.
W

riting spy thrillers must be exhausting work. In addition to the writing process itself, an aspiring espionage author needs to stay abreast of a dynamic geopolitical landscape, evolving technological spectrum, and the appetites of a fickle audience. For critics, if the author is not the newest John Le Carre (and let’s be honest, there is and will always be only one John Le Carre) or somehow prescient in their crafting of a threat or villain, then they are consigned to the mass market paperback and swiftly forgotten.

As a result, it seems today that the “spy novel” is dominated either by authors trying too hard to be Le Carre or trying to satisfy the public’s insatiable desire for larger-than-life action heroes that are more John Rambo than James Bond: heroes that can field strip every weapon, HALO jump, fly any aircraft, that don’t care for the rules or political correctness, but somehow never actually run an agent, do a dead drop, or cultivate an asset. It leaves you wondering what on earth they are teaching at “the Farm”—the CIA’s operations training facility—these days.

The Paladin: A Spy Novel, by David Ignatius, Norton (May 2020).

In addition to crafting characters that are believable or, perhaps more importantly, interesting, the would-be spy writer needs to get the landscape and the threat right. He or she needs to have a finger on the pulse, but also know when and why that pulse may soon quicken. For some, that means spinning the wheel of antagonists, threats, and technobabble.

David Ignatius—the longtime Washington Post journalist and novelist—is quite possibly the most solid and best contemporary spy writer because he consistently gets all of those factors right—he understands the craft, understands the geopolitical landscape, and is a deft creator of characters and plots that are just over the horizon, but believable.

Having covered intelligence for years for the Post, he knows the ins and the outs of how espionage is conducted, not the cheap action thriller version many Americans would associate with spying. He is one of the few authors I’ve returned to many times over the years to re-read his books—Agents of Innocence and Body of Lies, in particular. Both copies are well-worn and well-traveled.

Ignatius bucks the trend of the majority of spy writers today, crafting well thought out, well written, complex narratives that weave current issues and threats into a believable and enjoyable tapestry. His characters are not superhuman, but flawed, eminently believable, and which cleverly serve as proxies for a world we often find ourselves trying to understand, even if it is just a peek behind the curtain.

In Paladin, his 11th book, he introduces us to Michael Dunne, an officer from the Central Intelligence Agency’s Science and Technology Directorate—the real-world version of 007’s Q branch—as he leaves prison for running an operation against an American journalist. The journalist, Jason Howe, a combination of the traitor Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, heads a group, Fallen Empire, that is not only in the business of leaks but also in the business of creating fake news. What follows is a complex story of how the operation was conceived, how it was run, and how it all came apart.

Most importantly for Dunne, the story is about how he will get his revenge. In the wake of the blown operation and a honeypot trap, Dunne loses everything—his wife, his job, and his freedom after being sent to prison for the illegal operation. After leaving prison, Dunne embarks on his campaign of redemption to find out what happened and why, and along the way, he gets some help from the eponymous “Paladin”.

For readers outside of the Beltway, the physical and mental demarcation between the Washington, DC world and everything else, some of the nuance Ignatius imbues his characters with, may be lost. Those inside the Beltway will find the bureaucrats and politics too familiar.  Jumping backward and forward in time and crisscrossing the globe (including a lovingly detailed portrait of Pittsburgh), Ignatius crafts a story that is eerily familiar and strikingly prescient.

The risk of fake news is not just what one political leader may call anything with which he disagrees. To be sure that is a risk, but what about actually fake news—events that did not occur but are made to appear as though they did. Deepfakes are the epitome of photoshop, a fully synthetic media where you can—with the right tools—make it appear that any person is saying or doing what you want them to say or do. Using machine learning and artificial intelligence, creating deep fakes is becoming easier and easier, and detecting them is becoming harder and harder.

Ignatius’ decision to use deepfakes as a hook for this story is inspired. It strikes at the very heart of our zeitgeist—what is real, what is believable, and how do we live and work in an environment when we can’t believe what we see or hear. When our reactions, both individual and as a society, are primed on a hair-trigger, how easy is it to manipulate our thoughts, emotions, and actions?

We’ve already seen what fake news and false information can do thanks to the Internet Research Agency and the 2016 active measures campaign the Russians waged against the United States. Of course, our reaction to that campaign once it was discovered greatly enhanced its efficacy (or the appearance of its efficacy), but it was a teaser of the scary new world we’re facing. Cambridge Analytica and others, to say nothing of the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google), have weaponized data for politics and profit. Combine that dataset with deep fakes, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and the incredible cyber tools created by the government and private sector and you have a frightening nexus that could shake the foundations of truth.

What if the Russians released fake audio of a U.S. ambassador discussing the assassination of a political figure in another country? What if a deepfake video emerged of a foreign diplomat accepting a bribe? What if a fake news story broke about a chemical spill from a Fortune 500 company’s plant? How would the public react? How would the markets? By the time the target reacted to the false story, the damage would almost certainly be already done.

Ignatius shines in creating the threat and the environment. For the first two acts of Paladin, the book maintains a smooth pace as it shifts from location to location, unveiling what happened and how Dunne’s life fell apart and how, possibly, he will find redemption. In the wilderness of mirrors, Dunne isn’t sure what is happening and who is responsible and it is thoroughly enjoyable to unwind this plot with him. The final act is where it perhaps falls a bit short. Dunne adopts some of the typical spy hero traits and it is a bit incongruous with the set up in the first two acts.

Paladin shines because of how believable the plot is and how the reader can see the character’s story arc playing out. The technology and the threat it poses to a society already grappling with what is real and what is not is a far greater villain than the villain Ignatius crafted for his story. And that is the strength of Paladin. It is a solid spy story, but one that serves as a vehicle to question the wilderness of mirrors that modern society has become.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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The Paladin: A Spy Novel

Paladin shines because of how believable the plot is and how the reader can see the character’s story arc playing out. The technology and the threat it poses to a society already grappling with what is real and what is not is a far greater villain than the villain Ignatius crafted for his story. And that is the strength of Paladin. It is a solid spy story, but one that serves as a vehicle to question the wilderness of mirrors that modern society has become.

May 31, 2020

The Paladin: A Spy Novel, by David Ignatius, Norton (May 2020).

W

riting spy thrillers must be exhausting work. In addition to the writing process itself, an aspiring espionage author needs to stay abreast of a dynamic geopolitical landscape, evolving technological spectrum, and the appetites of a fickle audience. For critics, if the author is not the newest John Le Carre (and let’s be honest, there is and will always be only one John Le Carre) or somehow prescient in their crafting of a threat or villain, then they are consigned to the mass market paperback and swiftly forgotten.

As a result, it seems today that the “spy novel” is dominated either by authors trying too hard to be Le Carre or trying to satisfy the public’s insatiable desire for larger-than-life action heroes that are more John Rambo than James Bond: heroes that can field strip every weapon, HALO jump, fly any aircraft, that don’t care for the rules or political correctness, but somehow never actually run an agent, do a dead drop, or cultivate an asset. It leaves you wondering what on earth they are teaching at “the Farm”—the CIA’s operations training facility—these days.

The Paladin: A Spy Novel, by David Ignatius, Norton (May 2020).

In addition to crafting characters that are believable or, perhaps more importantly, interesting, the would-be spy writer needs to get the landscape and the threat right. He or she needs to have a finger on the pulse, but also know when and why that pulse may soon quicken. For some, that means spinning the wheel of antagonists, threats, and technobabble.

David Ignatius—the longtime Washington Post journalist and novelist—is quite possibly the most solid and best contemporary spy writer because he consistently gets all of those factors right—he understands the craft, understands the geopolitical landscape, and is a deft creator of characters and plots that are just over the horizon, but believable.

Having covered intelligence for years for the Post, he knows the ins and the outs of how espionage is conducted, not the cheap action thriller version many Americans would associate with spying. He is one of the few authors I’ve returned to many times over the years to re-read his books—Agents of Innocence and Body of Lies, in particular. Both copies are well-worn and well-traveled.

Ignatius bucks the trend of the majority of spy writers today, crafting well thought out, well written, complex narratives that weave current issues and threats into a believable and enjoyable tapestry. His characters are not superhuman, but flawed, eminently believable, and which cleverly serve as proxies for a world we often find ourselves trying to understand, even if it is just a peek behind the curtain.

In Paladin, his 11th book, he introduces us to Michael Dunne, an officer from the Central Intelligence Agency’s Science and Technology Directorate—the real-world version of 007’s Q branch—as he leaves prison for running an operation against an American journalist. The journalist, Jason Howe, a combination of the traitor Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, heads a group, Fallen Empire, that is not only in the business of leaks but also in the business of creating fake news. What follows is a complex story of how the operation was conceived, how it was run, and how it all came apart.

Most importantly for Dunne, the story is about how he will get his revenge. In the wake of the blown operation and a honeypot trap, Dunne loses everything—his wife, his job, and his freedom after being sent to prison for the illegal operation. After leaving prison, Dunne embarks on his campaign of redemption to find out what happened and why, and along the way, he gets some help from the eponymous “Paladin”.

For readers outside of the Beltway, the physical and mental demarcation between the Washington, DC world and everything else, some of the nuance Ignatius imbues his characters with, may be lost. Those inside the Beltway will find the bureaucrats and politics too familiar.  Jumping backward and forward in time and crisscrossing the globe (including a lovingly detailed portrait of Pittsburgh), Ignatius crafts a story that is eerily familiar and strikingly prescient.

The risk of fake news is not just what one political leader may call anything with which he disagrees. To be sure that is a risk, but what about actually fake news—events that did not occur but are made to appear as though they did. Deepfakes are the epitome of photoshop, a fully synthetic media where you can—with the right tools—make it appear that any person is saying or doing what you want them to say or do. Using machine learning and artificial intelligence, creating deep fakes is becoming easier and easier, and detecting them is becoming harder and harder.

Ignatius’ decision to use deepfakes as a hook for this story is inspired. It strikes at the very heart of our zeitgeist—what is real, what is believable, and how do we live and work in an environment when we can’t believe what we see or hear. When our reactions, both individual and as a society, are primed on a hair-trigger, how easy is it to manipulate our thoughts, emotions, and actions?

We’ve already seen what fake news and false information can do thanks to the Internet Research Agency and the 2016 active measures campaign the Russians waged against the United States. Of course, our reaction to that campaign once it was discovered greatly enhanced its efficacy (or the appearance of its efficacy), but it was a teaser of the scary new world we’re facing. Cambridge Analytica and others, to say nothing of the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google), have weaponized data for politics and profit. Combine that dataset with deep fakes, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and the incredible cyber tools created by the government and private sector and you have a frightening nexus that could shake the foundations of truth.

What if the Russians released fake audio of a U.S. ambassador discussing the assassination of a political figure in another country? What if a deepfake video emerged of a foreign diplomat accepting a bribe? What if a fake news story broke about a chemical spill from a Fortune 500 company’s plant? How would the public react? How would the markets? By the time the target reacted to the false story, the damage would almost certainly be already done.

Ignatius shines in creating the threat and the environment. For the first two acts of Paladin, the book maintains a smooth pace as it shifts from location to location, unveiling what happened and how Dunne’s life fell apart and how, possibly, he will find redemption. In the wilderness of mirrors, Dunne isn’t sure what is happening and who is responsible and it is thoroughly enjoyable to unwind this plot with him. The final act is where it perhaps falls a bit short. Dunne adopts some of the typical spy hero traits and it is a bit incongruous with the set up in the first two acts.

Paladin shines because of how believable the plot is and how the reader can see the character’s story arc playing out. The technology and the threat it poses to a society already grappling with what is real and what is not is a far greater villain than the villain Ignatius crafted for his story. And that is the strength of Paladin. It is a solid spy story, but one that serves as a vehicle to question the wilderness of mirrors that modern society has become.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.