Sunday, 10 December 2017

Not Quite Book Review Corner: The Spy Who Couldn't Spell

Not a lot of time again this week, so I'll be brief.

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee's account of Brian Regan's epic pre-9/11 espionage spree is a confounding, astounding account of America's bungler, the spy who didn't know when to come in out of the rain. On the one hand, it's a chilling tale: had Regan succeeded, it would have been the most significant espionage effort ever carried out against the United States. On the other, it's a cartoonish cascade of errors that ends the way you'd expect, as Regan stumbles from blunder to blunder in search of a payout, like a drunk weaving his way through Vegas and coming out the other end in his birthday suit.

It's often said - but perhaps not often enough - that spies aren't the action heroes seen  on the big screen or in four-color novels, blowing up installations, gunning down mooks and seducing beautiful people. Your actual honest-to-Fleming espionage asset is a bitter, disaffected soul who has a need - it might be money, sex, validation, or a dozen other things - that can be used to get them to open up. Such a one was Brian Patrick Regan, a former USAF Master Sergeant and signals intelligence specialist, who decided to sell America's secrets to the highest bidder because he wanted money, and to prove he wasn't an idiot.

Regan comes across as a very familiar type, as I'm sure he would to most of you reading this. He's the one gamer at the table who always has to be right, even when he's wrong - and he's frequently wrong. He doesn't care enough to do the work, but wants to be rewarded nonetheless. Plagued by dyslexia, his spelling is atrocious, but if it was just his spelling that was at fault his story would end differently. He can't manage his finances. He spends money as if it was water, juggling a mountain of debt by bouncing it from credit card to credit card, and his wife and kids are making expensive trips to her home country, Sweden, each year. He's the guy with the plan, but funnily enough his plans never come to anything, either because he doesn't follow through or because it was a lousy plan to begin with.

One day he decides he's had enough. Ball players and celebrities get millions of dollars for what they do - why should he be any different? He has something he can sell, and he needs the money. Thanks to his job he has access to reams of sensitive information any foreign government would be delighted to purchase. Russia's the obvious client, but approaching Russia directly is a fool's errand - he'd be caught straight away. So he decides to sell to Libya instead, thinking that by doing business with the Libyans he will eventually get to the Russians.

He gathers material by the simple expedient of photocopying it, and before long he has stacks of paperwork stuffed in his desk, in his filing cabinet, wherever it will fit. He sends a coded message to the Libyans: if you want to buy what I have to sell, contact me.

That coded message is sent straight to the FBI by an informant in the Libyan consulate.

From there things go from bad to worse, but the tale isn't about how it was done so much as by who, and why. The maddeningly complex and amateurish tradecraft methods Regan uses are bound to fail. What makes it interesting is Regan, the shmoe. The reader watches him fly off on a fool's errand to the Libyan consulate in Switzerland, walking in the door and demanding to speak to someone in charge because he has secrets to sell. Naturally the Libyans throw him out; they don't think anyone so stupid as to say he's a spy can possibly be a spy. Then we see Regan carry his bags and binders full of secrets out to the back of beyond, burying it in several different caches like Captain Kidd with his pirate gold. Half the story takes place after his inevitable arrest, when in one last spasm of hubris he tries to bargain for a lower sentence by holding the US government to ransom, saying that he won't reveal the location of his caches unless they make a deal.

In a way, Bhattacharjee is to be commended for making the story as interesting as it is. In different hands it would have been less a comic opera, more a squeaky fart in an elevator. By the end the reader actually feels a little sorry for Regan, hapless jackass though he may be. Personally I would have liked more about his wife and children, who were the real losers here - but I suspect they may not have been willing to cooperate. After all, Regan ruined their lives as much as he did his own, and shaking off that stigma must be a lifelong effort.

From a Night's Black Agents or Dracula Dossier perspective, what can be done to gamify the material? The most obvious approach is to have Regan approach a Conspiracy asset in his efforts to find a path to the Russians. This might work better in a Dracula Dossier game, where Romania plays a larger role in the narrative. The Conspiracy may be just as mistrustful as the Libyans in its dealings with Regan, but then it does have means of finding out information that other agencies lack. A few nips of blood and mind control later, and they'd know for certain whether Regan's the real deal or a disinformation asset.

Or one of Regan's infamous data dumps could still be out there, moldering in a duffel bag buried in the wilderness. Maybe Regan tries to use it to bargain for more privileges, or maybe the Conspiracy goes looking for it because it contains information vital to its cause. Does Regan know more about the vampires than he's willing to say? Is the FBI using Regan's data dump in some complicated sting operation?

Highly recommended to espionage enthusiasts, particularly if they enjoy a bit of cryptography - though personally I found Regan's code less engrossing than I suspect Bhattacharjee thought the reader would.

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