In ‘Prisoner,’ CIA agent turns his back on US

By Walt Braun

Wayne, as he calls himself, has had a distinguished career in the CIA, excelling at every posting, including those in combat zones, and he’s reached the agency’s inner circle of decision makers. He’s young and talented enough that the top position isn’t out of reach.

Like a lot of career intelligence agents and military personnel, he’s seen a lot of Americans die. He’s also seen a lot of adversaries die. And civilians. And he’s seen a lot of policies backfire. He’s not alone in wondering what has been accomplished with the decades of investment in blood and treasury.

Unlike most of his peers, however, he holds America responsible. Were it not for this country’s attitude, misguided policies and gratuitous aggression — few countries have invaded as many others at the United States has in his lifetime — the world might be a more peaceful place.

His way of righting what he considers a monumental wrong is to betray his country, though he doesn’t think of it that way. He seeks out the leader of a Washington mosque, someone whom other agents have tried to persuade to help the U.S. in the war on terror, and begins providing him information. As a result, a succession of operations in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere go bad, and locals who have helped the U.S. cause die in the process.

The CIA, frustrated and mystified, comes to suspect it has a mole. But the CIA doesn’t know how influential the mole is until a Bulgarian with a sketchy past but who has been useful to the CIA provides invaluable information. He gets his information by taping Muslims at prayer in a notorious prison he controls that houses a contingent of Islamic terrorists as well as hardened Bulgarian criminals.

The Bulgarian calls John Wells, with whom he had worked and whom he respects. Wells is a veteran agent with more physical and emotional scars from his service than he can count. He’s also a Muslim, having converted a number of years ago, and is fluent in Arabic. He’s found he can’t say “No” when his country needs him. And after talking with an old friend in the CIA hierarchy, Wells knows he’s the best person to go into the field in an attempt to uncover the mole.

Wells needs to gain the confidence of the Islamic radicals in the Bulgarian prison, and to do that, he needs to adopt the persona of an Islamic terrorist. Given his years in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he makes a convincing al-Qaida operative.

That’s not quite ISIS, but ISIS has plenty of al-Qaida transfers. If he hopes to survive the prison experience, however, he also has to get his information and get out before the CIA mole, who knows he’s there, acts against him.

He gets out with some information he believes is important but doesn’t know why, and heads to Paris. Barely has he arrived there when the head of France’s equivalent to the CIA is killed on the Champs Elysees when a bomb is detonated after an intentional collision involving a vehicle containing members of a French cell of the Islamic State.

As it turns out, that attack was only the preliminary strike. The Islamic State’s real target is the French spy chief ’s funeral, one that will attract the leaders of almost all Western intelligence agencies. Among the contingent coming from the United States is the mole who calls himself Wayne. He knew and liked the French attack victim but considered his death necessary for a higher cause.

The author of “The Prisoner,” Alex Berenson, is one of a handful of individuals who consistently write engaging espionage fiction. John Wells, Berenson’s protagonist, isn’t the fastest or strongest agent around, but he’s among the most interesting. This was Berenson’s 11th novel involving Wells’ most have been bestsellers. The author’s first novel, “The Faithful Spy,” won the Edgar Award. In ‘Prisoner’ Walt Braun is the Mercury’s editorial page editor.

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