Great Reads As Winter Nears

I have found a tonic for the soul in a raft of good books over the past months as the absurdity from Washington has grown, and the pandemic has only increased. As the fall days grow colder and darkness comes earlier in the late afternoons I offer some books that you might consider. I truly was absorbed in the following books.

Lincoln’s Last Trial takes a reader through a chapter of Abe’s life that has not before been revealed as Dan Abrams and David Fisher so ably do in this volume. An aspect of the book that is refreshing and insightful is court stenographer, Robert Roberts Hitt, who using a gold-nibbed ink pen, transcribed verbatim the trial proceedings. His type of work is illuminated for 21st-century readers.

At the end of the summer of 1859, twenty-two-year-old Peachy Quinn Harrison went on trial for murder in Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln, who had been involved in more than three thousand cases—including more than twenty-five murder trials—during his two-decades-long career, was hired to defend him. This was to be his last great case as a lawyer.

Harper Lee is one of those classic examples of a ‘one-hit writer’. Casey Cep allows further insight into the too-often sad inner world of this gifted person. In addition, to the deeper biography of Lee than most have read before, is a riveting real-life murder mystery set in the world of Lee’s childhood area of Alabama.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and The Last Trial of Harper Lee opens with that Southern style of lazy down-home writing and just enough wit and charm to pull you into the narrative. The murder wraps around and envelops Lee.

Reverend Willie Maxwell was a rural preacher accused of murdering five of his family members. But he continued to escape justice until he is assassinated—at a funeral of a person he is believed to have helped kill. Lee will spend months in an attempt to write a ‘Truman Capote type novel’ of this entire episode. The book will never be completed. But Esp does write about the ending of the friendship of Lee and Capote—they were childhood friends.

It is an exceptional book!

For fast, well-plotted, and smart writing David Ignatius takes readers on a CIA-pumped journey in The Paladin. Timely, relevant as well as darn fun to read!

CIA operations officer Michael Dunne is tasked with infiltrating an Italian news organization that smells like a front for an enemy intelligence service. Headed by an American journalist, the self-styled bandits run a cyber operation unlike anything the CIA has seen before. Fast, slick, and indiscriminate, the group steals secrets from everywhere and anyone, and exploits them in ways the CIA can neither understand nor stop.

Dunne knows it’s illegal to run a covert op on an American citizen or journalist, but he has never refused an assignment and his boss has assured his protection. Soon after Dunne infiltrates the organization, however, his cover disintegrates. When news of the operation breaks and someone leaks that Dunne had an extramarital affair while on the job, the CIA leaves him to take the fall. Now a year later, fresh out of jail, Dunne sets out to hunt down and take vengeance on the people who destroyed his life.

So many books to enjoy and with winter soon to knock on our doors there is more reason than ever to escape between the pages of your favorite authors.

Donald Trump Either Got It Wrong Or Should Have Never Said It

Fallout continues from the presentation by the man-child-in chief on Sunday following the death of Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  I posted that the words of a president matter, and that the manner in which Trump spoke to the nation was just another example as to why Trump is not suited for the office he holds.  He is not able to conduct himself with any degree of character and maturity that the office requires.

In conversations with friends on Monday, there was a continuing theme from others that the lack of presidential gravitas and just plain common sense was demonstrated in his rambling dialogue.  Today the heavy hitters from the defense and intelligence community are adding their perspective. 

It is not going to be a good day for this White House.

A “beautiful” and “talented” dog got injured. A robot had been on standby to aid in the hunt for al-Baghdadi if needed. U.S. Special Operations Forces arrived in eight helicopters and were on the ground for about two hours. They entered al-Baghdadi’s compound within seconds by blowing holes in the side of the wall. They chased al-Baghdadi into a web of underground tunnels — many of them dead ends — that they already knew existed. Before the U.S. forces left for the 70-minute, “very low and very, very fast” helicopter ride back along the same route from which they arrived, they captured some of al-Baghdadi’s henchmen and seized “highly sensitive material and information” outlining the origin of ISIS and plans for future plots.

A few of those colorful details were wrong. Many of the rest were either highly classified or tactically sensitive, and their disclosure by the president made intelligence and military officials cringe, according to current and former U.S. officials.

Why this matters is most obvious.  To most of us, I should add, it is most obvious.  The utterance of what might seem innocuous information to the layperson can, and often, has a far deeper meaning to the ones on the front lines.  Either our front lines in keeping the nation safe or from those on the front lines who seek to use terrorism to undermine the West.  That is why the following is almost breath-taking.

“We agonized over what we would put in his briefings,” one former senior White House official said, “because who knows if and when he’s going to say something about it.”

“He has no filter,” the official added. “But also if he knows something, and he thinks it’s going to be good to say or make him appear smarter or stronger, he’ll just blurt it out.”

When the nation needs to treat a president likes a child perhaps it is time to replace that person with an adult.

“A Firing Offense” Top-Notch Read For CIA Buffs, Fans Of Newspaper Reporters, Those Who Ponder Ethical Qualms

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There are times while reading a book I wonder how it is that it took me so long to slip between its covers.  How did someone not alert me to the plot and larger themes which were crafted, it would seem, almost for my sole pleasure?   When coming to the close of A Firing Offense by David Ignatius I knew it would be a long time before another book would have just the same elements and ethical quandaries which were presented for Eric Truell, an international reporter for a major newspaper.  Toss in a trade deal, the CIA, and the business requirements of the newspaper industry, and there was no way to not have it applauded by this reader.

I well know that it is not a book that all will feel the same way about, even though Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist, and solid reporter, knows how to use current headlines and international themes to power-punch his way with a number of novels.  Thos book is from 1997, but the qualms about being a reporter and also working with the CIA, though clearly not allowable for any person in the Fourth Estate, makes for a most compelling read in 2019.

There have been reporters, of course, who have operated outside the professional code with the CIA.  While reading Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner it is noted that Enno Hobbing, Time’s Berlin bureau chief will become a full-time CIA officer.  It is not stated that he was working for the agency while under Time’s contract, but one can fairly assume it was happening.  It is that conflict for wanting to be a reporter and spotting a way to get a story, while also crossing a professional line, that makes for the heart of Truell’s inner angst.   And what makes Ignatuis’ book most compelling.

Near the end of the book, a page was so nicely created, with just the right tone and message, I copy if for my readers.   I trust that this nugget is enough to get a certain type of person to read the book, and not wait as I did, before opening the cover.

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CIA, Newspaper Reporter, Plot Twists, History And Fiction

Last weekend I was at Half-Price books during one of the many rain showers and came across Tim Wiener’s book on the history of the CIA.  Legacy Of Ashes is the rather fast-paced accounting with stories galore–all well-sourced–of the first 60 years of the Central Intelligence Agency.   Readers of history will slip easily into the time-line and the rich cast of characters from the international stage.

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Before you know it the pages of Truman presidency will have slipped into Ike’s tenure, and then soon after the 1960 election, the Bay of Pigs looms large.  It is very easy to read this history and also see your favorite spy movie flickering images in the back of your mind.

The story Weiner wants us to be aware of in the 600 pages will doubtless leave you feeling irritated at the vast amounts of money and human treasure wasted.  Granted, there are successes the CIA has been involved with over time, but the fact remains the CIA has also been behind the eight-ball too often when trying to evaluate foreign nations or when advising presidents on policy moves.  Through it all this story takes you effortlessly along the tortured trajectory of the organization. That Weiner knows how to construct a fantastic read is without a doubt. The work receiving the National Book Award makes my point.

What struck me from the first pages of Weiner’s book was how it seamlessly aligned with the fiction read by Washington Post columnist, David Ignatius, which I had started just days prior.  A Firing Offense has a strong character which is most dubious about the functionality of the CIA.  With Ignatius’ background comes a real-world quality to his plots along with impressions which he wishes his readers to grab onto.  His writing is delicious.

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Added to the charm of Ignatius’ book are the newspaper world and the ethical qualms of  Eric Truell, the main character who deals with something that often is talked about in journalism seminars.  How close should a reporter become with a source, and what if that source is from the intelligence community?

Needless to say, I recommend both books.  As odd as it may sound try reading them at the same time.  They do–pardon my bad pun–book-end each other in a very comfortable and entertaining fashion.  After 13 years of blogging, and many posts about books and authors, this is the first time I have offered a combo read as a recommendation. 

“Bloodmoney” Is Real-World Type International Thriller

For many years I have been reading and learning from David Ignatius, reporter for the Washington Post.  He informs about nations around the Middle East along with our intelligence agencies.    He is also a most appealing author of many books about the twists and turns, below-the-radar intrigues, and delicious plots that make for stories which just as easily could be pulled from the front pages of national newspapers.

In Bloodmoney, Ignatius takes readers on a spin around the globe in a fast-paced book with terrorist hot spots taking center stage.  The plot is about a bungled CIA attempt to influence Pakistan’s shaky, insecure leadership.   But CIA agents start dying and it is the tracked who start to be the trackers.

What always matters to me when reading fiction (is this fiction?) revolves around how well an author can construct dialogue and conversations among the characters.  It sounds easy, but for anyone who has tried will admit it is a most challenging undertaking.  But Ignatius makes it look easy and that is because he is skilled enough to pull off what others often fail at.

Put his character creation, plotting, and overall writing into a mix and this book is simply awesome.

 

Showing Disdain For Dead CIA Operartives

I came to have a deeper appreciation for the Central Intelligence Agency through the eyes of Jack Ryan.  The books penned by Tom Clancy were exceptional thrillers but also deeply researched and highly informative.  It may seem a unique way to gain insight into the CIA but that was my route.

So what happened this weekend was nothing short of shocking to the nation.  And it was most telling about the lack of regard Donald Trump has for the men and women who have died working for this nation while CIA operatives.

Trump spoke Saturday in front of the wall that has a star for each person from the CIA  who has died in the line of their work.  It was there Trump went into campaign mode and spoke glowing about himself and sent a another stinging rebuke to the press–another group who works to make democracy more solid in this land.

It was a most shameful display.

But now we learn that U.S. government sources tell CBS News Trump’s visit to CIA headquarters on Saturday “made relations with the intelligence community worse” and described the visit as “uncomfortable.”

“Authorities are also pushing back against the perception that the CIA workforce was cheering for the president. They say the first three rows in front of the president were largely made up of supporters of Mr. Trump’s campaign.”

Trump brought his supports to the wall designed to honor the fallen in order to make a political spin performance.  Simply galling.

“Mr. Putin Had Recruited Mr. Trump As An Unwitting Agent”

The most damming read against Donald Trump and a true must-read for anyone who cares about the future of our country.  This article was written by Michael J. Morrell  a former head of the CIA. He worked at the agency for 33 years.

During a 33-year career at the Central Intelligence Agency, I served presidents of both parties – three Republicans and three Democrats. I was at President George W. Bush’s side when we were attacked on Sept. 11; as deputy director of the agency, I was with President Obama when we killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. I am neither a registered Democrat nor a registered Republican. In my 40 years of voting, I have pulled the lever for candidates of both parties. As a government official, I have always been silent about my preference for president. No longer. On Nov. 8, I will vote for Hillary Clinton. … Two strongly held beliefs have brought me to this decision. First, Mrs. Clinton is highly qualified to be commander in chief. I trust she will deliver on the most important duty of a president – keeping our nation safe. Second, Donald J. Trump is not only unqualified for the job, but he may well pose a threat to our national security. … In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.

What Role Did CIA Have In Watergate?

During the famed interviews with David Frost in 1977, former President Richard Nixon muses in the first broadcast that he wondered what role the CIA had in the entire Watergate affair.

The role of the CIA is one that has long been speculated about, and is again making some headlines.

If Watergate still matters, it is because the story tells us something about the intersection of power and journalism in Washington. The ur-personalities of these veteran newsmen are important but so are new facts, and recent revelations illuminate one aspect of the story that is often overlooked: the role of the CIA.

Woodward acknowledged as much in what is perhaps the single most interesting Watergate revelation of recent years. In June 2007, the CIA released most of the so-called “Family Jewels,” a long-suppressed internal report on the agency’s abuses of power. The newly declassified documents, Woodward wrote in the Post, showed in “telling detail” how the CIA, under the leadership of director Richard Helms, served as “the perfect Watergate enabler.”

The Helms/Nixon relationship lies at the heart of the Watergate story. Nixon, of course, was a paranoid genius, a master of resentment politics at home and geopolitical maneuvering abroad. Helms, his long-serving director of Central Intelligence, was the epitome of a CIA man in the Cold War: correct, discreet and ruthless.

The CIA’s involvement in Watergate, Woodward noted, “is one of the murkiest parts of the story.” He and Bernstein didn’t write about it much in “All the President’s Men,” not because they didn’t have suspicions but because they could not pin the story down. Howard Baker, vice chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee, likened the Agency’s role to “animals crashing around in the forest — you can hear them but you can’t see them.” And Helms’ role was especially elusive. Said Baker: “Nixon and Helms had so much on each other that neither one of them could breathe.”