Former CIA Insider Pens First Novel 'Intelligence'

Author Susan Hasler, a 21-year veteran of the CIA, talks to Mary Louise Kelly about her new novel Intelligence. The book follows a group of terrorism analysts trying to foil a terrorism plot amid ruthless politics and mind-numbing bureaucracy.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

The genre of spy thriller tends to be dominated by macho action heroes who like their cars fast and their martinis shaken not stirred. Think James Bond, of course. Think Jason Bourne. Then switch gears completely and think Maddie James. She's the heroine of a new novel out this month titled "Intelligence." And she's a somewhat unlikely heroine, an ex-ballerina with a bad back turned counterterrorism analyst.

James lives with her mother and a pet rabbit named Abu Bunny. Well, Maddie James is the creation of writer and CIA insider Susan Hasler.

Good morning.

SUSAN HASLER: Good morning.

LOUISE KELLY: Tell us a little bit more about your protagonist, Maddie James. And you describe her - I loved this - as the aptly named Maddie James, not mad as in crazy but mad as in really pissed off all the time. How come?

HASLER: Well, she is mad because she feels like no one listened to her before the last terrorist attack, and because she feels like a lot of her time is being wasted. And that described a lot of us...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HASLER: ...a few years after 9/11. And actually, writing this novel was one way I had of dealing with all of the anger I had left over from that period.

LOUISE KELLY: Let me set the stage a little bit. The book follows Maddie and the team she's leading of CIA counterterrorism analysts. They are racing to thwart a new threat from al-Qaida, and this one involves not big planes, but little remote- controlled toy planes - hundreds of them.

HASLER: Right. I wanted something that was plausible but something I didn't think could actually - a terrorist could actually use. You wouldn't want to inspire anything. But I wanted to use planes because the idea was to create fear. And with everyone having the planes from the 9/11 attack in their mind, it had to be planes to raise that fear again.

LOUISE KELLY: One of the other characters in the book is this crusty old-timer named Doc, who is a mentor to Maddie. He's been there for - forever, it seems like. And you use his voice often to speak about some of the tensions and the challenges that people working on counterterrorism face.

There's a bit I'd love to have you read. It's on Page 189.

HASLER: Okay. Wolf and warning: How to negotiate the thread that stretches between crying wolf and failing to warn. Warn too often and no one listens. Fail to warn, and reap the bloody consequences.

LOUISE KELLY: Hmm, it's a kind of damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario. What's that like when you're actually working it?

HASLER: Well, I can say that up until 9/11 we were being accused in various quarters of hyping the threat. And then after 9/11 we immediately became intelligence failures. If you do prevent an attack, nobody really knows about that, and you don't know yourself whether you actually saved any lives. All you know is that, you know, you arrested this person and he was planning an attack and it might have happened. But if you fail, you know exactly how many people died.

LOUISE KELLY: One thing I found really interesting about this book is you have Maddie and all the other characters spend most of the novel sitting in this stale, stuffy CIA conference room, sitting around bickering. I mean it's very different from a lot of novels in this genre where they leap from one high- speed car chase to the next, and you have the hero jetting from Beirut to Moscow and off to Paris.

Was that a deliberate choice in how you wanted to tell this story, I wonder?

HASLER: I did want to reflect a more realistic side. I was in the agency 21 years and never met a Bond woman, but I met a lot of women I considered more interesting than that, and a lot of men. It is sitting around a room, but that's what we do, and I wanted to - it was a challenge but I wanted to see if you could actually write a thriller under those restraints.

LOUISE KELLY: The CIA that you describe in this novel is a bureaucratic nightmare in many ways. I mean it's more effective at sabotaging its own works than the terrorists could ever be. There's a great moment where Maddie James has a light bulb burned out over her desk and she has tried a million times to get maintenance to come fix it and they won't. So she finally brings in a light bulb from home and climbs up and fixes it herself.

Are things really that bad or are you taking a little bit of literary license there?

HASLER: Oh, both.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HASLER: There are days when you just wanted to throw the computer out the window. Things crash, you know. Software upgrades were the bane of our existence. Nothing starts working right away and you need things to start working right away.

LOUISE KELLY: It sounds like the characters in your book are so haunted by 9/11, which I'm sure is the way counterterrorist analysts working at Langley headquarters really felt in the days after 9/11. There's one passage that really gets it. It's a character reflecting on the difference between what he's doing as a counterterrorism analyst versus what someone like you can do writing about these things as a work of fiction.

I wonder if you would read us - there's a few lines on page 46.

HASLER: In our world there's an AK-47 above the mantel, a basket full of grenades on the table, a half kilo of plastic explosive under the couch cushion, ricin in the candy dishes, and sarin in the air vents. And none of it is significant because in the end it's the pistol hidden in the drawer that kills you.

What I was trying to get at here is that Chekhov is known for his quote that in fiction if you put a pistol above the mantel, it has to go off by the end of the play. And that was a problem. When I was writing this, as a novelist you have to put enough clues in it so that your reader is not completely at sea. And it gives a false impression that this job is easier than it really is...

LOUISE KELLY: That there is a string of clues being presented to you and dropped in front of you one-by-one that you should be able to follow.

HASLER: Right.

LOUISE KELLY: In real life it's not - it's not so easy, I guess.

HASLER: In real life it's like somebody is pouring boxes of puzzle pieces from a jigsaw puzzle and they're pouring continuously and you don't have the picture to go by. And one piece might belong to this puzzle, it might belong to another puzzle. There are many things that are irrelevant to the attack that's coming up, but you don't know that they're irrelevant so you waste time, you know, going down rabbit holes.

LOUISE KELLY: That's Susan Hasler, a 21-year veteran of the CIA talking about her new novel, "Intelligence."

Thank you so much.

HASLER: Thank you.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And now for a Cold War secret that's been revealed in Britain. Back in the 1960s, the British government devised a plan to protect Queen Elizabeth in the event of nuclear attack. The plan was called the Python System. It called for the queen and her husband, Prince Philip, to quickly go on board the royal yacht Britannia. The vessel would become a floating bunker hidden in the sea in what's along a remote coast of Scotland. As the historian who obtained the once secret plan put it, the queen was, quote, "going to lurk in the Sealock."

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LOUISE KELLY: And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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