Friday, August 13, 2010
Guest: David Spiselman-Part II
Mary: What is the biggest misconceptions authors/people have of special ops agents?
David: There are some simple, ugly realities about the character of people in covert ops. Working in black ops requires a person to have maximum distrust of others and a desire to kill for pleasure. I believe no one does it out of patriotism. Espionage, on the other hand, is either driven by patriotism or a desire to possess and sell valuable intel.
With operatives, there are safety procedures they adhere to religiously. When it comes to the location of clandestine meetings, operatives use a procedure with the acronym “PACE,” standing for primary, alternate, contingency, and emergency. And, there is always a backup to the backup.
When moving on foot or in a vehicle, we use a maneuver known as an SDR — surveillance detection route. In other words, we make sure no one is following us. But, by having men placed in different locations, people following can be able to follow the spy without alerting him to the fact her was being followed.
Mary: I’m going to show my ignorance here, what agencies actually have special ops agents? Military or Government?
David: Uh, both! As I mentioned earlier (the Washington Post’s recent article (July 19, 2010 through July 22, titled “A hidden World, Growing Beyond Control”), there are over 854,000 people working with classified status. They support 46 government organizations doing top secret work. At least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11. Many of the 6,900 private corporations working to support our government’s clandestine missions have their own covert operatives.
Of course, the CIA has a paramilitary SAS branch — the Special Activities Staff, for example. DIA is the Defense Intelligence Agency and also runs covert ops. The Navy has NCIS investigating criminal activities in the military. And of course, the secret police agencies themselves have spies spying on other spies. Finally, I believe the White House has its own little group, mostly for ad hoc ops.
Mary: How much leeway would you say an author has when writing a special ops agent story? I have this conception of Special Ops as being so secretive I could basically make up any type of James Bond type action story and be within the realm of possibility, as long as I have the correct agencies involved. Is this true?
David: As thriller readers became more sophisticated about the actual intelligence community, the margin for error has continuously eroded.
When covert operatives leave the service, we can’t write about our own lives as coverts, so we write fiction. John LeCarre, Barry Eisler, the list is endless. All former coverts. And each of us has his or her own special focus within the industry. For example, LeCarre had to reinvent himself when the Cold War ended, since that was what he’d written about. Eisler is a friend of mine, and when I had a “problem,” I met with him and asked his advice on countersurveilance. His couldn’t help. Told me his focus is martial arts and assassination. I found help from another friend who opened with the line: “Sheesh. Your tradecraft is so 1980’s. It’s a wonder you’re not dead.” He helped me in that area, with tip after tip. For example, when you meet with someone and don’t want the government to overhear you, be sure to remove the battery from your cell phone. They can turn your cell on remotely without activating the screen and listen in. Didja know that? I thought not…
My own current interest focuses on countersurveilance tradecraft and tech toys used by the covert community. Some of my friends have worked to develop toys for our country, and before DARPA was mostly defunded, their careers led them to produce some amazing things. Think “Q” in the James Bond movies. I’ve found out about a few of those toys and altered them so I can use them in my own novels. One of the best is that it’s possible to recode the programs in multiplayer online games to enable a player to plant a document within the game that another player can pick up with no one the wiser.
When I was covert, my function involved a mix of banking systems and hacking. I traveled out of the country and visited banks where I… well, I can’t tell you what I did or I’d have to kill you. But, by writing about a fictive protagonist, I can tell these stories. They’re hidden in my novels. And since I wasn’t officially an employee of any intelligence agency, I never signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement. My current novel, Bloodridge, is out with agents now. Errr, that’s literary agents, not covert agents. And I have others planned in a series for those characters, including one called Swiftshadow.
Mary: Can the government really spy on people, especially if they consider them a threat of some kind?
David: Before 911, yes, but only with a FISA warrant. Then came Bush and no FISA warrant was needed. Now, and even after George W’s “retirement,” yes the government can spy on you. FISA court will give a wiretap permit to any agency citing “national security interests.”
Mary: Writing whether it’s a screenplay or a book, still needs to be accurate, mostly anyway. What movie would you say depicts the best/true representation of a special ops agent?
David: My current favorite is “The International” with Clive Owen. It’s similar to my own covert experience. And, one of my friends is an investigative reporter. She worked at getting a French arms dealer thrown into a Swiss prison. The guy worked out of the BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce) office in Fort Lauderdale back in the day. It’s amazing we never crossed paths until we both moved to California.
Television does a decent job on tradecraft with “Burn Notice” and, as I stated before, with “24.” Many people fault “24” for its use of torture, and many in our government believe it doesn’t work. I believe torture can be effective if there is a hope in the victim that they might be set free if they cooperate. Other television series with good intel include “Covert Affairs,” “NCIS,’ and NCIS LA.”
Mary: How can an author incorporate the skills of special ops in their civilian character?
David: Best to give your protagonist a streak of paranoia and a technical bend. And make them at least marginally qualified in martial arts. My characters run the range from mercenaries to policy wonks to technology geeks at intelligence agencies. Don’t try to put too much into any one character. Have them work together in teams; a hacker, a black ops agent, an analyst with political and economic training, and a traditional “spy” who can do dead drops and drop ins.
Mary: Where does a special ops agent train? Quantico?
David: Quantico is the FBI’s home. Not a training arena for coverts. There are several places for coverts in the United States. Best known, Camp Peary is the CIA’s spy school, better known as the Farm. I’ve been told by Ben Bromley, it’s located in Williamsburg, Virginia. It has a sister facility called the Point, at Harvey Point, North Carolina, just south of the Virginia coastline. They teach all the U. S. intelligence agencies hard-core paramilitary training.
At Harvey Point itself is just that — a stubby finger of land curling out into the murky water where North Carolina’s Perquimans River meet the Albemarle Sound. The CIA’s facility sits on over sixteen hundred acres of mosquito and poisonous-snake-infested swamp with thick-trunked cypress trees overgrown with heavy Spanish moss. Nine miles southwest of the town of Hertford, the road ends at a sign that reads, “Harvey Point Defense Testing Activity.” It opened in 1961. Helicopters land and take off at all hours, and blacked out transports roll through town in the middle of the night. All sorts of old cars, buses, SUVs, and limousines can be seen entering on flat bed trucks, and are carried out later either riddled with bullet holes or burnt to nothing more than charred hulks.
The Point is where the CIA’s hard-core paramilitary training takes place. Personnel are schooled in explosives, paramilitary combat, and other clandestine and unconventional warfare techniques. While the “Farm” at Camp Peary is where CIA personnel earn their stripes and learn their tradecraft, the Point is where a chosen few received a Ph.D. in serious ass-kicking.
The personnel invited to the Point aren’t only limited to American CIA operatives. Recently, the CIA provided counterterrorism training to several American Special Operations groups, as well as foreign intelligence officers from more than fifty countries, including South Korea, Japan, France, Germany, Greece, and Israel.
And, there are others worthy of note:
One of the most secure counterterrorism training facilities in the world is in a remote corner of North Carolina’s Fort Bragg — Delta Force’s Special Operations Training facility. The facility has many different nicknames. Some call it SOT for short. Because of the original stucco siding, it’s also called it the Fiesta Cantina. Some refer to it as Wally World, after the amusement park in the Chevy Chase movie “Vacation.” Some call it the Ranch, because of early Delta Force operatives’ penchant for chewing tobacco and wearing cowboy boots. It boasts a wide array of training areas. There are large two- and three-story buildings used for heliborne inserts and terrorist takedowns; indoor and outdoor live-fire ranges, as well as ranges for close-quarters battle, combat pistol, and sniper training. Delta’s Operations and Intelligence Center has staging grounds where mock-ups of structures in different terrorist scenarios can be constructed. It has a host of other facilities and training areas too numerous to list.
The navy’s SEAL Team Six’s training facility is located in Dam Neck, Virginia.
And, remember Blackwater? Although I’ve heard they’ve relocated from the United States and changed their name to “Xe,” if you go to their web site and use this URL: http://www.blackwaterusa.com/ you’ll see the four locations within the United States where they (used to?) train mercenaries.
Mary: For my last question, everyone likes a kick ass heroine, so here goes: Are there any women in the special ops? If so, in what capacity?
David: Definitely, and there have been for over a hundred years, starting with Mata Hari, whose real name was Margaretha Geertruida. She was Dutch, and spied for the Germans during World War One. The French caught her and executed her by a firing squad at the age of 41.
Valerie Plame was a covert agent for our country, working the Middle East to gather intelligence about nuclear weapons.
I can’t point out any others, for obvious reasons. But Hollywood and the New York publishers seem to love female spies.
Nora Roberts, writing as J. D. Robb, has a successful “In Death” series, getting close now to thirty books. One of the characters in Jim Rollins’ “Sigma” series is a mysterious female assassin.
And Hollywood worships hard-boiled female protagonists. For example. “Salt” is about a CIA operative who may really be a Russian mole. “Covert Affairs” features a female protagonist. Long ago, there was a television series called “Alias” featured a female spy. It was popular for about five years.
One of the folks I worked with was from Mossad, decades ago, and told me she’d been an Israeli tank commander during the six-day-war. I know, Israel claims women weren’t allowed into combat roles until recently. Maybe she was lying? It’s what spies do best. I met her when she was running the global non-credit services area of a New York bank. I believe she was there to launder money for Mossad, but I’ve no proof of that.
The example I’m offering you is my protagonist from my as-yet unpublished novel, Swiftshadow: Cassandra Sashakovich. She earned a Ph. D. in economics at Stanford and was recruited to work as a N. O. C. at one of Washington’s intelligence agencies. Her family immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union just before it fell. Her mother was a commissar for KGB, her father an economist working for the Central Committee, and her uncle a KGB operative. She speaks most Middle Eastern languages and is a computer hacker with basic tradecraft and weapons skills when my story starts. In Riyadh, her cover is blown by a mole within her agency and she’s hunted by terrorists until she discovers why the terrorists are interested in her, who the mole is and figures out how to recover her life. By the end of the novel, she’s a crack shot, a master hacker and the CEO of a mercenary company with a hacker division.
Writing women characters is tough for a guy. Luckily, my wife, Andrea has a publishing background, and she reads my material before anyone else does. She pushes me to think in ways a male brain isn’t designed to. By the time my critique group at ActFourWriters.com gets the material, it’s close to a publishable draft. She’s helped me learn how to write fiction.
One more thing: If any of your readers would like assistance on the tradecraft for their character who is a covert agent, or feedback on potential plots for a thriller, they can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you, David Spiselman for joining us for two days at Mysteries and Margaritas and giving your helpful insights into the world and mystery of special ops agents.
Don't forget you can find David this summer teaching a course at the Salinas Public Library (funded by a Federal grant), called “Covert Training for Fiction Writers.” You can find details on this link to a news article.
And, in October, he'll be leading a week-long session at The Muse Online Writers Conference (http://www.themuseonlinewritersconference.com/Presenters%20K-Q.html), called “True Lies - Writing Covert Training and Missions for Fiction Writers,” with a chat session by the same name on Thursday, October 14, at 2pm EST.