divided into military and “civilian” agencies.  The former includes, for example, the DOD’s Special Forces Command, and each service arm’s own intelligence units.  The latter houses the CIA, the NSA, and innumerable others.  The civilian side alone has a budget in the current fiscal year of nearly $50 billion; the military side is still kept secret.  (You can “see” the Military Intelligence Program’s budget, every last line of which is redacted, here.)

The point is that if your plot requires spies and secret agents, there are many, many more choices than Langley.  Is the villain smuggling a nuclear bomb in on a container ship?  Coast Guard Intelligence could save the day.  Is the warhead going the other way — stolen from a US decommissioning operation, for example?  The Air Force Office of Special Investigations might be involved.  Need someone to run down al-Qaeda’s hawala donors?  Your hero could come from Treasury’s Office of Intelligence and Financial Analysis.  And so forth.

Of course, for many authors (and readers) such background wonkery is unnecessary — give your protagonist some Krav Maga training, stubble and an authority problem, and you’re done.  For me, though, it’s a little like firearms.  Sure, I could just hand out “pistols” and “rifles” and “MAC-10s” to my characters and let it go.  (“MAC-10s” is a joke, you know that, right?  A topic for another post …)  But readers like more detail than that, so I do the research.  It doesn’t take too much time.

Finally, the point of this entire post:  the best survey of American spy agencies I know of is Jeffrey Richelson’s The US Intelligence Community.  Sure, it’s incomplete; necessarily so, since chairs move around in the bureaucracy faster than Richelson’s 3-4 year revision cycle can keep up with.  And plenty of material is available online, if you can sort through the reliability questions.  But for an all-in-one reference, this book cannot be beat.