Guest Host: Steve Roberts

Cover illustration from "Red Sparrow" by Jason Matthews.

Cover illustration from "Red Sparrow" by Jason Matthews.

Jason Matthews, a first-time author out with a debut spy novel, knows what he’s writing about. Matthews is a retired CIA officer with 33 years of experience collecting national security intelligence overseas. Like Ian Fleming, the former British spy who wrote the James Bond novels, Matthews packs insider details of spy techniques into his fiction. The novel pits a beautiful Russian agent against an ambitious rookie CIA officer who handles the agency’s most important Russian mole. Matthews talks about his novel, “Red Sparrow,” and the secret world of espionage.

Guests

  • Jason Matthews author and former CIA officer.

Read An Excerpt From The Book

Excerpt from “Red Sparrow” by Jason Matthews. Copyright 2013 by Jason Matthews. Reprinted here by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved.

Transcript

  • 11:06:57

    MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts of George Washington University sitting in today for Diane. Russian intelligence officer Dominika Egorova is struggling to survive in the post-Soviet intelligence jungle. It is present-day Russia. She's ordered against her will to become a trained seductress. She's assigned to operate against Nathaniel Nash, the young CIA officer who handles the agency's most important Russian mole.

  • 11:07:25

    MR. STEVE ROBERTSThis is how the debut novel by retired CIA officer Jason Matthews begins. The title is "Red Sparrow" and Jason Matthews is here with me in the studio. Welcome, nice to have you.

  • 11:07:35

    MR. JASON MATTHEWSNice to be here, thank you.

  • 11:07:36

    ROBERTSCongratulations on the book.

  • 11:07:37

    MATTHEWSThank you.

  • 11:07:38

    ROBERTSAlready bought for a movie I hear?

  • 11:07:43

    MATTHEWSIn process, yes.

  • 11:07:44

    ROBERTSYou can join my conversation with Jason Matthews. Please do at 1-800-433-8850, drshow@wamu.org is our email address and of course send us messages through Facebook, Twitter and any other system you want to use. Are CIA agents, Jason, like journalists, they all want to write a novel when they retire?

  • 11:08:08

    MATTHEWSWell, I don't. I don't think they all want to write a novel. In my case, after 33 years in the agency it's a very experiential kind of career, much like a journalist or a policeman or fireman. And so at retirement it's write a book, start a Putin scrapbook or go fishing and I don't fish.

  • 11:08:33

    ROBERTSBut did you, while you were serving did you collect notes? Did you start thinking about a plot or was this just post-retirement?

  • 11:08:42

    MATTHEWSAbsolutely post-retirement, it's very difficult to write any kind of a fictional novel when you're active-duty.

  • 11:08:50

    ROBERTSBecause?

  • 11:08:50

    MATTHEWSWell, the crush of business and then the security aspects of it, the novel itself was approved, every comma, every period by the Publication Review Board of the agency. So they wanted to make sure that I did not inadvertently disclose sources and methods.

  • 11:09:10

    ROBERTSBut I was a little surprised when I read that because there are a lot of detailed descriptions of tradecraft and methods. Was there anything they told you that you couldn't do?

  • 11:09:23

    MATTHEWSVery little, a couple of little redactions and once again it was protecting sources and methods but for the most part a lot of the tradecraft is old, classic stuff that's been, was done since the biblical times.

  • 11:09:38

    ROBERTSBut other CIA officers have had more trouble with this review board. Were you pleasantly surprised that they were reasonable with you?

  • 11:09:46

    MATTHEWSI was pleasantly surprised and I think that much of the cooperation from the PRB was because this was a fictional novel. A lot of retired CIA officers write sort of autobiographical novels, you know how wonderful I was and how important I was and those are very problematic.

  • 11:10:06

    ROBERTSWell, talking about your career at the CIA, I'm sure one of the things listeners would be interested in is sort of how does someone become a spy? Tell us your background and how this. I know you're Greek-American and speak Greek and this was one of you know, the connections you had, but talk about that.

  • 11:10:26

    MATTHEWSWell, back then 33 years ago and to this present day, one applies to the CIA as much as you apply to anything. There's a lot of interviewing, a lot of assessment, background investigation. If you pass through many of the checks you're offered employment.

  • 11:10:45

    ROBERTSBut what motivated you?

  • 11:10:46

    MATTHEWSFor me, I graduated. I got a master's degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and I went to Washington and started interviewing for jobs. Had it gone another way I could have been writing copy for the National Forest Service.

  • 11:11:02

    ROBERTSBut you had an uncle who influenced you I gather?

  • 11:11:05

    MATTHEWSI did. I had an uncle who was an ambassador in the State Department and he hosted me when I was newly in Washington and got me the interview, among other places, at the agency.

  • 11:11:20

    ROBERTSAnd I know within the limits of, there are certain things you can't talk about including exactly where you served for the agency but basically what did you do?

  • 11:11:26

    MATTHEWSWell, CIA officers and there's a little lexicon note, a lot of people say that we are CIA agents. The word 'agent' at least in the CIA's dictionary refers to the foreigners we recruit who have access to secrets that we need to formulate U.S. policy. So a CIA case officer is how we refer to ourselves, is basically a clandestine journalist, to put it a little bit more succinctly we steal secrets. We steal secrets to inform the U.S. policy maker to formulate cogent foreign policy.

  • 11:12:08

    ROBERTSAnd did you mainly operate undercover?

  • 11:12:09

    MATTHEWSMostly yes, out of embassies, around the world, eight hours a day I did a State Department job and then, you know, at night we started skulking.

  • 11:12:23

    ROBERTSYou mentioned some of the tradecraft you talked about in the book since the two main characters here, one is a Russian case officer and one is an American. But is the reader going to be getting an accurate picture of what life is really like as a clandestine officer or is it inflated for literary reasons?

  • 11:12:49

    MATTHEWSWell, there's obviously a little bit of inflation and a little bit of sort of romantic license but for the most part one of my goals in writing this was to put in real tradecraft, really authentic details and a lot of the to and fro about how difficult it is to separate targets and recruit people.

  • 11:13:15

    MATTHEWSFor instance if there's a foreign correspondent in Moscow who asks the Soviet foreign minister what Russia's gas policy is, he will say, well we're committed to providing Europe and the Baltics and the Caucuses with plentiful and inexpensive gas and oil. That's public policy.

  • 11:13:36

    MATTHEWSJohn Kerry, the Secretary of State asked Secretary Lavrov the next day what's your gas and oil policy? And he will say, we will provide Europe with a steady supply of gas and oil provided that you shut down the missile defense installations in the Czech Republic and Poland. That is bilateral policy.

  • 11:13:56

    MATTHEWSThat night, behind the soccer stadium at midnight Jason talks to Secretary Lavrov's personal secretary and finds out that Russia/Moscow is basically talking to Beijing about selling the majority of its gas and oil to China.

  • 11:14:09

    ROBERTSSo really the, some of the skills you learned at the University of Missouri at the Graduate School of Journalism served you well? I mean data collection is data collection, right?

  • 11:14:21

    MATTHEWSAbsolutely and it's all about sources.

  • 11:14:23

    ROBERTSYeah.

  • 11:14:23

    MATTHEWSYou're looking for sources. You're trying to determine what motivates the sources, what access to information they have. Then you protect your sources and you write the stories.

  • 11:14:33

    ROBERTSOf course there's a long tradition of former case officers, to use your word, writing spy novels. Ian Fleming, of course, comes to mind, John le Carre. Have you read those authors? Do you think that they bring any kind of special inside or authenticity to this genre that you hope to duplicate?

  • 11:14:56

    MATTHEWSI absolutely do. I read voraciously and those fellows you mentioned and others are the gold standard. There was a fellow who was very involved in, previously in intelligence, John McCarry, an American who writes fantastic novels. Le Carre is the gold standard.

  • 11:15:16

    MATTHEWSIan Fleming, as flamboyant as his novels sometimes are actually was very, very well-informed. His novel "From Russia with Love" is a fantastic description of an exfiltration operation.

  • 11:15:28

    ROBERTSSo, pretty accurate?

  • 11:15:31

    MATTHEWSVery accurate and in my view there are a lot of fantastic writers and I read a lot of the espionage thrillers. The ones at the top of the list in my estimation are the ones who actually have done it.

  • 11:15:45

    ROBERTSThere was also a British woman who, I think, was head of MI5 who wrote a novel which was pretty good.

  • 11:15:51

    MATTHEWSYes, absolutely, Lisa Baningham (sp?) I think.

  • 11:15:52

    ROBERTSYeah, yeah.

  • 11:15:52

    MATTHEWSShe's written several of them, too. Also Charles Cumming, another British writer, writes very good novels and he was in MI6.

  • 11:16:03

    ROBERTSNow, someone might say to you, well Russia, I mean isn't that old news? The setting of your novel of course is Russia as we've said. You know, so many of the more modern novels are focused on the Islamic world and why go back to Russia? Why is that the setting that compelled you?

  • 11:16:21

    MATTHEWSWell, just by what you said. I read a lot of the novels and it's usually, it is counter-terrorism. It is a crazed terrorist with a briefcase nuclear bomb and you have 12 hours to find it. And the hero is always usually ex-CIA or ex-FBI and he's being hunted by his own former colleagues and I just thought a return to the classic...

  • 11:16:44

    ROBERTSAnd Matt Damon is going to play him in the movie?

  • 11:16:46

    MATTHEWSExactly, and Angelina Jolie as his bipolar wife and I thought that it would be refreshing to get back to the old Cold War.

  • 11:16:57

    ROBERTSWhy?

  • 11:16:58

    MATTHEWSWell, because there's a lot of debate that the Cold War never ended and there's a lot of discussion about the new Cold War and about Russian President Vladimir Putin and what he's doing. And we've seen also in the news from the illegals who were expelled three years from New York to the young man, allegedly a CIA officer who was caught several months ago in Moscow, ambushed I might add, to the Snowden case. This great game continues and it never ends.

  • 11:17:29

    ROBERTSYou and your publicist must have been thrilled when Snowden showed up in Moscow saying, yes, this is going to validate our book a little bit.

  • 11:17:38

    MATTHEWSWell, I sent thanks every day to Vladimir Putin for being Vladimir Putin.

  • 11:17:44

    ROBERTSAnd the title of this book "Red Sparrow," explain what a sparrow is in spy-talk.

  • 11:17:51

    MATTHEWSWell, in the clunky days of the Cold War in the '60s and '70s. the Soviets actually had a school in Kazan, it's a city in Tartarstan where they taught women the art of espionage seduction and they were called sparrows. Their male counterparts were called ravens. And for instance, ravens recruited a lot of West German women for intelligence purposes. So "Red Sparrow" sort of is the (word?) of them.

  • 11:18:27

    ROBERTSI'm going to ask you when we come back whether you were ever the target of a sparrow, but you can think about your answer. Jason Matthews, 33 years in the CIA as a case officer, he's written a new novel, his first novel "Red Sparrow" and Jason and I are going to be back with your calls and your comments. We have some lines open 1-800-433-8850, drshow@wamu.org. I'm Steve Roberts, you stay with us. Jason and I will be right back.

  • 11:20:05

    ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. And my guest this hour is Jason Matthews, first-time novelist, longtime CIA case officer. His novel is "Red Sparrow." It's set in Russia, at least in part, also in Greece, an area you know well and I know well. We both served there at different times in our careers. And we were talking about your decision to sort of set this in the old world.

  • 11:20:36

    ROBERTSThe old world of Russia-U.S. relations. But the new world of Vladimir Putin. And he emerges as an important character. Now I know you've never met him. But you had to draw a picture of him. How did you do that?

  • 11:20:49

    MATTHEWSWell, mostly through research and he's very well-covered world figure and world leader. I thought it was very interesting that in the old Soviet Union, it was the Politburo protecting world communism or trying to engender world communism. For Vladimir Putin, it's the politics of gas and oil. It's about regaining the majesty of the old Soviet Union. It's about controlling his internal dissidence, his domestic narrative.

  • 11:21:19

    MATTHEWSA great part of that is vilifying the United States and it's about him keeping his hand in the game. Sponsorship of client states such as Iran and Syria. The Russians still want to have a part in the game.

  • 11:21:36

    ROBERTSAnd are there are still agents like your main character, Dominika Egorova, out there?

  • 11:21:43

    MATTHEWSWell, I don't know. I've been out of the game for over three years. But I can guarantee you that there are, yes.

  • 11:21:49

    ROBERTSAnd give us a sense of how you do this character and it's always a question for a man to get inside the head of a woman, particularly a young woman. Talk about how you develop this character. Was she based on people you've met or no?

  • 11:22:07

    MATTHEWSNot based on anybody I met. All of the characters obviously are 100 percent fictional. But, you know, I was informed by 33 years of experience of meeting people, both foreigners and colleagues within the agency. As I wrote it, Nathaniel Nash, the male protagonist was sort of the main character and Dominika evolved and basically took over the book.

  • 11:22:32

    ROBERTSBecause of her dynamism? Because she just was a character that you found more compelling? Many novelists have said this that, you know, characters take on a life of their own. That's a common comment and it happened to you.

  • 11:22:44

    MATTHEWSIt did, indeed. And Dominika forced to attend Sparrow school. She was a ballerina previously. Her career was suddenly ended. There are lots of stories of ballerinas losing their careers overnight. What else to do? Dominika's uncle is a deputy in the ESPR, the new KGB. Forced to go to Sparrow school and in dignity forced to participate in honey trap operations. And then put up against Nathaniel Nash, and then everything goes wrong.

  • 11:23:17

    ROBERTSAnd now, as I said, I'm going to ask you this question. This honey trap concept, common in many novels, many movies. We've seen this many times. Is it real? Does that happen?

  • 11:23:27

    MATTHEWSIt does happen.

  • 11:23:28

    ROBERTSDid it ever happen to you?

  • 11:23:29

    MATTHEWSNo, unfortunately.

  • 11:23:31

    ROBERTSBut guys talk, right?

  • 11:23:34

    MATTHEWSAbsolutely. And women talk too. And one of the four major motivators, human motivators are, you know, money, ideology, conscience and ego. And ego is part of sort of the sexual entrapment component. And it's very difficult to run a honey trap against a trained intelligence officer because all the warning signs and et cetera. But for a businessman in a foreign country, foreign country X doesn't have to be Russia.

  • 11:24:07

    MATTHEWSThere's a lot of vulnerability out there. And laptops are left in hotel rooms and pillow talk and it's still a technique.

  • 11:24:16

    ROBERTSNow one of the things you mentioned, Jason Matthews, is that you really tried to make the trade craft authentic. And one of the really kind of weird but fascinating devices you talk about is spy dust. And something that the Russians used to try to make sure that their own agents are not consorting with the other side. Give us that as an example of something that really operates in the real world.

  • 11:24:46

    MATTHEWSRight. In the '80s we started getting indications that our officers -- actually the entire embassy staff in Moscow was picking up this spy dust. The Russians called it METKA. It's a chemical compound called NPPD. And Russian technicians would squirt it on stirring wheels, on car floor mats, on doorknobs, on clothing. And if they had contact with a Russian citizen and that Russian citizen ever fell under suspicion and they fluoresced the Russian's clothes or desk or doorknobs and it showed positive for spy dust, they knew then, prima facie, that they had been in contact with the Americans who had been spritz.

  • 11:25:35

    ROBERTSAnd that's for real? I mean, that's not an Ian Fleming, James Bond, you know, fantasy.

  • 11:25:39

    MATTHEWSYou can research spy dust and read the whole story.

  • 11:25:45

    ROBERTSOne of the interesting dimensions here that is perhaps less believable because -- and I don't want to give away the whole plot of the book, it's a great thriller. But there's a mole on the American side who turns out to be a high ranking American. Now, of course, we have had the stories of the Aldrich Ameses and the Robert Hanssens. Was that part of your inspiration in terms of creating someone on the American side who's working for the Russians?

  • 11:26:16

    MATTHEWSAbsolutely. The concept of a mole is I think one of the most evocative things in this permanent romance of the spy genre. There's someone amongst us trusted who has all the secrets, who is talking to the opposition. And if you talk to especially retired counterintelligence folks, they say that over the decades there has always been little wisps and little trails, nothing proven, of people in very high positions who have strayed.

  • 11:26:51

    ROBERTSAnd of course this is a particularly vibrant theme in British society, right? And British spy novels. I mean, John le Carre, moles are at the center of "Tinker Taylor" and a lot of his great books. But of course that did happen within a number of cases of British officers turned out to have been spies. And so there's a very real life model for that.

  • 11:27:18

    MATTHEWSThat's right. The Cambridge Five obviously, Kim Philby among others. But there have been lots of other cases. I don't know if there's any more British moles than there were Americans. But MI6, as an organization, still operates with that historical burden.

  • 11:27:39

    ROBERTSNow one of the interesting dimensions of your life as it relates to your work is also you met and married a fellow agent. And that's not very common, I gather.

  • 11:27:48

    MATTHEWSIt isn't. I met my wife during my first tour and we -- she retired recently also after 34 years. We worked together, we worked apart. We are called a tandem couple in the CIA, and it's not too common. Most CIA couples are, one spouse or the other is the action officer and the other one is just a civilian spouse. But being married to someone who's also working in the operations directorate was a tremendous advantage for us.

  • 11:28:23

    MATTHEWSWe gave dinner parties and we developed sources and we did lots of things. You could draw, I guess, the parallel to a married couple who are both journalists.

  • 11:28:36

    ROBERTSOf course I am married to a journalist. And one of the things that my wife and I have always said to each other for all of the disadvantages that can involve. The one thing neither one of us can ever say to the other is, you know, dear, you just don't understand.

  • 11:28:50

    MATTHEWSThat's right.

  • 11:28:51

    ROBERTSAnd you could never say to your wife and she can never say it to you. I'm going to read an email, a couple of emails here, Jason Matthews, from some of our listeners. Already, of course, this book has been out now about a couple months?

  • 11:29:05

    MATTHEWSA couple months, sure.

  • 11:29:05

    ROBERTSSo we have some fans who have already had a chance to read this. And Mike in Alexandria writes. I started and finished "Red Sparrow" in a couple of days and thought it was terrific. Easily among the best espionage fiction I've ever read. For all the knocks that our intelligence community is now taking, eg. NSA, how important is moral character in being an effective intelligence agency? And how does CIA screen for that trait in its recruiting of agents and assets?

  • 11:29:33

    MATTHEWSThat's a great question. Thanks to Mike for his comments. The case officer has to have unimpeachable morals, unimpeachable honesty. Many times you go out in the middle of the night with a briefcase with huge chunks of money to pay an asset. You have to protect secrets. When we first joined the agency, we signed a secrecy agreement. So morals and reputation and rule following is very important.

  • 11:30:09

    MATTHEWSIt's a little ironic, however, that what we do is we ask people to commit treason. So it's sort of expedient amorality. When we're working against targets, we ask them to do things that, frankly, are sort of counterintuitive. We're asking an agent, a source, to commit treason, to break the laws of his country and to possibly, in some cases, risk his life. But within the agency, we have a little saying, one does not gain one's own. And we try to fly very, very straight inside.

  • 11:30:44

    ROBERTSAnd what about Mike's question about how do you screen for those traits?

  • 11:30:49

    MATTHEWSWell, I think the screening process is a lot of psychological assessment. There's a lot of background investigation done. And then as you start off as a young officers, managers and supervisors watch to see how you comport yourself.

  • 11:31:06

    ROBERTSWe have another message from a reader who says: This was a couldn't-put-it-down book. You can put that on the cover of the paper. Which I have been recommending to my friends. Thanks for the thrill. I'd like to know has the risk and danger change since you first joined the CIA compared to now?

  • 11:31:25

    MATTHEWSWell, a lot of people think that being a CIA case officer overseas involves fast cars, fast women, weapons and things.

  • 11:31:34

    ROBERTSThat's the James Bond probably.

  • 11:31:35

    MATTHEWSThat's the James Bond. Right, exactly. In most capital cities, CIA officers are diplomats. They carry no weapons. They're dressed badly and have high cholesterol counts. These days, it has changed in that we have officers in Afghanistan. We have officers in Iraq and in Yemen and in other very, very dangerous places. And the way they operate is a lot different than in the regular world.

  • 11:32:05

    ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." One of the questions I had, Jason, is that you are -- one of our callers Mike mentioned the NSA, National Security Agency. We've done a lot of programs here on "The Diane Rehm Show" on this and focused attention on vast technology advances in collecting date, particularly to uncover terrorist plots. But at the same time, what is the ongoing role of human intelligence?

  • 11:32:37

    ROBERTSWhen you have access to this enormous global network of communications, there's still a role for the kind of spying you've been describing.

  • 11:32:47

    MATTHEWSAbsolutely. And in fact with the evolution of SIGINT, signals intelligent and IMINT, imagery intelligent and MASINT, measures and standards intelligence and PHOTINT and all the INTs. HUMINT is still the only way you get the plans and intensions of a government that may be inimical to the United States. It is as old as the Bible and it is the one INT that cannot be technologically enhanced. It's person to person.

  • 11:33:22

    MATTHEWSIt's figuring out people's motivations and their vulnerabilities. It's establishing friendships, establishing trust. There's always a concern about the safety of your source and it is irreplaceable.

  • 11:33:41

    ROBERTSDo you -- does the agency find it's still able to recruit top-notch officers as there -- from your friends back in Langley, what do they tell you? Is it still a career that people aspire to now that the Cold War has failed?

  • 11:33:56

    MATTHEWSI think the short answer is absolutely, yes. The 10 Russian illegal officers were expelled from New York three years ago. We're actually given up by a fellow working inside the SVR who was deputy chief of the illegals department. It's a colonel named Poteyev. And he was a recruit and he was telling us about Russian illegal activity in the United States. Most American traitors are caught because we have a source inside who says to us, you have a big problem, Joe or Jane is passing information to my colleagues.

  • 11:34:33

    ROBERTSAnd of course the reverse has happened too.

  • 11:34:34

    MATTHEWSAsbolutely.

  • 11:34:35

    ROBERTSThat the American traitors have had devastating effect on some of the networks, particularly Aldrich Ames as I read the story.

  • 11:34:41

    MATTHEWSYeah. According to how you -- you know, depending on how you count it, he was responsible for the death of 12 sources.

  • 11:34:47

    ROBERTSWow.

  • 11:34:48

    MATTHEWSYeah.

  • 11:34:48

    ROBERTSOne of the other literary devices, Jason Matthews, that you use is recipes. I know you like to cook and I -- you cook Greek dishes?

  • 11:35:00

    MATTHEWSAmong other things, sure.

  • 11:35:01

    ROBERTSAmong other things.

  • 11:35:02

    MATTHEWSUh-huh.

  • 11:35:04

    ROBERTSAnd why did you include recipes? At the end of each chapter there's at least some taste of what the characters have been eating.

  • 11:35:14

    MATTHEWSI've always admired descriptions of food in novels. I think it's sort of -- it adds a nuanced, it adds a flavor, no pun intended. And then I thought I would add a very elliptical little recipes, no measurements, no oven temperatures, just sort of, this is how your grandma would cook. Throw in a pinch of salt, do a little of that. A lot of people have said that recipes at the end of the chapters were a distraction.

  • 11:35:44

    MATTHEWSBut fully half of the people who read the book say they really enjoyed it and have tried the recipes.

  • 11:35:49

    ROBERTSYeah. I have another email here. Kim Philby, according to this note, Kim Philby who you just mentioned wrote a book introduced -- with an introduction by Graham Greene. He was head of counterintelligence MI6, rose high up without much of a background search. Tell us about the Philby case.

  • 11:36:14

    MATTHEWSWell, I am not a real historian about this but I think Philby was recruited by the Russians in the '30s as a young idealistic secret communist in Cambridge or Oxford. And he, along with four, five others, rose in the ranks of MI6 and MI5, which is the British FBI, if you will. And Philby was in charge, at one point, of all of sort of allied intelligence operations against Russia and the Soviet bloc.

  • 11:36:45

    MATTHEWSSo we sent a lot of people in to places like Albania and Yugoslavia in the '50s and the '60s. And Philby had tipped them off before they even landed with their parachutes. Kim Philby then was assigned to Washington, was main liaison with the agency and read all the shared intelligence that he could possibly have imagined. He fell under suspicion eventually and became, I think, a correspondent in Istanbul. He finally fled to the Soviet Union. They found his clothes in the hotel room and the Soviet traitor on the midnight tide.

  • 11:37:24

    ROBERTSAnd Graham Greene did write an introduction to...

  • 11:37:25

    MATTHEWSHe did. They knew each other and Graham Greene was, I guess, did not approve of what he did.

  • 11:37:34

    ROBERTSJason Matthews, his book "Red Sparrow." We're going to be back with your calls for Jason. So give us a call and stay with us. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in for Diane today. We'll be right back.

  • 11:40:03

    ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. My guest this hour Jason Matthews 33 years at the CIA, first time author, "Red Sparrow" is the name of his novel. We've been talking about, set in Russia among other places and we've got a number of callers who want to talk to Jason so let's start with Steve in North Hero, Vt. if I got that correctly. Welcome you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Steve.

  • 11:40:31

    STEVEYes, hello. Jason, this is a very great book you wrote. We loved it and I admire you for that.

  • 11:40:38

    MATTHEWSThank you.

  • 11:40:39

    STEVEThe question I have is in your book you wrote about the cable traffic back and forth between the field and headquarters and I was interested in the, you know, the dichotomies that go on between Washington and the field and if you could give us some nuggets on that I'd really appreciate it.

  • 11:40:53

    MATTHEWSOh, sure. The competition always between the field and headquarters -- headquarters controls the budget. Headquarters gives the final approvals and the field operators want to do operation X or Y or Z and the cable traffic is sometimes very spirited and the commentary within an overseas station about headquarters is also very spirited at times.

  • 11:41:19

    ROBERTSNot unlike journalism.

  • 11:41:23

    MATTHEWSExactly.

  • 11:41:23

    ROBERTSAnother way in which your training as a journalist helped you.

  • 11:41:27

    MATTHEWSExactly.

  • 11:41:28

    ROBERTSLet's talk to John in Arlington, Va. John, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show" welcome.

  • 11:41:34

    JOHNYeah, hi. Yeah, I wanted to ask because I was stunned by an obituary several years ago about another case officer of Greek origins who was, sort of, a mini James Bond in the Afghan/Soviet war. He was running guns to the Afghans and his name was something like Gus Tovatkos (sp?) or something like that.

  • 11:41:58

    MATTHEWSYeah, Gus Avrakotos.

  • 11:42:00

    JOHNYeah, and...

  • 11:42:01

    MATTHEWSHe was the main character in Charlie Wilson's War, the movie.

  • 11:42:06

    JOHNOh, yeah, right exactly. I'm glad you reminded me of that. So anyway supposedly he sent a memo to Oliver North and that was the end of his career and maybe he regretted sending that memo so did you want to talk power struggles a little bit within the agency or something?

  • 11:42:24

    ROBERTSThank you, John.

  • 11:42:26

    JOHNUh-huh, sure.

  • 11:42:27

    MATTHEWSWell, just like in any organization, in government or in the private sector, there are careerists. There are people who wish to advance, will do almost anything to do it. There are other people who will do their work for the sheer pleasure of the art of it. Gus Avrakotos was one of those guys. He was, I think, served in Greece for 25 years. He could catch birds with his bare hands out of -- in mid flight. This guy was absolutely unbelievable. At the end of his career he had to shift to, sort of, the Afghan adventures because he really did -- he had burned a lot of bridges. He was a true American hero and a classic case officer, historic case officer.

  • 11:43:12

    ROBERTSAnd who played him in the movies?

  • 11:43:14

    MATTHEWSSidney (sic) Hoffman.

  • 11:43:17

    ROBERTSDo you -- we were talking about the fact that you have under negotiations to sell this book to the movies. Do you have someone you want to play your characters yet?

  • 11:43:27

    MATTHEWSNo, my two daughters want Ryan Gosling to play . . .

  • 11:43:33

    ROBERTSAnything.

  • 11:43:33

    MATTHEWSAnything, exactly, but no that's -- that'll be up to the director and the studios.

  • 11:43:39

    ROBERTSLet's turn to Nicole in Green Cove Springs, Fla. Nicole, welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:43:47

    NICOLEHello to both of you. My -- well, first of all, history on me is I was born in East Germany in the '80s and I remember all of the wall and I remember the cold war as it pertained to me climbing around on rusty tanks as a little girl. And I moved to the U.S. in 2000 and I ended up in the military. I got my degree in homeland security with my minor in weapons of mass destruction and I just love the field, but the cold war's always been a little bit of a passion of mine just because I lived it.

  • 11:44:18

    NICOLEAnd I moved here and life was so different and I was taught that this was the state enemy and I still always think and I've made arguments in several papers in school about this -- that the cold war is still much alive. I just wonder what you feel is the difference between the new cold war. I just don't think there's ever been a new cold war. I always just thought that it was still the same cold war. It's just kind of shifted from Russia maybe being involved with Syria now or whatever. And then secondly I'm just so intrigued by your book and perhaps I should write a book, kind of, inspired by my move in life -- just I've always liked these kinds of books and I guess there's a market for it still and I cannot wait to read your book. Thank you.

  • 11:45:01

    ROBERTSThank you, Nicole. New cold war -- old cold war?

  • 11:45:04

    MATTHEWSAbsolutely. I believe there's a new cold war. The techniques are different. The margins are smaller. Now it's about cyber warfare and cyber theft. Now it's about the politics of oil and gas. Now it's about rogue states and their weapons of mass destruction program. A lot of people debate what is the most current and pressing national security threat to the United States. And a lot of people say the Iranian nuclear program -- a nuclear capable Iran would change the complexion of the world as we know it.

  • 11:45:39

    MATTHEWSThere are lots of other things. China's designs for hegemony in the Pacific. There are other states. What's happening in Egypt, the Arab Spring. There's just tons of things and secrets are out there and need to be stolen and reported back. It's a great game.

  • 11:45:59

    ROBERTSAnd the latest -- the latest turn -- negative turn in relations with Washington and Moscow, with the President, in protest of canceling his trip to Russia. What was your view of that? Were you surprised given your knowledge of that historical relationship? How does that fit into that larger game you were talking about?

  • 11:46:23

    MATTHEWSWell, you know, historically there have always been clunky Soviets refusing to meet with American counterparts and things. I'm not quite sure that canceling a summit with Vladimir Putin is enough of a spanking to have him change his behavior. Make no mistake about it, he's using the Snowden affair to create an active measures program to help him with his internal dissidents program -- problem and just to keep baiting the United States. It's an ongoing phenomenon.

  • 11:46:59

    ROBERTSLet's turn to some other callers, Jason Matthews, and let's go to David in Lansing, Michigan. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:47:07

    DAVIDGood morning, thank you for taking this call.

  • 11:47:10

    ROBERTSHappy to have you.

  • 11:47:10

    DAVIDI am former military myself, had a secret clearance for what it's worth. That was some years ago. Then I went on into journalism. I've got a degree in journalism and I worked fairly extensively in other countries. I found it disquieting when I heard that the CIA or other agencies were putting people in the field who purported to be journalists or maybe even recruited real journalists to do that work. However important that work is, and I really do believe in it. Don't get the wrong impression. I wonder where this will end. Where there'll be people purporting to be missionaries or purporting to be English language teachers who also will be doing the work of the agency. Thank you. I can take the answer off the air.

  • 11:48:07

    ROBERTSThanks, David. That was a program that was very active in '50s and into the '60s of recruiting journalists for the agency, but my understanding was that that is no longer the case.

  • 11:48:19

    MATTHEWSThat's right. Since -- when I entered on duty, you know, in the Jurassic Period there was prohibitions and they last to this day that you cannot -- you cannot recruit American journalists. Foreign journalists are fair game. Could not recruit foreign students -- American students studying overseas, Fulbright students. Can't recruit members of the clergy. Can't recruit other, sort of, nongovernmental organizations. That is a hard and fast rule and I think in the '50s possibly they did this. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, the Russians, among others, have used journalists, the TAAS and the Pravda correspondents for decades as cover for their intelligence activities.

  • 11:49:09

    ROBERTSYou know, when I served as a foreign correspondent in Greece and in the surrounding area the lingering suspicion -- because stories had come out that there had been this recruitment and there had been this use of journalists as our caller said. It really was very damaging for an independent journalist because the suspicion was there that somehow you were reporting to an intelligence service. And that lingering taint had not gone away.

  • 11:49:36

    MATTHEWSRight. And it's because a reporting relationship between a journalist or a case officer and a source has got to be based on trust. And if you don't have that trust no one's going to recruit and no one's going to develop a source.

  • 11:49:54

    ROBERTSLet's turn to Ellen in Fairfax, Va. Welcome, Ellen, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:50:01

    ELLENThank you for taking my call. I have a comment and a question for Jason, but I should preface it by saying that I am a friend and a retired colleague of his of 33 years so, but first of all congratulations to you, Jason, on a very, very fine novel. I couldn't put it down. It was a very good read.

  • 11:50:22

    MATTHEWSThank you, Ellen.

  • 11:50:23

    ELLENAnd my question for you is, without giving anything away of the plot, I noticed -- what stood out for me at the end was that you left it rather open to a possible sequel. Are you at work on another book?

  • 11:50:35

    MATTHEWSYes, I am. It is a sequel and I'm about halfway through. Writing the second book is a lot different and probably, I would say, a little bit more challenging than writing the first one. You have to deal with back-story. You have to continue developing characters, but I'm working hard on it.

  • 11:50:54

    ELLENExcellent, thank you.

  • 11:50:56

    ROBERTSThank you, Ellen. Are you writing a book yourself?

  • 11:50:57

    ELLENNot at all.

  • 11:51:00

    ROBERTSThanks for calling. Several emails we have. Just a slight correction when Jason said that it was Sydney Hoffman who played the character in Charlie Wilson's War. It was Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the actor.

  • 11:51:14

    MATTHEWSThat's right, sorry.

  • 11:51:15

    ROBERTSAnd thanks to our astute listeners for making that correction. We can always count on you. Let's turn to James in Johnson City, Tenn. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:51:28

    JAMESHi, (speaks foreign language) Matthews.

  • 11:51:31

    MATTHEWSOh, (speaks foreign language).

  • 11:51:35

    JAMES(speaks foreign language) I'm...

  • 11:51:36

    ROBERTSThat's Greek for the rest of you who don't understand that Greek reading. Go ahead, please, James.

  • 11:51:41

    JAMESYeah, I once had a taxi driver in Athens stop the car and look at me and say you know Greek, why you speak Greek. But I am a retired journalist and a published novelist and I've always had a desire to join the CIA, but I ran up against the maximum age for joining which was something like 30 or 35. And it seemed strange to me that you, you know, it would be fairly easy to identify a case officer because he'd be within a certain age parameter working for an embassy.

  • 11:52:18

    ROBERTSOK, thanks.

  • 11:52:19

    MATTHEWSWell, I mean, that's an interesting comment. I think there's a 35-year-old cutoff for new recruits. If someone comes to the attention of the agency or someone volunteers to the agency, regardless of age, and they have some special access or special contacts the agency will more than -- more than readily maintain or start contact.

  • 11:52:49

    ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You know one -- on this question of recruitment one of the key issues, of course, is developing agents who speak languages like Arabic, Pashto, Urdu and other languages relevant to the hotspots that you're dealing with. And I've been told that one of the real problems is that immigrants who come from those countries and speak those languages often have such an enormous suspicion of secret services. They have grown up in countries where the secret services are the enemies and the notion of joining a secret service is -- it's a hard sell and a hard thing to recruit.

  • 11:53:28

    MATTHEWSI think it is. Not only that, but a first generation or a second generation immigrant who is an American citizen, who has grown up, perhaps, in another country, who speaks a fluent strategic language, Mandarin, Arabic, whatever, sometimes also has a hard time fitting into the bureaucratic culture of cable writing, of the culture of the agency. Sometimes it's a very hard fit, but I think the agency's looking for people like that all the time.

  • 11:53:59

    ROBERTSLet's turn to Rolando in Mechanicsburg, Pa., welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:54:05

    ROLANDOHi, thank you for taking my call. I read your book. First, I was introduced to it under the premise that I'm a filmmaker so I thought this would be a great story to read. A friend of mine recommended it. So I naturally thought of how I could -- how this story would be adapted to film. And I understand that the book has been optioned in Hollywood, I believe, so, you know, it may happen.

  • 11:54:29

    ROLANDOSo when I was reading it I found a couple interesting things. I saw two natural story arcs taking place within the book. Essentially the relationship between the main CIA agent and the Soviet agent, without going into too much detail there, as well as the over arcing plot with the other general involved and, you know, the, you know, that main mission. So I couldn't really find a way of how I would adapt it -- which main story arc I would focus on. I was curious to see, Jason, what -- do you have the option of deciding what would be the main focus of the film, as you know, book adaptation to film is very difficult. What would you focus on?

  • 11:55:12

    MATTHEWSWell, when I spoke to some other filmmakers they surprised me by saying well, they like the book and the trade craft was interesting and the espionage genre is fun, but what you've written here, Jason, is a love story. And leave it to Hollywood to focus on that part of it. And I think that once the rights are sold Hollywood will do whatever they, you know, whatever they choose to write about. I think the issue of maintaining the security and the safety of a mole deep inside the KGB or the SVR is an interesting art as is the love story and Dominica's passage through life.

  • 11:55:59

    ROBERTSAnd without giving too much away you mentioned you're writing a sequel with the same character.

  • 11:56:07

    MATTHEWSYes, um-hum.

  • 11:56:08

    ROBERTSAnd you found it a little harder in some ways.

  • 11:56:12

    MATTHEWSAbsolutely. When you start you reintroduce the main characters in the first chapters, but you have to -- you have to assume that some people will read book two before they've read book one. So you have to deal with what the editors in New York call the back-story. And it can't be too heavy handed, but it's got to carry the plot along. And then the characters themselves have to develop. And if "Red Sparrow" is, in part, a love story then the affair and the romance has to continue and heat up. So it's a big challenge.

  • 11:56:46

    ROBERTSSo we can look forward to that.

  • 11:56:47

    MATTHEWSI hope so.

  • 11:56:49

    ROBERTSJason Matthews, 33 years in the Central Intelligence Agency. He's written a first-time novel. It's called "Red Sparrow." It refers -- sparrow in the title refers to Soviet agents who were trained in the art of seduction. So...

  • 11:57:08

    MATTHEWSSexpionage.

  • 11:57:09

    ROBERTSSexpiage. Is that a word you've coined or...

  • 11:57:12

    MATTHEWSNo, that's been out there.

  • 11:57:13

    ROBERTSThat's been out there. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane Rehm. She's getting a voice treatment. She's going to take some vacation and she'll be back in this chair in mid-September. Thanks so much for spending an hour of your morning with us.

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