Five Great Books About Spies and the CIA

I have to confess: I'm fascinated by spy books, intelligence histories, CIA memoirs, KGB confessionals. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's because I grew up during the Cold War, when a firm line was drawn between good guys and bad. It wasn't always a clear line. Many of the good guys did bad things. And many of the bad guys were just like us.

But the intelligence community, for a bright dozen years or so between World War II and the Cuban Revolution, seemed to be trying to get it right. The battle cries were ones we could live by: Freedom. Liberty. Justice. At least, those were the goals. They weren't always the reality. And then, with the '60s, came confusion.

I was still a child in the '60s, but despite the growing doubt and satire -- "That Was the Week That Was," "Get Smart," James Bond -- the ideals managed to stick.

What are the books that reveal most about the CIA? Which ones can clear the fog to reveal, if only briefly, the truth about intelligence work? There have been high points of intelligence, surely, but there have been nadirs, too, many of them vividly recalled in the familiar images of 9/11.

As I was wondering these things, Jeff Stein, the national security editor of Congressional Quarterly, posted a list of the best books about the CIA. I also happened to have in hand a long letter from a CIA veteran, Joseph Shugrue, who had written to complain that CIA books getting good notices in Book World might not, in fact, be ones that told the truth. And then a long-time acquaintance, another wise head on intelligence subjects, weighed in with a few votes.

Here are five books, a mere sliver, of the result. Surely, you will have more to add to this handful. And if you do, so will I.

Wilderness of Mirrors: Intrigue, Deception, and the Secrets that Destroyed Two of the Cold War's Most Important Agents, by David C. Martin.
This is my favorite -- the enthralling story of the all-out war between the CIA and the KGB. At the heart of it is a FBI gunslinger, William K. Harvey, and James Jesus Angleton, the eccentric head of counter-espionage at the CIA.

The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA, by Thomas Powers.
Jeff Stein's choice for the number one spot. I have to agree this biography of the CIA director is an astonishing book; one that still manages to surprise, even though it was written in 1979. John le Carré, of all people, called it "a splendid spy story, and all the better for being nonfiction"!

Powers also wrote the very incisive Intelligence Wars: American Secret History from Hitler to Al-Qaeda. To see Jeff Stein's complete list, click here.

Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Dino A. Brugioni.
Nominated by CIA retiree Joseph Shugrue, who puts it in his top two, along with the Powers. Brugioni was a first rate staff CIA officer, says Shugrue, and carefully recorded the Cuban missile crisis from the inside. (I should mention here a terrific new book about the crisis:
Michael Dobbs's One Minute to Midnight.)

The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA, by John Ranelagh.
There are few authors who have attempted the whole sweeping story of the Agency in one compelling volume. But this one, published in 1986, is closest to a true picture, according to my wise-head friend.

The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, by Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks.
Another that takes the broad view. It earns a place on this list, although it's been around for 34 event-filled years.

What else should make the list?

-- Marie Arana

By Christian Pelusi |  July 24, 2008; 6:25 AM ET Marie Arana , Nonfiction
Previous: Five Favorite Graphic Novels | Next: Five Novels So Cold You'll Forget the Heat


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Steve Coll's Ghost Wars?
You need to get some current books on the list.

Posted by: Dave | July 24, 2008 5:51 PM

fiction is probably the best way to get to know spies, know what I mean? i like (in order):

david ignatius
john le carre
charles mccarry

Posted by: angeline | July 24, 2008 10:30 PM

I agree that Powers's book, which is a timeless classic, and (to a lesser extent) Martin's belong on any Top XX list, but the others listed I'm not so sure about. In any event, here are a few more off the top of my head:

"Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987" by Bob Woodward

"Eclipse: The Last Days of the CIA" by Mark Perry

"Blond Ghost: Ted Shackley and the CIA's Crusades" by David Corn

"Lost Crusader: The Secret Wars of CIA Director William Colby" by John Prados

"Casey: The Lives and Secrets of William J. Casey: From the OSS to the CIA" by Joseph Persico

"Inside the CIA" by Ronald Kessler

Posted by: Alex Blackwell | July 25, 2008 5:05 PM

You probably know all about it but an excellent book was just published last month, deals with the history
of CIA's Office of Technical Service. The book is Spycraft, The Secret History of CIA's Spytechs. By
Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton (Penguin Group, 2008). Because you love spy stories, you will love
this book.

Posted by: Joe | July 26, 2008 10:17 AM

I humbly suggest Robert Littell, under the fiction category, and his many highly readable, intelligent, and terribly clever spy books such as "The Walking Back the Cat," "The Sisters," and, then more specifically to the point here, his tome, "The Company."

Furthermore, what about the National Book Award winner for non-fiction, "Legacy of Ashes: the History of the CIA" by Tim Weiner? He also won the Pulitzer for another won of his books, I believe.

Posted by: Jon Lauderbaugh | July 26, 2008 6:46 PM

I would nominate the Robert Baer books -- Sleeping with the Devil and See No Evil. (The movie Syriana is loosely based on them). An insider's perspective from someone who was there.

In fiction, honorable mention to the GK Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday. A century old, and British, but still one of the best on general spying/double identities/things are not what they seem.

Posted by: mark tarallo | July 26, 2008 9:09 PM

One cannot understand the CIA without reviewing the history of its WW II predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). That freewheeling, buccaneering, agency, which provided the early leaders of the CIA, was given a blank check and no oversight. This set the tone and style of today's intelligence operations.

Posted by: Robert Huddleston | July 27, 2008 9:52 AM

I agree with the comment about the recently published book "Spycraft." Even though it had to clear CIA publications review, it is an excellent book.

As for the comment on Weiner's "Legacy of Ashes," I cannot say that I totally agree, notwithstanding its being awarded a National Book Award. Like many CIA books, it is riddled with small errors. For example, see the CIA's own comments:

Baer's "See No Evil" is indeed entertaining but the if-only-they-had-listened-to-me tone leads me to suspect its overall informative value.

Posted by: Alex Blackwell | July 28, 2008 3:55 PM

The URL above has a period included in the address, which makes it invalid. Here's the corrected version:

Posted by: Alex Blackwell | July 28, 2008 3:59 PM

Thanks for these. It's good to be reminded of them. I'd forgotten Persico's book about Casey!
And it's interesting that Alex Blackwell puts forward Ron Kessler's "Inside the CIA." Another correspondent prefers Kessler's "Escape from the CIA: How the CIA Won and Lost the Most Important KGB Spy Ever to Defect to the U.S."

Posted by: Marie Arana | July 28, 2008 4:18 PM

Although not complete, CIA offers a compendium of intelligence literature:

I would also recommend perusing back issues of CIA's unclassified version of "Studies in Intelligence," which offers regular book reviews:

Posted by: Alex Blackwell | July 28, 2008 5:02 PM

Interesting list from the CIA.
Ted Gup's Book of Honor is there, as well as Sebag-Montefiore's Enigma. But the book I'm really glad to see there is Robin Winks's very fine Cloak and Gown. Published almost 30 years ago, but still relevant.

Posted by: Marie Arana | July 29, 2008 12:06 AM

Interesting list from the CIA.
Ted Gup's Book of Honor is there, as well as Sebag-Montefiore's Enigma. But the book I'm really glad to see there is Robin Winks's very fine Cloak and Gown. Published almost 30 years ago, but still relevant.

Posted by: Marie Arana | July 29, 2008 12:06 AM

Yes, I agree with the Thomas Powers book, however, I believe these MUST also be included:

"The CIA and Congress: The Untold Story from Truman to Kennedy" by David Barrett
(This, in my opinion, is one of the best researched books on the subject and makes for an enjoyable read)

"For the President's Eyes Only" by Chrisopher Andrew

and, yes, as another writer above mentioned...

"Ghost Wars" by Steve Coll

This is just my humble opinion.

Posted by: Joe Hernandez-Kolski | July 29, 2008 2:41 AM

I just had a very pleasant phone conversation with a retired officer of the CIA who held very senior positions at the agency before 1985 and this is what he has to say about best books:
"There are two responsible books about the CIA: 'Invisible Government' by David Wise and Thomas B. Ross, and 'The Man Who Kept the Secrets,' by Thomas Powers. And there is one irresponsible book: 'Legacy of Ashes,' by Tim Weiner." He claims that the Weiner book is the result of a long-held grudge and ignores entirely the successes of the agency.
Our own review of "Legacy of Ashes" in Book World, by David Wise, called the book superb in its research, but put forth this caveat: "If there is a flaw in Legacy of Ashes, it is that Weiner's scorn for the old boys who ran the place is so unrelenting and pervasive that it tends to detract from his overall argument. He is unwilling to concede that the agency's leaders may have acted from patriotic motives or that the CIA ever did anything right."
Another senior CIA executive, now retired, recommended for this discussion the book, "Water on the Brain," a satirical novel by Compton Mackenzie (1933), in which the British Secret Service is royally skewered, and the whole business of spy work is captured to a tee.

Posted by: Marie Arana | July 29, 2008 12:10 PM

I agree wholeheartedly with Joe Hernandez-Kolski. Barrett's book is excellent. And one can read Britt Snider's review of it here:

For those who ask, Who is Britt Snider? He wrote "The Agency & The Hill
CIA's Relationship with Congress, 1946-2004," which is offered freely on CIA's website:

Posted by: Alex Blackwell | July 29, 2008 12:53 PM

Maria, one can read Nicholas Dujmovic's review of "Legacy of Ashes" in CIA's Studies in Intelligence at:

Of course, one could argue the review in a CIA publication may be self-serving, but I think Dujmovic does a good job of showing how flawed Weiner's book is.

Posted by: Alex Blackwell | July 29, 2008 12:57 PM

I apologize for monopolizing this thread, but after reviewing my own personal library I feel compelled to mention a few other noteworthy CIA-related books:

"Wedge: The Secret War Between the FBI and CIA" by Mark Riebling, a 1994 book that was updated in paperback form after 9/11.

"Molehunt: The Secret Search for Traitors That Shattered the CIA" by David Wise

"The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA's Final Showdown with the KGB" by Milton Bearden and James Risen

"The Wizards of Langley: Inside The CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology" by Jeffrey T. Richelson

"The CIA at War: Inside the Secret Campaign Against Terror" by Ron Kessler

Posted by: Alex Blackwell | July 29, 2008 1:58 PM

One thing I've learned here is that Alex Blackwell, Joe Hernandez-Kolski, my friend Marie Arana and the readers who contributed to my own blog on this subject are incredibly shrewd and knowledgeable consumers of intelligence literature. Amazing. And enlightening. Indeed, it's been particularly gratifying to be reminded of all the really great books out there that I failed to mention in my own quick list.
So, thanks, Marie, for continuing this interesting thread. But as the recommendations of many readers suggest, however, the list cannot be so easily be divided by fiction and non-fiction. The best non-fiction books on espionage often read like novels. The best novels ring -- and are -- truer than the best non-fiction.

Posted by: Jeff Stein | July 29, 2008 10:45 PM

I agree, Spycraft, The Secret History of CIA's Spytechs by Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton is an excellent read filled with technology, history and, of course, spies.

Posted by: petrichor | July 30, 2008 4:25 AM

Jeff Stein, I just checked out your blog Spytalk. It's a really interesting site.

And I agree with your comment about it being hard sometimes to distinguish fictional and non-fictional spy writing, at least when it's good. I, too, find one genre mimics the other at times. Sometimes Le Carre's baroque novels are more realistic than a "true" spy story.

Posted by: Alex Blackwell | July 30, 2008 3:10 PM

Everything John Le Carre ever wrote. If I had to choose one, it's "The Honourable Schoolboy," written at the tail end of the U.S's involvement in Vietnam. Perhaps Mr. Le Carre's finest work, and one which paints a rather unflattering picture of American intelligence agencies. Worth the read...

Posted by: Steve | July 30, 2008 8:32 PM

Coincidentally, Steve, I just re-read all three books in Le Carre's "Karla Trilogy," including the aforementioned "The Honorable Schoolboy." It's often overlooked in the Le Carre oeuvre, but I agree that it's a great book, not simply a spy thriller but also an epic-type novel, very much on par with, for example, "The Perfect Spy."

Posted by: Alex Blackwell | July 30, 2008 8:42 PM

Interesting discussion, though I think too much credit is being given to spy fiction, even with the insights it occasionally has.

I heartily second the acclaim given to Bob Wallace's and Keith Melton's Spycraft. It's a needed partial antidote to Legacy of Ashes.

I've seen no mention of John Ranelagh's The Agency. It would be first on my list, just ahead of Chris Andrew's FTPEO.

Posted by: Nicholas Dujmovic | July 31, 2008 9:37 PM

Mainly due to this discussion, I pulled down off the shelf and dusted off my copies of "The Agency" and "For The President's Eyes Only," both of which I hadn't read in years. It seems, especially with Ranelagh's book, that I pull out some unseen nugget each time I read them.

By the way, assuming you're the same Nicholas Dujmovic I referenced above, I also agree with something you mentioned in your review of Weiner's book: that a new Ranelagh-like or Andrew-esque history of CIA is overdue. Given the pattern, it seems as if once a decade is about right. (cf. James Bamford's soon-to-be published third NSA book after "The Puzzle Palace" and "Body of Secrets.")

In any event, Weiner, who benefited from even more declassification in the interim, really blew a golden opportunity, in my opinion.

Posted by: Alex Blackwell | August 1, 2008 12:38 PM

One book that hasn't been brought up here, and which I recently re-read, is "Mole - The True Story of the First Russian Spy to Become an American Counterspy" by William Hood. This book recounts CIA's handling of the USSR's GRU Major Pyotr Popov in the 1950s. It was first published in hardback in 1982. And although the book was cleared by CIA publications review, which, among other things, necessitated the use of pseudonyms for several CIA officers involved, subsequent paperback releases have used the real names that have since entered the public domain.

Although narrowly focused on the Popov case, "Mole" is excellent at recounting CIA HUMINT tradecraft (albeit ca. 1950s) and is considered by many as one of the finest espionage books ever.

Posted by: Alex Blackwell | August 1, 2008 2:57 PM

Nicholas Dujmovic,
You didn't read the initial posting. John Ranelagh's book WAS mentioned. At the very outset.
It's a very good book.

Posted by: Marie Arana | August 1, 2008 7:53 PM

Gosh, you're right. There it is.

Alex (if I may), I did write the LofA review for Studies. You're absolutely right that we need an updated volume a la Ranelagh or Andrew. LofA missed the mark, to say the least.

Other books that I've found useful include Harry Rositzke, The CIA's Secret Operations (1977); Stephen Knott, Secret and Sanctioned; and Jim Olson's recent and unique treatment of moral dilemmas in espionage, Fair Play.

Even the so-called renegade memoirs have use, once you get past the agenda, the score-settling and the axe-grinding. Joseph B. Smith's Portrait of a Cold Warrior, for example, or Marchetti and Marks, The Cult of Intelligence, or even parts of Agee's The Company.

Posted by: Nicholas Dujmovic | August 1, 2008 9:17 PM

Good points, Nicholas, especially regarding Rositzke's book.

Some may disagree, but I found parts of "A Spy For All Seasons: My Life in the CIA," by Duane R. Clarridge and Digby Diehl, fairly useful, once you get past the Clarridge-speak.

As far as fiction goes, you do make a good point about being careful in giving to much credit to novels. That said, I found the recent book "An Ordinary Spy" by Joseph Weisberg to be not only entertaining but very informative, too.

Posted by: Alex Blackwell | August 1, 2008 9:39 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company