The Fall of Moscow Station: Thinking Outside the Box

By Bennett Seftel

Bennett Seftel is deputy director of editorial at The Cipher Brief.

Mark Henshaw’s latest spy thriller could have been ripped straight from today’s headlines as tensions between Moscow and Washington continue to mount. The Fall of Moscow Station is the third installment to Henshaw’s Red Cell series and follows the latest adventures of two CIA analysts, Kyra Stryker and Jonathan Burke, as they attempt to neutralize grave threats posed by the Russians. 

General Arkady Lavrov, the director of Russia’s main foreign intelligence agency, the GRU, lures ex-CIA agent Alden Maines into Russian hands and with brutal tactics forces him to divulge the names of CIA assets operating in the country.  One of those assets is a high-ranking nuclear scientist, who just happens to be a close friend of Lavrov.

Upon procuring this treasure trove of information from Lavrov, the Russian President subsequently orders scores of U.S. personnel out of the country, prompting the U.S. President to expel the Russian ambassador and other diplomats in response. The political friction between the two countries reaches a near-breaking point.

With Maines still in Russian custody, CIA operatives Stryker and Burke set out on a search and recovery mission in order to limit the carnage that Maines has already caused the agency and the U.S.  As nearly all identified CIA personnel have been barred from remaining in Russia, it is up to them to combat the Russian intelligence apparatus and prevent more harm from being carried out against U.S. operatives. 

In addition to the underlining theme of espionage, the book delves into the cutthroat competition between Russia’s two main intelligence agencies, the GRU and the FSB, the successor of the KGB.  The story also follows Stryker’s development as an analyst in the CIA’s Red Cell division – a unit tasked with thinking outside the box – as she attempts to combat Lavrov head-on.

Overall, Henshaw’s thorough research and keen attention to detail is evident as his meticulous descriptions offer the reader a real-life glimpse into the streets of Moscow and the world as seen through a CIA analyst’s eyes. The book leaves readers wanting more and replaying the twists and climax again and again!

The Cipher Brief sat down with Mark Henshaw, author of The Fall of Moscow Station, to discuss his background, themes in the book, and his passion for writing.

The Cipher Brief:  How did you first become involved in the intelligence community?  

Mark Henshaw: I was at Bringham Young University in 1999 and wrote a masters thesis on cybersecurity and war. Back in 1999, cybersecurity was really not on most people’s radar. It wasn’t considered a huge national security issue at the time. So I was writing a thesis on something that most people weren’t paying a lot of attention to, but the CIA was starting to think about it, and they recruited me as an analyst.

I worked for a group that later became the Information Operations Center at the CIA. I spent my years at the agency mostly taking a look at cybersecurity and how it was impacting our national security at a time when it was really starting to ramp up as an issue. Now, everybody is paying serious attention to it. You’re seeing cyber impact all kinds of things. But it took a while to convince everybody that this was something that they needed to worry about.

TCB: Can you tell us a little bit about the CIA’s Red Cell?

MH: The Red Cell is a unit, which was set up on September 13, 2001, two days after the 9/11 attacks. As the planes were hitting the buildings, it became very apparent to people at the agency that we had suffered what the 9/11 commission would later term a failure of imagination. Simply put, no one had imagined that that kind of attack was in the realm of possibility. If you had come in the building on September 10, and said, “Here’s what I think would happen” and described that kind of attack, people would have thought you were out of your mind. Then on September 12, everybody would have been hailing you as a prophet.

Former CIA Director George Tenet wanted to make sure that we didn’t suffer those kinds of failures of imagination again. He called in some of his senior people late at night, which was the only time that he could get a break, and he said “I want to set up this unit that is going to really think out of the box and is really going to do things differently, and I want you to go find some analysts who have shown a talent for that kind of thing.” In a big bureaucracy like the agency, the analysts who really thought far out of the box at that time were misfits. They were definitely not your standard run of the mill people.

They brought all these people who were sort of loose cannons and wild thinkers, and set this unit up called the Red Cell.  Tenet told them, “Here, I want you to first tell me what nobody else is telling me. Tell me what nobody else is willing to tell me. Second, I want you to make the other analysts nervous. The minute that they say that could never happen, I want you to sit down and write me a paper on exactly how that could happen.” They started writing those kinds of papers about terrorism and then a year or two later, Tenet took the blinds off, and said, “Ok, now I don’t want you to focus on terrorism, I want you to focus on anything that any analyst in the world looks at.”

The guys in the Red Cell were free to look at the entire world – any issue that impacted national security – and start rethinking how bad things could happen, primarily low-probability, high-impact events.

I served there for about three years. It was a fascinating place to be, because it was total intellectual and analytical freedom. You could think about anything you wanted. If we didn’t have intelligence supporting an idea, that didn’t stop us from being able to write about it. It really helped to look at the world in a different way.

As a writer, I thought that was a fantastic unit for my protagonists, because it meant they would be free to look at any subject in the world; go anywhere, talk about anything, think in really unique ways, and they didn’t have to be locked into a certain way of doing things. It’s a fantastic tool for a writer to have somebody who can play that role.

TCB: What made you want to become a writer?

MH: Personal insanity, I guess?  I’ve always enjoyed reading thrillers and fiction. It took a while to figure out exactly how I wanted to do it, but this is something that I’ve really always wanted to do. I was surprised that I was able to get the first novel published.

TCB: How much of your own background and experiences did you draw upon when writing The Fall of Moscow Station? How much research did this entail, and how did you go about your research?

MH: I have a hard time reading most spy novels and watching most spy movies, because all I can focus on is what they did wrong, what is really unrealistic. I realize that in movies and TV, you only have an hour to tell the whole story, and sometimes you have to take some liberties, but it’s still really hard.

I wanted to write a book that was as accurate as I could possibly make it, be the kind of book where people who had been there could read it and say, “Yeah, for all intents and purposes that could have happened.”  I do conduct a pretty substantial amount of research.

The characters and the events are fictional.   But a lot of the events are based on things that have happened and some of the characters are based on people who have really been there.  When I’m writing a chase scene, I’m following street names and using Google Streetview to see what kind of buildings are on that street so I can literally describe what the buildings look like. I want readers to be able to follow the directions of the book, almost as if they are there.  I don’t make up any of the street names, I don’t make up any of the buildings names. I want to give people a real world look.  

TCB: One element that I really enjoyed in Fall of Moscow Station was the ongoing rivalry between Russia’s GRU (CIA) and FSB (FBI). How did you come up with that part? To what extent do such tensions actually exist?

MH: Any time you have a national security apparatus with multiple agencies that are working towards different missions but with some type of overlap, you are always going to have rivalries, because they fight these political turf wars. You see it with almost every government. Ours does it; the Russian government does it. 

In Russia, it has been interesting watching them because several of the agencies, such as the SVR and the FSB, were part of one agency, the KGB. After the Soviet Union fell, the KGB was pulled apart so you have these different agencies.  But it was recently announced that Russian President Vladimir Putin is going to put the KGB back together again, and they are going to call it the MDB, although I think the GRU will still be its own thing.

But anytime you have multiple different agencies, they are going to compete with each other to some degree There is competition among CIA, FBI, DIA, and NSA. Different departments are fighting to try to increase their power and influence. 

The difference in Russia is it tends to be a little more cutthroat than it is here. In the U.S., agencies recognize their role and that we are on the same team, we are all working toward the same goal and try to get along, whereas in Russia, those agencies are very much viewed as stepping stones to a higher office. Putin is a former KGB man.

In my book, the GRU and the FSB are angry at each other to the point where they are actively trying to undermine one another and achieve all the glory.

TCB: One of the interesting ideas that come across in the book is this concept that global stability would benefit from having “two great powers” (the U.S. and the Soviet Union) in contrast to the current order of international relations where the U.S. is the lone global hegemon. What are your thoughts on that logic?

MH: There is a certain kind of logic to it. Say what you will about the Cold War years, but there was a certain stability in the world. You were either on the side of the Untied States or you were on the side of the Soviets. There weren’t a lot of countries in the middle, at least not in the European theater. Each side knew who the enemy was, and they got to know how they were working

The brain of one of the characters in my book, Russian General Arkady Lavrov, operated according to this logic because it brought order and clarity to the world. There was certainly a Cold War – I wouldn’t call it a peaceful war by any stretch – but it wasn’t the confused mess that we have today. You look over at places like the Middle East, and it just seems like whole parts of the world are coming apart.  I don’t think it would necessarily be hard for somebody who’d been in the Soviet Union to have this perspective.

Putin has even said this to some degree when he said, “it was one of the great geopolitical disasters of the ages when the Soviet Union fell apart.” The United States may not agree, but I think somebody like Arkady Lavrov looks at the world the way as it worked during the Cold War – Russia had influence, the world was divided, there was a relative peace in the Middle East, and there wasn’t open warfare the way there is today. And then suddenly it all comes apart. He looks at how the world is going today, saying this is terrible, this is not the way it should be.

I don’t think it would be hard to understand why somebody like Lavrov wants to rebuild the Soviet Union and start the Cold War up again because he sees it as being an improvement over the current situation for his country.

I don’t agree with that, but in certain ways he has a point because we have types of conflict in places now that we never had during the Cold War and we are still trying to wrap our minds around how to deal with it.

TCB: Can you tell us a little bit about what you are working on next?

MH: I am actually working on novel number four. I don’t have a title for it yet, and I don’t want to give away too many details, but it will be a more Middle Eastern themed book with a mole hunt.  In the Fall of Moscow Station, we know who the mole is from the beginning. In this one, they are in a mole hunt.  Mossad gets tangled into this whole thing. Some of the locations in this one include Iran.

With the first three, I did have this overarching plan and each book was part of that. They are able to stand alone, but you see elements that get tied up in the series. This one is kind of a breather book for me. It’s going to be a stand-alone story.  After I get this one finished and have some time to think, I may come up with another overarching them.

TCB: Anything else?

MH: People get a lot of wild ideas about what the intelligence world is like from watching TV and movies, and they think everybody in the CIA is a backstabbing type or something along those lines.

I want people who read my books to know that most of the people who work inside the CIA and intelligence community are just like them. They are regular people. They wake up in the morning, go to work, have kids, and go to Church on Sunday. They are normal people.  They just happen to be very patriotic and have a deep interest in protecting the country and national security.  And they take it very personally when something happens; they feel like they’ve failed. When a 9/11 happens, the people at the CIA do take that very personally and resolve to try and make sure those type of things never happen again.

It’s not some evil group of people out there who are trying to topple governments. It’s just average everyday Americans who are just trying very hard to build a safe country, and one day want to retire and just enjoy life. So I hope people would understand they are extraordinary, very intelligent people, but they are also very normal people who Americans should not be afraid of. 

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