No Comment, Six Questions — March 31, 2009, 7:12 am

The Blogosphere Thriller: Six Questions for Barry Eisler, Author of Fault Line

Barry Eisler started his professional life as a covert operations agent for the CIA, transformed himself into a Silicon Valley intellectual property lawyer and entrepreneur. He’s now best-known for his espionage thrillers. This month Sony Pictures plans to release the first action film derived from an Eisler novel, Rain Fall. His latest book launches a new genre: the blogosphere thriller. I put six questions to Barry Eisler about his latest novel, Fault Line.

1. Your latest novel turns on a special access program run out of JSOC, the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, that involves targeted killings—what might in blunter language be called assassinations–both overseas and within the United States. The novel appeared just as Sy Hersh gave a talk claiming that the Bush Administration operated a targeted killings program. Hersh states flatly that Vice President Dick Cheney ran this program out of the White House. Surely you don’t mean to imply that you think there’s any basis in fact for all this left-wing hysteria?

fault-line

Ah, those left-wing hysterics, with their shrill, paranoid theories about torture and black sites and warrantless eavesdropping. The next thing you know, they’ll be claiming the Bush administration issued secret memos preparing to suspend the First and Fourth Amendments during domestic military operations or something like that. How do they dream up such nonsense?

I got the idea for the novel’s special access program after reading an article in the New York Times on a unit of covert soldiers known as “Military Liaison Elements,” which touched on certain programs I knew about from my time with the CIA. So I knew I was writing something not just realistic, but potentially real–which is always my goal. But I didn’t know just how real until I read the article about Hersh’s speech. When it comes to thriller-level conspiracies, skullduggery, and corruption, the Bush administration really was life imitating–if not exceeding–art.

2. You’ve got two protagonists—brothers named Alex and Ben, one a Silicon Valley lawyer and the other a black ops assassin. But they look suspiciously like two chapters from your life. Are these figures autobiographical?

They certainly draw on two disparate positions I’ve held: the first, as a covert employee of the CIA; the second, as a Silicon Valley technology lawyer and startup executive. It was a pleasure to draw on my experience in both the secret world and the law to craft the characters in Fault Line and create their milieus. But my own experience was only the beginning for these characters, not the end.

“What, you don’t think the NSA would kill people? And I’m the one living in a bubble? I bet you don’t think the president would arrest an American citizen on American soil and hold him without granting him access to an attorney or charging him with a crime or otherwise adhering to constitutional requirements. I bet you don’t think the government would wiretap Americans without a warrant, either. I bet you don’t think—”

“You don’t know the first fucking thing about what I think.”

“—that the government would cook up intelligence to start a war. I bet you don’t think the government is run by people who’ve gotten as far as they have in politics by learning to rationalize all kinds of corruption, in the name of the greater good. Are you telling me these things don’t go on, every single day?”

—From Fault Line
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Ballantine Books. Copyright (c) 2009 Barry Eisler

3. You use Alex and Ben as a foil for some interesting discussions of the ethics and legality of a number of government programs from the Bush era—the “highly coercive interrogations” program, extraordinary renditions, and the NSA’s sweeping domestic surveillance program, for instance. Tell us where Barry Eisler stands on the use of torture techniques like waterboarding and extreme isolation—is he with Jack Bauer or with Matthew Alexander?

Well, if the goal is to make entertaining television, the Jack Bauer approach is certainly suitable. And torture is also an excellent way to get the subject to confess to anything at all, which is why it was a wonderful tool for the Spanish Inquisition and for the secret police of assorted totalitarian regimes. But if the goal is to produce accurate, actionable intelligence, torture is madness, as Alexander argues in his book, How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, torture is worse than immoral: it’s tactically stupid. It produces false confessions, which can be used to confirm mistaken suspicions and even outright policy fantasies; it instills an insatiable thirst for vengeance in most people who are subjected to it, and so creates new, dedicated enemies; it permanently brutalizes its practitioners; and it cuts us off from intelligence from the local populace because so many people will refuse to inform on someone if they fear he’ll be tortured.

But when someone hurts you, the immediate, innate human reflex is to hurt back. We were too powerless to prevent the original hurt–in this case, 9/11–but if we can hurt the offending party back, we reassure ourselves that we’re not as powerless as we initially feared. This dynamic is the basis for the urge for vengeance, and the urge for vengeance can be so strong that it can be partly satisfied even by proxy–say, by attacking a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, or by torturing people against whom we have no reliable evidence but who look like or otherwise remind us of the people behind 9/11.Of course, the satisfaction of atavistic emotional impulses shouldn’t be the goal of policy. “If it feels good, do it” used to be a phrase associated with the left. We live in strange times.

4. The names in your novel read like a roll-call of the civil-liberties blogosphere—you have Hilzoy (Hilary Bok), Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald, and Josh Marshall worked in. And the man running the black ops killing program is named Scott Horton. Ahem. But I was also taken by the fact that characters in Fault Line turn continually to the blogs—not to newspapers, radio or television—for their information, and in the end of the book, for solutions to their dilemma. Would it be fair to call this a blogosphere thriller?

More than fair. It was a pleasure for me to name so many characters after bloggers I admire, and to make blogs key to the characters’ hopes for defeating the conspiracy plotting to kill them. In making bloggers and blogs central, and, by implication, making the mainstream media moribund and irrelevant, I think Fault Line reflects reality–while, I hope, nudging reality along.

Discussions of the rise of the blogosphere and the decline of the “Mainstream Media” tend to center on the logistics of shipping paper or the expense of broadcast and other such costs of traditional media. And while these are all relevant factors, how often does the MSM consider whether part of their business woes might be a reflection of the quality of the underlying product? Is it possible the blogosphere’s growth is attributable at least in part to a growing sense among the public that by and large, the MSM acts either as a government press organ or as a gossip rag?

“Let’s make sure Iran is on the list. After all, every country with a GDP the size of Finland’s is a grave threat to our national security. I mean, did you see it on the news? Two Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated last week in Istanbul.”

“Really?” Ben said. “I must have missed it.”

“Yes, and their bodyguards, too. Even though we have a law—Executive Order 12333—that prohibits assassination.” Ben shrugged. “What can you do? Iran has a lot of enemies.”

“Sure, and maybe we subcontracted the job to one of them, just like we used to subcontract torture to get around our laws against that. Until we started doing it ourselves. You see what happens when it’s okay to break the law a little? It starts getting broken a lot.”

—From Fault Line
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Ballantine Books. Copyright (c) 2009 Barry Eisler

5. The national security “threat” that provides the backdrop for the novel involves the development of software for viral cryptography. Explain how you came by cyberwarfare as a topic and why you chose it notwithstanding the fact that it makes for a much more complicated plot development.

barryeisler

Well, without giving away too much of the story, I’ll just say I was looking for something that might seem benign on the surface, but that could also have tremendous weapons potential were it to fall into the wrong hands. Something that would be attractive to a number of players, government and non-state, if they were aware of its true nature. I read an article in The Economist about malicious cryptology–the practice of using security protocols not to protect against viruses, but to disguise viruses and make them undetectable by traditional security software. I started wondering about how a viral program might be disguised, how it would be used, who would want it and why. Which led me to Adam Young’s and Moti Yung’s excellent book, Malicious Cryptology: Exposing Cryptovirology. After which it was my pleasure to run some ideas past a number of computer security experts. And who knows? Maybe we’ll learn about a program just like it soon enough from Seymour Hersh…

6. One of the key characters in your novel is a young Iranian-American lawyer named Sarah. You give an interesting profile of her problems coping with the suspicions that young Iranian-Americans face, and I notice in passing you refer to the case of Alex Latifi, a brilliant Iranian-American engineer who endured years of vicious persecution from abusive federal prosecutors in Alabama before finally being vindicated in court. Did the Latifi case provide you with inspiration for the development of Sarah as a character?

It did, and I first read about it here. It’s strange, I attend several mystery and thriller conventions every year, and often there’s a panel discussion on whether the thriller can survive the end of the cold war, or, more recently, whether thrillers can survive the end of the Bush Administration. To which my response is: are you kidding? If you pay attention, there’s more inspiration for thrillers in today’s news than any writer could handle in a lifetime.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2020

The Old Normal

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Out of Africa

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Waiting for the End of the World

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In Harm’s Way

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Fifth Step

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A View to a Krill

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Old Normal·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Addressing the graduating cadets at West Point in May 1942, General George C. Marshall, then the Army chief of staff, reduced the nation’s purpose in the global war it had recently joined to a single emphatic sentence. “We are determined,” he remarked, “that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.”

At the time Marshall spoke, mere months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. forces had sustained a string of painful setbacks and had yet to win a major battle. Eventual victory over Japan and Germany seemed anything but assured. Yet Marshall was already looking beyond the immediate challenges to define what that victory, when ultimately— and, in his view, inevitably—achieved, was going to signify.

This second world war of the twentieth century, Marshall understood, was going to be immense and immensely destructive. But if vast in scope, it would be limited in duration. The sun would set; the war would end. Today no such expectation exists. Marshall’s successors have come to view armed conflict as an open-ended proposition. The alarming turn in U.S.–Iranian relations is another reminder that war has become normal for the United States.

Article
Waiting for the End of the World·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

1.

A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.

I rose long before dawn, too thrilled to sleep, and set off to find my tribe. North from Greenville in the dark, past towns with names like Sans Souci and Travelers Rest, over the border into North Carolina, through land so choked by kudzu that the overgrown trees in the dark looked like great creatures petrified in mid-flight. The weirdness of this scene would, by the end of the weekend, show itself to be appropriate: my trip would be all about romanticism, and romanticism is a human collision with place that results, as Baudelaire put it, “neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in a way of feeling.” My rental car’s engine whined as it climbed the mountains. Day was just breaking when I nosed down a hill to Orchard Lake Campground, where tents were still being erected in the dimness.

Article
The Fifth Step·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Harold Jamieson, once chief engineer of New York City’s sanitation department, enjoyed retirement. He knew from his small circle of friends that some didn’t, so he considered himself lucky. He had an acre of garden in Queens that he shared with several like-minded horticulturists, he had discovered Netflix, and he was making inroads in the books he’d always meant to read. He still missed his wife—a victim of breast cancer five years previous—but aside from that persistent ache, his life was quite full. Before rising every morning, he reminded himself to enjoy the day. At sixty-eight, he liked to think he had a fair amount of road left, but there was no denying it had begun to narrow.

The best part of those days—assuming it wasn’t raining, snowing, or too cold—was the nine-block walk to Central Park after breakfast. Although he carried a cell phone and used an electronic tablet (had grown dependent on it, in fact), he still preferred the print version of the Times. In the park, he would settle on his favorite bench and spend an hour with it, reading the sections back to front, telling himself he was progressing from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Article
Out of Africa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

1. In 2014, Deepti Gurdasani, a genetic epidemiologist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in England, coauthored a paper in Nature on human genetic variation in Africa, from which this image is taken. A recent study had found that DNA from people of European descent made up 96 percent of genetic samples worldwide, reflecting the historical tendency among scientists and doctors to view the male, European body as a global archetype. “There wasn’t very much data available from Africa at all,” Gurdasani told me. To help rectify the imbalance, her research team collected samples from eighteen African ethnolinguistic groups across the continent—such as the Kalenjin of Uganda and the Oromo of Ethiopia—most of whom had not previously been included in genomic research. They analyzed the data using an admixture algorithm, which visualizes the statistical genetic differences among groups by representing them as color clusters. The top chart shows genetic differences among the sampled African populations, in increasing degrees of granularity from top to bottom, and the bottom chart shows how they compare with ethnic groups in the rest of the world. The areas where the colors mix and overlap imply that groups commingled. The Yoruba, for instance, show remarkable homogeneity—their column is almost entirely green and purple—while the Kalenjin seem to have associated with many populations across the continent.

Article
In Harm’s Way·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ten yards was the nearest we could get to the river. Any closer and the smell was too much to bear. The water was a milky gray color, as if mixed with ashes, and the passage of floating trash was ceaseless. Plastic bags and bottles, coffee lids, yogurt cups, flip-flops, and sodden stuffed animals drifted past, coated in yellow scum. Amid the old tires and mattresses dumped on the riverbank, mounds of rank green weeds gave refuge to birds and grasshoppers, which didn’t seem bothered by the fecal stench.

El Río de los Remedios, or the River of Remedies, runs through the city of Ecatepec, a densely populated satellite of Mexico City. Confined mostly to concrete channels, the river serves as the main drainage line for the vast monochrome barrios that surround the capital. That day, I was standing on a stretch of the canal just north of Ecatepec, with a twenty-three-year-old photographer named Reyna Leynez. Reyna was the one who’d told me about the place and what it represents. This ruined river, this open sewer, is said to be one of the largest mass graves in Mexico.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The commissioner of CPB admitted that “leadership just got a little overzealous” when detaining hundreds of U.S. citizens of Iranian descent in the wake of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today