Title: The Faithful Spy
Author: Alex Berenson
Berenson, Alex (2006). The Faithful Spy. New York: Random House
PS3602.E25 F35 2006
Date Updated: January 8, 2017
Review by Jacob Heilbrunn
If terrorist threats have given a new lease to Western intelligence agencies after the end of the Cold War, they have also provided something of a fillip to the spy novel. The British, stalwart custodians of the genre, have already produced a number of these new thrillers, like Chris Cleave’s Incendiary—which was, coincidentally, released the day of the London subway bombings, July 7, 2005—and Giles Foden’s splendid Zanzibar. Now comes Alex Berenson, a reporter at The New York Times, to redress the imbalance with his first novel, The Faithful Spy.
Berenson offers a very American story—a sort of terrorist “High Noon,” whose Montana-born hero is abandoned not by the local townsfolk but, rather, by his employer, the Central Intelligence Agency. John Wells, laconic and reckless, was ordered to infiltrate Al Qaeda in the late 1990’s. Berenson, who has a superb eye for the telling detail, is excellent at describing Wells’s relations with his new chums in Afghanistan as well as battle scenes.
So successful does Wells become at going native and earning the trust of Al Qaeda’s higher-ups that the C.I.A. begins to wonder if he hasn’t succumbed to a kind of Stockholm syndrome, identifying more with the would-be jihadists than with the good, old-fashioned U.S.A. If Wells is such hot stuff, his superiors ask themselves, then why didn’t he warn them about 9/11? (The answer: he had heard only rumors of “something big.”) Wells quickly becomes a pawn pushed around by glory hounds in the C.I.A. Berenson deftly explores the jockeying for bureaucratic advantage—at the expense of rational policies—that goes on there. Reading him, one begins to suspect that if the war on terrorism is won, it will be despite, not because of, the agency.
After Wells is tapped by none other than Al Qaeda’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to return to the United States for a big operation, he reports to the C.I.A., which now views him as a hostile combatant. But Wells, determined to stop the next Qaeda attack in order to redeem himself for the 9/11 failure, gives the dunderheads in the agency the slip (only his handler and love interest, Jennifer Exley, continues to believe in him) and meets up with his Qaeda contact, one Omar Khadri. Khadri is a cool customer: “When his companions sang tales of black-eyed virgins who would pleasure them for eternity, Khadri turned away to hide his embarrassment. . . . Jihad was an obligation, not a game. Paradise might await in the next world, but Islam needed to triumph here and now.” Does Berenson want to portray Al Qaeda not as an organization of demented crackpots, but as a ruthless foe with a set of grievances and tactics that are . . . logical? Well, no, though he does, probably unavoidably, run the risk of showing empathy for Al Qaeda’s members simply by telling parts of the story from their point of view.
Then there is the issue of torture. Berenson depicts what constitutes, under any reasonable definition, American torture of a detainee who ends up divulging information about Al Qaeda’s plans. “Lies only drew out the pain,” an interrogator named Saul reminds himself.” Eventually every detainee understood that, and when they did, they gave him what he wanted.” Hmm. Did they? One might wish that Berenson had distanced himself from Saul’s bogus claim that torture works effectively to elicit “information about attacks that hadn’t happened yet,” rather than to obtain a mere confession.
But the least persuasive part of Berenson’s exciting, if flawed, tale comes when it abandons any shades of gray to indulge in some chest-thumping. Wells, racked with a deadly plague, toughs it out to save the day at the very last moment. If only it were that simple.
 Heilbrunn, Jacob, “Our Man in Al Qaeda,” Sunday Book Review, The New York Times (May 7, 2006). Downloaded February 18, 2016. Jacob Heilbrunn, a frequent contributor to the Book Review, is writing a book on neoconservatism.