Commentary Magazine

The Spike, by Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss


The Spike.
by Arnaud De Borchgrave and Robert Moss.
Crown. 374 pp. $12.95.

The Spike is what is known as a political thriller: a fictionalized account in which there are so many thinly-disguised real individuals that any habitual reader of the daily press will know what is going on. The novel’s protagonist is an American journalist with a culturally familiar career: starting with a mildly sensational exposé of the links between campus figures and the CIA at Berkeley in the 1960’s, he goes on to produce a series of highly successful scoops in Vietnam and then Washington. His stories have a single, consistent theme: American wrongdoing, particularly in the covert operations of the CIA. His sources range from French newspapermen to Vietcong beauties and staff members of left-wing Washington think tanks, and his victims include a pro-American bureau chief in a Paris news agency, a Berkeley professor, and the chief of CIA counterintelligence.

Suddenly, he is invited to lunch by the counterintelligence chief, and hears for the first time that several of his sources are in the employ of the KGB. After careful checking, he discovers an international network of Russian agents whose job it is to deceive the West. Many of these agents are in positions of power within the American media. He decides to write an expose’ of this activity, and takes a year off from his newspaper in order to prepare his evidence. The same intensity that earned him fame as an anti-establishment investigative reporter is now turned on the activities of the other side. But at the end he confronts a great difference between exposing the CIA and exposing the KGB: stories about the former make the front page, while stories about the latter get “spiked.” One after another, his scoops are killed by editors who either have been compromised by the KGB or have enlisted ideologically in the anti-American campaign.

Desperate, our hero goes back to some of his sources in Europe and participates in the defection of a top KGB agent. The Soviet official is brought to Washington, where he testifies in an open hearing that eventually leads to a general house-cleaning in the United States. Soviet “moles” are exposed, agents of influence are removed from the press and the government, and a Senator from New York bearing a considerable resemblance to Daniel Patrick Moynihan takes control of the American government.

The ending is too good to be true—things will not be nearly so easy—and The Spike is not going to win any awards for literary excellence. There is too much formula sex and the manuscript needed a more aggressive editorial hand. But the book reads well all the way through, and the subject matter, which is deadly serious, is treated with proper respect. Many of the incidents in The Spike have actually taken place. The public has somehow understood the importance of the book, for The Spike has moved quickly to the top of the best-seller lists and will soon be in paperback.



The major issue raised by The Spike is a grave one: how can we deal with Soviet disinformation, and the attendent problem of Soviet penetration? For there is no doubt that most of the leading practitioners of American journalism today have adopted a double standard in this area. Once given a lead about a covert CIA operation, an American journalist will go to great lengths to dig out the story, even if the lead is dubious and the supporting information at first glance unconvincing. Nothing remotely approaching that level of energy is expended when leads point to Soviet operations.

My own favorite example of the tendency to dismiss any suggestion of Russian espionage comes from the Los Angeles Times a few months ago. Retired General Daniel O. Graham—formerly the head of Air Force intelligence—announced that Soviet agents were working among the “students” holding 53 Americans captive inside the United States embassy in Teheran. Graham’s statements were the subject of a short Reuters wire story published in the Times, but the paper added a paragraph of its own advising readers that Times reporters in Teheran had found no evidence of KGB infiltration (how were they to uncover it?) and that the captors in the embassy were devout Muslims.

Then there is the story about the KGB operation to intercept the telephone conversations of American citizens. This sensational story has run twice in the New York Times, without any follow-up from any quarter.

Old CIA stories, on the other hand, appear again and again, even after they have been refuted. Lately there is the example of the assassination of Orlando Letelier by Chilean agents in Washington; every conceivable suggestion that the CIA was somehow involved gets heavy coverage, but one hardly ever hears anything about the fascinating contents of Letelier’s briefcase. According to the columnists Evans and Novak, there were compromising documents in that bag, suggesting that Letelier was working for Cuban intelligence. They wrote two columns to justify their claim; the second never appeared in the Washington Post, their flagship newspaper.

One could continue almost endlessly with examples, but the point remains a simple one: a double standard is at work here, and The Spike helps us understand the mechanism by which it has become institutionalized.

For anyone who has never worked in the news business, this may seem a frightfully difficult operation, but in practice it is quite elementary. To understand the process one need only listen to the testimony of Seymour Hersh, one of the stars of the current generation of “investigative reporters.” Hersh found a neat way of getting his AP stories into the New York Times some years ago:

“Neil Sheehan . . . helped me at the Times,” Hersh said. “When one of my urgents came in over at the Times, they’d ask Sheehan to check it out,” Hersh said. “So, unknown to them, he’d call me. We had a ritual. He’d ask me, ‘Was that story on the wire pretty much the way you wrote it?’ And I said yes. So Neil would tell his editors, ‘Okay, I confirmed it,’ and they’d go with my story.”1

With standards like these—and the Times probably does as well as any newspaper in the country—a serious disinformation agent would have a field day.

The Spike suggests that it may be possible for some of the more talented “useful idiots,” as Lenin once called those who did his work voluntarily and often without even knowing it, to be saved, and their skills put to work for our side. On this point de Borchgrave and Moss may be right; many of those who were swept up in “the movement” a decade ago now have a clearer view of the world. Just a few years ago the West European press was in an immeasurably worse condition than the American press is in today, yet the Europeans have recently shown halting signs of a democratic revival.

Another hopeful sign has been the success of The Spike itself. Not so long ago such a book would have been the object of scorn and bile, but to my knowledge not a single reviewer has felt like tackling de Borchgrave and Moss on ideological grounds. And the book is selling very well. Can the movie be far behind?


1 Leonard Downie, Jr., The New Muck-rakers (New Republic Books, 1976), p. 64.

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