David Ignatius is a columnist for the Washington Postand author of six novels, including the well-known spy tale Agents ofInnocence, and the 2007 bestseller Body of Lies, a post-9/11thriller that centers on a Central Intelligence Agency effort to bring down a terrorist group carryingout car bombings in Western capitals. The book has been adapted for the bigscreen by Oscar-nominated director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down)who enlisted Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe for the lead roles.
The author talks about Body of Lies and the complexweb of international espionage in the following interview:
Question: This is your first novel in nearly a decade.Why did you decide to return to fiction?
David Ignatius: From 2000 to 2004, I was living in France aseditor of the International Herald Tribune. To be honest, living thegood life in Paris seemed like a better use of my spare time than beingcloseted with my computer. But I missed writing fiction—especially the way inwhich the writer's conscious brain disappears while writing a novel. I likeescaping my "self." Gradually an idea for a new book began to take shape and Igot started writing for real in late 2004.
Q: Is the book's main plot—the effort to bringdown the terrorist group headed by Suleiman—modeled on a true-lifestory?
Ignatius: The novel is about deception, and I drew on somereal examples. The Jordanians, working with the British and American, have beenespecially skillful in using their penetrations of hostile groups to sowdeception and distrust. Their deception operations against the Abu NidalOrganization were so successful that they basically caused the group toimplode. The Abu Nidal operatives were literally shooting each other. In Bodyof Lies, I imagine how a similar operation against Al Qaeda might berun—and the pitfalls therein.
Q: From reading the book, one gets the sense that youfeel the real-life CIA has become too bureaucratic and too unwilling to takerisks. Does that in fact mirror your view of today's agency?
Ignatius: I do think the CIA has become so politicized—sosurrounded by second-guessers and special pleaders—that it sometimes hasdifficulty doing the essential task of an intelligence service, which isstealing the other guys' secrets. That's what we sometimes forget—a spyagency's job is systematically to break the laws of other countries byencouraging their citizens to commit treason. We have layers and layers oflegal and congressional oversight, and I guess much of it is necessary, but itdoesn't change that unpleasant reality.
Q: Several characters in the book that work with the CIAend up being killed by terrorists, and there's not much soul-searching orconcern about their deaths on the part of their agency handlers. Is there roomfor morality in these types of intelligence operations?
Ignatius: In all my novels, I have struggled with an issue Iwill call "seduction and abandonment." I think in some ways that is America'sfatal flaw in intelligence operations overseas. We encourage people to risktheir lives for our vision of a better world, and then when the going getstough, we leave them hanging. We did that at the Bay of Pigs, in Vietnam, inLebanon in the early 1980s, in Nicaragua with the Contras—and now we are in theprocess of doing it again in Iraq. Basically, it's immoral—this process ofmaking promises that we as a nation are not prepared to keep. The lesson for meis that we need to be more careful about blowing into countries with big ideasabout democracy and social change if we are not prepared to stay the course.
Q: In the book, it is suggested that if the CIA couldjust nab Suleiman it would deal a crippling blow to international terrorism.Could one well-planned operation really have such a powerful impact?
Ignatius: I don't think there's a single knockout punch inthe struggle against terrorism. People will have to read the book, but I thinkthat's one lesson of Body of Lies. That said, I do think thatwell-planned, long-term operations can have a big impact. And I think thatAmerica's ability to use digital communications technology is one of the fewreal advantages we have in the asymmetric struggle against terrorism. Thatneeds to be carefully monitored, but it seems to me that it's at least asimportant as the "Ultra" code-breaking operations were to Britain during WorldWar II. People ask me whether the agency is operating some of the false frontsand dangles that my novel describes, and my answer is: I hope so.
Opening soon across the Philippines, Body of Lieswill be distributed by Warner Bros Pictures, a Warner Bros. EntertainmentCompany.