CIA Outsourcing -- Fact and Fiction

Former CIA director Michael Hayden, right, speaks while author Joseph Finder, center, and former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, left, look on during a discussion at the National Press Club. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

By Stephen Lowman

Fact collided with fiction on the 13th floor of the National Press Club building this morning, and it's doubtful a book publicist could have engineered a better marketing move.

On the same day that novelist Joseph Finder was moderating a panel discussion on the outsourcing of U.S. intelligence operations to private companies, the front page of The Washington Post reported that a secret CIA program to kill al-Qaeda leaders used the private security contractor Blackwater USA in 2004.

And who just happens to be the protagonist in Finder's most recent thriller "Vanished"? Nick Heller, a former Pentagon spy who leaves to join a corporate intelligence firm.

An 8 a.m. breakfast discussion held on a muggy August morning in Washington promised to be a subdued affair until the news broke last night. Instead, journalists and camera crews filled the room to hear from the panel that had been booked weeks ahead, including former CIA Director Michael Hayden and former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Before he began questioning the two ex-Bush administration officials, Finder joked that he found himself in the position of an "enhanced interrogator."

The panelists defended the CIA's use of private contractors in certain circumstances, such as when the CIA doesn't have a particular expertise that an outside company offers.

Finder himself has acquired a rare expertise on the subject of spy outsourcing. Like his previous eight books, "Vanished" (released Aug. 18) concerns the intersection of business and espionage. Finder has long been interested in spy craft but he said it wasn't until he sat down for dinner in London four years ago with a former CIA agent-cum-corporate spy and a Middle East arms dealer that he began paying attention to the privatization of U.S. intelligence agents.

"For years it frustrated me that no one was interested in the subject," Finder told me after the discussion. "I guess it's different now."

He admitted that there's something "perhaps a little weird" about a novelist moderating a discussion about real-world news. But he said that there's "a utility to fiction that is not fully appreciated."

"I have been doing research into the CIA for a couple decades now and I have always said that as a novelist I have had more access to sources in the intelligence community than I would as a journalist because they know their names will not be attached," he said.

"I think fiction has a real use in anticipating and speculating in ways journalism can't."

Don't expect Finder to pour his knowledge into a work of nonfiction anytime soon.

"I enjoy researching and writing novels," he said. "Plus, it's more lucrative."

By Ron Charles |  August 20, 2009; 3:40 PM ET
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