Review of “The Spy Who Knew Too Much: A Former CIA Officer’s Quest Through a Legacy of Treason”, by Howard Blum

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On September 25, 1978, an unmanned sailboat washed ashore on the shore of Chesapeake Bay. The cabin was a mess and documents marked “Top Secret” were found, along with a phone book full of numbers prefixed with 351, a classified CIA exchange. As veteran investigative journalist Howard Blum recounts in his intriguing new book, “The Spy Who Knew Too Much: A Former CIA Officer’s Quest Through a Legacy of Betrayal“, things then evolved quickly. The boat’s owner turned out to be John Arthur Paisley, later described by the agency as a “low-level analyst”.

A week later, a corpse was discovered floating in the bay, identified by the chief medical examiner as Paisley. Cause of death: suicide. It doesn’t matter that the examiner’s office didn’t receive the corpse until the day after his report. Never mind that the autopsy listed a man as 5ft 7in and 144lbs, while the Paisley Merchant Navy records had him as 5ft 11in and 170lbs. Never mind that the fatal gunshot wound was behind the left ear and Paisley was right-handed. Never mind that the FBI and CIA claimed to have no fingerprints on file (of any CIA employee). A few days later, the body was cremated, before Paisley’s wife saw it. And that was it.

Or it would have been if an enterprising Wilmington, Del. reporter hadn’t followed up and broken the story, with all its inconsistencies, which in turn was picked up — and set aside — by the national press. Official explanations have gone from evasive to outlandish. The corpse had been wrapped in diving belts weighing 38 pounds. Maryland State Police speculated that Paisley wrapped himself in the belts, then jumped off the side of the boat, reaching his chest in the air and shooting himself.

Unsurprisingly, the story refused to go away. Had Paisley been murdered, or had he committed suicide, or had he just buried himself somewhere (and why)? The Senate Intelligence Committee conducted an investigation and in 1980 said it had found “no information that could harm the [Paisley’s] record of outstanding performance in faithful service to his country,” then quickly filed the full report. The committee’s lawyer, who had led the investigation, said: “There is a good chance that we will never understand the outcome of the case. It’s a mystery.” And that was (and officially is) it.

Or it would have been if Pete Bagley, one of Paisley’s former CIA colleagues, hadn’t found in this mystery a possible puzzle piece to a larger mystery he was trying to solve. Retired to Brussels, where he had been station manager, and operating without official permission, he embarked on a paper hunt to uncover not only the truth about Paisley, but also how she might fit into his deepest fear. deep: that the agency has been penetrated by a high-level mole.

Too many things had gone wrong over the years. Just a year before Paisley disappeared, an operation in Moscow was blown up in what Bagley considered highly suspicious circumstances, another puzzle piece perhaps. “The Spy Who Knew Too Much” is the story of this hunt, going all the way back to the beginning, the defection of Yuri Nosenko in 1962, which Bagley became convinced was a KGB factory and in the exhaustive debriefing of who (both years) Bagley hoped to find the Rosetta Stone, the clue that would explain everything. He didn’t and the attempt hurt his career.

Bagley was one of the agency’s post-war gentlemen spies (his uncle, Fleet Adm. Bill Leahy, one of the founding fathers of the Central Intelligence Group, the CIA’s predecessor, made the call of recommendation to his friend Rear Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter, then Director of the CIA, and Pete was approved) and had been a protege of James Angleton, whose reputation for tenacious distrust, even paranoia, has become legendary. Their relentless pursuit of Nosenko drove a wedge in the agency – those who believed in the Master Plot (Nosenko as a plant) and those who called it the Monster Plot. Bagley is the hero of Blum’s book, but he may not be everyone’s hero – Nosenko’s blunt debriefing, for example, can make reading uncomfortable. But his Ahab-like quest is certainly the driving force here. No need for car chases; there is enough suspense to bend over the transcripts, to find a discrepancy in dates, the inevitable slip that will trap the enemy.

If he is the enemy. I wouldn’t presume to spoil Blum’s carefully woven narrative by revealing what Bagley finds – except to say it’s all plausible and convincing, though the CIA probably wouldn’t agree. Conclusive proof may no longer be possible. Much is rightly made of Bagley’s encounters with former KGB officers after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, long evenings with old war stories and reminiscences, some of which are helpful and confirming. And, after all, the KGB should know. But they are the KGB, and before you know it, you find yourself – in Angleton’s phrase, borrowed from TS Eliot – “in a desert of mirrors”.

Yet the real pleasure of this book is not the solution but the puzzle. By going back and forth in time, Blum skilfully inscribes his pieces in the folklore of the agency, great stories in their own right. It’s the Cold War at high noon, missiles loaded, when spies were the frontline troops. If you have even a passing interest in the period, the book will be catnip. It’s all there: the dead drops, the surveillance, the honey traps, the weary Joes, the office politics, the martinis. The period details are so atmospheric and rich that it wouldn’t be surprising to see Kim Philby make an appearance. There’s even a recruitment scene in a steam bath in Bogotá (what novelist would dare?). It would be easy to get lost in all of this, but Blum lays out his pieces in a clear and fun way. He has important background issues on his mind – the agency’s self-protective culture, for example – but, like Bagley, he never loses sight of the main story. Back to the transcript. Who was Paisley? Start there.

Joseph Kanon is the author of 10 spy thrillers, including the most recent “The Berlin Stock Exchange.”

The Spy Who Knew Too Much

A former CIA officer’s quest through a legacy of betrayal

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