ne of the great unheralded casualties of the end of the cold war was the espionage novel. In the 1990s, the genre floundered for lack of reliable villains. The war on terror has supplied a new set of bad guys, but writers have been slow to adapt. John le Carr gamely tried his hand at a terrorism novel, Absolute Friends, in 2003, but the best parts of the book were an extended cold war flashback. Like the generals who can’t stop fighting the last war, it seems that novelists can’t stop writing it, either.
But popular culture eventually catches up, and this year saw perhaps the first spy thriller about what is certainly a post-September 11 phenomenon: the rise of the private contractor. R. J. Hillhouse’s Outsourced inhabits a world where the CIAle Carr’s mtieris on the ropes, and the protagonists instead owe their loyalties to private firms with sinister names like Black Management. The Washington Monthly‘s Markos Kounalakis and Peter Laufer talked to Hillhouse about the book, and about the real-world dangers of relying on private corporations to spy for us.
RH: The book is about the outsourcing of intelligence and the military, and, at the same time, the turf wars between the Pentagon and the CIA. It’s about a guy named Hunter Stone, who is a spy for the Pentagon. He’s assigned to penetrate a private military corporation that’s suspected of selling seized arms to terrorists. He’s set up and targeted in the multibillion-dollar war on terror, and the only person he can trust is his ex-fiance, Camille Black, who runs a private intelligence company herself, and unfortunately the CIA has hired her to kill him.
RH: I’m currently writing the blog “hespywhobilledme.com,” which is about the outsourcing of national security and the outsourcing of intelligence, and I’m also writing novels. In the past I’ve done a variety of thingsincluding smuggling between Eastern and Western Europe back in the old communist days, money laundering, loan sharking to the Estonian mafia. Run-of-the-mill stuff like that.
RH: Well, I’m pleased to say I’ve broken no laws in countries that still exist. My PhD is from the University of Michigan in political science, and I’m a former professor of political science. That’s one of the things that brought me to writing novels on politics. I’ve been really frustrated with the state of political thrillers and spy novels in this country, because they are all, for lack of a better term, mind candy. They’re not based on what’s really going on in politics in ways that fiction in many countries, and once upon a time here, makes us think about who we are. How are we really fighting the war on terror? What are the mixed morals that are part of daily life in the world of espionage? I wanted to explore that.
RH: The media hasn’t caught up with some of the things that are written about in the book. So it was really necessary to get ahead of things, and the only way to do that was to network within the intelligence community, the military community, and special operations. So I have dealt with everything from boardroom executives at intel and military corporations, as well as Pentagon people, contacts in the Pentagon, as well as frontline mercenaries and contract soldiers.
RH: Well, in some cases, the guys who are going under contract with companies like Triple Canopy and Blackwater, they are usually retired military, and they’re doing it for patriotic reasons as well as to get that bass boat they’ve always dreamed of. And then there are some guys who really have been hard-core, old-school mercenaries, who have gone from African wars to sojourns into Burma for whatever government or whatever company paid them to do what they needed them to do.
RH: In some cases, yes, there is infighting going on. The extent of outsourcing is just astonishing. Over half the workforce of the CIA works for private corporations. And we have situations where contractors are managing other contractors, and some contractors are managing contracts of contractors. So there are multiple conflicts of interest, and that’s not good for national security.
RH: There are some very large oversight issues. It’s really shocking to see what little control the government has over the work of the CIA. I’ve heard of branches where the ratio is one government employee to twenty-five private contractors, and that involves multiple companies and multiple layers of administration.
RH: What we really need to look at is how we’re fighting the war on terror and what kind of industry we’re allowing to grow. Some of the very same corporations that benefit, who are very involved with the Defense Department, are also now very involved with the frontline intelligence as well as the intelligence analysis. So there is an unprecedented opportunity there to manipulate American foreign policy in whatever direction a corporation or their clients would want it to go..
RH: I think there’s a difference now. Companies like Lockheed, Raytheon, Booz Allen Hamilton, and others are actually fielding the spies that are gathering the intelligence and who are processing this intelligence in terms of analysis, and it’s getting fed up the pipeline, so the work by private corporations has become incorporated into the president’s daily brief. So the actual work of those companies is going to the president’s desk every day under the auspices of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. To be quite honest, these briefs should look more like NASCAR, where they have corporate logos everywhere, so at least we know where the intelligence is coming from.