The Spike, by Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss, New York: Crown, 1980, 374 pp., $12.95.
It's an open secret, if you accept the authority of Les Whitten in the Washington Post, that the model for the left-wing think tank in this roman a clef of Soviet influence is the Institute for Policy Studies. Besides enjoying wide access to Capitol Hill, of course, IPS has forged some ties within libertarian circles, especially in the disarmament camp, through joint projects with the San Francisco-based Cato Institute.
Those factors help to make The Spike a novel of compelling interest. On the face of it, the thesis is plausible: that the intelligence agencies of the Soviet Union are at least as active as those of the West. The focus here is the dissemination through Western news media and institutions of false information—disinformation, a term fortunately coming into vogue—about Soviet intentions.
If one wonders at the persistent and widespread bent toward putting the best face on Kremlin military and subversive campaigns, The Spike argues that Directorate A, a well-heeled department of the KGB, has successfully influenced the accepted terms of debate within a broad spectrum of US public opinion. That's an enormous allegation, one that I suspect is no more welcome to some libertarians than to many well-meaning liberals and moderates. But it's also one of such potential importance that it deserves a serious hearing.
The title of this novel refers to that instrument of the newspaper city room upon which the palms of harried editors and the prose of prolix reporters are impaled, along with, sometimes, the stories of impolitic reporters. As Robert Hockney, the novel's young hero discovers, it's far easier in the American press to expose the operations of the CIA than to expose those of the KGB. Indeed, on the strength of his revelations of American intelligence ties to European news media, he ascends in the turn of a few pages from free-lancer for a Ramparts-style Movement magazine to foreign correspondent for what could be mistaken for the New York Times. Having used tips from Movement friends—notably, fellows of the Washington-based Institute for Progressive Reform—to unveil CIA activities, Hockney is lionized by the fashionable left and bedded to a fare-thee-well.
But he comes a cropper. A counterintelligence chief whose career Hockney has helped to destroy plants seeds of doubt. "The Russians don't need to hand money out the back door of the embassy," the old man declares, "when they have tax-exempt foundations controlled by Marxist sympathizers in this country who can raise the money from guilt-ridden liberal millionaires and little old ladies who in other circumstances might leave their inheritance to a cats' home or a gigolo."
As Hockney pursues a lengthening trail, he finds that the socially conscious, trendy antimilitarists who have fed him scoops are oddly inconsistent. Decrying American espionage, an ex-CIA officer announces a trip to Rome to "expose every goddamn CIA agent in Italy"—and meanwhile passes intelligence to Marxist terrorists. The Institute for Progressive Reform taps him to head a branch in Amsterdam with a million-dollar bankroll. Friends of the West are systematically discredited, while radical regimes are adored as humanitarian. Putting together a saga of Soviet manipulation of US reporters and institutions, Hockney finds that his revelations are too much for his newspaper's liberal editors. The story is spiked.
There are many points on which one can fault the novel. Years of fame or privation are told in the style of "he spent 40 years in the wilderness." A bounty of satirical opportunities lies largely unexploited. Characters emerge as scarcely more than ambulatory names.
Yet it's written with such authority that the story is captivating. The authors—Arnaud de Borchgrave, Newsweek's chief foreign correspondent, and Robert Moss, an editor of London's Economist—insist that the characters are composites. But many of the examples of high-level espionage, they maintain, are true. At the end, when a KGB defector faces a Senate hearing and begins naming names—of "friendly persons" and of conscious Soviet agents—not all the cries of smear and McCarthyism can put the masks back on.
"When I worked for Directorate A," Colonel Viktor Barisov testifies, "I was part of the team that decided that we should hammer away at the following themes until they became conventional wisdom for the Western media. That our military buildup was inspired by the fear of encirclement by China. That a military conflict between Russia and America is unthinkable for either side, since there could be no winners in a nuclear exchange—when, in fact, our strategic doctrine has always maintained that it is possible to fight and win a thermonuclear war. That it is morally unacceptable for a democracy to tolerate covert intelligence operations."
Those themes remain popular in some quarters. The Spike invites its readers to wonder why.
John Boland is associate editor of the financial weekly Barron's.