Skip to content

Best Books By Ex-Spies

My essay from the Wall Street Journal.

A Spy in Rome

By Peter Tompkins (1962)

1. Peter Tompkins served in the Office of Strategic Services in Nazi-occupied Rome in early 1944. “Wild Bill” Donovan, the head of the OSS (the predecessor to the CIA), had recruited the brilliant, eccentric Tompkins, at the time a New York Herald Tribune reporter. “A Spy in Rome” is a lucid, deeply compelling account of his five months operating behind enemy lines when the American Fifth Army was battling its way toward the city. “I drove up to the Fifth Army headquarters and told the boys the general had said O.K. That’s all there was to it!” Rome comes alive in Tompkins’s telling: the damp smell of the Tiber at dawn; evenings stolen from the war when love and danger slept in the same bed; hours of patient surveillance punctuated by the terror of a passing German patrol. “A Spy in Rome” is especially notable for its descriptions of the way intelligence is collected and collated by the lone spy: troop movements pieced together from a network of partisan road watchers and turned into intelligence on a battered typewriter. Tompkins’s fluent Italian allowed him to move easily through Rome and obtain black-market ham and English gin. “In a way it is a pleasant life, if it weren’t for the nightmare of knowing that all the time we are being hunted.”

Mole

By William Hood (1982)

2. William Hood was the CIA operations chief in Vienna in 1952, when he helped recruit Maj. Pyotr Popov, America’s first double agent in Soviet military intelligence. “Mole” is Hood’s account of Popov’s four years working for the CIA, ending in 1956, when he was uncovered and returned to Moscow for interrogation—and kept alive while it was decided whether he should be doubled again or executed. His fate remains unknown. This intimate account of Cold War espionage unfolds with the tension of a skillful spy novel. Hood shows the human side of betrayal—the motives, the resentments. “Popov ran breathtaking—in retrospect, almost insane—risks,” Hood writes. “Although he loved his wife and children he was hopelessly devoted to a randomly acquired mistress.” Popov betrayed Russian agents in Europe, described the Soviet’s new tactical nuclear weapons’ command structure, and gave the CIA a priceless look at the Soviets’ use of “illegals,” spies embedded in the U.S. without diplomatic cover.

Spy Handler

By Victor Cherkashin (2005)

3. This is the candid Cold War memoir of Victor Cherkashin, counterintelligence chief in the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1980s and the man who masterminded the CIA’s greatest single intelligence loss—Aldrich Ames. Ames received $2.7 million from the KGB for information that jeopardized virtually every asset the CIA had in the Soviet Union: Twenty men were exposed—10 executed—and a multimillion-dollar covert operation was compromised. Washington’s landmarks provide a vivid setting for this spy drama. Ames openly meets with his Soviet handler in the Mayflower Hotel under the plausible cover that he is recruiting the handler to spy for the CIA. Mr. Cherkashin adds: “Our driver spotted the FBI car following us in Dupont Circle. They were hard to miss because they always drove the cheapest American models.” This is an insider’s view from the other side of the Cold War.

Honorable Men

By William Colby (1978)

4. Raised in a middle-class Catholic family, William Colby enlisted in the OSS from Princeton, parachuted behind enemy lines during World War II and, in 1950, joined the CIA. He had an icy imperturbability that made him an ideal spy—a gray man who could blend in anywhere. “A man who wouldn’t catch a waiter’s eye,” he said of himself. He dispensed cash to Rome’s anti-communists from his car trunk, ran the Vietnam War’s notorious Phoenix Program, and would be Nixon’s choice to lead the CIA during Watergate. He was reluctantly thrust into the spotlight during congressional hearings in which he faced withering questions about alleged CIA practices, assassinations among them. The White House insisted on secrecy while Congress demanded disclosure—and, in the end, Colby made hard choices between conscience and duty and pleased no one. President Ford pushed him out of office. He left the agency as he had arrived, an unassuming man, collected on his last day by his wife in her dilapidated Buick Skylark. The memoir hints at the inner man. Standing alone in Moscow’s Red Square in 1989, a private citizen, he is startled to look around and see no one following him.

The Master of Disguise

By Antonio J. Mendez (1999)

5. The son of a Nevada copper miner and aspiring painter, Antonio Mendez applied his artist’s eye to the CIA’s elaborate covert productions. He spent 25 years in the Technical Services Division, known for its tradecraft gadgets—cameras, untraceable transmitters, shellfish toxins and, under Mr. Mendez, tools of deception. He was awarded the CIA’s Intelligence Star for helping to rescue six stranded U.S. Embassy employees from Tehran in 1979, using the outrageous pretense of scouting the city for a Hollywood film. Phony ads placed in Variety, office space in Los Angeles, and fake I.D.s got Mr. Mendez’s group past Mehrabad Airport’s Revolutionary Guards. His memoir offers glimpses of the family man. His wife frequently drove him to the airport for overseas missions, not knowing where he was going or if he would return. “The last thing I did was hand her my wedding ring.”

Leave a Comment