Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mary's Rants - Interview with David Spiselman-Part I

Today we have a Special Ops here on Mysteries and Margaritas!

So you have a special ops agent in your story, what does he/she do? You want to make it believable! Welcome Special Guest David Spiselman writes fiction as D. S. Kane. He says, “That’s the deal I made with the Fed when they remotely searched my computer to see if I was writing a non-fiction account of my activities. And, no, I’m not. Now I write fiction to keep them happy. And they no longer threaten my life. Of course, I’m no longer doing dirty work for the ubers. Google both my names and you’ll see who I am and who I was, missing the bits about my covet activities, but you can see where they’d fit.  I may be one of the few thriller writers who write in self-defense.  By itself, it’s a pretty good story, one I can’t tell.” Visit his web site: 

This summer David will be 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 (, 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.

Mary: Thank you David Spiselman for agreeing to interview with us and share all of your knowledge. Before we start with the questions is there anything you’d like to add to your Bio?

David: I’ve been published and quoted ten times in non-fiction, mostly in financial textbooks and the financial trade press, including U. S. News and World Report. And, I did some work for the Federal Government. But when my former “handler” told me I couldn’t tell my story, I had to learn a new trade. A week after that conversation, all my work products were reclassified.

Fiction is a tough mistress. It took me two years to master it enough to complete a salable manuscript. If I was telling my own story, I could have done it well and fast. It’ll take a trilogy of novels to tell the story. Many non-fiction writers underestimate just how complex fiction writing is. 

Mary: What mistake do you see authors make the most when using a Special Ops agent in their story?

David: Fiction is all about escalating tension until the story’s resolution. Most writers forget to think about how much can go wrong just because of how intelligence agencies are organized. In designing your story, think of the following:

There are sixteen intelligence agencies that I know of in the United States (CIA, NSA, FBI, DIA, NCIS, ATF, DEA, NRO, ONI, U. S. Marshalls, etc.) In total, there are 46 government organizations doing top secret work now.

According to the Washington Post’s recent article (July 19, 2010 through July 22, titled “A hidden World, Growing Beyond Control” and the accompanying database at on the American intelligence community, “Every day across the United States, 854,000 civil servants, military personnel and private contractors with top-secret security clearances are scanned into offices protected by electromagnetic locks, retinal cameras and fortified walls that eavesdropping equipment cannot penetrate. At least 20 percent of the government organizations that exist to fend off terrorist threats were established or refashioned in the wake of 9/11. Many that existed before the attacks grew to historic proportions as the Bush administration and Congress gave agencies more money than they were capable of responsibly spending… In all, at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11. Each has required more people, and those people have required more administrative and logistic support: phone operators, secretaries, librarians, architects, carpenters, construction workers, air-conditioning mechanics and, because of where they work, even janitors with top-secret clearances.”

And, America is not alone in its concern over what is happening in other countries. There are over a hundred intelligence services on the planet (FSA and SVR Sluzhba Vneshnei Razvedki (the Foreign Intelligence Service) in Russia, Mossad and ISS for Israel, Germany’s GSG9, and BFV, their Foreign Intelligence (like our CIA) and BKA, their Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (like our FBI), the Dutch security service AIVD, Egyptian secret police or SSI, also called the Mukhabarat or General Directorate of State Security, Milli Istihbarat Teskilati, for Turkey, and so many others).

Many of the intelligence agencies have a paramilitary arm as well as an espionage arm. CIA’s paramilitary division known as the Special Activities Staff.

And of course, the terrorists have their own networks. In the Middle East, for example, there are Fatah Revolutionary Council, or FRC and Jihaz-el-Razd , their Intelligence arm, and Islamic terrorist organizations including Hamas, Hezbollah, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the remnants of Al Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Not to mention the IRA in Ireland, an early pioneer in terrorism.

Every intelligence service is divided into five functional areas. Administration and policy wonks have never been in the field and think like basic accountants. Analysts are either uninterested in field work because it’s dangerous, or living vicariously. The field agents are sub-divided into espionage (gathering and sending back intelligence, but no killing), and black ops (enforcement, including killing). Then, there are contractors to an agency, giving the Administrators deniability. Contractors are the wild card. Not subject to government oversight as agency employees are, contractors do whatever it takes to get the job done. They have “non-official cover” and are called N. O. C.s. That means they pretty much walk naked in this world. Finally, there are the geeks that provide hacking services and data security for our intelligence agencies. These people, once the back office urchins are now vital to everything that goes on in any agency. If you watch the Fox TV series “24,” think of Chloe O’Brian.

Making it more complex, the CIA, for example, has its analysts divided up into “country desks” with each head of country running both operatives and N. O. C.s (the contractors). Valerie Plame, for example, was an analyst running the Iran country desk’s Weapons of Non-Proliferation program. And I believe she was outed to remove her and the knowledge her N. O. C.s could provide on Iran. Not Iraq. So, there’s a story underneath the story we were told in the press. The administration wanted to invade Iran after Iraq was occupied, to give us presence in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel. I believe Plame was their only obstacle and they set her husband up. When he (Joe Wilson) wrote his op ed article in the New York Times, it gave them their excuse.

Intelligence agencies compete for budget dollars and therefore screw with each other continuously. There is also misunderstanding and jealousy between the administrators, analysts and covert operatives.

All this raises an important question for thriller writers: Cui custodiet custodian? Who spies on the spies?

There is a strong temptation to lie in this business. Telling the truth can get you killed. And the best gems of intelligence are easily salable to competing agencies of your own government or any other country’s agencies. While administrators and analysts tend to sell their own country’s secrets, analysts and operatives tend to sell the intelligence they’ve unearthed from other countries to those of still other countries.

Most thriller writers don’t use these sources of tension enough in their stories.

Mary: Do you have a book, or a web site you can recommend when an author is doing research for a special ops agent/story?

David: Be very careful using technology in your fiction writing. What is classified today becomes known public information in very brief time, and a commercial product soon thereafter. But it also means that if you’re thinking about some new technology, it is possible that it is already being developed.

Watch the evening news. Read the newspaper web sites. There is an incredible wealth of information on world events that can act as the backbone of a thriller plot. As I’ve heard one author say about the news, “You can’t make this stuff up!”

Read thrillers. Lots of them. Daniel Silva, for example. His series with protagonist Gabriel Allon is a wealth of knowledge on Israeli intelligence and politics. From my time dealing with Mossad, I believe his thrillers contain a real view of the Israeli perspective on black ops. I recommend The Kill Artist.

Chris Reich writes about the financial end of espionage and his thrillers are excellent in their use of facts and fictions about the funding of terrorism and weaknesses in the global banking system. I recommend The Devil’s Banker.

Barry Eisler, who’s a friend since before he had a literary agent, is former CIA in the Directorate of Operations, Far East section. His most recent books, Fault Line and Inside Out are really good, and Inside Out accurately reflects how intelligence is controlled by political agenda. In these, his protagonist is a covert operative who worked for one of Maerica’s “nameless” intelligence agencies. Before these, his series about John Rain was six books long and hit the best sellers list. In those, his protagonist is a hit man working for the Japanese mafia, the Japanese FBI and a group he calls “Christians In Action” or the CIA. His female contagonist is from Mossad. A good read. I recommend Rain Fall.

Jim Rollins’ Sigma thriller series is about a fictitious (I believe) covert paramilitary arm of DARPA. It mixes science and covert activities. One of his “discoveries,” Liquid Armor, a clear STF (Stress-Thickening Fluid) that can stop bullets, was invented by the US Army about five years ago. It’s far superior to Kevlar because it can be used to coat normal clothing. Making a Liquid Armor treated Hawaiian shirt virtually undetectable as bullet proof clothing. Good science is a key element in thrillers. I recommend Map of Bones.

Watch television shows that rely heavily on covert ops to glean details of their tools and tradecraft. “Burn Notice” is one of the best. Also, “24” is absolutely essential.

Listen carefully to the evening news. There’s a larger story behind most of what you hear coming out of Washington. The place is a powder keg. Most wars are designed there before the intelligence is gathered.

For a veritable how-to on N. O. C.s. read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins, one of my competitors back when I was active.

To see intelligence on private military companies refer to Wikipedia (at Other good sources are Global Security ( listing 63 mercenary armies for hire) and Private Military (

There are plenty of “conspiracy theory” websites. On my BLOG (at I have just one entry, and it could easily provide the concept for a great thriller. I haven’t used it because, when I discussed it with a literary agent, he told me it was far-fetched. In fact it’s real… Also, try and  One of my favorites is wikileaks (, a truly amazing collection of ‘stuff.’

The best of all, I believe is the history of Irangate. Very real, and start by Googling Oliver North and John Poindexter. Wikipedia ( has a wealth of information, most interesting of all is Poindexter’s recall to public service after being pardoned for his role in Irangate. Most of those involved in Irangate have been “recycled” and are now working in the intel biz. As the Eagles sang in “Hotel California”, “You can check out any time you want but you can never leave.

Check in tomorrow for the 2nd part of the interview with David Spiselman


Kari Lee Townsend said...

Great interview Mary and David. Thanks for all the valuable input, David. I'll be printing this sucker off. Can't wait to read the second half of the interview.

Mary Martinez said...

Welcome to the M&M blog David and thank you again for agreeing to give us a great resource!

Liz Lipperman said...

Wow! And I thought my life was exciting!!

Welcome, David, to M & M with your fascinating tales of espionage and for the great suggestions for good reads. I write mystery but I do have a Special Ops partial written just in case!! LOL

I do have a question...actually two. What is your best guess of the ratio of women Special Ops to men? And how much hanky panky goes on between the players? You know that always happens in our books.

Thanks Mary and DAvid for a great interview. Like Kari, I canlt wait for tomorrow's blog to find out mojre.

Cassy Pickard said...

David: Thank you so much for sharing as openly as you have. I write suspense/mystery that takes place in Italy. Can you talk about the international communication between the US and Europe? Also, what happens with organized crime? I know there are 3 major organized crime families in Italy, but how is that controlled within the US?

Thanks so much for being here today (and for installment #2!!). You are very generous.

Lindsay said...

I'm also looking forwrd to Part Deux tomorrow but in the meantime I've got a question.
Authors of mystery and suspence tend to have very vivid imaginations. What if totally innocently we come up with say a GPS tracker for our character and it turns out some secret agency already has the one. Could we get in trouble, officially or unofficially, for creating something in our mind which actually exists.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Thanks for the praise. Great questions, too. Here are a few answers, to the best of my ability:

Question: What is your best guess of the ratio of women Special Ops to men? And how much hanky panky goes on between the players? You know that always happens in our books.

Answer: The ratios are nearly one-to-one these days in the US. Many other countries still are mostly male intelligence officers and mostly male NOCs and assets. Some agencies prefer their officers to seek mates within their own community since it lowers the potential for leaks. As for relationships outside their agency or across agencies, its frowned upon or forbidden for the most obvious reason. Do you ever talk in your sleep??? Israel is the exception to this last rule. They train women intelligence officers to be 'bat leveyha,' female coverts who sleep with terrorists to discover their secrets.

Question: Can you talk about the international communication between the US and Europe? Also, what happens with organized crime? I know there are 3 major organized crime families in Italy, but how is that controlled within the US?

Answer: Secure satellite phones are the physical devices used globally. Organized crime has been used by the CIA in the past. The Washington Post article refers to 6,900 "organizations" (non-government organizations, mercenaries, technology organizations, and much more) work in support of the government, and some of these perform gray and black operations. It's possible that the mafia is still one of these organizations. We "turn" terrorists, so why not use the mafia?

Question: What if totally innocently we come up with say a GPS tracker for our character and it turns out some secret agency already has the one. Could we get in trouble, officially or unofficially, for creating something in our mind which actually exists.

Answer: Not a problem. James Rollins found "liquid armor" from the US Army website. It's a stress thickening fluid (STF), clear and odorless, and you can dip an article of clothing into it, dry it with a hair blower, and wear it. Now, your Hawaiian shirt will stop a knife blade, and even stop a 9 mm. bullet. He used it in the Sigma series of thrillers, starting with "Map of Bones." As Tom Lehrer said in his song, "Lobeschevsky," "Plagerize. Let no ones works evade your eyes." Rollins took what he found and used it. You can too!

- D. S. Kane

Mary Martinez said...

Wow, thanks for the great answers! It makes me wish I could think of a unique question, just to hear the answer.

I really appreciate all the time you've given us with your expertise. I know what's coming up tomorrow, and it's all more of the great same stuff!

Katt said...

Fabulous interview! Thanks to both Mary and David.

I'm somewhat relieved by your answer about "new inventions". I'd hate to get in trouble for something I created as pure fiction.

My current works involve both ex-special ops and secretive special contractors as well, so I'll be listening intently for Part II as well.

Question: does Border Patrol (at US/CAN) answer to Homeland Security?

thanks for sharing!

Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall said...

Great interview. Twenty years ago I had a close encounter with US intelligence (owing to my political activities) and tried to write a fictional account of it. However it never worked as a novel because I was never successful idenitfying which of the 16 (or is it 46?) government spy agencies was breaking into my house and (psychiatry) office, stealing my mail and aggressively stalking me. Because I never worked for the government, I am not legally prohibited from publishing my story as a memoir, which is what I did: THE MOST REVOLUTIONARY ACT: MEMOIR OF AN AMERICAN REFUGEE ( I currently live "in exile" in New Zealand.

Anonymous said...

Another question: Question: does Border Patrol (at US/CAN) answer to Homeland Security?

Answer: I don't know. I'd hazzard a "yes" but I might be incorrect.

In the Washington Post article I mentioned in the interview, one of the top-end desk jockies mentioned that the intelligence industry is now so far-flung, it's impossible for a single person to grasp all it's aspects.

- D. S. Kane