'The Faithful Spy': Infiltrating Al-Qaida New York Times reporter Alex Berenson talks about the plot of his new novel -- an undercover CIA agent infiltrates al-Qaida and spends years posing as a Muslim convert committed to bringing down the United States.
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'The Faithful Spy': Infiltrating Al-Qaida

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'The Faithful Spy': Infiltrating Al-Qaida

'The Faithful Spy': Infiltrating Al-Qaida

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Well, from the annals of real life to a life undercover in fiction.

CIA Agent John Wells spent years posing as a Muslim convert committed to bringing down the United States. He left his American family behind. He learned Pashto and Arabic. He fought a jihad in Afghanistan and Chechnya. And he did what no other spy was able to do. He infiltrated al-Qaida. He even met Osama bin Laden twice.

If such a man really exists, we have no way to know.

John Wells is the main character in a new novel called THE FAITHFUL SPY, written by New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, who's with us here today in Studio 3A.

Mr. ALEX BERENSON (Author and Reporter for the New York Times): It's great to be on, although that's going to be a tough act to follow.

CONAN: Sorry about that.

We'd like to invite you to join this discussion as well. If you'd like to join Alex Berenson to talk about his new book, about post-9/11 thrillers, or about the line between journalism and fiction, give us a call at 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK.

And Alex, tell us a little bit about John Wells, if you would.

Mr. BERENSON: Well, I will, let me just say one thing, which sort of occurred to me as you were speaking to Selena, which is, it is interesting that in memoir, for example, there is now these days this idea that you can make things up, as long as you're true to the “truthiness” of your story. But in fiction -

CONAN: We're going to get sued by Stephen Colbert, there.

Mr. BERENSON: Like THE FAITHFUL SPY -- exactly -— like THE FAITHFUL SPY, people actually do want to know what my, you know, bonafides are and how it is that I wrote this book. Which I can talk more about later. But -

CONAN: Yeah, there's all kinds of trade craft and inside CIA stuff. Where did you find out about this stuff?

Mr. BERENSON: Yes, for fiction people want authenticity, but for memoir they're willing to accept that something's made up. But John Wells, the main character in THE FAITHFUL SPY is a man who has been undercover for a very long time. He's been undercover since the late ‘90s, and in fact, was aware before September 11th that there was going to be some kind of attack, although he didn't know what it was, and did not inform the CIA because he did not have enough information and so ever since then he's vowed that he's going to make sure that doesn't happen again and that he'll stay out for as long as he has to, to prove to al-Qaida that he is one of them.

And that, you know, that takes a very long time, and it takes a very serious personal toll on him. He winds up losing his family as a result of it, and then, eventually, now he is sent back to the United States, but he's not told what his mission is going to be. And so, in a very real way, he's a man without a country. Although he is loyal to the United States, the United States and the CIA, for their own bureaucratic reasons have essentially tossed him aside.

CONAN: They don't trust him. They don't know to trust him. There is bureaucratic infighting. There is one faction in the CIA that is trying to pin the blame on him for a terrorist attack that does occur and others are saying, no, he's loyal. In the meantime, he becomes what he describes as this character to blend in, in the northwest territories of Pakistan, in Chechnya, or in Atlanta, Georgia, he becomes the gray man.

Mr. BERENSON: Yes. He's sort of completely given up his own identity. In some ways, and the New York Times reviewed the book on Sunday and the reviewer caught something that other reviewers have not caught, which is that this book is a western in many ways. It's a western disguised as a spy novel. And Wells is sort of the lone man on the saddle.

And there are a couple of clues to that in the book, in that he's from Montana. He has a little Ford Ranger. But that's a, those are deliberate decisions. So he has to blend in, but he's not very good at blending in because he is so obviously an outsider. And so the way he blends in is essentially just by being alone all the time.

CONAN: There is a terrifying plot, as it turns out, that involves something called not the Black Death, but the red death.

Mr. BERENSON: Yes. You don't want to have either the Black Death or the red death.

CONAN: No, anything but -

Mr. BERENSON: No, the red death is worse. And it, anything with the word death in it, oh boy.

CONAN: That's not a good thing. No. But this is concocted by - it fascinated me, obviously the American character, Wells, the CIA characters, the incompetence within, these are almost plot staples at this point.

Mr. BERENSON: Sure.

CONAN: It intrigued me, you had to think a lot about the motives of your Muslim Jihadists.

Mr. BERENSON: Yes. And I did not want them to be caricatures. You know, it's very easy to make them, you know, sadists or people who just love violence for violence's sake and, you know, certainly there is some of that in what these people do. There's something, you know, there's something evil about people who will cut someone's head off and videotape it.

But these are men who believe in their cause and probably believe in it as much as people in the United States believe in America. Possibly they believe in it more because they have, you know, in many cases they're willing to commit suicide for it, which I don't know how many of us would be willing to do. You know, so, I wanted people to understand what it is that they're drawn to and why they believe and even if they don't - look, I wouldn't want to live under Osama bin Laden. I wouldn't want to live under a, you know, conservative Muslim regime. And I think most people who read this book will feel that way. But I think it's important to understand what's driving these people.

CONAN: We're talking with New York Times reporter Alex Berenson about his new book, THE FAITHFUL SPY, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get a caller on the line, 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us. This is Jake, Jake calling from San Antonio, Texas.

JAKE (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

Mr. BERENSON: Howdy.

JAKE: I was an undercover policeman for over 20 years in Los Angeles. And for about 12 of those years towards the end of my career, I had infiltrated the mob in L.A. And towards the end, a cousin wrote a book, used me as a model, not knowing, he had no idea at the time that I was involved in law enforcement. And when the book came out, it so closely resembled me and what I was doing that the people I had gone undercover to investigate became suspect and I had to retire.

CONAN: Wow. The Romana clef becomes the Romana kill.

JAKE: Yeah. It amazed me because I wasn't aware that he was writing the book. And at the time I was operating a saloon, restaurant, where known gangsters on the West Coast used to hang out. And he just thought it would be a good idea to write a work of fiction and use the saloon and me as characters in the book, not having any idea.

And when it came out, it got a lot of radio and TV time because there wasn't a whole lot - the mob was never as big a deal on the West Coast as it was on the East Coast, so when there were some cases that came to light and some people being prosecuted, it got an enormous amount of publicity. Everybody wanted to interview him and because it did get so much publicity, some of the wrong people saw it and that was pretty much the end of my career.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. BERENSON: Well you know, in THE FAITHFUL SPY, I do try to talk a little bit about what the pressures of being undercover are like, especially for a really, really long period of time. I do think it must be, you know, an incredibly difficult, almost impossibly difficult thing to live your life that way. And Wells certainly feels the pressure.

CONAN: Jake, I just wanted to thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.

JAKE: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Good luck.

And, asking just a little bit, sort of I'm following on Jake's call, I mean, because you're a journalist, do people assume that some of the people in your book are based on real people?

Mr. BERENSON: Yes, they do. And sometimes they want to know who those people are. The short answer is that Wells is not really based on any one person, although some of his characteristics are based on people who I met in Iraq. I did a couple of stints over there for the Times.

And, you know, the second time I went, I was embedded in Najav with the, you know, with the U.S. military for about a month as they fought a battle against Muqtada al Sadr's guerillas in Najav. And so, there is definitely, there's definitely some, I took some of the things that I saw and put them in Wells.

Especially the coolness under pressure that really good soldiers and really good officers have. That you really do have the feeling that though the bullets are flying around, they're just, it's just a day's work for them and that when push comes to shove, they will know what to do and they will do it.

And obviously that's a little bit of a myth. Right? If, you know, you can't, just being cool is not going to stop a bullet. But there is something real in it.

CONAN: Why, you're a reporter, you've got all this knowledge, why a novel and not a non-fiction book?

Mr. BERENSON: Well there's been a lot of non-fiction written about Iraq and written about the war on terror. You know, THE FAITHFUL SPY, I wanted to write something that maybe, on some level, I realize this sounds odd, but made it more real to people. Because in fiction you can be a little bit aspirational. You can use your imagination and you can create a character who is more heroic than any real person could be.

And it's somebody who you could, you know, that a reader could really fall for and want to be with, you know, maybe for one book or maybe for many books, but really get alongside.

And I think, you know, I think that the non-fiction about Iraq and about the war on terror, a lot of it has been really good. But I hope that this gives people who maybe are tired of reading non-fiction but who are still interested in espionage and interested in the world a new way in.

CONAN: We just have a few seconds left, but one of the big changes, obviously as a reporter you're using quotes. You're not writing dialogue. You've presumably never written a line of dialogue in your life until now.

Mr. BERENSON: Yes. And actually, the dialogue to me is in some ways the weakest part of THE FAITHFUL SPY and I hope that as I write more in the future I will, my dialogue will get more and more interesting.

CONAN: Alex Berenson, good luck with the book. We appreciate you coming in today.

Mr. BERENSON: thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: Alex Berenson is a New York Times reporter and author of the new novel THE FAITHFUL SPY and he was kind enough to join us here today in Studio 3A.

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