Barry Eisler

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Detainees and Prisoners

Yesterday the Obama administration announced a new policy to govern the holding of terror suspects. Here's what Attorney General Eric Holder announced:

"As we work towards developing a new policy to govern detainees, it is essential that we operate in a manner that strengthens our national security, is consistent with our values, and is governed by law."

Followers of HOTM know I put a lot of stock in words. So two things struck me about Holder's statement.

First, what does it mean to "work towards developing" something? It seems that not only does the Obama administration lack a policy, not only is it not developing a policy, it is merely working toward developing a policy. Is this like being engaged to be engaged? Maybe. Maybe there will eventually be a marriage. But if you really plan to get hitched, why not just get engaged? If you really want a new policy, why not actually develop one? I mean, if a house painter told you he was working towards developing a way to paint your house, how confident would you be that the job would ever get done?

Second, why is the administration (and just about everyone else, including the liberal blogosphere, including even the excellent Scott Horton, who expresses his own doubts here) continuing to call people held at Guantanamo and other prisons "detainees"? For me, "detention" is something that happens to you at a place you first arrived at of your own volition. For example, if I mail a letter at the post office and government agents show up and hold me there for an hour, I think it's fair to say I've been detained. If the same agents hood me, drug me, manacle me, fly me to Guantanamo and hold me there for five years, I think it's fair to say I've been imprisoned.

So why the squeamishness about calling people in the second hypothetical (actually, it's not at all hypothetical) prisoners? Simple: the people in question have received neither a trial nor traditional notions of due process. It would be uncomfortable to acknowledge that America imprisons people without trial or other due process. Suggesting that we're merely detaining them is a way of sanitizing the whole business.

The use of language for political sanitization makes me uncomfortable. It's like calling torture "aggressive interrogation." If we really need to torture prisoners, for example, let's make a case for it. But if proponents instead feel the need to try to sell me on the notion by reassuring me that all that's going on is the "aggressive interrogation of "detainees," I sense these proponents lack the courage of their own supposed convictions. And if they themselves are insufficiently confident in the necessity of imprisoning people without due process to make a clear case for the policy, how can they expect anyone else to be persuaded?

As long as the government calls prisoners detainees, I'll wager any policy changes will be mostly cosmetic.

P.S. For an example of life imitating art -- in this case, the covert operations group at the heart of the plot of Fault Line -- last week Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh reported on an "executive assassination ring" that reported directly to the Vice President. Amazingly close match to the setup in Fault Line.
Bookmark and Share

Monday, March 09, 2009

Fault Line is Here!

Fault Line, my first standalone thriller, launches today, so I thought it would be appropriate to include some thoughts from a recent interview on the book’s origins and its political milieu. The tour is taking me to Phoenix/Scottsdale, Los Angeles (Pasadena, Thousand Oaks, LA), San Diego, Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area (Menlo Park and San Mateo), Houston, Indianapolis (Carmel), Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Washington DC (Bethesda and Baileys Crossroads), and New York City. Details and the full schedule here. Enjoy the book—subject of a nice recent write-up in the Wall Street Journal—and hope to see you on the road!

Ben Treven, one of the three main characters in Fault Line, is also an assassin. Based on your own CIA experience, is there a certain personality type that makes an effective assassin? What draws you to these characters as a writer?

I’d say there are a number of necessary elements: intelligence, adaptability, patience, the ability to role-play, game things out, think like the opposition. But probably the most important element is an ability to dissociate. Snipers will tell you they don’t see a man; they see a target. That there’s no difference between hunting a man and hunting a deer. So you have to be able to separate yourself from what you’re doing, separate the target from his own humanity. Either you have to deny the humanity in the target, or deny it in yourself—anything else produces empathy, and as Dox, the former Marine sniper of the Rain books, points out, “If it inhabits your mind, it’ll inhibit your trigger finger.”

What draws me to these characters? I’m not sure, exactly. I think it’s that, on the one hand, they’re like you and me. They’re not sociopaths; they’re normal. And yet they’re not normal, because they can do—and live with—acts that would crush a normal psyche. I guess I’m drawn to the idea that a person can transcend—commit the ultimate transgression, in fact—without being punished for it. An ability like that would be an almost godlike kind of power, wouldn’t it? Raskolnikov without the guilt. Ahab without the catastrophe.

And yet these men aren’t free of consequences—there is a “cost of it,” as a Vietnam vet friend who’s taught me a lot puts it. That cost, and the way these men shoulder it, is something else that fascinates me.

Like many of the Rain books, Fault Line includes some surprisingly graphic sex. Why do you write so much sex?

I’m tempted to paraphrase Blazing Saddles here and just answer, “I like sex.” But let me see if I do better than that…

There are three general ways to get to know someone’s character: time, stress, and sex. In a novel, you don’t have time, meaning you need an accelerant, and that leaves you with sex or stress. Violence is one of the most stressful experiences we humans can face, which is why violence can be such a powerful tool in stories. But sex is also enormously revealing, which is why the biblical euphemism that Abraham “knew” Sarah is so apt. Also, sex can be an incredibly powerful pivot. Sex changes everything. Remember when John Cusack and Ione Skye finally make love in Say Anything? Cusack then tries to pretend that it doesn’t matter that much, and Lili Taylor says to him something like, “Yes it does! It changes everything. Decades could go by without you seeing each other... and then, when you’re in your sixties, you might bump into each other, and you’ll say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ and she’ll say, ‘Fine, how are you?’, but what you’ll really be thinking is, ‘We had sex!’”

Which is why I had so much of a blast with the buildup to what happens in Fault Line and with its culmination. These are characters caught for a variety of reasons between powerfully conflicting feelings of antagonism and attraction. They know they shouldn’t, they even tell themselves they don’t want to… and yet of course they do. What would happen to two people with feelings like that, pressurized by shared danger, enhanced by distrust, catalyzed by violence? Not going to tell you here… you’ll have to read the book to find out.

I’ve heard about how the idea for your first novel came to you as a series of images that led you to ask questions about what you were seeing and why. Did Fault Line have a similar origin, or did you set out to write this novel as a conscious change of pace from your novels featuring the assassin John Rain?

It’s funny, unlike the case with Rain Fall, I can’t identify the actual moment Fault Line came to me. But the story certainly has its origins in an interesting pair of jobs I held: first, a covert position with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations; second, as an attorney with a high-powered Silicon Valley law firm (and as an executive with a high-tech startup thereafter). Somewhere along the line I started thinking about a pair of brothers, radically different in personality, temperament, and worldview. One would be an undercover soldier, the other a hotshot lawyer… yeah, I could draw on my own experiences in those two worlds. It felt right, so I kept thinking about it. They’d have to be alienated from each other for some reason. They’re not even on speaking terms… but then one of them, the lawyer, gets into a kind of trouble his otherwise considerable experience and expertise can’t get him out of. The only guy who could help him would be his brother, but they hate each other… but okay, blood is thicker than water, and the older brother reluctantly agrees to help. And what if there were something cranking up the tension between them, bringing their painful, buried history closer to the surface? Maybe a love triangle? Yeah, with a beautiful Iranian-American lawyer, Sarah Hosseini, who the older brother would instantly distrust even as he was drawn to her…

And on and on like that, questions leading to answers that lead to more questions, and eventually you have a story like Fault Line.

I’m curious about how long the typical assassin—if there even is such a thing—can be effective in the field, either before his or her identity is blown or the psychological effects of the work begin to degrade performance.

This will vary with the individual, but dissociation is hard psychological work, and over time the framework a killer uses to stay functional will start to deteriorate. For more on this fascinating topic, I recommend two books: first, David Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War and Society; second, Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.

How did the covert world of spies and assassins change after 9/11? I recall former Vice President Cheney talking about the need to “work the dark side,” and it does seem that in many cases “the gloves came off,” to use another phrase that frequently crops up in these kinds of discussions.

Ah, the dark side, the same place Darth Vadar went. And what did Yoda tell Luke about that? The dark side of the force is seductive because it promises a shortcut… but in the end, delivers nothing. I guess former Vice President Cheney didn’t see the movie, or if he did, he drew the wrong lesson from it.

Yes, post 9/11, we took the gloves off and went to the dark side or whatever other metaphor we might use to describe the abandonment of intelligent tactics and the embrace of primitive emotion instead. Because what else could “the dark side” be if not a more primitive, id-focused, emotionally-based way of reacting to the world? Diplomacy isn’t the dark side. Dale Carnegie isn’t the dark side. Clausewitz, Machiavelli, and Sun Tsu aren’t the dark side. Rationality, empiricism, logic… these are all concepts we associate with the light. You don’t go to the dark side because it makes sense to go there. You go because going feels good. You go because you don’t know any better.

Torture, kidnapping, warrantless surveillance… it’s well documented that these policies originated in the White House. And now the purveyors of the policies find themselves trapped by a kind of double vision. We have to take the gloves off… but we don’t torture. Telecoms didn’t break the law in turning over confidential customer data to the government… but they need retroactive immunity anyway.

It would be refreshing if dark side proponents would speak a little more clearly. Yes, we torture—forget all that “aggressive questioning” nonsense—and here’s why. Yes, the telecoms broke the law, that’s why we’re trying to get them off the hook. But I guess the nature of the dark side is that spending time there impedes clarity of vision. It certainly impedes clarity of speech.

In your opinion, how have these changes impacted the security of the United States?

They’ve made us less safe. The U.S. brand, often called our “soft power,” has been badly damaged. When foreigners think of America today, do they think of the Statue of Liberty, or of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? Soft power matters because it creates political conditions that foster cooperation. If popular hostility causes a European politician to distance herself from America, that distance trickles down to the levels of intelligence, security, and law enforcement cooperation, all of which are critical in combating international terrorism.

Leave aside questions of morality for the moment, and analyze the issue in cold-blooded cost/benefit terms. Torture isn’t worth it. Sure, it might lead to actual intelligence, but it also leads to false confessions. How do you separate the wheat from the chaff? And torture inhibits the local population from cooperating. People who believe suspects will be tortured are less likely to inform on them. So an authority that becomes known for torture cuts itself off from the source of intelligence it most needs: the local population.

Worst of all, the French experience in Algeria suggests that nothing creates new insurgents faster than torture. Death in open battle is more forgivable than the complete powerlessness, pain, and humiliation of being tortured. People don’t forget it, and the need for revenge after is extreme.

The dark side has also made us lazy. Training interrogators and linguists is expensive and labor intensive. Why bother with all that if you believe you can just do what cavemen did ten thousand years ago? Or perhaps the problem is denial, because what else besides denial could explain how the Defense Department fired some of its few Arabic linguists for being gay? It’s enough to make you wonder what our priorities really are…

So for the sake of some occasional theoretical benefit, we’ve adopted a course highly likely to produce false information, that cuts us off from intelligence produced by local populations, and that is maximally efficient at creating new enemies. I guess Cheney called it the dark side because its more accurate name—the dumb side—would have been a tougher sell.

Ben, the Fault Line assassin, believes, at least initially, that the gloves haven’t come off enough, and the threat to America justifies going beyond the law or even the Constitution. Is this mindset prevalent in the CIA? How does a democracy like America balance its historic respect for individual liberties and its suspicion of government power with its obligation to defend itself and its citizens against those who wish us harm? Don’t we need men and women like Ben—even if we publicly disavow their actions and even their existence?

One of the things I like about Ben is that although his views can be pretty primitive, they’re also refreshingly honest. He doesn’t dress up his behavior in high-minded notions of honor and principle; he thinks America is in a fight, and he knows there’s an advantage to fighting dirty. So hell yeah, he’s going to fight dirty… don’t you want to win?

I don’t know how prevalent this mindset is in the CIA, but it’s clear from the Yoo torture memos, records of meetings among White House and Justice Department officials, and other evidence, that the philosophy was embraced by the Bush White House. I’m concerned it’s now being embraced by Obama, as well.

How do we balance security and civil liberties? I think the Constitution does a pretty good job of it: the government can exercise certain extraordinarily intrusive powers, including not only the power to search and seize but to imprison and even execute citizens, as well, but only with appropriate oversight and only upon a proper showing of evidence. What’s chiefly disturbing about the powers claimed by the Bush administration isn’t that they’re new; it’s that the Bush administration has exercised these powers in secret and in violation of the Fourth Amendment and statutory law. It’s as though the White House has unilaterally determined that oversight is just too burdensome and decided to eschew it. But democracy itself is burdensome—after all, freedom isn’t free.



Do we need men and women like Ben? Ben certainly thinks so. I’m not so sure. When you look at the history of CIA clandestine activities—regime change in Iran, assassination plots against Castro, skullduggery in Latin America—and of their intelligence calls—the condition of the pre-collapse Soviet Union, Pakistani nuclear efforts, Iraqi WMDs—it’s fair to ask how different things might be if the CIA hadn’t existed to begin with. A public corporation would look at all the money we spend on intelligence and ask what we’re getting for it—and whether we can get the same for less. But because in place of an animating profit motive, the government is propelled instead by bureaucratic self-interest, these cost-benefit questions aren’t seriously asked. Or if they are, the answers are ignored.

Alex Treven, Ben’s younger brother, is in many ways Ben’s opposite. As a high-tech patent lawyer, Alex is wary of the government and respectful of the legal, constitutional framework. Yet when his client is murdered and his possession of the cutting-edge Obsidian encryption program puts him at risk from unknown assailants, Alex turns to Ben despite their longstanding differences—just as the United States, post-9/11, turned to “the dark side.” I almost felt as if Ben and Alex stood for a country dangerously split in two: perhaps the “fault line” of your title.

Yes, Alex does work as a bit of a metaphor there, doesn’t he? He would never think of getting mixed up in Ben’s world—until he really needs to. And even then, he tells himself (to Ben’s disgust) that he doesn’t really want to get involved. He wants the benefits without the costs, which, as Ben puts it, is like trying to pick up a turd from the clean end. It can’t be done.

Sarah Hosseini is a young associate at the law firm where Alex works. Why did you make her Iranian?

I wanted her to be something that would create instant conflict with Ben. Here’s a guy who kills Iranians for a living, so what could be more stressful than suddenly having to work with a woman who looks, sounds like, and comes from a culture Ben thinks of as the enemy? And Sarah, who is both political and idealistic, has her own issues with Ben: she recognizes him as the embodiment of the dark forces she abhors. And yet—of course—there’s an overwhelming physical chemistry between them. Placing characters in conflict like that and seeing what they do is always a blast.

I’ve never worked for the CIA, but I have worked in law firms, and I have to say, you really nail the atmosphere of surface bonhomie masking cut-throat competition. I guess every world has its own assassins.

Yeah, the politics of big firm life can get pretty tough. You’re talking about a collection of people with out-sized analytical skills and ambition, with a lot of money and prestige at stake and a pyramid structure where only a small percentage can hope to make partner. Which is part of the reason I enjoyed making Alex a player in such an environment. True, he’s a civilian, and out of his element in Ben’s world, but on the other hand, he’s survived in the shark tank of big firm life. It was interesting for me (and for Ben) to see the way some of Alex’s skills wound up translating from one arena to another.

I’ve read a lot of thrillers in which the characters are simply mouthpieces for the author, but you step back and allow your characters to possess their own opinions. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help wondering whether you identified more with Ben or Alex… or even Sarah.

Writing political characters can be dangerous because many readers feel so strongly politically that if they disagree with a character’s views, they’ll immediately impute those views to the author, get angry, and get pulled out of the story. But politics and political stories interest me, so I’m willing to take the chance.

As for whom I identify with, the answer is all three. I don’t know how it is for other writers, but when I’m creating a character, I try to identify some element of my own personality or worldview, distill it out, and then culture it in a new person, where it expresses itself differently than it does in myself because it’s growing in a different medium. There are idealistic aspects of my worldview, so I sympathize with Sarah. I have my ruthless, amoral elements, also, so I can understand a guy like Ben. And there are parts of me that don’t want to bother with any of it, that just want to be left alone… so then there’s Alex. But I’m not interested in creating mouthpieces—mouthpiecing is what my blog is for. My characters are people. Their purpose isn’t to express viewpoints or change opinions; it’s to evoke an emotional reaction in readers, to illuminate some aspect of being human, to make my readers care. They’re real to me: sympathetic, complex and three-dimensional. Their opinions are secondary to all that.

What makes Obsidian so dangerous . . . and valuable? Is there real-world technology similar to Obsidian?

I don’t want to give away too much here, so I’ll just say this: the United States is the most networked country in the world. Our computer-intensive economy and society are strengths, but also represent a potential vulnerability for anyone seeking to do America harm. And yes, there are definitely technologies out there like Obsidian. For more, here’s an excellent book: Adam Young and Moti Yung’s Malicious Cryptography: Exposing Cryptovirology.

I couldn’t help noticing that certain peripheral characters in Fault Line bear the names of well-known bloggers. Were you tipping your hat to their work?

You caught me. I’m a huge admirer of various bloggers: Glenn Greenwald, Scott Horton, Hilzoy, Andrew Sullivan, and quite a few others. Even if you don’t agree with them (and I should say I do tend to agree with them), the quality of their argument is peerless.

Remember the end of Three Days of the Condor, when Robert Redford has spilled his story to the New York Times? Or the end of Stephen King’s book Firestarter, when the little girl sneaks past the big newspapers because they’re being watched by government agents and goes to Rolling Stone instead? In Fault Line, the protagonists don’t even pause to consider a newspaper—they recognize that if they go to anyone, it’s going to be a blog. Times have changed.

With your website and blog, The Heart of the Matter, you have a substantial online presence yourself. How has the Internet affected your work as a writer? How do you think it’s changing the nature of the publishing business—and will those changes help aspiring writers?


The most obvious effect of the Internet for a writer like me is in enabling nonstop promotion. It used to be that an author’s promotion efforts were clustered mostly around the launch of a new book, but blogs and social networking sites like FaceBook and MySpace make it possible to reach new readers anywhere, anytime… which in fact typically means everywhere, all the time. I have a background in business and law and enjoy interacting with fans, real and potential, so you might say that the rise of the Internet favors my style of play. But it’s also a challenge, because for me creating a story requires a degree of cushioning from the world that promotion doesn’t permit.

So the big change is of a “because you can, you should” variety: you can promote all the time, so you should. Certainly authors are doing an unprecedented amount of promotion themselves. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Either way, it’s a necessary thing, given various aspects of the state of the publishing world, so I don’t think that much about it, I just do what needs to be done. I think aspiring writers should treat the changes the same way published writers should: with realism. Because once you’re selling your art, you’re in business, and to succeed in business you have to be realistic.

What about the political potential of blogs and the Internet? Can they serve as checks on government power and advocates of policy in the way that the Fourth Estate was meant to do, and sometimes did . . . before succumbing to corporate ownership?

I hope so. The mainstream media has become so lazy and complicit there’s often no difference between the function of television news coverage in America and the role of Pravda in the Soviet Union. Most mainstream journalists depend on politicians for access, and access depends on favorable coverage. This dynamic means our most celebrated “journalists”—the real Washington insiders, the media establishment—function primarily as spokesmen issuing press releases, not as any kind of Fourth Estate “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” So if you get your news primarily from television, for the most part you’re being spoon-fed the official government line.

Can blogs remedy this imbalance? I’m not sure, although I must be optimistic, or I wouldn’t be blogging myself. I will say that I don’t know anyone writing for the mainstream media—and I read widely—who is producing the kind of quality opinion pieces turned out every day by Glenn Greenwald and the other bloggers I mention in Fault Line. So hopefully, over time, more people will stumble across Glenn and the others and realize that today’s preeminent journalism exists primarily in the blogosphere.

The name of your blog is also the title of a novel by Graham Greene. I take it that you’re an admirer of his work. If he were alive today, how do you think he’d respond to the post-9/11 world?

I am indeed an admirer, and although I don’t want to presume to speak for the man, I can’t imagine him being anything other than disgusted about the way Republicans cynically exploited 9/11 and the way Democrats cravenly capitulated to their opponents. But maybe I’m just projecting.

The movie version of your first novel, Rain Fall, is coming out in 2009. Were you involved in writing the screenplay?

I adapted the book and Sony Pictures bought my screenplay, which was nice, but the director they brought on board, Max Mannix, had his own vision for the movie and decided to write his own. Max’s version is certainly different from mine, but that’s to be expected when two people are repurposing a story for the screen.

Will you be writing more about Sarah Hosseini and the Treven brothers? What about John Rain?

The next book is a sequel centering on Ben. I’m not sure how much Sarah and Alex will be in it, though I find Sarah fascinating and love spend timing her, so I could see her in another book, as well. As for Rain, I see several possibilities there. One is an origin-of-Rain story, because the story of how Rain became who and what he is has so far only been told in fragments. Another is a Dox- or Delilah-centric story, with Rain as a supporting character. I’ll get there… but one book at a time!
Bookmark and Share

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Still Winnable, Give or Take Five Years

Today I read the always-insightful Andrew Bacevich's review of David Kilcullen's "The Accidental Guerilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One" (h/t Andrew Sullivan). Kilcullen is certainly an expert on the subject and the book sounds well worth reading. But one thing disturbed me. Actually, two.

First, Kilcullen maintains that Afghanistan "remains winnable," and when I read the phrase, I couldn't help but wonder what percentage of conflicts described in their eighth year as still winnable or the like go on to actually be won. I would guess there aren't many such instances, but I'm no expert and I could certainly be wrong. If anyone can offer examples one way or the other, I'd be grateful.

The other verbalism I noticed was Kilcullen's insistence that winning in Afghanistan would require an effort lasting another "five or ten years at least." I found myself thinking about that predicted timeline. Will the effort take at least five years, or will it take at least ten? It can't take both. Why not just say the effort will take at least five years?

I can think of a few possibilities. First, because if the war goes on for much longer than five years, people might in retrospect regard the original estimate as clearly mistaken or even as misleading. But then why not just say the effort will take at least ten years? Because ten years -- especially "at least" ten years -- sounds too long. People might not buy it. But if you say something as vague and logically incoherent as "at least five to ten years," optimistic buyers can focus on the five, and cynical sellers can point to the ten when the five fails to materialize.

Another possibility is that the person making the prediction in fact has no clear idea how long something is going to take and is trying to hide his uncertainty behind a facade of precision. Or it might be that his true timeline is so far out -- say, fifty years or more -- that from the distance of his actual perspective, a difference of five years one way or the other looks inconsequential.

I don't know what accounts for Kilcullen's odd construction. I do know that we're so used to precise-sounding imprecision that often it glides right past us. I remember working at a Silicon Valley startup where executives talked comfortably about product launches in the "Q2 or Q3 timeframe." Q2 and Q3 together already represent six months, but even six months was apparently too narrow for the team to be willing to commit, and they insisted on creating even more wiggle room by reference to that precise-sounding but substantively meaningless word, "timeframe." I suppose the board might have shown its displeasure had management instead said, "We're hoping to get the product out sometime this year, but we're not really sure." On the other hand, the board should have had the sense to know the "timeframe" estimate amounted to the same thing.

Probably not a coincidence that the company in question has long since died.

Of less likely significance, but still odd, is the message from Hawaiian governor Linda Lingle in the program booklet at Left Coast Crime, where I'm spending a few days before the Fault Line launch on Tuesday. Governor Lingle sends her "personal greetings" to the conference goers. But what could this mean? First, Ms. Lingle is identified as the governor, and the seal of the State of Hawaii appears next to her picture, so if anything, this was an official greeting. But even without the official references, how do you personally offer greetings from a pamphlet? Why can't people just send their greetings, unsullied by silly sleight of hand? I wouldn't put Governor Lingle's puffery in quite the same category as something like "sincere condolences," which at least is a logical construction despite its unfortunate implication that condolences unadorned by the adjective might be less than heartfelt. But still.

Obviously, some of the sort of bullshit noted above is innocuous and some of it is dangerous. It's important to distinguish, but I think it's also important to not let it slide. Fixing a problem, even an inconsequential one, without focus and realism takes an awful lot of luck. If we need to be in Afghanistan for half a century, or if experts are so unsure how long we'll need to be there that they offer estimates as incoherent as Kilcullen's, let's get those facts on the table and decide accordingly.
Bookmark and Share