Spy’s Satire Takes on War on Terror “Absurdities”

Former CIA officer Alex Finley turned to comedy to tell a "more real" story about the forever war.

A man crosses the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) logo in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on August 14, 2008. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
A man crosses the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) logo in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on August 14, 2008. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
AFP/Getty Images

It should have been a simple extraction. A rental car, maybe a small plane, that would be enough to get the asset out of Dodge. But when intelligence officer Victor Caro took his plan to his superiors, he was rebuked. He had to spend way more money, he was told.

See, Congress judged the commitment of Caro’s spy agency to the counter-terror mission by how much money it spent, so the more expensive the operation, the better. So Caro came up with a plan that involved helicopters, a squadron of military special operations soldiers, a foreign military force and an expensive transport plane.

When the time came, they all basically turned around in circles while Caro drove his asset away in a cheap rental car like he planned from the start. Mission accomplished, backslapping all around, $15 million down the drain.

The story, like Caro, is fictional – but is meant to be a slice of the “absurdities” that former CIA officer Alex Finley said she experienced in her six years in the field for the Agency. Through Caro, the main character in her comedic novel Victor in the Rubble, Finley holds up a funhouse mirror to her old agency and the U.S. government in general about some of the most maddening elements of the real-life ongoing Global War on Terror.

“I thought it was a good way, how can I explain it, to be much more real,” Finley told RealClearLife. “Satire allowed me to share a lot of the absurdities that actually are much more real and close to what actually happens without obviously giving away anything I’m not allowed to give away.”

It’s how she ends up describing scenes where Caro, to appease his agency’s lawyers, is trying to judge the “Swissness” of a potential asset based on how much he likes sauerkraut. Or how an urgent request is delayed because the officer handling the request was busy with the agency’s gingerbread house contest — which is a very real thing the CIA does.

Finley said she worked for the CIA from 2003 to 2009 in West Africa and Europe as a Collection Management Officer, which is essentially the liaison between the case officers, who run local assets, and headquarters or policy-makers, who decide what kind of secrets that case officer should be going after.

Writing the book was a form of therapy, she said, because it allowed her to exorcise all her frustrations with the agency: the government restrictions on just about everything, the lack of focus from policy-makers and higher-ups, absurd requests of the officers in the field and, especially, the endless layers of bureaucracy. (Fittingly, Finley said the CIA Publication Review Board had to approve her manuscript before publication.)

She’s hardly subtle about the targets of her ire. In the novel, Caro works for the CYA (CIA and, of course, a Cover Your A** joke), which is recently made to work with other agencies under the Intelligence Uber Director (the Director of National Intelligence), to thwart plans by a terrorist organization called the Core (al Qaeda, which directly translates in real-life to the Base) that’s based in Rubblestan (Afghanistan, Pakistan, or both) and its affiliate, the Core in the Desert (al Qaead in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM), as part of the larger Total War on Terror (Global War on Terror). National security nerds will also recognize winking jabs at al Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and a reference to the long-running dark joke about the job security of being al Qaeda’s number-three man.

The Core is described as being as ridiculously bureaucratic as the CYA, with a cave-system mirror-image of the CYA’s headquarters, complete with a Starbucks-like tea cafe where everyone lounges around wasting time. (At one point, a terrorist middle-manager has to haggle with a group about to blow up an airliner about whether they can requisition the funds to sit in business class or not before detonating the bomb.) Finley said she was disheartened a bit to learn after the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011 that the parody she was working on wasn’t very far from the truth.

In writing the novel Finley said she struggled to strike a balance between the deadly serious topic of terrorism and the sometimes comically misguided ways in which the U.S. tries to stop it. She also fought to “take the piss” out of the system, while still giving her former CIA colleagues “their due, because they deserve it.”

So while there are broad caricatures in the novel, from office busybodies to dangerously oblivious senior officials, the main character and several of those around him are drawn lovingly as dedicated professionals doing their best in a world gone mad.

“Although there was frustration obviously in a lot of what I had gone through, in a way it was a love letter to a lot of the people who are still there,” Finley said. “And the adventure of some of it, and also just like, we still need you guys and we’re still counting on you guys even though I know that all this frustration is there.”

At the end of the day, Finley said she hopes that the book is – more than an indictment of the War on Terror or a “love letter” to officers in the field – just a good story in its own right, reflecting some of the weird things that happened to her or her colleagues. A few scenes, she said, were cut because the editors said they were too absurd, even though she wasn’t making those up.

“I didn’t go into it thinking that ‘I’m going to change things,’” she said of writing the novel. “If I could just make people laugh, that’s great. If it highlights a little bit of what the dysfunction is, that’s great too.”

Lee Ferran is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist and the founder of Code and Dagger, a foreign affairs and national security news website.

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