State of Play Review: Alex Berenson’s The Prisoner

| John Sipher
John Sipher
Former Member, CIA's Senior Intelligence Service

In Alex Berenson’s new thriller, The Prisoner, his hero John Wells goes undercover in a European prison to smoke out a CIA mole who is providing deadly secrets to ISIS. This is Berenson’s eleventh book featuring Wells as a former CIA officer who speaks Arab and Pashto, and has spent years undercover penetrating al Qaeda.

The Prisoner opens as a crew of CIA operatives are ambushed while traveling to ISIS stronghold Raqqa in Syria to extricate a source. ISIS fighters were lying in wait, clearly aware the CIA operatives were coming. At the time, we find John Wells retired and moving from his home in Montana to New Hampshire to be with his girlfriend and new-born baby daughter. His former colleague, Ellis Shafer, is one of the top executives at CIA, and his former boss and CIA Director Vinny Duto has been elected President.

Wells gets a call from a former intelligence contact in Bulgaria who tells him that his service overheard an ISIS prisoner bragging about access to high level western intelligence information. Shafer and Wells conclude that there is likely a traitor at the highest levels of the CIA, and they go to the President with their plan to smoke him out.

As Wells and his cohort initiate the search for the mole, we learn that a senior CIA officer is seeking revenge on his colleagues after becoming disgruntled in Iraq. While the unnamed officer was already frustrated with U.S. policy, the last straw was when U.S. troops in Baghdad accidently kill a reporter with whom he is having an affair. The officer, in turn, reaches out to a local Imam, offering his services to ISIS.

Despite his desire to begin a quieter, civilian life, Wells is pulled back into service due to the severity of the threat – a CIA insider who can help ISIS carry out its deadly activities.  Wells leaves his girlfriend and daughter behind to go under-cover as an al Qaeda fighter recently released by Pakistani authorities. His plan is to get captured by U.S .forces and placed in the same Bulgarian prison as the ISIS fighter. The intent is for Wells to be bait to force the mole to act and show himself. 

The action picks up as Wells makes his way to Afghanistan and Bulgaria. He doesn’t learn the identity of the mole, but uncovers an ISIS plot to use sarin gas in Paris. In the process of foiling the plot, Wells and his colleagues find out that the mole is behind an even more diabolical plan to kills scores of senior political, intelligence, and police officers.

The book is written in a fast-paced and readable style. The author has some familiarity with the details and emotions of those in the intelligence trade. I can see why his books are popular. 

If I have a complaint, it is that Berenson’s book – like so many of the genre – is just too formulaic. It is almost a carbon copy of Brad Thor’s recent thriller that I previously reviewed for The Cipher Brief.

It seems that many of these spy thrillers follow a standard script: A murder or attack takes place highlighting the potential of a mole inside the U.S. national security structure.  The President (who used to work at CIA) decides to run a personal, deniable, “off-the-books” operation outside of the standard bureaucratic structures. He reaches out to a retired operative who has experience in the military special forces and CIA (but never old enough to have the experience and gravitas that is presumed in the narrative). The operative is trying to put his dangerous career behind him and deal with his personal demons but is nonetheless convinced that he is needed for one more critical undertaking. Together they succeed despite having to deal with incompetent and amoral government bureaucrats, and make a series of deadly ethical decisions along the way. 

This formula would work better if the authors made a real effort to develop the characters.

However, Berenson and his ilk do a good job of maintaining a balance of action and suspense, and incorporating topical issues from the latest news. The Prisoner is a good way to spend a few hours at the beach or over a long plane flight.

The Author is John Sipher

John Sipher retired in 2014 after a 28-year career in the CIA's National Clandestine Service, which included serving in Moscow and running the CIA’s Russia operations. Sipher served multiple overseas tours, as Chief of Station and Deputy Chief of Station, in Europe, the Balkans, Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia. He also ran Russian operations at headquarters. He retired as a member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, and received the CIA's Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal.... Read More

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