My Bad Experience with The Cover Wife

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BOOK REVIEW: The Cover Wife

By Dan Fesperman / Knopf

Reviewed by William D. Murray, retired senior CIA Operations Officer

(The Cipher Brief taps independent reviewers with experience in national security issues to review books for our undercover readers.  The views expressed represent those of the reviewer and not The Cipher Brief.)

The Reviewer — William D “Bill” Murray retired in 2005 after more than 37 years at the CIA including 15 years as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service. He worked as a case officer and Chief of Stations in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, the Balkans and Western Europe and was the Agency’s senior officer in Paris on 9/11. He is co-founder and Vice President of the Council on Intelligence Issues, a non-profit established to assist intelligence officers who have legal and other difficulties because of their work, and also to promote understanding of the work of US intelligence.

REVIEW — Searching for a thrilling espionage novel? How about a complex plot with increasing levels of tension building to a big reveal? Or just something with a decent plot but good character development to build engaging characters? Or even something based on the way US intelligence agencies actually work and about the people who work in them? This boring attempt at espionage fiction will meet none of those desires.

The Cover Wife is a tedious account of a totally improbable scenario: using a staff CIA officer to impersonate the wife of a researcher who is challenging a core belief of Islam in order to publicly demean the religion. The fact that US intelligence agencies cannot engage in activity designed to influence US public opinion seems to be unknown to the author. The author also seems unaware that the US is fighting terrorism, including terrorism inspired by religious fanaticism, but is not and never has been at war with Islam, or any other religion.

The novel opens with a mystery on a remote mountain trail, moves to Paris then to Hamburg and finally back to Paris. The bulk of the novel takes place in Hamburg.

A  major part of the narrative is that a female staff officer goes to Hamburg to accompany her fictious husband at a book fair in 1999. Most improbably, she also has a side mission, unknown to her colleagues on the book fair detail, to sneak out daily and observe a group of Arab males centered on the Al Quds mosque in Hamburg. They are, of course, the now infamous Hamburg cell who later committed the horrors of 9/11. We are supposed to ignore the findings of the 9/11 Commission and accept the author’s false statement in the acknowledgments at the end of the book, that both German and US intelligence and law enforcement agencies knew of the existence and activities of the Hamburg cell 2 years before they mounted their atrocity; before they even went to Afghanistan for training. Simply not true. If the author used this device as part of the fictional plot that would be just artistic license, but in insisting on this as truth he moves into the realm of propaganda. The author offers no evidence to buttress his claim so what his statement rests on is a mystery.

The book seems to be designed to portray US intelligence and law enforcement as a rabble of undisciplined individuals under no central or even local control who wander around and do whatever they want as individuals. There is in the book, for example, a station in Paris headed by a chief. But the station officers pay no attention to that person and travel and work as they please. There is also in Paris an agency officer who runs, directly from his apartment, his own network of staff personnel attached to other stations all over Europe. Then there is yet another agency officer pulling another set of invisible strings who is travelling in Europe. Finally, there is an FBI officer assigned to the counterterrorist center at CIA who writes his own travel orders to go to Hamburg to surveil people by himself (not FBI procedure.) The FBI officer is reporting to another FBI officer in New York, not to the agency where he is assigned, and not to FBI headquarters.

These people bounce around and bang into one another like the little steel balls hitting the bumpers in a pinball machine. All are quickly spotted by the Arab targets. Nobody reports to any centralized controlling authority. They use so-called “secure” cell phones, wherever they were in 1999, and there is one reference to an encrypted email sent from a hotel room. Tradecraft is a joke and operational security is not even a consideration.

The protagonist changes her allegiance from team to team throughout the novel. She winds up working with the lone-wolf FBI officer against the person who thinks she is working for him. She is not someone anyone would want to be working with. She is totally untrustworthy.  All the American players ignore the Germans and do not even seem to be aware at first that the Germans know the Al Quds group and have surveilled it in the past. The Americans do have liaison with the police in Hamburg and seem to have a mystical ability to order hotel staff, delay international aircraft based on a phone call from a hotel room,  cover up a murder of one of their team, and perform other miracles. The FBI officer checks in with the German BND but provides such a poor rationale for his trip that the BND decides to watch him and also post deliberately obvious harassing surveillance on the Arabs.

The author did some basic reconnaissance of Hamburg but does nothing to establish mood or sense of place in either Hamburg or Paris. He knows very little about Islam or its rites and nothing about how groups like the Hamburg cell organized and maintained operational security. His understanding of their motivations is as superficial as his knowledge of real intelligence operations. The one halfway sympathetic character in the book is one of the Arabs, a young man on the margins of both the cell and Western culture. The others, all 9/11 hijackers, are wooden stick figures.

The novel reaches its conclusion on 9/11 which is viewed indirectly from the author’s idea of what a station in Paris is like. His description of what was happening in that location on that day is totally inaccurate.

If the author’s intent was to show US intelligence and law enforcement as a bunch of bumbling amateurs spending their time fighting with one another, he has more than succeeded. If it was to write a thrilling spy novel that would grab and hold the reader, he failed rather miserably. My recommendation, give this one a miss.

The reviewer gives this book a disappointing one out of four trench coats.


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One Response

  1. Gary C says:

    I totally agree with the review. The novel is not worth reading. Very disappointing.

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