I wouldn’t know what I know, or think how I think, without the literal mountain of reading I’ve done over the past ~16 years. I’ve read great books and absolutely atrocious ones, and the latter have far outnumbered the former because good books about intelligence, counterintelligence, and terrorism are far from a dime-a-dozen. So, I wanted to share what I consider to be the essential core books for an aspiring researcher in the field.
The Scared Texts: These are not optional. Take what they have to say at face value. I can’t say that for all the other books on this list, but these are as rock solid as they come in the open source.
- Fair Play (a thorough appraisal of the ethical challenges of intelligence)
- Thwarting Enemies at Home and Abroad (the literal how-to CI guide)
- Dirty Tricks or Trump Cards (conceptual breakdown of CI and covert action)
- Circle of Treason (the definitive account of the molehunt for Aldrich Ames, by the women who led it)
- Spying in America & American Spies (a history spies in America, written by a former chief of the National Clandestine Service)
- The Mitrokhin Archive, vols. 1 and 2 (literally the KGB’s own internal history of the First Chief Directorate, the predecessor to today’s SVR)
- The Double-Cross System (the complex British double agent network that may just be the greatest declassified CI operation in history)
- The Great Game (a comparison of intelligence in fact and intelligence in fiction, which includes my favorite definition of CI: “Counterintelligence is detective work, but of a highly specialized kind, focusing on operational detail in a secret world where meetings are arranged and held, and messages and intelligence information are exchanged, in a way meant to conceal the fact that they have ever occurred.”)
- Spies, Patriots, and Traitors (an incredible work on intelligence and counterintelligence during the Revolutionary War, featuring detailed discussions on tradecraft that can easily be applied to the present)
- Spycraft (the definitive open source account of CIA technical tradecraft; the fact the CKTAW operation made it past the publication review board still stuns me)
Core Case Studies: These each can teach the reader a lot about the entire enterprise of clandestine intelligence. Each runs down, at times in shocking detail, the particulars of one or another historic CI operation.
- Mole (CIA’s running of Pyotr Popov)
- The Billion Dollar Spy (CIA’s running of Adolf Tolkachev)
- A Secret Life (CIA’s running of Ryszard Kuklinski)
- Comrade J (the story of the late Sergei Tretyakov, an SVR officer who worked for CIA, and one of the only solid accounts of the modern-day SVR)
- Spy (the treachery of Robert Hanssen and how he was caught)
- The Spy’s Son (the saga of Jim Nicholson, a CIA officer who volunteered to the SVR, and how he tried to turn his son into his accomplice)
- Cassidy’s Run (one of the rare accounts of a U.S. controlled source operation designed to feed disinformation to the Soviet chemical weapons program)
- Curveball (how a fabricator and lack of thorough asset validation contributed to the Iraq War)
The Russian Way of Doing Things: The great things about the Russians is that when the USSR collapsed, the political dynamics changed but the core M.O. did not.
- KGB: The Inside Story (a history of the KGB from Oleg Gordievsky, the former London rezident who narrowly escaped the KGB’s clutches)
- Spy Handler (a surprisingly useful autobiographical account of Victor Cherkashin, a legendary KGB Line KR officer who helped run both Ames and Hanssen)
- Spymaster (the autobiography of Oleg Kalugin, who led Directorate K for a number of years before running afoul of the hardliners after the fall of the USSR)
- The KGB: The Eyes of Russia (one of the early books dedicated to the KGB, written by the first chief of CIA’s Soviet Division)
- Soviet Military Intelligence (one of the few books to focus on the GRU, Russian military intelligence)
- KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents (the first book I ever read about Soviet intelligence; still holds up for the most part)
- Soviet Strategic Deception (if you want to understand active measures and deceptions, read this right now)
- KGB Lexicon (translated internal KGB operational dictionaries; for the truly obsessed)
The American Way of Doing Things: Both successes and failures.
- Wilderness of Mirrors (the classic portrait of CIA through the lens of the careers of James Angleton and Bill Harvey)
- Cloak & Gown (a fascinating portrayal of the early leaders of 20th century American intelligence, focusing on their origins in academia; the chapter on Angleton is required reading)
- Cold Warrior (the “prosecution’s case” against Angleton regarding his tenure at CIA)
- Traitors Among Us (an inside account of the US Army’s Foreign Counterintelligence Activity — now defunct — and its role in the apprehension of Clyde Conrad and his confederates; a gem that does not get its due)
- Spy vs. Spy (normally, I avoid Ronald Kessler because he tends publish before really checking all his facts; however, this book provides one of the few peaks inside double agent operations by the FBI against foreign intelligence on U.S. soil, coupled with a passable account of the Karl Koecher case)
- The CIA’s Russians (a declassified CIA study of its key Russian agents during the early-to-mid Cold War)
- See No Evil (Bob Baer and his work can be divisive to some, but I find his first book to be an invaluable peak into how intelligence work mimics good detective work, and his portraits of civil war Lebanon and Imad Mughniyah are great)
Non-state actors & CI: I am increasingly convinced that the CI challenges posed by non-state actors — terrorist groups, drug cartels, organized crime syndicates, hackers — are underappreciated by both the general public and policymakers.
- Terrorism & Counterintelligence (not for the faint of heart in terms of its complexity, but incredibly rewarding; written by a former CIA specialist in non-state counterintelligence)
- Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God (this what a true “hard” collection target looks like in counterterrorism)
- The Triple Agent (the case of Humam Khalil al-Balawi, a jihadi coerced into becoming a Jordanian asset in Pakistan who was doubled by al Qaeda and killed himself and seven CIA operators at a handover meeting in Afghanistan; a tragic case of the risks double agents pose in CT — he was not a triple agent, no matter what the title says)
- Killing Rage (the autobiography of a member of the Provisional IRA’s fearsome counterintelligence organ, the Nutting Squad, who later became a British “supergrass” for a time; he was killed by the PIRA, in part for writing this book)
- At the Devil’s Table (the story of Jorge Salcedo, the chief of security for the Cali Cartel who became a DEA confidential human source and helped bring down the cartel; the only book I’ve found so far that comes close to being a dedicated study of the CI and security capabilities of cartels)
- Inside the Jihad (the story of an Algerian al Qaeda member who eventually volunteered to French intelligence during the 1990s; a valuable story of what it takes to be a human penetration of a terrorist organization)
Modern Covert Action: I am always surprised even this much is out there.
- Executive Secrets (a history of the Oval Office’s relationship with covert action and simultaneously a master class in what makes for good versus bad covert action)
- Ghost Wars (Steve Coll’s definitive history of CIA operations and the history of al Qaeda in Afghanistan up until 9/10/2001)
- Directorate S (Coll’s second volume, documenting CIA and American operations in Afghanistan from 9/11 through around 2016)
- The Way of the Knife (the best of many books about how CIA has evolved as result of the Global War on Terror)
- The Art of Intelligence (the Counterterrorism Center perspective on the covert actions that accompanied the invasion of Afghanistan; should be read with 88 Days to Kandahar)
- 88 Days to Kandahar (the Islamabad Station perspective on the covert actions that accompanied the invasion of Afghanistan; should be read with The Art of Intelligence)
- First In (the on-the-ground paramilitary operations perspective on the covert actions that accompanied the invasion of Afghanistan; decidedly more thoughtful than the more chest-thumping, but still informative, Jawbreaker)
There, that should keep you busy for awhile; and this doesn’t even get into the journals and anthologies. I’ll do those another day.
P.S. Don’t waste your time with Counterintelligence Theory and Practice. It will cloud your mind. Read Thwarting Enemies at Home and Abroad instead.