Fiction tries to describe a strange new truth

Sure, he wove a tangled web out there in the cold, but in a way things were more straightforward for le Carré's Alec Leamas.

I really value my Wall Street Journal. Every day, it reminds me what a well-run, thoughtful newspaper that still has some resources to work with can do. And in spite of its staid, conservative reputation, it manages to do some really interesting, creative things.

Graham Greene, creator of Our Man in Havana, would have had just the right touch.

Today, we see what happened when the editors got this idea: With WikiLeaks creating a reality that no novel ever imagined, what would three spy novelists have to say about this strange new world? What does spy fiction look like in a world without secrets?

I devoured it, as I am a fan of spy fiction. And while I am not a reader of any of the three writers they chose (Alex Carr, Joseph Finder and Alex Berenson), they rose well to the occasion of having to write on a newspaper deadline. Sure, they lacked the mastery of the language of John le Carré, and the dry wit of Len Deighton. And none of them have the touch of the late Graham Greene, whose sense of the absurd (think Our Man in Havana, to which le Carré paid tribute in The Tailor of Panama) would fit so well the perversity of Julian Assange et al.

But as I say, they did fine, each taking a different approach. Alex Carr did the best job of portraying the human cost of trashing security, with a U.S. intelligence officer anxiously racing to warn her Afghan source that he has been compromised by WikiLeaks’ callous disregard for his young life.

Those of you who still fail to get, on a gut level, what is wrong with what Wikileaks does should read that one if none of the others.

Joseph Finder had the most complete, in the literary sense, tale, managing to be fairly clever and tell a full story with a twist at the end, and do it all in just over 1,000 words — the length of one of my columns when I was with The State.

Alex Berenson sets a scene pretty well in his piece, but doesn’t resolve anything. It’s a mere snapshot smack in the middle of a story. I still enjoyed reading it.

Yes, it’s fiction, but fiction can communicate truths that journalism cannot. Most of what helps us understand our world, really get it, is in the mortar that lies between the solid fact-bricks that journalism provides. That mortar consists of subjective impressions, emotions, unspoken thoughts — things only an omniscient observer (something that only exists in fiction) can provide.

If you can read those three pieces — I’m never sure what people who don’t subscribe can and can’t read on that site — please do.

What would Len Deighton's Harry Palmer do?

28 thoughts on “Fiction tries to describe a strange new truth

  1. Phillip

    I enjoyed reading those pieces. Joseph Finder’s story to me was particularly striking, with the agent from the US confronting the Wikileaks operative: “In the real world, down here, people bleed. Soldiers, civilians, aid workers get blown up and kidnapped and slaughtered because of what you decide to post…I wonder if you’d act the same way if you were in the field of combat yourself. If the exposure put you at risk personally.” That reminded me of what many of us think when somebody sitting comfortably behind a desk issues a command that results in somebody else pushing a button that results in a drone attack that maybe kills a bad guy, but along with a few other innocent civilians, maybe some kids, too.

    Alex Carr’s story did indeed raise the troubling scenario of the human cost of compromised information, too. The moral quandaries are great here…the loss of any life due to the release of classified info (though most of this of course was not classified, and was accessible to anywhere from 1/2 million to 2 million people already) is a terrible thing…but what if the steady revelations of certain information to the American public leads to a change in course that might ultimately reduce the loss of life? Daniel Ellsberg’s act in 1971 may have been technically illegal, but the NY Times’ publication of the Pentagon Papers helped hasten our exit from an immoral war and probably saved lives, though sadly not nearly as early as should have happened. These things are rarely neatly cut-and-dried. The important thing is for us to be outraged by ALL those who display that “callous disregard” for human life by their actions.

    I was interested to see that your favorite magazine The Economist gave Wikileaks an award not so long ago, and continues to defend its recent actions:

  2. bud

    Sure it’s a problem when someone leaks government secrets. But damn it the public has a right to know when our country is misbehaving. How do we square this delima? We get our troops out of harms way for starters and try to grow up as a nation. Without all the constant meddling we wouldn’t have nearly the problems we have now. Prosecute Arrange but let’s at least try to learn something about the scurilous nature of our country’s outlandish espionage. Thousands of Americans are dead because of these shenanigans. Too bad the military cheerleaders just don’t get that side of the story.

  3. bud

    Just read the story about Kat and the young Afghan boy. Brad sees this as a needless death due to Wikileaks. I see it as a needless death due to Americans being where they don’t belong.

  4. Barb

    I agree–this was a grand threesome of readable pieces. I majored in English, and I subscribe to WSJ for their treatment of current fiction. I’m sure that I (needlecrafter, gardener, housewife in non-designer jeans) am not the demographics their advertisers crave, but I appreciate their feature stories and their talented writers.

  5. Doug Ross

    I suppose I have the same level of admiration for Ron Paul as Brad does for Lindsey Graham. This Paul quote today on Wikileaks captures my feelings exactly:

    “In a free society, we are supposed to know the truth. In a society where truth becomes treason, we are in big trouble,” – Ron Paul.

  6. Brad

    Whereas I think Ron Paul is a fellow who very earnestly says many extraordinarily foolish things…

    Of COURSE truth can be treason. Forgive me, but it’s idiotic to suggest otherwise. What the traitors we call spies pass on to hostile powers is truth, or it has no value to the enemy. If it isn’t true, it’s disinformation, and they are not traitors.

  7. bud

    Truth may, of course, be treason. But when our government and especially the military misbehave the truth should be outed. Come on Brad at least acknowledge that some of the Wikileaks serve a purpose for providing valuable information to the public so that they can make informed decisions. Classifying information that is simply embarrassing and then claiming treason to those who expose it should be a crime.

  8. Doug Ross

    Sorry, I don’t agree. Can you tell us which specific cables released by Assange so far have been both truthful AND useful to the “enemy”?

    Which cables named covert sources who are now threatened?

    The primary reason our government has “secrets” is to support the objective of being a military power capable of both defending our borders and sticking our noses into the business of other countries because the government wants to.

    There are very few pieces of information that need to be secret in a society that promotes peace over war. Empires need secrets and lies in order to expand their power.

  9. Brad

    Bud, I can’t think of anything useful I’ve learned from WikiLeaks. That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything. Cite me some examples that you think we needed to know and that it was helpful to know.

    The greatest problem, of course, comes when raw material is released — diplomatic communications, or military action reports or the like. That’s because you get specific details that identify people, and that’s where sources get hurt or killed.

  10. Phillip

    The biggest problem I have with this latest batch of W-L releases is that it’s focused on State Dept. material…which is the department that (properly run) manages international relationships (friendly, not-friendly, and all in-between) in ways designed to avoid armed conflict if possible. This dept. was undermined through most of W’s presidency, but has been effectively revived by Obama. Discretion and secrecy and the ability to build confidence and trust is the currency of diplomacy, and this breach weakens those tools.

    There may not be a lot of earth-shattering revelations in these releases, but still some very interesting stuff. The item from the Israeli Defense Ministry admitting that Israel’s policies at times are at odds with America’s broader security objectives in the region was pretty interesting. Few American politicians would have the courage to say that Israeli and American interests are not identical, not one and the same (because of the predictable torrent of accusations that would ensue). So to see that come from Israel itself was a bit of an eye-opener.

  11. Doug Ross

    Here’s one to ponder:

    “Hillary Clinton ordered American officials to spy on high ranking UN diplomats, including British representatives.

    Top secret cables revealed that Mrs Clinton, the Secretary of State, even ordered diplomats to obtain DNA data – including iris scans and fingerprints – as well as credit card and frequent flier numbers.”

    Read more:

    Which is more harmful to the U.S. – spying on our allies or finding out that we were spying on our allies?

  12. Brad

    Phillip, that disclosure doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. Do you suppose that analysts in the IDF are fools, and don’t understand where U.S. and Israeli security interest intersect and where they do not? And you’d be fooling yourself if you think you wouldn’t find such thoughts expressed in the confidential memoranda of U.S. officials.

    That’s kind of the point: The kinds of things you would not say publicly (although this seems a bad example of that; such expressions of the occasional clash between the two nations’ interests are something I hear all the time expressed publicly in both of these liberal democracies) sometimes need to be said confidentially, especially among your own personnel, and the preservation of “discretion and secrecy and the ability to build confidence and trust” are essential. And exposing confidential communications is extremely destructive to that kind of discretion and trust.

    I don’t know why this isn’t obvious, or why anyone would think it necessary to expose such confidences.

    Nor do I understand why you wouldn’t understand that discretion and secrecy are at least as vital to military operations as they are to diplomatic ones.

    Forgive me if I’m leaping to unfair conclusions, but I’m getting a whiff of something here: The gross oversimplification by post-Vietnam liberals that military operations are inherently EVIL and WICKED, and should be undermined and disrupted if possible, and that diplomatic functions are inherently GOOD and benign by definition.

    It’s very, very weird to me that people who were unbothered by compromised military communications suddenly see the harm in compromised diplomatic communications.

    They are the same — well, the same except for the fact that the consequences of compromised military intelligence are far more likely to be immediate and deadly. But they are the same in that compromising them constitutes a deliberately hostile act against this country, its interests and its people, as well as against the people who in good faith work with us abroad.

    If you ever spend any time thinking about these things at all, all of this should be obvious.

  13. Phillip

    Yes, you are leaping slightly to an unfair conclusion: of course discretion and secrecy are of vital importance to military operations as well—my saying they are essential to diplomacy should not have implied that.

    And military operations are not inherently “evil or wicked.” But the triggering of military operations must be considered a last, not first resort, in international relations. Therefore, there is a kind of subsidiary role to diplomacy, insofar as military action is employed when all diplomatic and other options have failed. And there can be no denying that under the previous administration, diplomacy and specifically the State Department, was undermined and devalued at nearly every turn until rather late in Cheney’s, oops, I mean Bush’s second term. Obama has rectified that to a great extent. In fact, a widespread international reaction to these latest Wikileaks’ revelations has been that it has made the Obama State Department look not too bad, after all.

    If I seem to express more alarm for diplomatic leaks rather than military ones, it’s only because we’ve come out of an era (and an ugly 2008 Presidential election) where diplomacy was derided and militarism exalted, both to degrees that warped our sense of national identity and priorities. Obama having begun to change that, I simply felt that anything that damages the ability of State to do its job would be a particular shame.

    If diplomacy and military operations require a certain degree of secrecy, and we agree they do, then the moral dilemma comes when a nation (even a liberal democracy) embarks on a wrong or potentially destructive path. How is a citizenry expected to properly evaluate their leadership if key elements of foreign policy are unknown to them, or worse, if they are lied to about those policies?

    Well, that’s what I get for actually trying to kind of agree with you about the Wikileaks situation…

  14. Doug Ross

    To channel Ronald Reagan, “There you go again, Brad”.

    Whatever the U.S. does militarily or diplomatically has nothing to do with post-Vietnam liberal outrage. It’s either right or wrong.

    To follow your theory, as a military brat, you can only see the actions of the U.S. military as honorable and without question.

    The “truth” is somewhere in between. That’s what the cables will show us.

  15. bud

    Once again Brad you have this backwards. It’s not up to me to produce a wikileak that is useful for making decisions about our government. Rather it’s up to the pro-military zealots to justify why all this stuff is secret. I find the whole secrecy thing totally unconscionable.

    But to be a good sport I’ll play the game. I find it quite useful to know that the government of a foreign nation lied to it’s people by suggesting it’s own military was launching attacks on Al-Queda when in fact it was the US military. Why should we be operating in such a stealthy nature? If we’re going to be fighting a war let’s do it openly and not hide behind some third world government. If a war is worth fighting lets make the case for it and fight it.

  16. bud

    Forgive me if I’m leaping to unfair conclusions, but I’m getting a whiff of something here: The gross oversimplification by post-Vietnam liberals that military operations are inherently EVIL and WICKED, and should be undermined and disrupted if possible, and that diplomatic functions are inherently GOOD and benign by definition.

    That statement is just plain disgusting. It’s not us liberals who are over-simplification idiots regarding the nature of war, it’s the pro-war ultra zealots who find EVERY DAMN war a good thing. Tell me Brad, what war has the US ever fought in that you believe was unjustified?

  17. Doug Ross

    More from Ron Paul (hope on board the Paul bus, bud!)

    “The neoconservative ethos, steeped in the teaching of Leo Strauss, cannot abide an America where individuals simply pursue their own happy, peaceful, prosperous lives. It cannot abide an America where society centers around family, religion, or civic and social institutions rather than an all-powerful central state. There is always an enemy to slay, whether communist or terrorist. In the neoconservative vision, a constant state of alarm must be fostered among the people to keep them focused on something greater than themselves – namely their great protector, the state. This is why the neoconservative reaction to the WikiLeaks revelations is so predictable: “See, we told you the world was a dangerous place,” goes the story. They claim we must prosecute – or even assassinate – those responsible for publishing the leaks. And we must redouble our efforts to police the world by spying and meddling better, with no more leaks. “

  18. bud

    Justified American Wars:

    World War II
    Civil War (only the part about freeing the slaves)
    American Revolution (This is debatable though. The Canadians never went to war with Britain and they’re doing just fine)
    First Gulf War
    War in Afghanistan (until about 2004)

    Unjustified American Wars:

    War of 1812
    Mexican War
    Indian Wars
    Spanish American War
    World War I
    Korean War
    Vietnam War
    Phillipine Insurection
    Iraq War
    Afghanistan War (After 2004)
    Lebanon Debacle
    Nicaragua (The whole Contra thing)

  19. Brad

    Bud, I just wouldn’t even know where to grab ahold of that question. First you’d have to define terms — as in, what’s a war? Lebanon wasn’t a war. Nicaragua wasn’t a war. Are you talking deployments? Would you connect the times we sent in the Marines for the benefit of the United Fruit Company in Central America? Where would you put the Somalia operation, which led to the hairiest pitched battle in which U.S. infantry troops had been involved since Vietnam?

    And once you do that, how on Earth do you make these simplistic, binary, on-or-off, good-or-bad decisions? Your comment about the Civil War illustrates the impossibility of doing so, whether you realize it or not. What does “only the part about freeing the slaves” mean? Does it mean you didn’t support Lincoln’s primary goal of preserving the Union (without which the war would not have been fought, just as surely as it would not have been fought without the slavery issue)? How does that work? How do you apply such a standard? Do you stand next to a soldier in a battle and say DO fire this bullet because it’s against slavery, but not that one, because it isn’t? And how do you deal with the fact that it’s impossible to achieve the goal of ending slavery without preserving the union?

    And let’s talk about the War of 1812. So what do you propose that we do about the Brits interfering with U.S. shipping, or stopping our ships to press our sailors into the Royal Navy? Diplomatic means were pursued, although certainly there were people in this country (Southerners, Francophiles, which is to say the Jeffersonians — you know, the limited-government people, if you can handle that irony) who wanted that war, while northern mercantile interests (who tended to be Anglophiles, but who mainly wanted to keep trading with the Empire) were adamantly opposed to the war.

    It was a stupid, wasteful war (although it did help us shrug off future interference by Europe in our affairs), but how, practically speaking, would you have avoided it, had you been around then? I don’t want to sound like a Marxist talking about the inevitability of history, but such things CAN be hard to stop.

    And what on Earth do you mean that Afghanistan was just only until 2004? Was it worthwhile to keep the Taliban out of power and prevent al Qaeda regaining a safe foothold BEFORE that, but not after? What exactly changed that equation?

    You and I have one area of semi-agreement here — the Revolution. That’s one where I might draw a line in time the way you did on Afghanistan. I have been problems with the fighting before the Declaration was adopted in July 1776. The minutemen firing on British troops at Lexington and Concord has always bothered me. I don’t think I could have supported that with a clear conscience. But once independence was declared by duly elected delegates to Congress, as long as the British tried to keep us in by force, then force was justified in response.

  20. bud

    And let’s talk about the War of 1812. So what do you propose that we do about the Brits interfering with U.S. shipping, or stopping our ships to press our sailors into the Royal Navy?

    Yes, let’s talk about that. Fact is, that issue was largely resolved before we used it as an excuse to invade Canada. It was certainly not an issue to go to war over.

    As for the Civil War, that was indeed a complicated issue. Both sides were American so I suppose we could have a discussion about justifications for the South as well the North. Needless to say going to war to preserve something as ghastly as slavery cannot be justified.

    As for Afghanistan, Bush really blew that one. We had a window of opportunity to do real justice to that backwards nation. Then we turned to Iraq and lost all international respect. That led, eventually, to an untenable situation. After 2004 the situation was so muddled that is was probably worthwhile just to pull out. No need to get more soldiers killed over a lost cause.

  21. bud

    Doug, I’m certainly not a diehard opponent of libertarian thinking the way Brad is. In foreign policy especially they make a lot of sense. I just get turned off whenever they propose to change something that works, like social security.

  22. Brad

    That reminds me…

    I’ve always thought it ironic that the neoConfederates try to insist that the war wasn’t about slavery. The irony is that it’s one of the clearest cases of something being ultimately about one, clear issue in history. No, it wasn’t JUST about slavery, but it was clearly about slavery more than anything else, and the other issues were related to it.

    I find myself wondering whether these people, who generally consider themselves great students of history, can name any other conflicts that were more nearly and clearly about one thing than the Civil War was about slavery. If they can, I haven’t heard them do it.

  23. bud

    I certainly agree with Brad on the slavery thing. Of course the southern states seceded because of slavery. That led to the north invading. The war makes no sense if you take slavery out of the equation. And if the south had seceded because of something other than slavery (trade tariffs for instance) then the north was completely unjustified in invading.

  24. Brad

    I’m glad Bud agrees with me that the war was about slavery. I’m sad that our common denominator is so low, that we have to descend that far down into the painfully obvious before we agree.

    Because Bud is a good guy, and I’d like to find common ground with him more often.

  25. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    One thing that gets lost in the whole slavery cause discussion, and I agree that the war was about slavery and that slavery is and was morally reprehensible, although that was a fairly recent Enlightenment concept back then, what gets lost is that the South had invested legally in Human Capital; in the pre-industrial age that was the way big, efficient farms were run–serfs or slaves. Freeing the slaves was akin to razing the factories of the North.

    Meaningful reparations should have been made–a sort of Marshall Plan…which is what we finally got in the New Deal, somewhat, and we keep getting in all those despised federal programs.

  26. Phillip

    Well of course I agree with both Brad and Bud that the Civil War was primarily about slavery; however, Bud, I would like to offer a modification to the idea that the North “invaded” the South. Since up until 1861 the Southern states were part of the entire United States, the “North” was already in the South in a sense. As we all know, the first battle of the war was an assault on American forces stationed on their home ground; i.e., “Northern” troops were in the South to begin with, and this prompted the South to launch hostile military operations. Of course, during the course of the war, it eventually became necessary for troops from the northern part of the United States to occupy the rebellious Southern states, but I still wouldn’t use the word “invasion” for this.


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