"The Confirmation" by Thomas Powers

The truly bizarre inner workings of the CIA are exposed in a thriller by an intelligence expert.

By Neil Gordon

Published June 22, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

When a historian of Thomas Powers' distinction turns his attention to a novel about the confirmation of a CIA director, those interested in the arcane and savage world of American intelligence and national security pay attention. Here, we think, we will see a full deployment of this strange world's meaning without the mass-market simplicity that usually dogs books about intelligence; here, we think, we will at last see an independent and liberal observer draw back the veil of secrecy and tell us what he thinks. We hope, in short, for an experience comparable not just to John le Carri and Graham Greene but to the literate and wise explorations into the world of spies by John Banville, the Irish novelist.

Within two pages of "The Confirmation," it's clear that our high hopes have reason. Powers is, after all, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who regularly covers intelligence matters for the New York Review of Books. From the first word of this book, one feels in the confident and capable hands of a very, very fine writer.

Which is why it comes as such a disappointment to find that this fine journalist's massive skills equip him in no way whatsoever to write fiction.

Franklin Cabot, a veteran Cold Warrior, faces a Senate confirmation hearing of his presidential appointment as director of the CIA. It's the culmination of a long and glorious career, and a position so close to the white heat of power that career-ending, third-degree burns are always a risk. Brad Cameron, his underling, is a young man who specializes in the search for MIAs from the U.S. intervention in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Both Cabot and his mentor, Georgia Sen. Hawkins, are passionately interested in the search, and this, combined with the fact that he is dating Cabot's niece, puts Brad at the beginning of a promising career.

Brad's career is jeopardized, however, when he discovers evidence of a bona fide MIA in the ex-Soviet gulag. Unfortunately, he also discovers that Cabot, early in his career, was not only aware of the MIA's existence but, at the behest of President Carter, appears to have ordered his existence hidden in the interests of nuclear disarmament talks. Ignoring that he is about to stop his mentor's Senate confirmation in its tracks, Brad sets out in a rogue search through the CIA and the intelligence establishment of its close ally Israel, gradually teasing the facts of the matter out of the many corners in which they hide.

Even those who only follow the CIA in the mainstream press will recognize how realistic is Powers' depiction of Washington and its secretive institutions of so-called national security. Indeed, like most novelists, Powers can't begin to depict how bizarre that world actually is -- no one would believe it. Equally realistic is the way in which Powers has the Senate Intelligence Committee and the New York Times vying for discovery of what promises to be a scandalous truth. Less convincing, perhaps, is a plotline in which the search for the truth is further pressured by fucked-up Gulf War vet Dean Cutter, who has been chosen by a Michigan militia to make sure that Cabot pays with his life for his government's betrayal of the white man's democracy. But as the confirmation hearings approach, all of these forces gather to produce a political maelstrom in the middle of which swirls something totally unexpected.

It's an entrancing story: historically erudite, subtle and built with clear-minded expertise. But the real mystery is why it falls entirely short of real, living fiction.

Cabot, Brad and company all scrupulously fill the fictional demands of characters -- they have ambitions, loves, weaknesses and hopes. But their imaginative reality is consistently secondary to their functions in the neat puzzle of the plot. Clearly Powers is less interested in the fundamental mystery of people than he is in the challenges of his story, and while every novelist knows the enormous, often insurmountable challenges of making a story work, every novelist also knows that no amount of work will ever make a half-imagined character real.

Interestingly, this artificiality of characterization has its origins in moral matters: It stems from Powers' unexamined assumption that intelligent people can work in the CIA without ever questioning the ethics and the performance of the organization. Let's be clear: No one, on the left or the right of the political spectrum, would ever deny that from Iran (the deposing of Mohammad Mosaddeq and the installation of the brutal, autocratic Pahlavi regime) to Chile (the assassination of Salvador Allende and the installation of the brutal Augusto Pinochet dictatorship) the CIA has repeatedly subverted the values of American democracy on every continent of the globe, and done so not only willfully but with enormous incompetence and at mind-blowing expense to the American taxpayer.

Some think the CIA a necessary evil; some, an unnecessary one. Certainly the discussions I've been fortunate to have with CIA operatives, some very highly placed, have always, at some point, turned to the morality of intelligence work. Invariably, my interlocutors have turned out to have devoted much thought to the issue. That the characters in "The Confirmation," who are neither evil nor stupid, are able to exist so placidly in the highly arguable ethics and efficiency of their work leaves us baffled. Why has Powers squandered the chance to explore the fascinating moral quandaries posed by those who work in this notoriously ambiguous profession? Greene, le Carri, Patricia Highsmith, Patrick O'Brian: The exemplars of complex, challenging moral fiction that also thrills and entices are all there to learn from. As it is, Powers' first foray into a new genre is fiction only in the sense that it is "not true." In all other respects it sticks resolutely to the facts.

Neil Gordon

Neil Gordon is a writer and editor living in New York. His novel "The Sea of Green" (Viking) will be published next year.

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