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 168 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2019

The Story of Storytelling

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Myth of White Genocide

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
No Joe!·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the heart of the US Capitol there’s a small men’s room with an uplifting Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt quotation above the door. Making use of the facilities there after lunch in the nearby House dining room about a year ago, I found myself standing next to Trent Lott. Once a mighty power in the building as Senate Republican leader, he had been forced to resign his post following some imprudently affectionate references to his fellow Republican senator, arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond. Now he was visiting the Capitol as a lucratively employed lobbyist.

Article
The Myth of White Genocide·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The squatter camp outside Lawley township, in the southwest of Johannesburg, stretches for miles against a bare hillside, without electricity, water, or toilets. I visited on a blustery morning in October with a local journalist named Mophethe Thebe, who spent much of his childhood in the area. As we drove toward the settlement he pointed out land that had been abandoned by white Afrikaner farmers after the end of apartheid in 1994, and had since been taken over by impoverished black settlers who built over the former farms with half-paved roadways and tiny brick houses. You could still see stands of headstones inscribed in Afrikaans, all that remained visible of the former inhabitants.

Article
The Story of Storytelling·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The story begins, as so many do, with a journey. In this case, it’s a seemingly simple one: a young girl, cloaked in red, must carry a basket of food through the woods to her bedridden grandmother. Along the way, she meets a duplicitous wolf who persuades her to dawdle: Notice the robins, he says; Laze in the sun, breathe in the hyacinth and bluebells; Wouldn’t your grandmother like a fresh bouquet? Meanwhile, he hastens to her grandmother’s cottage, where he swallows the old woman whole, slips into her bed, and waits for his final course.

Article
Run Me to Earth·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They were released.

For the first time in seven years, they stood outside in the courtyard of the reeducation center. They looked across at the gate. They remembered none of this. The flagpole and the towers. The cameras. Prany counted the sentries in the towers. He heard the rattle of keys as the guard behind him, wearing a green uniform, undid his handcuffs. Then the guard undid Vang’s. They rubbed their free wrists. Vang made fists with his hands.

Prany dug the soles of his new shoes into the dirt. He watched Vang’s hands and then turned to see the building they had exited. It resembled a schoolhouse or a gymnasium. The flag flapped in the wind. The sun on him. The immense sky. His neck was stiff. He knew that if they were forced to run right now his legs might buckle. Not because he was weak, but because in this moment, in the new environment, out in the open, his entire body felt uncertain.

Article
New Books·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ten years ago, a week after his sixtieth birthday, and six months after his first appointment with an oncologist, my father died. That afternoon, I went to my parents’ bedroom to clear up the remains of the lunch my mother had brought him not long before he collapsed. A copy of Yiyun Li’s novel The Vagrants, which he’d asked me for after I reviewed it in a newspaper, was open on his bedside table. He had gotten about halfway through it. The Vagrants isn’t what you’d call a consoling book—it centers on a young woman’s unjust execution in a provincial Chinese town in 1979—and I had mixed feelings about it being the last thing he’d read. Perhaps an adolescent part of me had been happy to let him have it out of a need to see him as a more fearless reader than he might have wanted to be just then. Still, my father had read Proust and Robert Musil while working as a real estate agent. There was comfort, of a sort, for me, and maybe him, in his refusal of comfort reading.

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.

Classes at a Catholic school in Durham, North Carolina, were canceled in anticipation of protests against a lesbian alumna, who had been invited to speak at a Black History Month event.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today