MARCH 15, 2009
NS: So you have a special ops agent in your story, what does he/she do? You want to make it believable!
Special Guest DS Kane: That's the deal I made with the Feds when they remotely searched my computer to see if I was writing a nonfiction account of my activities. And, no, I'm not. Now I write fiction to keep them happy. And they no longer threaten my life. Of course, I'm no longer doing dirty work for the ubers. Google both my names and you'll see who I am and who I was, missing the bits about my covet activities, but you can see where they'd fit. I may be one of the few thriller writers who write in self-defense. By itself, it's a pretty good story, one I can't tell.
NS: Thank you for agreeing to interview with us and share all of your knowledge. Before we start with the questions is there anything you'd like to add to your bio?
DS Kane: I've been published and quoted ten times in nonfiction, mostly in financial textbooks and the financial trade press, including U.S. News and World Report. And, I did some work for the federal government. But when my former "handler" told me I couldn't tell my story, I had to learn a new trade. A week after that conversation, all my work products were reclassified.
Fiction is a tough mistress. It took me two years to master it enough to complete a salable manuscript. If I was telling my own story, I could have done it well and fast. It'll take a trilogy of novels to tell the story. Many nonfiction writers underestimate just how complex fiction writing is.
NS: What mistake do you see authors make the most when using a special ops agent in their story?
DS Kane: Fiction is all about escalating tension until the story's resolution. Most writers forget to think about how much can go wrong just because of how intelligence agencies are organized. In designing your story, think of the following:
There are sixteen agencies that I know of in the United States (CIA, NSA, FBI, DIA, NCIS, ATF, DEA, NRO, ONI, US Marshals, etc.) and over a hundred on the planet for other countries: FSA and SVR Sluzhba Vneshnei Razvedki (the Foreign Intelligence Service) in Russia; Mossad and ISS for Israel; Germany's GSG9 and BFV, their Foreign Intelligence (like our CIA), and BKA, their Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (like our FBI); the Dutch security service AIVD; the Egyptian secret police or SSI, also called the Mukhabarat or General Directorate of State Security; Milli Istihbarat Teskilati, for Turkey; and so many others.
Many of the intelligence agencies have a paramilitary arm as well as an espionage arm. CIA's paramilitary division is known as the Special Activities Staff.
And of course, the terrorists have their own networks. In the Middle East, for example, there are the Fatah Revolutionary Council, or FRC, and Jihaz-el-Razd , their intelligence arm, and Islamic terrorist organizations including Hamas, Hezbollah, the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, the remnants of Al Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Every intelligence service is divided into five functional areas. Administration and policy wonks have never been in the field and they think like basic accountants. Analysts are either uninterested in field work because it's dangerous, or living vicariously. The field agents are sub-divided into espionage (gathering and sending back intelligence, but no killing), and black ops (enforcement, including killing). Then, there are contractors to an agency, giving the administrators deniability. Contractors are the wild card. Not subject to government oversight as agency employees are, contractors do whatever it takes to get the job done. They have "non-official cover" and are called NOCs. That means they pretty much walk naked in this world. Finally, there are the geeks that provide hacking services and data security for our intelligence agencies. These people, once the back-office urchins, are now vital to everything that goes on in any agency. If you watch the Fox TV series 24, think of Chloe O'Brian.
Making it more complex, the CIA, for example, has its analysts divided up into "country desks" with each head of country running both operatives and NOCs (the contractors). Valerie Plame, for example, was an analyst running the Iran country desk's Weapons of Non-Proliferation program. And I believe she was outed to remove her and the knowledge her NOCs could provide on Iran. Not Iraq. So, there's a story underneath the story we were told in the press. The administration wanted to invade Iran after Iraq was occupied, to give us presence in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel. Plame was their only obstacle and they set her husband up. When he (Joe Wilson) wrote his op-ed article in the New York Times, it gave them their excuse.
Intelligence agencies compete for budget dollars and therefore screw with each other continuously. There is also misunderstanding and jealousy between the administrators, analysts, and covert operatives.
All this raises an important question for thriller writers: Cuis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who spies on the spies?
There is a strong temptation to lie in this business. Telling the truth can get you killed. And the best gems of intelligence are easily salable to competing agencies of your own government or any other country's agencies. While administrators and analysts tend to sell their own country's secrets, analysts and operatives tend to sell the intelligence they've unearthed from other countries to those of still other countries.
Most thriller writers don't use these sources of tension enough in their stories.
NS: Do you have a book or a website you can recommend when an author is doing research for a special ops agent/story?
DS Kane: Read thrillers. Lots of them. Daniel Silva, for example. His series with protagonist Gabriel Allon is a wealth of knowledge on Israeli intelligence and politics. From my time dealing with Mossad, I believe his thrillers contain a real view of the Israeli perspective on black ops. I recommend The Kill Artist.
Chris Reich writes about the financial end of espionage and his thrillers are excellent in their use of facts and fictions about the funding of terrorism and weaknesses in the global banking system. I recommend The Devil's Banker.
Barry Eisler, who's a friend since before he had a literary agent, is former CIA in the Directorate of Operations, Far East section. His series about John Rain is six books and hit the best sellers list. His protagonist is a hit man working for the Japanese mafiya, the Japanese FBI, and a group he calls "Christians in Action," or the CIA. His female contagonist is from Mossad. A good read. I recommend Rain Fall.
Jim Rollins' Sigma thriller series is about a fictitious (I believe) covert paramilitary arm of DARPA. It mixes science and covert activities. One of his "discoveries," Liquid Armor, a clear STF (Stress Thickening Fluid) that can stop bullets, was invented by the US Army about five years ago. It's far superior to Kevlar because it can be used to coat normal clothing, making a Liquid Armor-treated Hawaiian shirt virtually undetectable as bulletproof clothing. Good science is a key element in thrillers. I recommend Map of Bones.
Watch television shows that rely heavily on covert ops to glean details of their tools and tradecraft. Burn Notice is one of the best. Also, 24 is absolutely essential.
Listen carefully to the evening news. There's a larger story behind most of what you hear coming out of Washington. The place is a powder keg. Most wars are designed there before the intelligence is gathered.
For a veritable how-to on NOCs. read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins, one of my competitors back when I was active.
There are plenty of "conspiracy theory" websites. On my blog I have one entry that could easily provide the concept for a great thriller. I haven't used it because, when I discussed it with a literary agent, he told me it was far-fetched. In fact it's real—you can't make this stuff up! Also, try www.crooksandliars.com and www.fromthewilderness.com.
The best of all, I believe is the history of Irangate. Very real, and start by Googling Oliver North and John Poindexter. Wikipedia has a wealth of information, most interesting of all is Poindexter's recall to public service after being pardoned for his role in Irangate. Most of those involved in Irangate have been "recycled" and are now working in the intel biz. As the Eagles sang in "Hotel California," "You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.
NS: What is the biggest misconceptions authors/people have of special ops agents?
DS Kane: There are some simple, ugly realities about the character of people in covert ops. Working in black ops requires a person to have maximum distrust of others and a desire to kill for pleasure. I believe no one does it out of patriotism. Espionage, on the other hand, is either driven by patriotism or a desire to possess and sell valuable intel.
With operatives, there are safety procedures they adhere to religiously. When it comes to the location of clandestine meetings, operatives use a procedure with the acronym "PACE," standing for primary, alternate, contingency, and emergency. And, there is always a backup to the backup.
When moving on foot or in a vehicle, we use a maneuver known as an SDR—surveillance detection route. In other words, we make sure no one is following us. But, by having men placed in different locations, people can follow the spy without alerting him to the fact he was being followed.
NS: I'm going to show my ignorance here, what agencies actually have special ops agents? Military or government?
DS Kane: Uh, both! CIA has a paramilitary SAS branch—the Special Activities Staff—for example. DIA is the Defense Intelligence Agency and also runs covert ops. The Navy has NCIS investigating criminal activities in the military. And of course, the secret police agencies themselves have spies spying on other spies. Finally, I believe the White House has its own little group, mostly for ad hoc ops.
NS: How much leeway would you say an author has when writing a special ops agent story? I have this conception of special ops as being so secretive I could basically make up any type of James Bond-type action story and be within the realm of possibility, as long as I have the correct agencies involved. Is this true?
DS Kane: As thriller readers became more sophisticated about the actual intelligence community, the margin for error has continuously eroded. When we leave the service, we can't write about our lives as coverts, so we write fiction. John LeCarré, Barry Eisler, the list is endless. All former coverts. And each of us has his or her own special focus within the industry. For example, LeCarré had to reinvent himself when the Cold War ended, since that was what he'd written about. Eisler is a friend of mine, and when I had a "problem," I met with him and asked his advice on counter-surveillance. He couldn't help. Told me his focus is martial arts and assassination. I found help from another friend who opened with the line: "Sheesh. Your tradecraft is so 1980s. It's a wonder you're not dead." He helped me in that area, with tip after tip. For example, when you meet with someone and don't want the government to overhear you, be sure to remove the battery from your cell phone. They can turn your cell on remotely without activating the screen and listen in. Didja know that? I thought not.
My own current interest focuses on counter-surveillance tradecraft and tech toys used by the covert community. Some of my friends have worked to develop toys for our country, and before DARPA was mostly defunded, their careers led them to produce some amazing things. Think of Q in the James Bond movies. I've found out about a few of those toys and altered them so I can use them in my own novels. One of the best is that it's possible to recode the programs in multiplayer online games to enable a player to plant a document within the game that another player can pick up with no one the wiser.
When I was covert, my function involved a mix of banking systems and hacking. I traveled out of the country and visited banks where I... well, I can't tell you what I did or I'd have to kill you. But, by writing about a fictive protagonist, I can tell these stories. They're hidden in my novels. And since I wasn't officially an employee of any intelligence agency, I never signed a non-disclosure agreement. My first novel, Swiftshadow, is out with agents now. Errr, that's literary agents, not covert agents. And I have others planned in a series for those characters.
NS: Can the government really spy on people, especially if they consider them a threat of some kind?
DS Kane: Before 9/11, yes, but only with a FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) warrant. Then came Bush and no FISA warrant was needed. Now, and even after Uncle George's "retirement," yes, the government can spy on you. FISA court will give a wiretap permit to any agency citing "national security interests."
NS: Writing, whether it's a screenplay or a book, still needs to be accurate, mostly anyway. What movie would you say depicts the best/true representation of a special ops agent?
DS Kane: My current favorite is The International with Clive Owen. It's similar to my own covert experience. And, one of my friends is an investigative reporter. She worked at getting a French arms dealer thrown into a Swiss prison. The guy worked out of the BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce International) office in Fort Lauderdale back in the day. It's amazing we never crossed paths until we both moved to California.
Television does a decent job on tradecraft with Burn Notice and, as I stated before, with 24. Many people fault 24 for its use of torture, and many in our government believe it doesn't work. I believe torture can be effective if there is a hope in the victim that they might be set free if they cooperate.
NS: How can an author incorporate the skills of special ops in their civilian character?
DS Kane: Best to give your protagonist a streak of paranoia and a technical bent. And make them at least marginally qualified in martial arts. My characters run the range from mercenaries to policy wonks to technology geeks at intelligence agencies. Don't try to put too much into any one character. Have them work together in teams: a hacker, a black ops agent, an analyst with political and economic training, and a traditional "spy" who can do dead drops and drop ins.
NS: Where does a special ops agent train? Quantico?
DS Kane: Quantico is the FBI's home. Not a training arena for coverts. There are several places for coverts in the United States. Best known, Camp Peary is the CIA's spy school, better known as the Farm. It's located at Harvey Point, North Carolina, just south of the Virginia coastline. They teach all the US intelligence agencies hard-core paramilitary training.
At Camp Peary, Harvey Point itself is just that—a stubby finger of land curling out into the murky water where North Carolina's Perquimans River meet the Albemarle Sound. The CIA's facility sits on over sixteen hundred acres of mosquito- and poisonous-snake-infested swamp with thick-trunked cypress trees overgrown with heavy Spanish moss. Nine miles southwest of the town of Hertford, the road ends at a sign that reads, "Harvey Point Defense Testing Activity." It opened in 1961. Helicopters land and take off at all hours, and blacked out transports roll through town in the middle of the night. All sorts of old cars, buses, SUVs, and limousines can be seen entering on flatbed trucks, and are carried out later either riddled with bullet holes or burnt to nothing more than charred hulks.
The Point is where the CIA's hard-core paramilitary training takes place. Personnel are schooled in explosives, paramilitary combat, and other clandestine and unconventional warfare techniques. While the Farm at Camp Peary is where CIA personnel earn their stripes and learn their tradecraft, the Point is where a chosen few received a PhD in serious ass-kicking.
The personnel invited to the Point aren't only limited to American CIA operatives. Recently, the CIA provided counterterrorism training to several American Special Operations groups, as well as foreign intelligence officers from more than fifty countries, including South Korea, Japan, France, Germany, Greece, and Israel.
And, there are others worthy of note:
One of the most secure counterterrorism training facilities in the world is in a remote corner of North Carolina's Fort Bragg—Delta Force's Special Operations Training facility. The facility has many different nicknames. Some call it SOT for short. Because of the original stucco siding, it's also called it the Fiesta Cantina. Some refer to it as Wally World, after the amusement park in the Chevy Chase movie Vacation. Some call it the Ranch, because of early Delta Force operatives' penchant for chewing tobacco and wearing cowboy boots. It boasts a wide array of training areas. There are large two- and three-story buildings used for heliborne inserts and terrorist takedowns; indoor and outdoor live-fire ranges; as well as ranges for close-quarters battle, combat pistol, and sniper training. Delta's Operations and Intelligence Center has staging grounds where mock-ups of structures in different terrorist scenarios can be constructed. It has a host of other facilities and training areas too numerous to list.
The Navy's SEAL Team Six's training facility is located in Dam Neck, Virginia.
And, remember Blackwater? Although I've heard they've relocated from the United States and changed their name to "Xe." If you go to their website and use this URL—www.blackwaterusa.com—you'll see the four locations within the United States where they (used to?) train mercenaries.
NS: For my last question, everyone likes a kick-ass heroine, so here goes: Are there any women in the special ops? If so, in what capacity?
DS Kane: Definitely, and there have been for over a hundred years, starting with Mata Hari, whose real name was Margaretha Geertruida. She was Dutch, and spied for the Germans during World War One. The French caught her and executed her by a firing squad at the age of 41.
Valerie Plame was a covert agent for our country, working the Middle East to gather intelligence about nuclear weapons.
I can't point out any others, for obvious reasons. But Hollywood and the New York publishers seem to love female spies.
Nora Roberts, writing as J. D. Robb, has a successful "In Death" series, getting close now to thirty books. One of the characters in Jim Rollins's Sigma series is a mysterious female assassin.
And Hollywood worships hard-boiled female protagonists. For example. a television series called Alias featured a female spy. It was popular for about five years.
As part of my agreement with my handler, I'm writing a female. One of the folks I worked with was from Mossad, decades ago, and told me she'd been an Israeli tank commander during the Six Day War. I know, Israel claims women weren't allowed into combat roles until recently. Maybe she was lying? It's what spies do best. I met her when she was running the global non-credit services area of a New York bank. I believe she was there to launder money for Mossad, but I've no proof of that.
The example I'm offering you is my protagonist from my novel, Swiftshadow: Cassandra Sashakovich. She earned a PhD in economics at Stanford and was recruited to work as an NOC at one of Washington's intelligence agencies. Her family immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union just before it fell. Her mother was a commissar for the KGB, her father an economist working for the Central Committee, and her uncle a KGB operative. She speaks most Middle Eastern languages and is a computer hacker with basic tradecraft and weapons skills when my story starts. In Riyadh, her cover is blown by a mole within her agency and she's hunted by terrorists until she discovers why the terrorists are interested in her and who the mole is, and figures out how to recover her life. By the end of the novel, she's a crack shot, a master hacker, and the CEO of a mercenary company with a hacker division.
Writing women characters is tough for a guy. Luckily, my wife, Andrea has a publishing background, and she reads my material before anyone else does. She pushes me to think in ways a male brain isn't designed to. By the time my critique group at ActFourWriters.com gets the material, it's close to a publishable draft. She's helped me learn how to write fiction.
One more thing: If any of your readers would like assistance on the tradecraft for their character who is a covert agent, or feedback on potential plots for a thriller, they can contact me.
NS: Thank you so much for your helpful insights into the world and mystery of special ops agents.