Category Archives: Book Reviews

Reviews, features, author interviews and book excerpts

BLUE by Joe Domanick

Joe Domanick has written an intriguing character driven four part book which is broken into philosophical and analytical narratives around key figures such as Los Angeles PD Chiefs William H. Parker (1950-65), Daryl Gates(1978-92), Willie Williams (1992-97), Bernard Parks (1997-02), and William Bratton (2002-14).

The book brings the reader through historically significant  lessons and analyzes the devolution of the stop-and-frisk war on drugs fought in under-served communities.  The ugliness of law enforcement plagued with racist and corrupt components is examined to the pivotal moment around the Rodney King beating followed by the explosive Los Angeles riots.

Domanick expertly examines how law enforcement under William Bratton, who once had reorganized ex-NY City Transit Police and eventually the NYPD, had managed to change cultures and attitudes.  Finally, the book reminds the reader with a warning an ironic ending with a glance at recent events in Los Angeles, New York, Baltimore, and Ferguson.

Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing (Hardcover)


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HALF-LIFE: The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo, Physicist or Spy by Frank Close

Award-winning author and physicist Frank Close spins an outstanding biography.  A story of the fascinating atomic physicist, Bruno Pontecorvo,  who worked on the Manhattan Project and ultimately defected to the Soviet Union.  The book’s suspense surrounds theft of materials and blueprints for atomic bomb making and double agent Kim Philby’s warnings to the Soviets about Bruno Pontecorvo’s imminent pursuit by the FBI.  Additionally, Bruno Pontecorvo kept logbooks his first five years in the USSR which reveal Russian science approaches to a hydrogen bomb.

Bruno Pontecorvo brought neutrino particles to the world stage of science amidst the dawn of the Cold War.  The legacy of Pontecorvo is enigmatic and complicated because he missed out on the international recognition and accolades through his defection at age 37 with wife and three children in tow to obscurity within the confines of Soviet protection.  The defection was not discovered for five years after his disappearance and it was met with intrigue and criticism.  His later attempts to travel abroad for a critical experiment or enter CERN in Geneva were refused and his work was then relegated simply to Russian science journals.

The Half Life idea is explained as a play on words both in atomic energy and by the split lifestyles of Bruno Pontecorvo the ingenius scientist vs Bruno Maximovitch the secret Communist.   The book is finely researched with intensity around the mysterious life and politics surrounding  Bruno Pontecorvo.

Half-Life: The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo, Physicist or Spy (Hardcover)


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88 Days to Kandahar: A CIA Diary

From 9/11 to December 7, 2001, CIA operatives and US Special Forces operated in tandem and joint effort with Afghan warlords to drive the Taliban from Kandahar. Then, Islamabad’s CIA Station Chief Robert L Grenier drafted the war plan for the US invasion of Afghanistan.

The book covers Grenier’s experience during the CIA led war which drove out al Qaida from Kandahar in 88 days with great detail. First by introducing the long list of US, Pakistan, Afghan persons and his situation of having just come from a 3 year tour as chief of “The Farm.” Intelligence regarding the smoking gun from Jalalabad leads to a field appraisal to ultimately the framework which gets things set in motion.

88 Days to Kandahar: A CIA Diary (Hardcover)


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“…droned on with his usual precise diction, in a deep, sonorous voice. He was at his articulate but tiresomely pedantic best” serves as an example of how Grenier’s action packed story is captivating as he describes not only the illuminating conversations and gritty actions but gives the emotional picture of how people sounded and behaved.

While the book is an excellent account of the actions against the Taliban, it provides an outstanding picture of the ignorant manipulations and intra-agency rivalries by Pentagon bureaucrats and the Administration.

The book also covers little discussed events such as a close call with nuclear war in May 2002 between Pakistan and India; the ones that got away – the al Qaida fighters who escaped the day Kandahar fell; and, the inflated covert operational readiness claims right after 9/11 by senior British officials.

This book is a must read not only for the great stories and accounts but also to gain a better grasp of the geo-political challenges faced by the United States in SouthWest and Central Asia.
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THE GOOD SPY: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ROBERT AMES by Kai Bird

Kai Bird has created an extraordinary dossier on the career history of Robert Ames in “The Good Spy.” The book begins with Kai’s one-time neighbor of his youth Robert Ames as a natural basketball player whom enjoyed rootbeer, pretzels, and monogamy rather than a stereotypical lifestyle of a spy’s levitations toward alcohol and infidelity. Robert Ames formative years are detailed as he develops into a tall, natural straight talking, native of Philadelphia and a proud 1956 graduate of La Salle University.The Good Spy

Through the book, Ames remains faithful to his wife and six children throughout their travels and separations but most especially faithful to his career as an influential operative in the Middle East. Kai emphasizes Ames’ understanding and sympathy of the struggles of the cultures he encounters, most especially Palestinians, in tandem with his responsibilities to CIA, which creates an interesting dynamic as Bird weaves the developments of Ames sources into a painting of friendships rather than those short of actual recruitments for CIA. It is important to note recruitment of agents by case officers during his tenure was a fine art with a small percentage of success.

Ames, fluent in language, is assigned to many locations and quickly understands their regional significance while working hard to collect intelligence through understanding his environments by pounding pavement, reading, and immersing himself into the most intimidating social scenes of his assignments. The occasional reminder is thrown in that Robert Ames continued to be assigned alongside Marines and had meals with Marines in the chow hall between opting for finer dining with his sources in the social settings of his culturally diverse assigned locations. At one point, South Yemen is noted as the worst for wear of his travels with a preference towards his assignments in Iran and Lebanon.

Once the reader is well aquainted with Robert Ames career and personality they will then be introduced to an exceptionally detailed story about Ali Hassan Salameh and the history of Black September, Force 17, and the PLO.

The political backdrop with narratives on leaders and cohorts of the PLO and CIA sets the stage for how Ames and Salameh deliver their responsibilities to their superiors while struggling to maintain a dissipating covert channel of communication and diplomacy. The deterioration of the relationship with Salameh evolves when the factions of the Iranian Revolution come to the forefront following the fractures of Lebanon and solidification of Jordan as an ally to the West.

The adage of “live by the sword – die by the sword” takes a very dramatic presence as the great game of spying eventually has Mossad and terrorism catch up to brutally terminate Salameh and Ames amongst the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment Marines in Beirut.

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames (Hardcover)


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AMERICA’S GREAT GAME by Hugh Wilford

Relatively little has been written about CIA operations in the 1940’s and 50’s. Hugh Wilford’s AMERICA’S GREAT GAME draws on personal interviews, papers, and recently declassified material of former operatives and their associates. The book is centered on the continuation by CIA of the 19th century’s joust by British and Russian agents for control of Central Asia. It delves into the intrigue of the loss of support for Arab nationalists like Nasser. In the book, there are rich anecdotes and the unbelievably larger-than-life three leading CIA pro-Arabists in search of Lawrence of Arabia styled romantic adventure, Miles Copeland, and the Roosevelt cousins Kermit “Kim” Jr and Archie – both grandsons of Theodore Roosevelt.

Kim Roosevelt was the first head of CIA covert action in the Middle East. He also masterminded the 1953 coup operation in Iran which toppled nationalist prime minister Mohammed Mosaddeq which restored power to the Shah. Wilford described Kim as having had clouded judgment of Persian politics which encouraged his tendency to view Iran as a place for personal adventure and playing spy games. Such an attitude is attributed to his identity as “a Roosevelt man” and his comparisons of his work to his father and grandfathers’ writing on their hunting expeditions.

Kim’s cousin Archie was a Middle East scholar and the chief of CIA’s Istanbul station. The cousins are referred to as the Oyster Bay Roosevelts – a tight knit family with common interests, tates, and sense of humor. Archie worked at the Office of War Information headquarters in Washington, DC developing ideas for propaganda in the Arab world. His formative years provided him the opportunity to witness the odds between the Protestant New England missionaries of Beirut at odds with the Catholic Maronites of the French which led to the division of Greater Syria after WWI. In WWII North Africa, France’s reputation grew worse with Vichy officials being allowed to remain in office even after the Allied invasion.

Miles Copeland was a covert action expert who joined the intelligence establishement during WWII. Copeland is quoted as saying “Both leaders and doers in a given society play three games at the same time…the personal, the domestic, the international – and sometimes a fourth, the bureaucratic.”

John Foster Dulles is described by Miles as having resorted to Allen Dulles’ crypto-diplomacy through Miles and Kim Rossevelt (the chief crypto-diplomat): “When someone had to hop on an aeroplane and go to Iran, Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia to talk to the Shah, Nasser, King Hussein or King Saud, the Dulles brothers would think of either Kim or myself, sometimes together, sometimes singly, and sometimes in the company of some professional VIP”. Wilford explains that crypto-diplomacy allowed for non-public conversation leading to breakthroughs such as the Suez base agreement of 1954. Conversely, the book explains that the crypto-diplomacy bred suspicion in the minds of foreign heads of state which also undermined and embarrassed the effectiveness of individuals like Ambassador Henry Byroade. 

The book expands on early 1950’s CIA’s manipulation of Middle Eastern governments and the inconsistency of American involvement and support for the then emerging Arab nationalist movement

Wilford’s book eventually demonstrates that it was American support for Israel which ultimately destroyed the Arabists’ influence both within CIA and America.

Hugh Wilford is a history professor at California State University Long Beach and author of four books which include The Mighty Wurlitzer.  If you are interested in the development of the Levant, early American Middle East politics, or the emergence of American intelligence in Central Asia, this book will be hard to put down once you get started.

America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East (Hardcover)


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