THE JEFFERSON KEY by Steve Berry

(Pictures USA Monticello Pond Mansion Cities Houses Design Building

(Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia)

I began reading Steve Berry novels over a decade ago beginning with THE TEMPLAR LEGACY.  Mr. Berry’s command of history and his innovative approach to storytelling were readily apparent and having read seven more of his works I have never been disappointed.  Berry’s central character Harold Earl “Cotton” Malone, lawyer, former member of an elite Justice Department group, pilot, and naval officer, leads his readers through interesting plot lines within the context of fascinating historical palates.  Malone retired to open a bookshop in Copenhagen, Denmark hoping to achieve some sort of peace, but trouble always seems to knock on his bookshop’s door.  Berry has developed a series of characters that have joined Malone that have provided further insights into his life and character.  Stephanie Nell, his former boss at the Magellan Billet, a special investigative unit within the Justice Department, Cassiopeia Vitt, a Renaissance woman with bite, and Edward Davis former Assistant head of the National Security Council and currently Chief of Staff to President Danny Daniels. all add to his novels as do numerous other characters.  The seventh installment of the Malone series is THE JEFFERSON KEY which finds our protagonist confronted with the attempted assassination of the President of the United States; the Commonwealth, a secret society of pirates who date back to the American Revolution; a secret cipher originally belonging to Thomas Jefferson;  unraveling a mystery fostered by Andrew Jackson, and the need to locate a document forged by the Founding Fathers.

(author, Steve Berry)

As in all of his books Berry has concocted a very complex plot with multiple characters who play important role.  The key in this Cotton Malone adventure is the Commonwealth, a secret organization whose power rests upon a letter of marque that authorized preying on the nations enemies as privateers that began against the British and Spanish during the American Revolution.  The letter was in the form of an agreement that was to last in perpetuity as given by George Washington.  All was well for the four families that made up the Commonwealth until Andrew Jackson stole the proof of the letter from Congressional journals that had used a cipher developed by Thomas Jefferson to unlock evidence that the Commonwealth acted legally and could never be prosecuted.  Interestingly, other presidents tried to stand up to these privateers, men like Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy, all were assassinated.  From this historical background Berry formulates his narrative, a story that consists of shifting alliances among the characters, and constant switching from scene to scene.

It seems that the Commonwealth, which is dominated by Quentin Hale whose great, great grandfather received the original letter from Washington in 1793 is being prosecuted by the Justice Department for numerous offenses that include hiding over a billion dollars in offshore accounts, and running into trouble with the CIA because of its financial machinations in Dubai.    Berry has created an amazing array of characters each with their own agenda ranging from Andrea Carbonell, the head of the National Intelligence Agency who covets Stephanie Nell’s position as head of the Magellan Billet.  Jonathan Wyatt, a former agent who lost his job because of Malone seeks revenge and seems in cahoots with Carbonell.  Clifford Knox, Hale’s right-hand man who has no issue in killing for the Commonwealth.  All seek the cipher created by Jefferson which would unlock information that each could use to achieve their goals, but the people who wanted to prosecute the Commonwealth wanted to keep the cipher hidden.

Bath,North Carolina Map

Malone and Vitt have been dispatched to save Nell who has disappeared and thwart efforts to use the cipher to end federal prosecution, in addition to deal with family issues involving the First Family.  Berry has employed the Constitution, secret codes that would make Dan Brown envious, a firm grip on history, murder, assassination, pirates and a host of other tools to lay out his story line which in the end has created a thriller that should capture the imagination of the reader.

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A Letter from Author Steve Berry

Cotton Malone is known for his overseas exploits. A former-Justice Department operative, who can’t stay out of trouble, he’s found adventures in all parts of Europe (The Templar LegacyThe Paris Vendetta), Central Asia (The Venetian Betrayal), Antarctica (The Charlemagne Pursuit), the Middle East (The Alexandria Link), and China (The Emperor’s Tomb). But he’s never had an American adventure. Until now.

The Jefferson Key was great fun to research. My wife Elizabeth and I traveled to New York City; Washington, D.C.; Bath, North Carolina; Monticello; and Richmond, Virginia. Monticello was particularly interesting since the terrific novelist, Katherine Neville–author of The Eight and The Fire–played host. Katherine serves on the estate’s board of directors and she led us on a behind-the-scenes tour that helped formulate a number of scenes that would later appear in the book. We spent a wonderful day there, wandering the halls and staircases, snapping pictures, checking out every nook and cranny. In Richmond, we stayed at The Jefferson, a grand hotel that also makes an appearance in the story.

Bath, North Carolina was similarly intriguing. Three hundred years ago, Bath was a hotbed for Atlantic pirates, a bustling port and a ship building center. Its location, on a quiet inlet of the Pamlico River, not far from open ocean, made it ideal for both. And though it’s now a sleepy village of about 300 residents, delving into its colonial and pre-colonial past was exciting. After all, pirates are fascinating–but they don’t match the Hollywood stereotype. The real thing is even better, and The Jefferson Key deals with the real thing.

The research for this novel spanned 18 months, which is normal for my books. Along the way, we uncovered a secret cipher originally possessed by Thomas Jefferson; concocted a mystery for Andrew Jackson; and created a centuries-old document envisioned by the Founding Fathers themselves. It was fun exploring American history, especially the Constitution, which forms a huge part of this plot. With every book there’s a challenge to describe the story in as few words as possible. For this one, we came up with this: Four United States presidents have been assassinated–in 1865, 1881, 1901, and 1963–each murder seemingly unrelated. But what if those presidents were all killed for the same reason–a clause in the United States Constitution, contained within Article 1, Section 8–that would shock Americans.

Got you interested?
I hope so.
Enjoy the Jefferson Key.

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(Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home)

THE ACCOMPLICE by Joseph Kanon

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(1960s Buenos Aires, Argentina)

For the remaining survivors of the Holocaust the term “statute of limitations” is meaningless, they still want justice.  No one knows how many of Hitler’s murderers remain alive or where they might be, but for the few their culpability in the Nazi death machine should merit capture, trial, and punishment no matter their age or medical condition.  As in the recent novel ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS by Ronald H. Batson, the obsession on the part of a few to bring these criminals to justice dominates the story line as does Joseph Kanon’s latest novel, THE ACCOMPLICE.  Kanon, a prolific novelist whose books include THE GOOD GERMAN, LOS ALAMOS, ALIBI, and his most recent novel LEAVING BERLIN has once again written a thriller based on what appears to be actual events exhibiting a superb command of history and the characters that have driven it.

Kanon’s current effort begins in 1962 in a Hamburg restaurant where a Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter named Max Weill is having dinner with his nephew Aaron.  Max’s brother who happens to be Aaron’s father and his son Daniel and wife Ruth perished in the Nazi death camps and Max wants justice as he cannot forget the atrocities he witnessed as a prisoner in Auschwitz.  Max tries to convince his nephew who is an American CIA agent to track down Dr. Otto Schramm, a camp doctor wo assisted Joseph Mengele with his deadly experiments that led to the death of Max’s family.  Aaron is reluctant but after Max has a heart attack he agrees to try and find this doctor.  The problem is that at the end of the war there was a “ratline” for Nazis to escape Europe and travel to South America, in Schramm’s case Argentina under the dictatorship of Juan Peron.

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Kanon has set the stage for a fascinating story as following the capture of Adolph Eichmann and his trial in Israel in 1961 interest in capturing these “desk murderers” is at its height.  It seems while Max was having a heart attack in the restaurant, he spotted Dr. Otto Schramm walking in the street, the same Schramm who conducted sterilization experiments and made selections for the gas chambers.  The same Schramm that sent Max’s son and wife to their deaths.  The same Schramm that Max, a physician was forced to work with in Auschwitz.  Kanon will eventually center his story in Buenos Aires as Aaron’s life is about to change due to many conflicting and complicating factors.

Many historical currents emerge in Kanon’s story.  The role of Mossad in capturing Eichmann is in the background throughout reflected in the character of Nathan who is part of the Israeli embassy in Argentina.  The role played by the ratline after the war is reflected in Monsignor Luis Rosas.  What life was like in Buenos Aires for former Nazis and the Peron regime and the successor government took care of them.  Flashbacks to the concentration camps and their victims constantly appear.  Importantly, Kanon delves into the role the United States played in coopting former Nazis into the service of the CIA as a tool against the Soviet Union during the burgeoning Cold War.  Not a very ethical move on the part of Washington policymakers but the fear of the communist menace allowed the United States to make a number of “problematic” decisions.

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(author, Joseph Kanon)

Other characters that Kanon effectively develops include Fritz Gruber, who was Max’s partner in hunting Nazis.  Goldfarb, a sewing machine factory owner in Buenos Aires who assisted Aaron and the Mossad.  Dr. Markus Bildner, a Nazi who had been in charge of Schramms sterilization experiments under Mengele and assisted Schramm in his desire to leave Argentina.  Jamie Campbell a CIA operative in Buenos Aires assists Aaron at first in his quest for justice.  But once higherups in Washington have other ideas for Schramm it becomes a battle to keep the Nazi doctor away from the CIA as well as the Israelis who want to kill him.  Aaron goal is to send him to Germany for trial  which becomes very difficult once governments become involved.  The most important character is Hannah Crane who turns out to be Schramm’s daughter.  The give and take between her and Aaron is fascinating as they do the love dance, or perhaps she is just a means to getting her father.  Their relationship has a touch of realism as Aaron begins to fall for her, but the memory of his promise to Max clouds his judgement.

The story moves along at a fast pace, but Aaron and his cohorts find themselves in a dangerous web and Kanon carries this process to the end of the novel.  One might think they know what the ending of the plot will result in – but they will be quite surprised.  Kanon has once again delivered an interesting story, tinged with historical accuracy, and the result is that the reader may not be able to put it down.

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(1960s Buenos Aires, Argentina)

UNDER OCCUPATION by Alan Furst

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(Paris under German occupation during WWII)

For devotees of the writings of Alan Furst, the superb purveyor of historical fiction dealing with pre-World War II and World War II historical fiction, a new novel, UNDER OCCUPATION, his first book since 2016 has just been published.  After fourteen previous successes that include THE POLISH OFFICER, THE SPIES OF WARSAW, SPIES OF THE BALKANS, and THE FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, Furst has constructed a story that provides the reader what it was like to live under German occupation in France during 1942 and 1943.  As the war began to turn against “the Boche” after Stalingrad and the allied landing in North Africa the French people began to have a glimmer of hope, not realizing they had another two years of suffering under German oppression.  The concept that Furst develops is based on fact as Polish prisoners in Nazi Germany smuggled detailed intelligence to the Paris and the resistance throughout the war, in addition to cooperating with British intelligence.

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Furst’s story line rests with Paul Ricard, a writer of detective and spy fiction who finds himself walking to a Parisian café when shots ring out as a man runs by and knocks him to the ground.  The man is mortally wounded but before he dies Ricard tries to assist him.  The stranger sticks a piece of paper in his pocket which turns out to be an engineering schematic with the hand printed German word “Zunder” and the French word, “detonateur.”  Ricard has just turned in his latest novel, MIDNIGHT IN TRIESTE to his publisher and Furst makes the important point that these types of novels are essential for the French people to try diverting their attention away from their plight.

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Ricard will be coopted into trying to find the source of the schematic and why it was important so it can be conveyed to British intelligence.  IN getting to know Ricard the reader will follow the evolution of a detective spy novelist into a resistance fighter working with MI6.  Furst creates a number of important characters to carry his plot.  Adrian, Ricard’s handler.  Colonel J.P. de Roux, a former member of French intelligence introduces Ricard to Leila, a member of the Polish Resistance whose family has assisted others oppressed by war since the beginning of the 20th century ranging from the Czarist Ohkrana to Ottoman Turks during World War I.  Other characters follow, all who play an important role in trying to deliver the finished product to the British.  Ricard and Kaisa, another immigrant Pole travel to Kiel and learn from Polish workers who were seized after the 1939 invasion of their country to work on German submarines as machinists and welders that the schematic was for a U- Boat torpedo detonator that could blow a ten-foot hole into any merchant ship it encountered.  Once the device is delivered to British assets, Ricard and company are now tasked to steal a completed torpedo and some how turn it over to the British.

Furst’s plot unfolds very carefully as he has the knack of integrating previous historical events into his story.  He provides an accurate picture for what life was like under Nazi occupation.  For those who supported Vichy and Marshall Petain, life was tolerable, however if you had a skill that the Germans needed you were rounded up and sent to slave camps in Germany to facilitate German war production.  Furst comes up with an interesting term, “desk murderer” as he describes the work of Wehrmacht SS Major Erhard Geisler whose bureaucratic function was to prepare lists of possible industrial workers, Jews, Gypsies etc. that would seal their fate – work for the Reich or die in an extermination camp.  Even Ricard found himself on a list as a writer – someone who could prepare propaganda for Goebbels disinformation machine. Picard’s career in the resistance expands to include creating a safe house to  keep agents safe and eliminating anyone French or not who did not conform to resistance needs.

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Janet Hulstrad, a book reviewer asked Furst in a 2016 interview upon the publication of his previous novel, HERO OF FRANCE, why he had chosen the period 1933 to 1943 for his novels.  His response; it was an “intense….amazingly dynamic period of time. People were very passionate, they may have been passionate about politics, but they were also passionate about each other, partly because it was as if the world is coming to an end, so we’d better do whatever we’re going to do before that happens… *  Furst’s description fits the pattern of most of his novels including UNDER OCCUPATION, which draws the reader into the lives of his characters who face many life threatening decisions.  These characters are well developed, and their interactions are presented in a thoughtful manner as Ricard, an espionage novelist now finds himself in the midst of his own real-life spy thriller.

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(Author, Alan Furst)

Furst is a master of the plot, but he also possesses a superb literary style that allows the darkness of the overall atmosphere he describes to be somewhat poetic allowing hope for the human condition to shine through.  For the French under occupation each day presented a dilemma, how much should we cooperate and/or how much or how could we fight back.  It is clear that Furst loves Paris and the French people with his descriptions of French food and culture as things to be admired despite the novels setting.  Furst latest effort highlights a heroic effort by those who resisted the Germans, efforts that in total went a long way to finally defeating the Germans in 1945.

*Interview with Alan Furst, author of the Newly Released “A Hero of France” By Janet Hulstrand – May 31, 2016, Bonjour Paris.

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(Paris under German occupation during WWII)

THE AMBASSADORS: AMERICAN DIPLOMATS ON THE FRONT LINES by Paul Richter

Image result for photo of robert ford and ryan crocker(American Ambassador to Libya Christopher Steven)

The past two weeks the American people witnessed the professionalism and commitment to American national security on the part of diplomatic personnel before the House Intelligence Committee.  Career diplomats like acting Ambassador to the Ukraine, William B. Taylor, Jr., Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, Fiona Hill, a former official at the U.S. National Security Council specializing in Russian and European affairs, and Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch who was fired as ambassador to the Ukraine by President Trump, along with a number of others displayed their honesty and integrity as they were confronted by conspiracy theories and lies developed to defend administration attempts to coerce and bribe Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to encourage him to launch investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.  The preciseness of their presentations left no doubt as to their credibility and points to the importance of having experienced professionals advising and carrying out American foreign policy.

In our current political climate it is very difficult to conduct foreign policy in a more traditional manner when you have a president who makes decisions from his “gut,” or spur of the moment as he did when he recently allowed Turkey to expand into Syria and crush the Kurds.  It is interesting to compare how “normal” foreign policy should be conducted and how important these diplomats are.  The publication of Paul Richter’s new book, THE AMBASSADORS: AMERICAN DIPLOMATS ON THE FRONT LINES  is important because it supports the kind of work that was performed by the witnesses before the House Impeachment Inquiry and reflects the antithesis of the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy.

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(American Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford)

Richter has chosen to explore the careers of four American ambassadors who since 9/11 contributed to what insiders’ term “expeditionary diplomats” who have served in battle zones in the Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, and Libya.  Because of the nature of these conflicts these career professionals have been involved with traditional diplomacy in addition to helping generals and spy chiefs decide how to wage war, as well as try to end them.  When Washington found itself with a country on the edge with no real plan it was these diplomats who helped improvise and make policy decisions.

Ryan Crocker emerges as America’s most knowledgeable source on Iraq throughout his career having served there when Saddam Hussein came to power in 1980 and in 1998, yet he was left out of planning sessions dealing with the run up to the invasion of Iraq.  Richter reviews Bush administration ignorance and agendas that are all too familiar, but Crocker’s warnings about an invasion all came to fruition; sectarian warfare, violence and looting, and the emergence of Iran as the region’s dominant player.  Crocker left Iraq in August 2003 and served as ambassador to Pakistan for almost three years.  He would return to Iraq and worked well with General David Petraeus replacing Robert Ford as ambassador as they oversaw the somewhat successful surge between 2007 and 2009.    Ford another exceptional diplomat, whose experiences reinforce the arrogance and outright stupidity of Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith and numerous others in the Bush administration.  The reduced role of Colin Powell and the State Department is plain to see, and Crocker and Ford did their best to overcome America’s mistakes.

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(American Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker)

Richter successfully highlights the importance of the diplomats as they tried to keep a lid on the violence in Iraq and nudge the government toward democracy.  Their contact within the Iraqi government, outside militias, and other groups is evident, and their role was extremely important  when compared to personnel in Washington who at times seemed to have no clue.  Crocker’s success rested on the respect that the Iraqis including President Maliki had for him.  He thought nothing of traveling to meet all elements in the Iraqi ethnic puzzle as a means of trying to keep the fractured country together. According to Emma Sky, a British Middle East expert, Crocker “had provided the strategic direction and guidance the military so craved from civilian leaders, and so rarely received.”  It is not surprising that once Crocker left Iraq in February 2009 the situation deteriorated according to Richter because of the changes in approach implemented by his replacement, Christopher Hill, and the overall policy pursued by the Obama administration.

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(Syrian President Bashir Assad)

By 2011, Crocker shifted his focus to Afghanistan and returned to government service after being chosen by President Obama to try and work out agreements for a strategic partnership. Obama’s goal was to reduce US troop levels from 150,000 to 15,000 and turn the fighting over to Afghan troops as much as possible.  Crocker’s relationship with Karzai was tested as the Afghanistan president reaffirmed old grudges against Washington as he tried to maneuver among militias, the Taliban and his administration’s corruption.  Once again Crocker did give it his best under extremely trying conditions.

Perhaps America’s most important ally in the war on terror was Pakistan, a country that could never be relied upon with its own agenda visa vie the Taliban, al-Qaeda, India, and numerous militias.  Richter is correct when he describes the Pakistani-American relationship as a bad marriage with both partners cheating but had no choice but to stay together.  Anne Patterson entered this quagmire in 2007 and served as ambassador to Pakistan for three years.  Her main goal was preventative.  She needed to help keep the country’s politics from becoming so chaotic or dangerous that the army, Pakistan’s most powerful institution, would feel the need to install new leaders to restore order.  During her term as ambassador she successfully played the role of political counselor, military advisor, banker, and sometimes psychotherapist.  Richter takes the reader through all the crisis attendant to the United States-Pakistani relationship dealing with the duplicitous Parvez Musharraf, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and her husband’s attempts to succeed her as President, the Mumbai attacks and numerous others.  She did her best to keep the lid on and for the most part did an admirable job.  For the latest work that deals with the topic in full see Steven Coll’s THE DIRECTORATE: THE CIA AND AMERICA’S SECRET WARS IN AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN.

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(American Ambassador to Pakistan and Egypt Anne Patterson)

Patterson would be sent to Egypt with the onset of the Arab Spring.  Once the country politically imploded and Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, she moved from the conflagration in Islamabad and found herself amidst another crisis situation.  Egypt was the cornerstone of US security strategy for the Middle East by maintaining peace with Israel, fighting counterterrorism, and keeping sea lanes open for the transport of oil.  The fall of Mubarak caught the Obama administration by surprise.  After the revolution, Washington continued to be blindsided by developments in Egypt.  Patterson would arrive when the Egyptian military and civilians were furious at the Obama administration whom they felt had abandoned their country.  She was plain speaking and knowledgeable and with a reputation in the State Department that one colleague described as “bad ass” and she was eventually able to earn respect from Egyptian military and intelligence leaders.  Further she had to diffuse the Egyptian belief that the US was involved in a conspiracy to push democratic reform.  Further she was confronted with the harassment and intimidation by Egyptian authorities against American backed reform NGOs and Embassy staff which she worked to deflate so she could try and influence Egyptian government actions even as Washington seemed to dither.

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(Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi)

Following the Moslem Brotherhood victory with the election of Mohamed Morsi as President, Patterson met with the new Egyptian leader and tried to pin him down as to his views on Israel, human rights, etc.  She did her best to work with Morsi and even gave him a certain leeway, all for naught as Morsi had an overstated view of his own importance.  His major error was to appoint the ruthless General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as Defense Minister.  As Morsi became more authoritarian, she tried to curb his lack of political skill and quest for more and more power to no vail.  With the Arab Emirates and Saudis working with the Egyptian military Morsi was arrested and a coup brought Sisi to power.  The entire episode was not the Obama administrations finest hour.  Granted they had little leeway with Morsi, but they did not do enough to try and steer him toward a more democratic approach.  The problem as Patterson pointed out was not that Morsi was an Islamist extremist, “but that he simply didn’t know what he was doing.”  Patterson was vilified by reform groups, foreign leaders and certain members of Congress as having assisted in bringing Morsi to power, criticism that is unwarranted but reflected that Patterson was damned no matter what course she chose.

Image result for photo of obama with anne patterson(Egyptian demonstrations against American Ambassador Anne Patterson)

Perhaps the most unsolvable problem facing American diplomats discussed in Richter’s narrative is Syria.  Robert Ford was placed in the breach as the Arab Spring left its mark on the country and civil war ensued due to the forty-year repressive and murderous reign of the Assad family.  Obama came to the presidency naively hoping to engage the Syrian and Iranian regimes. Ford was the first American ambassador to Damascus since 2006.  Ford had a working relationship with the Syrian opposition, and he advised them to focus on reform not regime change.  In his heart of hearts, Ford realized that Assad would never give up power.  Ford’s secondary role was to educate Washington concerning events in Syria, but the Obama administration policy was faulty as it called for Assad to resign, publicized a “red line” as a response to the use of chemical weapons, and opening the door for Russia.  Ford did his best, risking his life repeatedly confronting Assad and developing relationships with the opposition, but by December 2011 he would return to Washington where he worked to try and merge the different opposition groups.  This task was impossible because at the same time jihadist opposition began to infiltrate into eastern Syria enabling them to seize control of the uprising from more moderate Syrians. Ford argued to no avail that Obama administration needed to arm more moderate elements or Jihadists in eastern Syria would join those in western Iraq.  Obama refused to supply weapons for more moderate elements and with Iranian and Russian aid the moderates had nowhere to turn to but Islamists for help.  For Ford, the lack of weapons aid made a radical take over a self-fulfilling prophecy.  When Obama did little about Assad chemical attacks it further fueled opposition by moderates and members of Congress.  Richter describes Ford as a pinata as he was bashed by everyone for the lack of US aid including Senate Foreign Relations Committee members.   Finally, in total frustration he left the Foreign Service in 2014.

 

The diplomat most familiar to the American people was J. Christopher Stevens who was killed in a jihadist raid in Benghazi in 2012 fostering a partisan uproar in Washington as Republicans used his death as a political vehicle against Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  According to Richter the details of how Stevens died and who is responsible remains open to conjecture, but one thing is certain, there is plenty of blame to go around.  When Stevens accepted the assignment, he knew what he was getting into, but his career long love of the Libyan people clouded his vision.  Stevens had to start from scratch to carve out his own rules for working with the Libyan opposition who he met with frequently earning their trust even though they did not always follow his advice.  The problem was the inability of the opposition to control the varied militias who had access to weaponry left over from the Qaddafi regime.  At the time, according to Jake Sullivan, a Clinton foreign policy advisor; “post-conflict stabilization in Libya, while clearly a worthy undertaking at the right level of investment, cannot be counted on as one of our highest priorities.”  Stevens concern that the administration wasn’t paying enough attention to what was going on in Benghazi in the eastern region around it would result in his death.  In discussing Stevens, as with Crocker, Ford, and Patterson, Richter provides a nice balance of historical detail, Washington policy and his own insights and analysis which are dead on.

If one wants to gain an understanding of the problems the United States faced in the Middle East and Afghanistan after 9/11 in a succinct and compact approach, then Richter’s monograph should be consulted.  At a time when American decision makers made what proved to be disastrous decisions that we are still confronting today, it is refreshing to explore the careers and work of four individuals who devoted their lives to unravel and try and rectify these mistakes, and one who gave his life believing in the importance of his work and having the ability to the tell truth to power.

The late U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, left, shakes hands with a Libyan man in Tripoli, Libya, in a photo posted on the U.S. Embassy Tripoli Facebook page on Aug. 27. | AP Photo
(American Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and a Libyan citizen)

 

INSIDE THE ARCHIVE OF AN LSD RESEARCHER WITH TIES TO THE CIA’S MKULTRA MIND CONTROL PROJECT by Tom O’Neill, Dan Piepenbring INTERCEPT, Nobvember 24, 2019

I found this article this morning.  It follows my review of yesterday, POISONER IN CHIEF by Stephen Kinzer

ON THE NIGHT of July 4, 1954, San Antonio, Texas, was shaken by the rape and murder of a 3-year-old girl. The man accused of these crimes was Jimmy Shaver, an airman at the nearby Lackland Air Force Base with no criminal record. Shaver claimed to have lost his memory of the incident.

The victim, 3-year-old Chere Jo Horton, had disappeared around midnight outside the Air Force Base, where her parents had left her in the parking lot outside a bar; she played with her brother while they had a drink inside. When they noticed her missing, they formed a search party.

Within an hour, the group came upon a car parked next to a gravel pit; Chere’s underwear was hanging from one of the car’s doors. Shaver wandered out of the darkness. He was shirtless, covered in blood and scratches. Making no attempt to escape, he let the search party walk him to the edge of the highway. Bystanders described him as “dazed” and in a “trance-like” state.

“What’s going on here?” he asked. He didn’t seem drunk, but he couldn’t say where he was, how’d he gotten there, or whose blood was all over him. Meanwhile, the search party found Horton’s body in the gravel pit. Her neck was broken, her legs had been torn open, and she’d been raped.

Deputies arrested Shaver. At 29, he was recently remarried with two children and no history of violence. He’d been at the same bar Horton had been abducted from, but he’d left with a friend, who told police that neither of them was drunk, though Shaver had seemed high on something. Before deputies could take Shaver to the county jail, a constable from another precinct arrived with orders from military police to assume custody of him.

Around four that morning, an air force marshal questioned Shaver and two doctors examined him, agreeing he wasn’t drunk. One later testified that he “probably was not normal … he was very composed outside, which I did not expect him to be under these circumstances.” He was released to the county jail and booked for rape and murder.

Investigators interrogated Shaver through the morning. When his wife came to visit, he didn’t recognize her. He gave his first statement at 10:30 a.m., adamant that another man was responsible: He could summon an image of a stranger with blond hair and tattoos. After the air force marshal returned to the jailhouse, however, Shaver signed a second statement taking full responsibility. Though he still didn’t remember anything, he reasoned, he must have done it.

Two months later, in September, Shaver’s memories still hadn’t returned. The commander of the base hospital, Col. Robert S. Bray, ordered a psychiatric evaluation, to be performed by Dr. Louis Jolyon West, the head of psychiatric services at the air base. It fell to West to decide if Shaver had been legally sane at the time of the murder.

Shaver spent the next two weeks under West’s supervision. They returned to the scene of the crime, trying to jog his memory. Later, West hypnotized Shaver and gave him an injection of sodium pentothal, or “truth serum,” to see if he could clear his amnesia.

While Shaver was under, according to testimony, he recalled the events of that night. He confessed to killing Horton. She’d brought out repressed memories of his cousin, “Beth Rainboat,” who’d sexually abused him as a child. Shaver had started drinking at home that night when he “had visions of God, who whispered into his ear to seek out and kill the evil girl Beth.”

While Shaver was under hypnosis, he confessed to killing the young girl. At trial, he maintained his innocence.

At the trial, West made only a minimal effort to exonerate Shaver. The airman was found guilty. Though an appeals court later ruled that he’d had an unfair trial, he was convicted again in the retrial. In 1958, on his 33rd birthday, he was executed by the electric chair. He maintained his innocence the whole time.

The trial, which hinged on Shaver’s testimony, might have ended differently had the jury known about West’s past. According to newly surfaced papers from West’s archives, the psychiatrist had some of the clearest, most nefarious ties of any scientist to the CIA’s Project MKUltra. West’s files — especially his correspondence with the CIA’s longtime poisons expert, Sidney Gottlieb — shed new light on one of the most infamous projects in the agency’s history. Likely comprising more than 149 subprojects and at least 185 researchers working at institutions across America and Canada, MKUltra was, as the New York Times put it, “a secret twenty-five year, twenty-five million dollar effort by the CIA to learn how to control the human mind.” Its experiments violated international laws, not to mention the agency’s charter, which forbids domestic activity.

At the trial, West maintained that Shaver had suffered a bout of temporary insanity on the night of Chere Jo Horton’s killing, but he argued that Shaver was “quite sane now.” In the courtroom, Shaver didn’t look that way. One newspaper account said he “sat through the strenuous sessions like a man in a trance,” saying nothing, never rising to stretch or smoke, though he was a known chain-smoker.

Large portions of West’s truth serum interview with Shaver were read into the court record. The doctor had used leading questions to walk the entranced Shaver through the crime. “Tell me about when you took your clothes off, Jimmy,” he’d said. The transcript of the interview, which survived among West’s papers, also showed West trying to prove that Shaver had repressed memories: “Jimmy, do you remember when something like this happened before?” Or: “After you took her clothes off, what did you do?”

“I never did take her clothes off,” Shaver said.

The interview was divided into thirds, and the middle third hadn’t been recorded. When the transcript picked up, it said: “Shaver is crying. He has been confronted with all the facts repeatedly.”

West asked, “Now you remember it all, don’t you, Jimmy?”

“Yes, sir,” Shaver replied.

Though lawyers scrutinized Shaver’s medical history, little mention was made of the base hospital where West’s archived letters indicate he had conducted his MKUltra experiments. Shaver had suffered from migraines so debilitating that he’d dunk his head in a bucket of ice water when he felt one coming on. His condition was severe enough that the Air Force had recommended him for a two-year experimental program. The doctor who’d attempted to recruit him was not named in court records or transcripts.

On the stand, West said he’d never gotten around to seeing whether Shaver had been treated in the experimental program. Lackland officials told me there was no record of him in their master index of patients. But, curiously, according to the base’s archivist, all the records for patients in 1954 had been maintained, with one exception: the file for last names beginning with “Sa” through “St” had vanished.

Dr. Louis Jolyon West in San Francisco, Calif., in 1976.

 

Photo: Lawrence Schiller/Polaris Communications/Getty Images

West’s professional fascination with LSD was practically as old as the drug itself. For several decades, he was one of an elite cadre of scientists using it in top-secret research. Lysergic acid diethylamide was synthesized in 1938 by chemists at Switzerland’s Sandoz Industries, but it was not introduced as a pharmaceutical until 1947. In the fifties, when the CIA began to experiment on humans with it, it was a new substance. Albert Hofmann, the Swiss scientist who’d discovered its hallucinogenic qualities in 1943, described it as a “sacred drug” that gestured toward “the mystical experience of a deeper, comprehensive reality.”

In the ’50s, even before hippies embraced the drug, “Very few people took LSD without having somebody being a ‘trip leader,’” Charles Fischer, a drug researcher, told me. The suggestibility from LSD was akin to that associated with hypnosis; West had studied the two in tandem. “You can tell somebody to hurt somebody, but you call it something else,” Fischer explained. “Hammer the nail into the wood, and the wood, perhaps, is a human being.”

West seems to have used chemicals liberally in his medical practice, and his tactics left an indelible mark on the psychiatrists who worked with him. One of them, Gilbert Rose, was so baffled by the Shaver case that he went on to write a play about it.

“In my 50 years in the profession, that was the most dramatic moment ever — when he clapped his hands to his face and remembered killing the girl,” Rose said in 2002 of Shaver and the truth serum interview. But Rose was shocked when I told him that West had hypnotized Shaver in addition to giving him sodium pentothal. Hypnotism, he said, was not part of the protocol for the interview.

He’d also never known how West had found out about the case right away.

“We were involved from the first day,” Rose recalled. “Jolly phoned me the morning of the murder. He initiated it.”

West claimed he was in the courtroom the day Shaver was sentenced to death. Around this time, he became vehemently opposed to capital punishment. Did he know his experiments might’ve led to the execution of an innocent man and the death of a child? If his correspondence with CIA head of MKUltra Gottlieb — predating the crime by just a year — had been presented at trial, would the outcome have been the same?

ALMOST AS SOON as they had access to it, government scientists saw LSD as a potential Cold War miracle drug. Full-fledged U.S. research into LSD began soon after the end of World War II, when American intelligence learned that the USSR was developing a program to influence human behavior through drugs and hypnosis. The United States believed that Soviets could extract information from people without their knowledge, program them to make false confessions, and perhaps persuade them to kill on command.

In 1949, the CIA, then in its infancy, launched Project Bluebird, a mind-control program that tested drugs on American citizens — most in federal penitentiaries or on military bases — who didn’t even know about, let alone consent to, the battery of procedures they underwent.

Their abuse found further justification in 1952, when, in Korea, captured American pilots admitted on national radio that they’d sprayed the Korean countryside with illegal biological weapons. It was a confession so beyond the pale that the CIA blamed communists: The POWs must have been “brainwashed.” The word, a literal translation of the Chinese “xi nao,” didn’t appear in English before 1950. It articulated a set of fears that had coalesced in postwar America: that a new class of chemicals could rewire and automate the human mind.

“You can tell somebody to hurt somebody, but you call it something else,” Fischer explained. “Hammer the nail into the wood, and the wood, perhaps, is a human being.”

When the American POWs returned, the Army brought in a team of scientists to “deprogram” them. Among those scientists was West. Born in Brooklyn in 1924, he had enlisted in the Air Force during World War II, eventually rising to the rank of colonel. His friends called him “Jolly,” for his middle name, impressive girth, and oversized personality. When he got out, he researched methods of controlling human behavior at Cornell University. He would later claim to have studied 83 prisoners of war, 56 of whom had been forced to make false confessions. He and his colleagues were credited with reintegrating the POWs into Western society and, maybe more important, getting them to renounce their claims about having used biological weapons.

West’s success with the POWs gained him entrance into the upper echelons of the intelligence community. Gottlieb, the poisons expert who headed the chemical division of the CIA’s Technical Services Staff, along with Richard Helms, the CIA’s chief of operations for the Directorate of Plans had convinced the agency’s then-director, Allen Dulles, that mind control ops were the future. Initially, the agency wanted only to prevent further potential brainwashing by the Soviets. But the defensive program became an offensive one. Operation Bluebird morphed into Operation Artichoke, a search for an all-purpose truth serum.

In a speech at Princeton University, Dulles warned that communist spies could turn the American mind into “a phonograph playing a disc put on its spindle by an outside genius.” Just days after those remarks, on April 13, 1953, he officially set Project MKUltra in motion.

Little is known about the program. After Watergate, Helms (who by that time was CIA director) ordered Gottlieb to destroy all MKUltra papers; in January 1973, the Technical Services staff shredded countless documents describing the use of hallucinogens.

In the mid-1970s, after the Times revealed the existence of MKUltra on its front page, the government launched three separate investigations, all of which were hobbled by the CIA’s destruction of its files:Vice President Nelson Rockefeller’s Commission on CIA Activities within the United States (1975); Senator Frank Church’s Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (1975-6); and Senators Edward Kennedy and Daniel Inouye’s joint Senate Select Committee hearings on Project MKUltra, the CIA’s Program of Research in Behavioral Modification (1977). When records were available, they were redacted; when witnesses were summoned to testify before Congress, they were forgetful.

We do know the project’s broadest goal was “to influence human behavior.” Under its umbrella were at least 149 subprojects, many involving research on unwitting participants. Gottlieb, whose aptitude and amorality earned him the nickname the “Black Sorcerer,” developed gadgetry straight out of schlocky sci-fi: high-potency stink bombs, swizzle sticks laced with drugs, exploding seashells, poisoned toothpaste. Having persuaded an Indianapolis pharmaceutical company to replicate the Swiss formula for LSD, the CIA had a limitless domestic supply of its favorite new drug. The agency hoped to produce couriers who could embed hidden messages in their brains, to implant false memories and remove true ones in people without their awareness, to convert groups to opposing ideologies, and more. The loftiest objective was the creation of hypno-programmed assassins.

The most sensitive work was conducted far from Langley — farmed out to scientists at colleges, hospitals, prisons, and military bases all over the United States and Canada. The CIA gave these scientists aliases, funneled money to them, and instructed them on how to conceal their research from prying eyes, including those of their unknowing subjects.

Their work encompassed everything from electronic brain stimulation to sensory deprivation to “induced pain” and “psychosis.” They sought ways to cause heart attacks, severe twitching, and intense cluster headaches. If drugs didn’t do the trick, they’d try to master ESP, ultrasonic vibrations, and radiation poisoning. One project tried to harness the power of magnetic fields.

MKUltra was so highly classified that when John McCone succeeded Dulles as CIA director late in 1961, he was not informed of its existence until 1963. Fewer than half a dozen agency brass were aware of it at any period during its 20-year history.

WEST HEADED THE psychiatry department at UCLA and the school’s renowned neuroscience center until his retirement in 1988. One day, among a batch of research papers on hypnosis in West’s archives there, I found letters between West and his CIA handler, “Sherman Grifford” — the cover name, according to John Marks’s “The Search for the Manchurian Candidate,” for Sidney Gottlieb. West, who had once written to a magazine editor that he had “never worked for the CIA,” had in fact worked closely with the agency’s “Black Sorcerer” himself.

The letters picked up midstream, with no prologue or preliminaries. The first was dated June 11, 1953, a mere two months after MKUltra started, when West was chief of the psychiatric service at the air base at Lackland.

Who would the guinea pigs be? West listed four groups: basic airmen, volunteers, patients, and “others, possibly including prisoners in the local stockade.”

Addressing Gottlieb as “S.G.,” West outlined the experiments he proposed to perform using a combination of psychotropic drugs and hypnosis. He began with a plan to discover “the degree to which information can be extracted from presumably unwilling subjects (through hypnosis alone or in combination with certain drugs), possibly with subsequent amnesia for the interrogation and/or alteration of the subject’s recollection of the information he formerly knew.” Another item proposed honing “techniques for implanting false information into particular subjects … or for inducing in them specific mental disorders.” He hoped to create “couriers” who would carry “a long and complex message” embedded secretly in their minds, and to study “the induction of trance-states by drugs.” His list lined up perfectly with the goals of MKUltra.

“Needless to say,” West added, the experiments “must eventually be put to test in practical trials in the field.” To this end, he asked Gottlieb for “some sort of carte blanche.”

Who would the guinea pigs be? He listed four groups: basic airmen, volunteers, patients, and “others, possibly including prisoners in the local stockade.” Only the volunteers would be paid. The others could be unwilling, and, though it wasn’t spelled out, unwitting. It would be easier to preserve his secrecy if he were “inducing specific mental disorders” in people who already exhibited them. “Certain patients requiring hypnosis in therapy, or suffering from dissociative disorders (trances, fugues, amnesias, etc.) might lend themselves to our experiments.” Official investigations into MKUltra yielded little information about its subjects, but West’s letter suggests that the program cast a wide net.

Gottlieb’s reply came on letterhead from “Chemrophyl Associates,” a front company he used to correspond with MKUltra subcontractors. “My Good Friend,” he wrote, “I had been wondering whether your apparent rapid and comprehensive grasp of our problems could possibly be real. … you have indeed developed an admirably accurate picture of exactly what we are after. For this I am deeply grateful.”

Gottlieb saluted his new recruit: “We have gained quite an asset in the relationship we are developing with you.”

West returned the camaraderie: “It makes me very happy to realize that you consider me ‘an asset,’” he replied. “Surely there is no more vital undertaking conceivable in these times.”

IN 1954, around the same time as Chere Jo Horton’s murder, West began to split his time between Lackland and the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine, where he would lead the psychiatry department.

West had told his prospective employer that his Lackland duties were “purely clinical” and that he’d “been doing no research, classified or otherwise” — and he asked the board of directors at Oklahoma for permission to accept money from the Geschickter Fund for Medical Research, which he called “a non-profit private research foundation.” In fact, as the CIA later acknowledged, Geschickter was another of Gottlieb’s fictions, a shell organization enabling him.

In 1956, West reported back to the CIA that the experiments he’d begun in 1953 had at last come to fruition. In a 1956 paper titled “The Psychophysiological Studies of Hypnosis and Suggestibility,” he claimed to have achieved the impossible: He knew how to replace “true memories” with “false ones” in human beings without their knowledge. Without detailing specific incidents, he put it in layman’s terms: “It has been found to be feasible to take the memory of a definite event in the life of an individual and, through hypnotic suggestion, bring about the subsequent conscious recall to the effect that this event never actually took place, but that a different (fictional) event actually did occur.” He’d done it, he claimed, by administering “new drugs” effective in “speeding the induction of the hypnotic state and in deepening the trance that can be produced in given subjects.”

At the National Security Archives in D.C., I found the version of “The Psychophysiological Studies of Hypnosis and Suggestibility” that the CIA turned over to Senators Kennedy and Inouye in 1977. West’s name and affiliation were redacted, as expected. But the CIA’s version was also shorter, and watered down in comparison. West’s document was 14 pages. This one was five, including a cover page. Most glaringly, there was no mention of West’s triumphant accomplishment, the replacement of “the memory of a definite event in the life of an individual” with a “fictional event.”

One passage, not in West’s original, claims the CIA never used LSD in studies at all: “The effects of [LSD and other drugs] upon the production, maintenance, and manifestations of disassociated states has never been studied.”

West, of course, had studied those effects for years. But when it came to elaborating on his findings about implanting memories and controlling thoughts, even in the paper found in West’s own files, he offered few details. He seems to have been in a rudimentary phase of his research. Acid, he wrote, made people more difficult to hypnotize; it was better to pair hypnosis with long bouts of isolation and sleep deprivation. Using hypnotic suggestion, he claimed, “a person can be told that it is now a year later and during the course of this year many changes have taken place…so that it is now acceptable for him to discuss matters that he previously felt he should not discuss…An individual who insists he desires to do one thing will reveal that secretly he wishes just the opposite.”

Had the CIA doctored West’s original document to mislead the Senate committee? And if so, why would the agency have gone to so much trouble to hide experimental findings that weren’t ultimately all that revealing? Agency officials claimed the program had been a colossal failure, leading to mocking headlines like the “The Gang That Couldn’t Spray Straight.” Perhaps the agency wanted the world to assume that MKUltra was a bust, and to forget the whole thing.

THE CIA SEEMS to have pared MKUltra back in the mid-’60s, according to congressional testimony and surviving financial records, but Jolly West’s government-funded research continued apace. Late in the fall of 1966, West arrived in San Francisco to study hippies and LSD. Tall, broad, and crew cut, with an all-American look in keeping with his military past, he cobbled together a new wardrobe and started skipping haircuts. He secured a government grant and took a yearlong sabbatical from the University of Oklahoma, nominally to pursue a fellowship at Stanford, although that school had no record of his participation in a program there.

When he arrived in Haight-Ashbury, West was the only scientist in the world who’d predicted the emergence of potentially violent “LSD cults” such as Charles Manson’s Family. In a 1967 psychiatry textbook, West had contributed a chapter called “Hallucinogens,” warning students of a “remarkable substance” percolating through college campuses and into cities. LSD was known to leave users “unusually susceptible and emotionally labile.” It appealed to alienated kids who would crave “shared forbidden activity in a group setting to provide a sense of belonging.”

Acid, he wrote, made people more difficult to hypnotize; it was better to pair hypnosis with long bouts of isolation and sleep deprivation.

Another of his papers, 1965’s “Dangers of Hypnosis,” foresaw the rise of dangerous groups led by “crackpots” who hypnotized their followers into violent criminality. He cited two cases: a double murder in Copenhagen committed by a hypno-programmed man, and a “military offense” induced experimentally at an undisclosed U.S. Army base. (It’s not at all clear that the latter referred to Shaver’s killing of Chere Jo Horton.)

He’d also supervised a study in Oklahoma City, in which he’d hired informants to infiltrate teenage gangs and engender “a fundamental change” in “basic moral, religious or political matters.” The title of the project was “Mass Conversion,” and it had been funded by Gottlieb.

In the Haight, West arranged for the use of a crumbling Victorian house on Frederick Street, where he set up what he described as a “laboratory disguised as a hippie crash pad.” The “pad” opened in June 1967, at the dawn of the summer of love. He installed six graduate students in the “pad,” telling them to “dress like hippies” and “lure” itinerant kids into the apartment. Passersby were welcome to do as they pleased and stay as long as they liked, as long as they didn’t mind grad students taking notes on their behavior.

According to records in West’s files, his “crash pad” was funded by the Foundations Fund for Research in Psychiatry, Inc., which had bankrolled a number of his other projects, too, across decades and institutions. Dr. Gordon Deckert, West’s successor as chair at the University of Oklahoma, told me that he found papers in West’s desk that revealed that the Foundations Fund was a front for the CIA.

This wouldn’t have been the agency’s first “disguised laboratory” in San Francisco. A few years earlier, the evocatively titled Operation Midnight Climax had seen CIA operatives open at least three Bay Area safe houses disguised as upscale bordellos, kitted out with one-way mirrors and kinky photographs. A spy named George Hunter White and his colleagues hired prostitutes to entice prospective johns to the homes, where the men were served cocktails laced with acid. The goal was to see if LSD, paired with sex, could be used to coax sensitive information from the men. White later wrote to his CIA handler, “I was a very minor missionary, actually a heretic, but I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun.”

At the Haight-Ashbury pad, though, West’s motives were vague. No one seemed to have a firm grasp of the project’s purpose — not even those involved in it. The grad students hired to staff West’s “crash pad” lab were assigned to keep diaries of their work. In unguarded moments, nearly all of these students admitted that something didn’t add up. They weren’t sure what they were supposed to be doing, or why West was there. And often he wasn’t there.

One of the diaries in West’s files belonged to a Stanford psychology grad student who lived at the pad that summer. The experience was aimless to the point of worthlessness, she wrote. When “crashers” showed up, “no one made much of a point of finding out about [them].” More often, hippies failed to show up at all, since many of them apparently looked on the pad with suspicion. “What the hell is Jolly doing, it is like a zoo,” the student fumed. “Is he studying us or them?”

When West made one of his rare appearances, he was dressed like a “silly hippie”; sometimes he brought friends to the house. Their general attitude, she wrote, “was that this was a good opportunity to have fun. … They spent a good deal of the time stoned.” She added, “I feel like no one is being honest and straight and the whole thing is a gigantic put on. … What is he trying to prove? He is interested in drugs, that is clear. What else?”

IN DECEMBER 1974, MKUltra finally came to light in a terrific flash of headlines and intrigue. Seymour Hersh reported it on the front page of the Times: “Huge C.I.A. Operation Reported in U.S. Against Antiwar Forces.” The three government investigations that followed — the Rockefeller Commission, Church Committee, and the Kennedy-Inouye Select Committee hearings — looked into illegal domestic activities of various federal intelligence agencies, including wiretapping, mail opening, and unwitting drug testing of U.S. citizens.

The Church Committee’s final report unveiled a 1957 internal evaluation of MKUltra by the CIA’s inspector general. “Precautions must be taken,” the document warned, “to conceal these activities from the American public in general. The knowledge that the agency is engaging in unethical and illicit activities would have serious repercussions.” A 1963 review from the inspector general put it even more gravely: “A final phase of the testing of MKUltra products places the rights and interests of U.S. citizens in jeopardy.”

The Church Committee found that MKUltra had caused the deaths of at least two American citizens. One was a psychiatric patient who’d been injected with a synthetic mescaline derivative. The other was Frank Olson, a military-contracted scientist who’d been unwittingly dosed with LSD at a small agency gathering in the backwoods of Maryland presided over by Gottlieb himself. Olson fell into an irreparable depression afterward, which led him to hurl himself out the window of a New York City hotel where agents had brought him for “treatment.” (Continued investigation by Olson’s son, Eric — dramatized by Errol Morris in the series “Wormwood” — strongly suggests that the CIA arranged for the agents to fake his suicide, throwing him out of the window because they feared he would blow the whistle on MKUltra and the military’s use of biological weapons in the Korean War.)

The news of Olson’s death shocked a nation already reeling from Watergate, and now less inclined than ever to trust its institutions. The government tried to quell the controversy by passing new regulations on human experimentation. Gottlieb’s destruction of the MKUltra files was investigated by the Justice Department in 1976, but, according to the Times, “quietly dropped.” Gottlieb had testified before the Senate in 1977 only under the condition that he received criminal immunity.

The Senate demanded the formation of a federal program to locate the victims of MKUltra experiments, and to pursue criminal charges against the perpetrators. That program never coalesced. Surviving records named 80 institutions, including 44 universities and colleges, and 185 researchers, among them Louis Jolyon West. The Times identified West as one of less than a dozen suspected scientists who’d secretly participated in MKUltra under academic cover.

Yet not one researcher was ever federally investigated, nor were any victims ever notified. Despite the outrage of congressional leaders and more than three years of headlines about the brutalities of the program, no one — not the “Black Sorcerer” Sidney Gottlieb, nor senior CIA official Richard Helms, nor Jolly West — suffered any legal consequences.

This article is an adapted excerpt from “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties.”

POISONER IN CHIEF: SIDNEY GOTTLIEB AND THE CIA SEARCH FOR MIND CONTROL by Stephen Kinzer

Sidney Gottlieb, Sept. 21, 1977.
(Sidney Gottlieb, circa 1977)

Stephen Kinzer’s latest book, POISONER IN CHIEF: SIDNEY GOTTLIEB AND THE CIA SEARCH FOR MIND CONTROL is a very troubling and disconcerting book.  The fact that the United States government sanctioned a program designed to conduct what the author terms, “brain warfare” highlights a policy that allowed for torture, the use of chemicals to develop control of people’s thoughts, murder, and the disintegration of people and their quality of life making one want to question what these bureaucrats, the military, and the intelligence community as well as the president were thinking.  Those who are familiar with Kinzer’s previous works, THE BROTHERS,  a duel biography of the John Foster and Allen W. Dulles; ALL THE SHAH’S MEN, which describes the errors of American policy toward Iran and the overthrow of the Shah; BITTER FRUIT, an analysis of the CIA coup in Guatemala in 1954;  OVERTHROW, a history of CIA coups including Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, among the author’s nine books will recognize his fluid writing style, impeccable research, and pointed analysis.  In his current effort all of these qualities are readily apparent and apart from a certain amount of disgust by what they are reading you will find the book an exceptional expose.

Kinzer’s deep dive into the lethal and unscrupulous world of “brain warfare” must be seen in the context of time period that he discusses.  The United States found itself in the midst of the developing Cold War with the Soviet Union with intelligence focusing on Russian research into mind control.  With Soviet aggressiveness in Eastern Europe and beyond, the rise of Communist China, the Korean War, and the domestic ramifications of McCarthyism the mindset of the American military, intelligence organizations, and politicians were open to anything that could keen up and surpass the Communist bloc in any area that was deemed a threat to American national security.

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(Allen W. Dulles)

The story originates with World War II with German and Japanese scientists researching how people’s thoughts could be controlled and how chemical and biological weapons could be employed against civilians and soldiers.  At the outset the book focuses on how the American government handled enemy scientists following the war, particularly “Operation Paperclip,” a program to integrate captured scientists and flip them to provide their expertise and research for the United States – see Anne Jacobsen’s OPERATION PAPERCLIP and books by Ben Macintyre for a detailed description.  Many of the scientists were guilty of crimes against humanity during the war, but that did not stop what policy makers believed to be a matter of extreme importance.

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(Richard Helms)

Once Kinzer provides the origins of the programs developed he delves into the life of Sidney Gottlieb, a rather ordinary individual from the Bronx whose interest growing up included biology and chemistry which eventually led to a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin  where he would meet Ira Baldwin who would recruit him and become his boss which eventually placed Gottlieb in charge of America’s mind control program beginning with research into the application of mind altering drugs including LSD, and the title, “Poisoner-in-Chief.”

Kinzer finds Gottlieb to be a free spirit who cultivated spirituality and wanted to be close to nature as he chose a personal voyage that was remarkably unconventional.  At work he did the same; “rejecting the limits that circumscribed more conventional minds and daring to follow his endlessly fertile imagination.  This approach allowed him to conduct research into numerous areas all designed to see if a person’s thoughts and behavior could be reoriented in a way that would benefit American national security.  Kinzer will build his narrative  block upon block of the infrastructure that the CIA created to conduct its brain research.  Beginning with Operation Bluebird in 1951, which was designed to be a broad and comprehensive, involving domestic and overseas activity including “safe houses” all over the world to conduct experiments. Later the program was renamed Artichoke which would take it to the next level, and finally MK-ULTRA which would harness chemicals, biological agents, assassination, torture, and sensory deprivation in order to carry out the mission.

Image result for photo of Frank Olson
(Frank Olson)

Kinzer describes in detail the scientists and doctors involved, with particular focus on Gottlieb; the roles of CIA head Allen W. Dulles and his second in command, Richard Helms; the experiments themselves conducted with “expendables” who were likely prisoners, unsuspecting foreigners and American citizens, coopted doctors and scientists,  as well as CIA employees. The impact on people’s lives is explored in detail and in the case of Frank Olson, a scientist who had an expertise in the distribution of airborne biological germs, was involved in research who began to question his role winds up jumping out of the thirteenth floor window of a New York hotel shortly after he was given a drink laced with LSD that he was unaware of.  The programs described by Kinzer are hard to fathom and the fact that no one was held accountable is even more upsetting.

Those involved in the programs believed they were all that stood in the way between their country and devastation.  Kinzer has benefited from the Freedom of Information process, numerous interviews by participants and victims, in addition to other types of research.  His conclusions are damning and if one follows the chain of command it was President Dwight D. Eisenhower who approved experiments and the program in general.  It took the failure of the Bay of Pigs to cost Allen W. Dulles his position and later the Watergate break in which linked Gottlieb’s research and inventions to bring about a degree of change and congressional investigations.

Image result for photo of Church Hearings 1974

This resulted in the end of Gottlieb’s career as President Gerald R. Ford appointed the Rockefeller Commission to investigate actions taken by the CIA outside its charter in 1974 and finally the Church Committee hearings.  The problem for investigators was that Gottlieb had destroyed a great deal of the evidence of CIA murders, plots, and research and the 1950s and 60s.  Further, President Ford did not want too much information to enter the public realm as the Rockefeller Commission result was not as damning as it could have been.  In the end Gottlieb  would testify anonymously before Congress, but with a “grant of immunity” which protected him from prosecution.  It is interesting that by the early 1960s after years of relentless MK-ULTRA experiments Gottlieb reached the conclusion that there was no way to take control of another’s mind.

The author introduces a number of interesting and important characters into his narrative.  The saga of Frank Olson is important as it took years for the truth about his death to emerge.  George Hunter White a sadistic narcotics officer who opened a “national security whorehouse” to carry out his activities.  Dr. Carl Pfeiffer of Emory University, one of a number of psychiatrists who worked with the CIA.  John Mulholland, a magician who would write THE OFFICIAL CIA MANUAL OF TRICKERY AND DECEPTION.  Dr. Ewen Cameron of McGill University who conducted experiments at the Allen Memorial Institute in Montreal.   Whitey Bulger, the Boston mobster was a victim of one of Pfeiffer’s drug experiments.  Dr. Harold Abramson, a New York allergist who shared almost total knowledge of MK-ULTRA with Gottlieb.  John Marks, the author of THE SEARCH FOR THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.  The work of these individuals and others was very impactful for Gottlieb’s work, but in the end,  it will be for naught.

Image result for photo of sidney gottlieb's family
(Sidney Gottlieb)

Kinzer’s research brings out a number of fascinating tidbits.  First, Gottlieb developed the cyanide capsule that Francis Gary Powers was supposed to use when his U-2 plane was shot down over Russia.  Two, Gottlieb delivered and developed the poison the CIA was to use to assassinate Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1960.  Third, Gottlieb helped develop poisons designed to kill Fidel Castro.  Lastly, the drug that Gottlieb and his associates hoped would allow them to control humanity had the opposite effect.  The LSD experiments and their results would fuel a generational revolt unlike any in American history as they were popularized by the likes of Ken Kesey, the author of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST, the poet Allen Ginsberg, and Harvard professor Timothy Leary.

Related image(Senators Frank Church and John Tower during Congressional hearings into CIA activity, 1974)

Kinzer’s description and summary of results pertaining to “brainwashing” experimentation and implementation brings to the fore the paranoia of the 1950s and 60s.  It is an important book as it shows how the government can engage in processes that violate the civil rights of Americans as well as foreigners on their own soil, in addition to the numerous deaths that took place.  It remains astounding that Gottlieb’s successors would resort to other types of illegal activities like waterboarding in addition to other techniques from an earlier period, again in the name of national security.  Detention centers and CIA “black sites” for rendition of prisoners, the Phoenix Program in Vietnam,  Guantanamo Bay etc. are all legacies of Gottlieb’s work.  Kinzer takes the reader to some very interesting places both inside and outside the human psych with Sidney Gottlieb as our guide, but in the end his contribution to our knowledge of the period is greatly enhanced and it makes for an amazing read.

Sidney Gottlieb, Sept. 21, 1977.
(Sidney Gottlieb, 1977)

SCHLESINGER: THE IMPERIAL HISTORIAN by Richard Aldous

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(President John F. Kennedy and Arthur M. Schlesinger)

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary a “gadfly” is a person who stimulates or annoys other people especially by persistent criticism.”  According to Richard Aldous, in his new biography, SCHLESINGER: THE IMPERIAL HISTORIAN, the definition fits Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s role as Special Assistant to the President during the Kennedy administration.  Aldous’ work is the first full-length biography of Schlesinger and he successfully grapples with a number of questions as his narrative unfolds.  First, was Schlesinger a great and important historian, a model of how academics and public service can mix?  Second,  was he a popularizer and court historian held captive to the establishment that nurtured his career?  After reading Aldous’ monograph there is no conclusive answer and elements of each question make up Schlesinger’s academic career at Harvard, as well as a speech writer and advisor to President Kennedy.  However, Aldous ably balances his subject’s talent as a writer of historical monographs and speeches with a clear acknowledgement of his shortcomings as a political analyst and aide.

My interest in Schlesinger dates back to a debate between Schlesinger and William F. Buckley, the editor of the National Review and the preeminent voice of conservatism during his lifetime.  I was a college senior and witnessed their give and take as I watched how Buckley goaded Schlesinger as the spokesperson for a liberal internationalist foreign policy as well as social engineering.  My memory points to an academic who had difficulty keeping up with Buckley and the scenes described by Aldous in the book provides further evidence as to how Buckley would get under Schlesinger’s skin.

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(Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr.)

Aldous’ work describes a young man who was guided by his father, Arthur M. Schlesinger, a Harvard professor and distinguished historian.  Along with his father, Harvard connections would guide Schlesinger through the world of academia as well as other aspects of his life, for example, his work with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) at the end of the war.  When Schlesinger felt uncomfortable in a position, his Harvard connections and relationships would ease him into a more favorable position.  Aldous explores the evolution of Schlesinger’s intellectual and ideological development very carefully honing in on the influence of his father, his attachment to Adlai Stevenson who twice ran unsuccessfully for president, a diverse group of Harvard academics like John Kenneth Galbraith and others, and the lessons learned as he tried to navigate his role in the Kennedy administration where he was seen as part of the liberal establishment in what was really a conservative leaning presidency.

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(Kennedy speech writer, Theodore Sorenson)

From the outset we see the young Schlesinger using his father as a role model.  Once he made the decision to attend Harvard and use “Jr.” as part of his legal name he was inevitably seem as “the sorcerer’s apprentice” in relation to his father.  Schlesinger would achieve early academic success with the publication of ORESTES BROWNSON: A PILGRIMS PROGRESS a book about  a convert who attempted unsuccessfully to liberalize and Americanize the Catholic Church. But the work that placed him on the academic ladder was his AGE OF JACKSON published in 1945 which moved away from Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” by emphasizing the national character of the western frontier that included urban workers, small farmers, and intellectuals in the Northeast.  Schlesinger would present Jacksonianism as a forerunner of the Progressive Era and the New Deal in attempting to restrain the power of the business community.

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Aldous’ work is in part an intellectual history as he follows the thesis of a number of important historians who came to the fore in the 1930s who impacted Schlesinger’s work.  At the end of World War II, Schlesinger’s academic bonafede’s would be enhanced with the completion of his seminal work THE VITAL CENTER which defends liberal democracy and a state-regulated market economy against the totalitarianism of communism and fascism.   As Schlesinger has written, “it is the very process of democracy itself, not perfect ends, which forms the bulwark against totalitarianism.”  The book that Schlesinger is most noted for is his chronicle of the Kennedy administration, A THOUSAND DAYS which earned him the nickname as the “court historian” for the abbreviated presidency.  As Aldous points out the book was to be a “legacy project” for Jacqueline Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and the book that resulted, completed a year after the assassination, “endures as a masterly portrait of a man that its author believed had been the perfect leader for a nation in the nuclear age and the zenith of its prosperity and global sway.”*

Aldous has prepared a thoroughly researched work with many insights into Schlesinger’s personal life, academic career, and public role. He introduces numerous stories and individuals that enhance the narrative. His competition with Theodore Sorenson during the Kennedy administration is a case in point as the two men vied for the primary role as the president’s speech writer.  Sorenson emerges as somewhat of a control freak who resented Schlesinger and did his best to make him as irrelevant as possible.  Another prominent individual that Schlesinger held in low opinion was Secretary of State Dean Rusk who he viewed as weak, lacking a backbone in debating issues and formulating policy. The publication of the first three volumes of the AGE OF ROOSEVELT which was supposed to run five volumes is a turning point for Schlesinger as he crystalized the war between liberalism and business-dominated conservatism, and ultimately the collapse of faith in business led to the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Aldous effectively dissects the published three volumes which were all published by 1957.

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During that time Schlesinger worked to elect Adlai Stevenson as president as one of his major speech writers and advisors.  The relationship between the two men occupies a great deal of the narrative as the Kennedy people eventually saw Stevenson as weak and too liberal.  In fact, Aldous points out that Schlesinger was tasked to control Stevenson’s high moral tone during the Cuban Missile Crisis and make sure he was strong enough against the Soviet Union in the United Nations Security Council.  Schlesinger’s main problem in the Kennedy administration was his links to Stevenson’s presidential runs and the fact that conservatives within the administration saw him as a liberal in the mold of the eastern establishment.  Despite this, Schlesinger developed a good personal and working relationship with Kennedy even though he believed there were too many conservatives and Republicans in the administration.  He did have a great deal of access to Kennedy as the president enjoyed their discussions of history and ideas and wanted to be remembered as a great president and therefore, he thought it was wise to have in attendance a great historian as he saw Schlesinger as having a keen mind who drew parallels between events of the day and past historical events and figures.

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During the Kennedy administration Schlesinger fulfilled his role as a gadfly.  As a Special Assistant to the President he had no specific role and tended to delve into areas of interest as well as those assigned to him.  His views on the planning and outcome of the Bay of Pigs fiasco were dead on and Kennedy would ask him to analyze how the CIA and decision-making in general could be reformed or improved.  During the Berlin Crisis he advocated giving Khrushchev an out as not to humiliate him and possibly cause a war. He was involved in the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty debate but was kept to the side except for his role as “keeper of the UN Ambassador” during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Schlesinger had limited interest in Southeast Asia and opted out on the issue of Vietnam which are an indication of the limitations of his role as special advisor without any particular portfolio.  If there is a weakness in Aldous coverage is his short shrift in discussing the burgeoning Civil Rights movement and the legislation that emanated from the Kennedy administration and other domestic issues that Schlesinger prepared speeches for.  But overall, Schlesinger’s role in the administration was impactful and somewhat influential, despite the fact it took him a long time to learn how to navigate the positives and pitfalls of a public career.

It is unfortunate that Aldous rushes through Schlesinger’s last four decades, devoting little space to works such as THE IMPERIAL PRESIDENCY, CYCLES IN AMERICAN HISTORY, THE DISUNITING OF AMERICA and his biography of Robert Kennedy.  In doing so “he misses the opportunity to examine how Schlesinger’s gradual loss of intellectual influence mirrored the crisis of American liberalism itself.”*  Despite this shortcoming, Aldous has written the preeminent biography of a fascinating career.

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(Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and President John F. Kennedy)

*Michael Kazin, “A Liberal Historian’s Imprint on Mid-Century America,” New York Times, November 2, 2017.

THE SIBERIAN DILEMMA by Martin Cruz Smith

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A number of years ago novelist Martin Cruz Smith introduced readers to Moscow detective Arkady Renko in his landmark work, GORKY PARK.  Since that time Smith has developed the reputation as the premier practitioner of the Russian crime novel that includes POLAR STAR, STALIN’S GHOST, TATIANA, and WOLVES EAT DOGS.  Smith’s latest and ninth rendition of the Renko series is THE SIBERIAN DILEMMA which measures up nicely with his previous work, but it is a bit understated and does not rise to the level of intensity as a number of other works.

The story takes place mostly in the Siberian city of Chita and Lake Baikal as Renko is confronted with trying to keep his “girlfriend” journalist Tatiana Petrovna safe, carrying out the wishes of his boss, State Prosecutor Zurin, and untangling the machinations of Russian oligarchs, Mikhail Kuznetsov, referred to as “the hermit billionaire,” and Boris Benz.  Renko remains the irreverent character he has projected in other novels as he continues his humorous sarcasm amongst his constant wisecracks particularly targeting Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian system of justice as is highlighted by the false arrest of Aba Makhmud, a Chechen falsely accused of trying to assassinate State Prosecutor Zurin.

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(Lake Baikal, Russia, the deepest lake in the world)

Smith provides the underside of Putin’s Moscow as oppressive policing, corruption, illegal wealth and other such issues are obvious to the reader.  The plot centers on Tatiana’s research and writing and Renko’s need to protect her.  Tatiana has traveled to Siberia covering a story centering Kuznetsov who is an idealistic oligarch (an oxymoron!) who has spent five years in prison after criticizing Putin and his cronies but is a candidate for president.  Tatiana is helping to edit a book Kuznetsov is writing, but the oligarch has a relationship with Boris Benz, a more traditional oligarch who is only out for himself and his money.  The problem is that as Victor, Renko’s partner points out “Tatiana is fatally attracted to dangerous stories, and you are attracted to her.  It makes for inevitable consequences.”

It is clear that both oligarchs have their own agendas and as usual in dealing with Russia it involves oil.  The question for Renko is that he does not know who he can trust as well as being inhibited by the fact he is in love with Tatiana.  As usual, as in other Renko novels he becomes flummoxed before he sharpens his perspective as the plot reaches a new level of suspense as the extraction of natural resources dominates.

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Smith introduces a number of new characters, chief among them is Rinchin Bolot who Renko met on the flight to Siberia.  Bolot describes himself as a “factotum,” or “a general servant,”  as well as a shaman.  Bolot will make himself indispensable to Renko and he seems to turn up at the most important parts of the story and Renko could not have survived without him.  Another interesting character is Saran, a pretty young lady who manages the Admiral Kolchak Hotel in Chita and will develop a warm relationship with Renko.

Smith’s 9th installment is a thriller by definition, but for most of the book is on a meandering path, and one wonders when the author will turn up the suspense a notch.  About two thirds of the way into the book he finally does, as Renko is attacked by a bear while at the same time there is an important assassination.  Aside from bears, Renko’s biggest problem is the box that Zurin has placed him.  Despite this uptick in suspense the story remains uneven.  But, despite this weakness Smith has written a fine novel that should not disappoint his readership – but then again it might.

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THE FIRST STONE by Carsten Jensen

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(Helmand Province, Afghanistan)

After eighteen years of combat in Afghanistan the war grinds on.  The Taliban has reemerged, and it appears that a negotiated solution with some sort of governmental power sharing is far in the future, if ever.  The war has produced a number of important novels like Elliot Ackerman’s GREEN ON BLUE, John Renehan’s THE VALLEY, and Nadeem Aslam’s THE BLIND MAN’S GARDEN.  The latest entry into this genre recently translated from Danish is Carsten Jensen’s THE FIRST STONE.  The book is exceptional, and it presents the Danish perspective on the war when most books on Afghanistan tend to focus on American soldiers.  Jensen is able to show that there is a universality when to comes to combat in Afghanistan dealing with numerous warlords and the Taliban that knows no delineation between the nationalities of NATO members who conduct the fighting.

At the outset Jensen, who has visited Afghanistan since the 1980s and the Soviet occupation numerous times, focuses on the camaraderie that exists among members of Third Platoon.  Each character is introduced and the interplay between them reflects how they believe in and support each other.  There are a number of important individuals that emerge; Andreas, a.k.a. “side kick” a filmographer who carries his camera everywhere creating a video record of the war.  Rasmus Schroder, the platoon leader, a former video gamer with a strange approach to warfare and life in general will become a major actor in Jensen’s plot.  Lukas Moller, the chaplain leads his men through the daily crisis of war shifting his beliefs from situation to situation.  Hannah, the only woman in the platoon appears to be ensconced in an emotional straight jacket.  Colonel Ove Steffenson, the Platoon Commander will make some poor decisions that affect everyone, and Naib Atmar, an Afghan warlord who for a time worked well with Steffenson.  Another major character is Sara, a former medical student from Kabul whose family is wiped out by the Taliban.  She is forced to marry a warlord and gives birth to a son which along with the war traumatized her and will lead her to a mystical self that impact all around her.  Lastly, Khaiber, a Danish-Afghani who is a member of the Danish Secret Service who is tasked to investigate the platoon when everything seems to go wrong.  His task becomes increasingly complex when his father, a mujahedeen enters the picture.

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Jensen leads the reader on a fascinating journey of men in combat.  First, he explores the special relationship among the soldiers.  Second, he places the platoon in a combat situation when two members are killed and how the platoon deals with their loss.  Third, the linkage between the war they engage in each day, and the developing violence at home.  It appears they are now fighting terrorists in theater as well as in Denmark.  Lastly, the ambush that kills thirteen members and what it does to the remainder of the unit.  It seems that a traitor may have been involved and what should be done about it dominates a large part of the story.  Steffensen as commander faces numerous crises; the deaths of the local mayor, his interpreter, civilians, and his own men creates questions of leadership and how to rectify a bad situation.

Jensen seems to cover every angle of the war. The relationship between violence at home and in Afghanistan dominates.  He explores why someone might become a traitor and what that individual hopes to gain from it.   Soldiers receive a great deal of training, but they cannot be trained to deal with every situation – how do platoon members react and cope?  How does one quantify leadership, effectiveness and failure?  What is the difference between a Taliban member setting off an IED with a cell phone and a drone dropping bombs seemingly out of nowhere?  The author develops the role of DarkSky, a Blackwater type company led by Mr. Timothy who has contracts with the US military.  The role of outsourcing the war is an important aspect of the novel.  Further, Jensen zeroes in on certain characters and pays particular attention to Hannah whose love obsession will be replaced by hatred and the need for vengeance and what it does to her and her compatriots.  Hannah is transformed from being emotionally involved with someone and being a subservient soldier to a woman with “blood lust,” which is very disconcerting as these feelings spread throughout the platoon.

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(Danish soldiers in Afghanistan)

The author pinpoints the evolution of the Danish platoon from a more “humane” approach to war to a more negative attitude towards the Afghans, particularly when they return home from Christmas leave after confronting accidents and deaths at home.  This can be seen in the tone of Chaplain Moller’s sermons as he has moved on from books and science fiction to domestic killing and the need to protect Denmark from terrorists.  The result is attendance at sermons skyrockets as he tries to equate the 1525 German Peasants Revolt/Thirty Years War to 9/11 and the period that followed.  The novels strength is that it zeroes in on the crisis of conscience that soldiers experience in Afghanistan and how it affects them emotionally on a daily basis.  Each character has to learn to mourn, accept the unacceptable, and learn to move on and carry out their duties, which at times makes them behave rather erratically.

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(Carsten Jensen, author)

The crisis of confidence is evident early on when Girishk Mayor Ali Shar, a purist who believes in the common people and democracy refuses to make deals with the Danes.  Steffensen will come to agreements with warlords, but he cannot develop a relationship with the Mayor who will be assassinated, probably by the local police commissioner.  The corruption of Afghanistan abounds, the results of an American bomb going astray killing numerous Afghan civilians whose relatives are paid for their lives, the horrors of war as seen through the eyes of Simon, the medical assistant, and the Taliban tribunal whose sentences seem barbaric to foreigners, but justice to Afghanis brings the novel a high degree of tension throughout.   These situations are all present for the reader to digest raising the question; why are we still there?

According to Tobias Grey in his September 1, 2019 New York Times book review;

Jensen likes to give his fiction an epic sweep. This worked well in his 2006 novel, WHY WE DROWNED which has, according to his publisher, sold more than a half million copies worldwide in 20 languages. But unlike that novel, which kept skillful control of its seafaring narrative, “The First Stone” is sabotaged by too many baggy subplots. It’s also stomach-churningly violent. The biblical heft of Jensen’s title suggests what he’s searching for, but far too often the narrative devolves into a gruesome parade of suffering.

The savagery of ordinary Afghans toward their enemies appears to know no bounds. Mutilated victims are scattered everywhere: “The villagers have flayed the skin loose from the middle of the forehead and rolled it down to the chin; it resembles a rubber mask pulled halfway down by an exhausted carnival worker.” Truth or fiction? Whatever the answer, Jensen’s novel coldly depicts a region that remains stubbornly cast in Rudyard Kipling’s mold.

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(Helmand Province, Afghanistan)

STAR OF THE NORTH by D. B. John

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(Kim Jong-il)

At a time when Donald Trump refers to North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-un, as a man he admires greatly despite the fact that his military keeps testing rockets over the Sea of Japan, it is fortuitous that a novel has appeared that delves into the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea.  D.B. John’s second novel STAR OF THE NORTH focuses on the authoritarian reign of Kim Jung-Il during 2010 and 2011 before Kim Jong-un took over the leadership role.  John integrates a number of important aspects of the Kim regime throughout the novel.  He explores the slave labor system, the rocket program that raises fears of nuclear weapons, the paranoia that is ever present among North Korea’s population, the class system that has party elites dominating the ruling structure, and the chemical warfare threat that North Korea presents.  John’s insights into the system rises from a series of interesting characters that he has created, a number of which reflect real people who have survived the North Korean regime.

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(Current leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un)

John, one of the few westerners to have visited North Korea begins his story in June 1998 as two students at Sangmyong University, Park Jae-hoan and Williams Soo-min are spending an afternoon at Condol Beach on Baengnyeong picnicking and taking photographs.  In the midst of their reverie they disappear.  The Inchon Metropolitan Police and the South Korean Coast Guard conclude after an exhaustive search that they must have drowned and end their investigation.  But, did they really disappear?  More importantly, why?

Twelve years later Charles Fisk, a CIA operative visits Dr. Jenna Williams, an Assistant Professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and the sister of Williams Soo-min.  Fisk is out to recruit Williams using her missing twin sister as bait.  From this point on John develops his plot line with three separate tracks that will come together very nicely.  First, the road Jenna Williams chooses is giving up her professorship and joins the CIA in an attempt to locate her sister when she learns that she had been kidnaped twelve years earlier.  Second, is the path taken by Cho Sang-ho, an official in the North Korean Foreign Ministry with the equivalent rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, who is sent to the United States to negotiate with the Americans at the United Nations.  Lastly, the life of Moon Song-de, a poor peasant woman who sold food and other items under a bridge in Pyongyang with other poverty-stricken individuals in an effort to survive as she wages her own personal battle against the state.

Image result for satellite photos of north korea prison camps(Satellite image of North Korean slave labor camp)

John does an exceptional job focusing on the machinations of North and South Korea.  Further, his exploration of the lives of everyday North Koreans who deal with oppression, lack of food bordering on starvation, and the anxiety of never knowing what will be ordered by “Dear Leader” is eye opening.  John’s effort is enhanced by an appendix where he describes North Korean personages, missile programs, the cult of Kim, kidnaping of foreigners, the Gulag/slave system, guilt by association and other aspects of life in North Korea.

One of the strengths of John’s novel apart from the superb story he has created that borders on contemporary realism is relating how the “Hermit Kingdom” functioned.  Whether discussing the hierarchic nature of the Communist Party that ruled the country, the vast Gulag/prison slave system, or how Pyongyang conducted its foreign policy the detail and accuracy of daily life within this paranoid dictatorship is exceptional.  Each character has a role to play as the horrors of North Korea emerge and affect them all as John takes the reader inside Camp 22, an element of the surreal world of slave labor that dominates Kim’s prison state in a graphic manner.

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(Satellite image of North Korean slave labor camp)

A surprising aspect of North Korean life that John puts on full display is the leaderships emphasis on “pure” bloodlines and its own paranoia when it comes to the United States and the west.  John has the rhetoric of the North Korean Communist Party down to a tee and expresses the realism that pervades the novel.  The voyage taken by Jenna Williams is heartwarming and cutthroat and lends itself to an engrossing story that is ongoing as I write.

Patrick Anderson concludes in his Washington Post (May 17, 2018) review that “STAR OF THE NORTH builds to a gripping climax. Cho, having escaped the prison camp, is desperately trying to reach China, even as Jenna, still searching for her sister, sets out to confront the Dear Leader himself. Can either possibly survive? It’s an exciting ending to a novel that, in addition to being highly entertaining, suggests the difficulties we face in dealing with a small, distant nation with values and beliefs so different from our own.”

Image result for photo of Kim jong-il(Kim Jong-il)