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?


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.


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.

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The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


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.”

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