When the Cipher Brief folks asked me to review the latest “Tom Clancy” novel, I was hesitant. I already have a pile of books that I actually want to read, and I usually hate these type of “thrillers.” Further, the fact that Tom Clancy is long-dead was even more of a reason to assume that the new novel, True Faith and Allegiance, was little more than a trashy sales scam to keep milking the poor man’s reputation. On top of it all, it is an 800-page brick.
Therefore, my initial inclination was to go to my High School son for tips on how to best write a book report without ever opening the book. He seems to have a special gift for such things.
However, I finally sucked it up and read the book. While it is no masterpiece, it was an entertaining and enjoyable read. It is also a timely portrayal of the potential dangers associated with the explosion of social media. More on that later.
For the record, I’ve never been a huge fan of Tom Clancy. Too often his books lacked nuance, and he made little effort to develop his characters or write believable dialogue. Instead, the books seemed like a vehicle for him to show off his knowledge of various weapon systems.
Inside the CIA, a group of analysts developed a parody version of his first book, The Hunt for Red October, and his most famous character Jack Ryan, a CIA analyst who fights terrorists, narcos, and Cold War villains, rising to become Director of CIA, and eventually President. The satire was written for internal CIA consumption and poked fun at the CIA bureaucracy and notion that a CIA analyst could become a gun-toting hero and President. Surely, many a senior analyst in the Intelligence Community liked to think of themselves as the next Jack Ryan.
The latest book, True Faith and Allegiance, is penned by Clancy’s long-time collaborator Mark Greaney. It is a fast-paced thriller in which an undetected security breach leads to a series of terrorist attacks. The attacks are orchestrated by a shadowy Saudi financier hoping to compel the return of U.S. troops to the Middle East, thus raising the price of oil and thwarting Iranian interests. Fans of the Clancy series will recognize many of their favorite characters in the latest installment. Jack Ryan Jr., the son of President Jack Ryan and hero of previous Clancy novels, is a member of an off-the-books intelligence unit called “The Campus.” Like his Dad, he is a hybrid spy, equally at home doing research at a computer or in a fire-fight with terrorists.
While the story is engaging and action-packed, Greaney’s most significant contribution is his ability to spotlight the very real and dangerous connection between cyber-crime, stolen secrets and terrorism. Those in the U.S. Intelligence Community charged with fighting terrorism have long known the power of marrying secret intelligence data with the massive amount of personal and private information available via social media. In True Faith and Allegiance, a cyber-criminal builds a virtual e-Bay for terrorists and spies, marrying stolen data with easily available information on social media and sells it to the highest bidder.
The book starts when a Navy Commander and his family is murdered in a New Jersey restaurant by a Russian avenging the death of his brother. The subsequent unraveling of a series of overseas secret operations makes clear that there is a serious breach in the U.S.’s ability to protect its diplomats, military officers, and spies.
The story turns even more deadly when the Saudi financier bent on luring U.S. troops back to the Middle East passes detailed assassination plans to a senior ISIS operative. While he doesn’t know the identity of the source, the Saudi receives his deadly information from a Romanian con-man who has gained access to a U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) database.
As the real life Chinese theft of over 22 million OPM files that was uncovered in 2015 reminds us, OPM is the Agency that manages the U.S. Civil Service and maintains all of the applications for U.S. security clearances (Standard Form – 86., or SF-86). While it sounds boring, the SF-86 is a treasure trove of personal information on federal workers and contractors with security clearances. I downloaded the form to remind myself of the detail necessary to fill it in. The SF-86 includes all of a person’s private information – addresses, phone numbers, e-mail, social security numbers, education, travel, contact information on relatives, friends, teachers, co-workers, references, supervisors, family, employment details, travel, financial records, foreign contacts, psychological and emotional health information, drug and alcohol use, police records, court records, fingerprints, and passport information.
Needless to say, access to these forms is a powerful weapon in the hands of a bad actor. Marry the data with the openly available information on social media, and you have the ability to find and harm just about anyone.
In the book, due to mismanagement, the OPM’s database is stored on the server of an Indian company doing routine work for OPM. Hacking into the Indian company, a Romanian cyber firm is able to use the data to support Chinese intelligence agents and other foreign governments. A rogue member of the Romanian team goes a step further by selling detailed targeting packages to terrorist groups. He is able to build detailed profiles of U.S. military, diplomatic, and intelligence officials that he sells via the Dark Web. In turn, ISIS operatives are able to pick from a bloody pricelist to develop specific assassination plans: one million dollars for a General rank officer or Ambassador, somewhat less for lower ranking officials.
Through investigative and intelligence techniques and a global chase, the “campus” team unravels the breach and tracks down the killers. Showdowns and shoot-outs follow. The good guys win, but not before the bad guys do a tremendous amount of damage.
True Faith and Allegiance is a worthy installment in the Clancy series. Of course, there are the inevitable shortcomings that often manifest themselves in this genre. As did Clancy himself, Greaney sometimes just tries too hard. The recitation of details on intelligence and military techniques designed to show that the author is “in-the-know” gets tiring after a while. While he clearly has inside sources who help him explain the secret world, he nonetheless makes mistakes.
The action-packed chase scenes of operatives racing through the streets of Jakarta would be laughable to anyone who has spent hours stuck in Jakarta traffic to just go a few miles. Likewise, the story is not improved by the constant shifting of location from Iran to Indonesia, Romania, Kosovo, El Salvador, Belarus, Italy, Yemen, Iraq, Guyana, Mexico, Russia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Syria, China, Albania, Sicily, Hong Kong and the U.S. It is gratuitous.
Despite its flaws, the book is a fun and fast read that highlights an issue that will certainly become more and more a central fact of our lives. We will all have to find a means to balance the desire to have the world’s information at our fingertips, with the inevitable security consequences. With just one small piece of protected information, a bad actor can piece together an entire portrait of an individual’s life. And, you don’t need NSA phone records to do it.
When I started my intelligence career during the Cold War, there was no such thing as OSINT (open source intelligence). Nowadays, however, the intelligence community has created an entirely new profession – “targeter” – to mine the zettabytes of available data, much of it openly shared. Indeed, in many ways it is the targeting cadre that are the heroes of the anti-terror fight.
In conclusion, True Faith and Allegiance is not elegant or evocative writing, but it is fast-paced, has plenty of action, and is ultimately satisfying when bad guys get their asses whipped. As such, I think that Mark Greaney has earned top billing in future books in the series.