Brad Meltzer's 'Inner Circle' Set At National Archives

The latest thriller from author Brad Meltzer supposes that the president of the United States has a private ring of spies. The Inner Circle imagines that the spy ring is passed on from one president to the next. Meltzer tells Steve Inskeep that the idea for his novel came from a real-life experience.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The latest thriller novel from Brad Meltzer supposes that the president of the United States has a private ring of spies. "The Inner Circle" imagines that the spy ring is passed on from one president to the next. Meltzer says his fictional plot grew out of a real life experience.

Mr. BRAD MELTZER (Author, "The Inner Circle"): A few years ago, the Department Homeland Security asked me to come in and brainstorm different ways that terrorists attack the United States. And my first thought was, if they're calling me, we have bigger problems than anybody thinks.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MELTZER: But I was honored to be part of what they called the Red Cell Program. And the Red Cell Program brings together out-of-the box thinkers to really look at problems in a very different way. So they would put me with a chemist. They put me with a Secret Service agent. And, obviously as a novelist, I was just one of those regular citizens who they brought in.

INSKEEP: But it got you thinking about history.

Mr. MELTZER: Everything gets me thinking about history and say where else has this happened? Who else taps civilians? And George Washington was the first. He started his secret spy ring, called the Culper Ring. And the Culper Ring helped Washington move information during the Revolutionary War. They used to write in invisible ink. They used to use code names. It was a fascinating thing.

Most people didn't even know who they were for over a hundred years, because they took their secrets to the grave.

I went to my National Security folks who helped me with the Red Cell Program. And I said what if you found out that George Washington's secret spy ring still existed today? And one of my folks in Homeland Security said to me: What makes you think it doesn't?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELTZER: I said what are you talking about? Right, I mean this is the moment you wait for. And I said what are you talking about? And he said to me: Why would he ever disband it?

And that's when the little hairs go up and you say okay, I got the plot for my next novel.

INSKEEP: If it's a novel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELTZER: If it's a novel, right. I might be moving it to the nonfiction side when he told me that. But I became obsessed with looking. Okay, how do we do this? If each president has to tell the next president that they have this secret spy ring that was started by George Washington, how do they move that information?

And I found this great story. It is a true story, that during his last moments in the White House, Ronald Reagan wrote a secret letter to former President Bush, who was taking over that day. And he wrote: Don't let the turkeys get you down. And he left that letter for Bush, who then left a letter for Clinton, who left a letter for W, who left a letter for Obama.

It is the greatest secret tradition of the modern presidency. And I thought, you know, what if that's how they move information. So I went to the very best person I could think of to test it. I went to former President George H. W. Bush, the dad. And I sent him a letter and I said: Could George Washington's spy ring exist to this very day, and could presidents move the information in that letter that's in the White House when they leave office?

INSKEEP: This would be the great moment, if he said: I could neither confirm nor deny what you're saying, or some such thing. But he didn't say that, I suppose.

Mr. MELTZER: You know, I was begging for him to say that. What he did is he sent the actual secret letter he wrote to Bill Clinton, in the last moments when Bush was in office. So my first thought is: He sent me a secret code.

The truth was, what he did send me was the greatest secret of the U.S. presidency. And it was just that reminder that there are people in this office. We put them on these great pedestals and we inevitably throw them down these deep ditches. But we forget that they are us. They are still human people doing very human things.

INSKEEP: We don't have time here to read the whole text of the letter. But you could just read for me the last couple sentences - the parting words before...

Mr. MELTZER: The parting words is: I am rooting hard for you. And I just was so taken by that.

INSKEEP: Is there any sense, has there been any sense reported, of what those later letters from one president to another have said?

Mr. MELTZER: You better believe I've spent the last six months of my life hunting those down and trying to find them all. I don't even think these letters are in archives. These letters are private.

INSKEEP: Well, that's interesting, since this became part of a novel that you wrote about, an archivist working at the National Archives and stumbling upon this great secret of a spy ring dating back to George Washington.

Mr. MELTZER: Yeah, and that was the goal, is, you know, I had no idea that Bush was going to take it so seriously. But he's helped me with other books in the past and this one is about George Washington's spy ring still existing till this day. We don't know what they're doing or who they work for, but a young archivist in the Archives is about to find out and that's where "The Inner Circle" opens. It also opens with the story of these letters.

INSKEEP: Brad Meltzer's new book is "The Inner Circle."

Mr. Meltzer, thanks very much.

Mr. MELTZER: Thank you, sir.

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