December 22, 2007
From Undercover to Between Covers
By MOTOKO RICH
Joseph Weisberg looks about how you would expect a Brooklyn dad and schoolteacher to look, with a bald head, white-flecked beard and baggy leather jacket. So on a recent frigid night, when he ambled down a Park Slope street and surreptitiously passed off a plastic container from a gumball machine to a reporter, nobody noticed.
It was one of many examples of spy tradecraft that Mr. Weisberg, 42, learned while training to be a case officer with the Central Intelligence Agency in the early 1990s. He no longer works there (or so he says), but he has used some of what he learned to write his latest novel, “An Ordinary Spy,” which goes on sale on Wednesday.
The novel, published by Bloomsbury USA, explores the moral complexity and psychological fallout of clandestine service, through a taut plot involving two case officers who meet after bungled foreign assignments a few years apart. Told in restrained prose that reflects the emotional reserve of the characters, the book is more than a thriller. It is also a chronicle of the mundanity of a spy’s daily routine — not just the surveillance-detection routes and cryptic cables to headquarters, but also the staff meetings, petty rivalries between colleagues and idle chatter about pension plans. It’s not quite “The Office” of espionage, but it’s close.
“My goal was to write the most realistic spy novel that had ever been written,” said Mr. Weisberg, who teaches history and English at a high school in Queens. To heighten authenticity, he redacted parts of the book, inserting black bars that concealed the names of countries, the particulars of tradecraft and other details that might be classified information, if the story were true. Even the names of two people in the acknowledgments, whom the author thanks for having “trusted me with their story,” are blacked out.
As a former C.I.A. employee, Mr. Weisberg was required to submit his novel to the agency’s Publications Review Board before he could even seek a book deal. During the five weeks that he waited to get the manuscript back from the board, he recalled over lunch at a Brooklyn bistro, “I was convinced it was taking so long because they were taking out everything that was left.”
In the end, he said, the board redacted only a little more than what he had already taken out. After he landed a publisher and went through rounds of edits, he resubmitted it — all told, a total of six times. (A spokeswoman for the agency, by the way, confirmed that the book went before the review board.)
Anticipating the board’s rulings, Mr. Weisberg removed a lot of detail about basic spycraft. So it came as a surprise when the agency granted him permission to show a reporter how to perform a “dead drop,” a system of exchanging secret information without having to meet. He had folded explicit instructions into the aforementioned gumball machine container, providing directions to the location of a signal, a chalk mark streaking across the side of a mailbox, and the actual drop, a note concealed inside a crumpled Hershey bar wrapper and placed in a large planter on a residential street.
Of course, anyone who reads widely in the spy genre — or just types “dead drop” into Wikipedia — will recognize the methodology. “This stuff is not really secret,” Mr. Weisberg said.
The novel is narrated by Mark Ruttenberg, a young case officer on his first assignment in an unspecified country. After he sleeps with a woman he had been trying to recruit as an informant, he is promptly fired. He soon gets to know another former officer, Bobby Goldstein, who had been stationed in the same country. The rest of the novel tells Bobby’s story, in which the exposing of a foreign agent leads to consequences that Bobby is still struggling to live with.
Mr. Weisberg, who never served abroad, insists the book is fiction. “My book is my imagining of what would have happened,” he said, “things I knew would have gone on, and things I feared would happen.” One of the reasons he left the C.I.A., he said, was because he did not want to recruit agents who might face retribution for their betrayal.
The death of his father also shaped his decision. Just before he was scheduled to leave on his first foreign assignment, Mr. Weisberg learned that his father’s cancer had become worse and took a leave of absence to help care for him. When he died, Mr. Weisberg said, “jumping on a plane and leaving to go abroad just did not compute.”
He returned to a desk job to prepare for another foreign assignment, but instead left the agency altogether, although he chose to remain undercover. Friends said he had been telling them that he worked at the State Department.
Mr. Weisberg’s father was a lawyer, and his mother, Lois Weisberg, was profiled by The New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell because of her uncanny ability to make friends and connect disparate people around the world. His brother, Jacob Weisberg, is editor in chief of the online magazine Slate.
When Mr. Weisberg first thought of joining the C.I.A., the cold war was still going on. Since graduating from Yale in 1987, he had taken some Russian classes, traveled around Eastern Europe and worked as a job counselor. Looking for something more meaningful, he remembered his early love for the spy novels of John le Carré.
There wasn’t much glamour, but he clung to the idea that the job was saving the world. He was quickly disabused of that when examining case files from officers recruiting agents abroad.
His overriding impression, he said, was that the agents “don’t provide any valuable information to the U.S. government.”
Once he left the agency, Mr. Weisberg moved home in the mid-1990s to live with his mother in Chicago, where he wrote his first novel, about terrorists who blow up Wal-Marts. After he failed to find a publisher, he moved to New York and began writing songs, going through heaps of therapy and writing novels (one, “10th Grade,” was published in 2002; another, an autobiographical story, is still stored on a computer disc.)
When he met and married his wife, Julie Rothwax, and started writing “Ordinary Spy,” his money ran out. (His mother had been subsidizing him until then.) So Mr. Weisberg took the teaching job. “It was the only thing, other than writing, that interested me,” he said. And spying, of course.
Other than writing “An Ordinary Spy,” he’s still working out his complicated views of the C.I.A. Last Saturday in a Washington Post op-ed article he wrote that most agents were “worthless as sources of information, mid-level bureaucrats with no access to vital intelligence.”
But in August Mr. Weisberg defended the agency in an Op-Ed article for The New York Times, calling Valerie Plame Wilson, the former C.I.A. officer whose identity was disclosed, “petulant” for suing the agency for the right to include the dates of her service in her memoir, “Fair Game.”
David Smallman, Ms. Wilson’s lawyer, said Mr. Weisberg was “functioning as an apologist” for the agency.
“Probably my own feelings about the place are all over the map,” Mr. Weisberg said.
Bruce Feiler, a writer and a college friend thanked in the acknowledgments of “An Ordinary Spy,” said Mr. Weisberg was “much better at being a truth teller than he is at being a truth concealer,” adding that Mr. Weisberg is much more in touch with his emotions now than when he was a C.I.A. trainee. “Ultimately he would not have been a good spy,” Mr. Feiler said.
It’s a sentiment echoed by a character in “An Ordinary Spy.” After Mark is fired from the agency for his indiscretion and learns how Bobby came to leave the agency, William, a former senior officer and mentor, tells Mark, “At the end of the day, this isn’t where you belonged.”