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Intelligence

Definition: 1. The ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. “He writes with intelligence.” 2. The collection of information of military or political value.

My husband, Jim, was in an intelligence unit in the United States Navy (dates classified). He’d been on active duty in the Seventh Fleet for two years and had a six-year reserve commitment. Once a week, he put on his Navy Whites and headed for Treasure Island to read, interpret, and write dispatches and reports. Although he never received his top secret clearance—that takes years—there was plenty he was able to read, interpret, and re-write in plain English. That much he told me.

Of course, I was curious. We were living together but not yet married. I tried to seduce him with a meal before his departure every week, Thursdays I think it was, in the car by 6 p.m., over the Bay Bridge, and onto the base for his obligatory monthly duty, home by 10 p.m. “So how was it? What did you find out?” Silence.

Why has this anecdote surfaced today? Well, I’ve been reading some Le Carré (“Russia House,” “The Night Manager”), a fine writer who was in the intelligence service himself, and a thriller by Dan Fesperman called “The Amateur Spy.” A relief worker friend had boasted he’d been interviewed by Fesperman as he was researching. They’d met in Bosnia when Fesperman was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. Like other war reporters—Hemingway, Steinbeck, Sebastian Junger more recently—Fesperman has used the trove of collected stories from war zones as inspiration for fiction. But how fictional is “The Amateur Spy?” Would there be clues to my relief worker friend’s mysterious life in the text? Why does he only have a P.O. Box at the moment, refuse to give me his address, and disappear at regular intervals? Had he, in fact, been recruited as a spy long ago when he was in the field as a relief worker? Does it matter? Doesn’t someone have to do this work? Is the work of a spy for the greater good? And whose greater good? Yours and mine? France, Britain, Russia, Iran, China? Are these rhetorical questions or can they be answered?

I’d often heard from refugees and asyless that relief workers were suspect, in the pay of governments as spies, and not to be fully trusted. I had tried not to believe these stories. It’s obvious, isn’t it, that the dark world of intelligence gathering is almost impossible to decipher unless one is in it. Spies live in the shadows; they can never be fully known. The stories they tell, where they live, where they have traveled, remains hidden to normal mortals, friends, lovers, even relatives. And, so, in addition to my husband’s brief foray into intelligence work, I think, possibly, I have known three spies. The most recent was a man at a dinner party who said he’d just returned from Syria. That was all he said—and it was probably too much. It was difficult to imagine him wandering in that now desolate country. How had he managed to return safely? Who was he traveling with? The mind wanders, imagination kicks in.

I was thinking about all this on the subway yesterday as I was reading Talk of the Town in this week’s New Yorker. “Some spy stories will be forever confined to memory, locked safes, and invisible ink,” writes Nicholas Schmidle. He goes on to describe a literary journal, “Studies in Intelligence,” published by the CIA! Browsing their website—submission guidelines on the site—I have decided it is more an academic journal than a literary journal. But never mind. Spy literature, the CIA calls it, and who are we not to believe the CIA? For the youngsters in the family there’s a “Kids’ Zone,” which includes a coloring book, puzzles and a word find.  Read More 
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