A good bit back I wrote about Gail Collins’s As Texas Goes, a book which should’ve been something right in my wheelhouse: Collins and I are more alike than dissimlar politically, and I’m as much a fan of the NYTimes as a non-newspaper person can be. Unfortunately, the book was largely thin and uneven—a book which, sadly, deflated as I read it. It never was as good as I hoped, before I began, it would be.
Purely by coincidence, I was reading, simultaneous with the Collins book, Henry Crumpton’s The Art of Intelligence, a book about the CIA and its clandestine service (there should be more, somewhere, from someone, about the weird harmonics established by reading books at the same time; I dare anyone to read the recent collection of essays by Robert Hass along with the recent collection of lectures on writing from Mary Ruefle and not find strange Venn Diagraming, in the best ways). Whereas I’m on the same page with Collins on many things, I believed, on entering Crumpton’s book, that I’d be respectfully distant—this is a guy who’d been deep in the CIA, and on whose watch the war on terror had ramped up, and he’d worked in the State department for the last administration, and and and. Basically: I imagined I’d be reading a book by someone very smart, but also by someone with whom I very much disagreed.
So imagine the joy, then, that I ended up finding Crumpton’s The Art of Intelligence among the summer’s best books—certainly not an escapist beach read on the order of Gone Girl, but a satisfying book which, hour by hour, chunk of pages by chunk of pages, forces you (or, at least, me) to rethink certain positions that once came either naturally or without much thought or both.
For instance: rendition, detention, and drone attacks on what’ve been termed enemy combatants (mercifully, Crumpton avoids involved discussions re: terminology and legalistics in the War on Terror, though clearly he has issues with certain…agendas—which, it should be noted, are agendas he fulfilled to the best of his abilities, seemingly, but not without some internal frustration). I don’t want to get too much into this—Crumpton needs the whole book to lay out, with clarity and concision, why he feels the way he does regarding certain tactics the US military’s taken—but I can think of no words, either in books or newspapers or magazines, that have done such a fantastic job of trying to be 100% clear about what it was that happened between, say, 1998 (the Kenyan and Tanzanian embassy bombings) and the present (though Crumpton left active CIA duty in the mid-00s [for a post at the State Department though also, it’s worth noting, for a spell in the International Public Policy program at Johns Hopkins University, which detail’s included here just for something like scale]). And not just what happened: what happened in our name, what happened because of our votes and tax dollars. It’s easy—particularly in an election year—to sit back and moan about how bad things are; it’s even more tempting to sit back and moan when the issue’s about how the US treats the non-US world. And I know books are merely dead trees with symbols sprayed onto their pressed pulp but it’s impossible not to read The Art of Intelligence and be thrilled knowing that folks like Henry Crumpton are behind certain uneasy security scenes, making decisions which, no, are never easy or fun or clear, but which demand a sort of decency and uprightness I’d guess lots of us, even on our best days, don’t quite measure up to.