Former CIA Officer Alex Finley and her Oligarch Yachts

Author Interview

AUTHOR INTERVIEW — When The Cipher Brief last crossed paths with author Alex Finley, we delved into the exploits of Victor Caro, the central character of the ex-CIA officer’s first two novels, Victor in the Rubble and Victor in the Jungle.  Now, she has published a third book in the series, Victor in Trouble, a satire that focuses on Russian influence operations and an oligarch (how timely).

We touched base with the Barcelona-based satirist and journalist, who has gained wide attention recently with an entirely new venture, tracking and exposing the harbors and hiding places of Russian oligarchs’ favorite toys – ocean-going yachts.  Our conversation has been lightly edited.

The Cipher Brief:  What advantages Barcelona brings you for both writing and research rather than Washington or New York?

Finley:  I think that it is. It’s helpful actually to be out of the center of power and to be looking in on it.  It gives you a whole different perspective. And just by being around other people who also are outside Washington – for example, all my friends here.  I talk to people in Washington and get one perspective. But then you talk to people from the outside looking in and it’s very different, and you get a really good idea of what the United States looks like to people outside. And I think Washington sometimes forgets that.  Plus, it’s tapas and vino. Life doesn’t get any better than this.  I’ve done Washington and I’ve done New York.  It’s really nice to just live in a really nice “other” city.

The Cipher BriefYou’ve been pretty widely identified in your media appearances and in your own social media posts as former CIA. I was wondering if that causes you any unease in your work in Europe?  Has it opened doors?

Finley:  No, it hasn’t necessarily opened doors on the European front.  But just generally being able to say that you worked at the CIA, yes, that does open doors because it gives you certain bona fides right out of the gate.  People figure they can sort of trust you and they figure you know something and that you have some background.

The Cipher Brief:  Speaking of profile, your #yachtwatch has certainly attracted a lot of attention. You have made the point that the boats you’ve observed are representative of a darker and deeper reality, which is the Russian autocracy that makes these toys possible.  Now that we’re many weeks into Putin’s war on Ukraine, what are your thoughts are on the state of the invasion and the Western response, especially that coming from NATO?

Finley:  It does seem that the war has reached mostly a stalemate.  I think all of us early on were really thinking it would be quick for Russia, but Ukraine has put up an incredible amount of resistance, which is great.  I do think that the best outcome for any of this is, internally, that Putin is taken out of power in whatever form that looks like – if it’s a coup, if it’s an assassination, if it’s just people making it clear to him, he needs to step down, which I don’t think will happen. I think it’s best for all of us in NATO and in the EU and in the U.S. that he be gone. I don’t see the relationship going back to any sort of normal. I don’t see the sanctions going away until Putin is gone.

The Cipher Brief:  How has Spain reacted to this? Has it been any more noticeable than the rest of Western Europe?

Finley:  It’s a little bit more removed. I don’t think Spain gets a whole lot of its electricity, or gas; it’s not like Germany or Italy, for example. So in some ways it’s still a little bit far off, but they’ve still taken a role. They seized three yachts, so that’s something.

The Cipher Brief:  Are they still in the Barcelona harbor?

Finley:  They are. They’re all still sitting where they were.

The Cipher Brief:  Will the yacht watch sort of be a passing thing, or are you going to join the band of researchers who are tracking oligarch assets?

Finley:  I had already sort of been getting a little bit into the kleptocracy beat. Leading into my third book, I had been doing research on oligarchs and on oligarch yachts, specifically, and Russian influence operations and that type of thing.  I had background in that already because I had covered the Russian investigation in the United States [i.e., special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation], writing for the Center for Public Integrity. So, I’d written quite a bit about that.

By learning about the yachts and learning more about the oligarchs, that automatically leads you to the study of kleptocracy and corruption and money laundering and those types of things. So, while the yacht part itself may move on — although I think it’s going to last for the while — I don’t think the sanctions are going anywhere soon. What happens to these boats I think is going to be interesting.

But moving on from that, it’s representative of what we need to keep in mind going forward because so much of this corruption is how we ended up where we are now — this slide towards authoritarianism, not just in Russia, but we’ve seen it in Europe and even in the United States. Legalization of corruption in many ways in the United States with dark money pouring into politics. It’s foreign money that’s coming in. This is all part of foreign influence. It all relates back to corruption, kleptocracy, and inequality. So, even if the yacht watch part moves on, I think the themes and the concepts won’t, and those are things that we’re going to keep seeing for quite a while.

The Cipher Brief:  That particular focus on kleptocracy and its various manifestations, how did that come to you as a seed for both for research and for a book focus?

Finley:  I had been covering Russian influence operations and that became the basis for my third novel.  A lot of what the Russian influence operations are is buying influence in the West. I mean, they’re buying politicians. This is essentially what they’re doing. I started asking, how are they doing that?  And in the United States, it’s very easy. It’s not even illegal.  I mean, you can register to do it. And then without registering to do it, you can put it in through, PAC’s and Super PAC’s and LLCs can give money. It’s all then, dark money. It’s not a transparent system. Just by looking at what Russia has been doing to try to influence and buy politicians and political parties in the west automatically led me into the study of cryptography.

The Cipher Brief:  What sources have you found that you’ve been able to use to actually open up this whole area?

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Finley:  The great thing is that you have a lot of journalists and investigators looking into it now. You have Pandora papers and the Panama papers. This is indicative of what’s happening. People are getting fed up. And we have people who have access to the information now who are ready to put it out there. And then you have social media, which allows for crowdsourcing.  And then you have sources like Navalny’s people; they are unbelievable. They really have great sources and they’re definitely motivated. Then, there’s Bellingcat.  You have all of these places through all of this open source. And I think this is indicative also just how the industry has changed. There’s so much open source information now.  And it’s not just newspaper articles.  You have access to primary documents now very, very easily. Not everybody can be an expert; it takes time to arrive at that.  Even though you can see all these things, you need a certain background and experience to be able to make sense of the information that you’re getting.

Bellingcat doesn’t just randomly put together [satellite] photos. They know and understand what they’re looking at, the databases that they’re using. And so, to be able to put it into context and to analyze that information still requires a certain analytical foundation and an understanding of the general concepts that you’re working with.

The Cipher Brief:  I think it’s fair to say that for many, Twitter now is a lifeline, not for depth, but for leads really. Do you agree?

Finley: Yes, absolutely. And you hear it there first and you hear it quickly right as it happens. It gives you something that allows you to take this little negative information and run with it and see if you can corroborate the information and track it down and get much more in depth.  And it’s people from all over the world.  So, you can have a guy in the middle of Libya saying, this is exactly what’s happening in the middle of Libya. Which back in our old workplace, to get an asset into a place to actually give you that information was a lot of work. Now the guy just tweets it out.

The Cipher Brief:  You mentioned in your last Cipher Brief interview that you had a couple of book ideas fermenting in your mind. And has that developed into a single book or do you have multiple projects?

Finley:  I have multiple projects. I have the third book, which is just out, Victor in Trouble. And then I have another book which is about halfway written. And then I’ve had several TV and pitches and things like that are developed along the way. Now, I have my yacht watch column. I have been writing about the Russia investigation. I still freelance and write all my different articles when I see the opportunity.

The Cipher Brief:  And the other book project that you’re developing, tell us about that.

Finley:  It’s not a Victor book, but it is still satire just because I don’t like to write serious stuff. It’s much more fun to laugh. There are enough horrible things in the world. I would really rather just do something that makes me laugh and hopefully we make other people laugh, too.

But it’s a different character and it takes place much more in the United States, even though it’s about a CIA officer. She will be handling a number of assets that have had to be relocated to the United States so, it’s how she deals with that and with them and all of their personalities. But it’s also about looking into the question of what is home — where is home and what is home?  Everybody who’s lived overseas for a certain amount of time, says, I’m an American, but then I go back to America, and I feel like a foreigner.  What does it mean when people say, where are you from? Or what is home? Where is home?  It delves into some of those questions.

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