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Hugh Hewitt Book Club

Daniel Silva On “The English Spy,” Putin, The Terror Threat

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HH: Joined now by my friend and prolific bestselling author Daniel Silva. His brand new book, the English Spy, will be available in five days, or you can preorder it today. It’s over at Hello, Daniel, how are you?

DS: I am fine. How are you doing, Hugh?

HH: I’m terrific. I’ve got to begin by telling you a story. I’m broadcasting today from Colorado Christian University, the president of whom is former United States Senator Bill Armstrong. And I was at dinner with him two nights ago, and he asked me who I’m going to be talking to, and I said well, I think we’ll get Daniel Silva on to talk about The English Spy, and he lit up. And he said Ellen, his wife and I, heard him on your show, and we have bought and read every single one of his books. Is his new one out? And I said no, it’s actually not out until June 30th, right?

DS: June 30th, yes.

HH: Yeah, but you can preorder it, Senator Armstrong. I’m not going to give you my reading copy, which they sent ahead. But it’s amazing to me. You know, he’s pretty conservative. He’s a great leader of a great university, but he was in the Senate for 12 years, and he follows international affairs very closely, and he thinks you are sort of a Rosetta stone to what’s going on in the world.

DS: Oh, boy, that’s a little scary, because I’m a guy that makes up stories. That said, I mean, I am inspired by what’s going on around me, and I think that you know, I think the thriller writer has to have the ability to sort of look around the corner a little bit. And this book, without giving too much away of the plot, for example, deals with Russia. And you know, I wrote my first book about Russia, I’m probably going to get the date wrong, but I think it was 2006 or ’07, Moscow Rules, and my portrait of modern Russia and Putin, he wasn’t named by name, but Putin was pretty flattering and harsh. And there were some people who thought maybe I was a little too tough on Russia. And you know, none of us like people who say I told you so, but I told you so. I was right about Russia. And I think I was right about the Arab Spring, too, in my depiction of how that was going to turn out.

HH: There’s so much that is right in The English Spy. It’s breaking news, actually. And I look forward to talking to you specifically about this. But I have, the OPM hack and Arthur Grimes come to mind, and I’m going to get to that. But first, this is a very sobering book. There is no prolonged art backstory. I think it’s the first time ever. And in fact, you pick up barely weeks after the last one, which is a little bit different from what you’ve done in the back. And there’s Putin and Iran, and the perils of counterespionage and technology. Did you think it was more urgent than the other ones you’ve been working on?

DS: Well, I think I’ve done, I know that the Secret Servant, for example, a book I wrote I guess in about 2005, had no art component to the plot itself. And The Defector, I think, had no real art component. I mean, we saw Gabriel doing some work, and not a painting, I think, so there’s been a couple of books that haven’t actually, where art or the art world have not flowed through it. And in this case, it was just that the plot didn’t call for it. And in terms of yes, it does pick up within days of where the previous story ended, because I’ve got a ticking clock in Gabriel’s personal life in this novel, and that is I’ve got to squeeze a story in while his wife is very pregnant. And he’s got to be home in time for the birth. And so I had some time pressure to deal with, but that’s very astute on your part. May I offer a compliment to the host that you noticed that, because it’s not something I’ve really ever done before.

HH: There’s also, though, a character in here which takes me to the headlines. There are two headlines today that I want to talk to you specifically about. The President received a letter from five of his former advisors urging him not to do the Iran deal.

DS: Yes, he did.

HH: So I want to talk about Iran.

DS: Yes, he did.

HH: And there’s a character named Arthur Grimes, who represents to me the full import of the consequences of the Office of Personnel Management hack that I’ve been talking about for two days.

DS: Yes, he does.

HH: And I think you write, “Personnel sits atop everything. Grimes investigates allegations of security breaches.” So if you get inside the personnel office of a government, you’ve got everything, and that’s what happened to us with the OPM hack.

DS: Well, I mean, they, I mean, if you could turn someone, for example, inside the personnel division of an intelligence service, he would be an incredibly valuable asset. I mean, one of the reasons why Ames was so valuable, you’ll remember, is that he worked in counterespionage. So he’s not in personnel, but he’s in a way personnel. He knows how to protect other people inside the service who might be working for the Russians. And so it’s a very critical place to try to get inside an intelligence service. And here, we just left the door open to our computer system, and allowed the Chinese to go in and get not only names, but all of the security clearance paperwork that gets filled out. This is a massive, hundred page undertaking. And I live in Florida, but I also maintain a residence in Washington, D.C., and some of the people in Georgetown who are my neighbors and friends work for the government. And they have to go through these security clearances now and again. And let me tell you something. The government comes knocking on your door and wants to talk to you about your neighbor.

HH: Yup.

DS: Now if that all gets put into a report and put into a personnel file that’s stored, and all your peccadillos and shortcomings, and how you did on this lie detector test, and whether you ever had occasion to drink too much, and it’s very valuable information in the hands of the Chinese, and so it’s troubling that we were not guarding that information more carefully. But I’m also deeply troubled by the fact that we have not taken any sort of retaliatory strike on them. And now maybe we have and we haven’t been told about it. I tend to doubt that.

HH: One of the reasons I like thrillers so much, and especially Daniel Silva’s thrillers, and The English Spy, is they explain to the average Joe why what might not seem important to them is actually very important. And this information flow, you have a couple of characters who do nothing but mine information. They have to connect very small pieces of information. Here, we’ve backed up, and I was the general counsel and deputy director of OPM. I know like you do what’s in those files. The Chinese are going to have just the greatest thing in the world to play with for the next 25 years, they’ll be using this.

DS: Yeah, and but it’s not only that they got the government employees who need security clearances, but you know, some of these government employees then move on to defense contractors that are involved in sensitive work. But here’s the thing. They also got the people who contributed to the background checks as well. And so they’re just able to sweep up in a giant net, you know, a lot of information and sift, and they can target individuals, but they can also sit and put together a mosaic. And again, I just, we have been the target of relentless, unfettered, unchecked Chinese cyber aggression for a very long time. And we sit and take it, and I don’t understand that.

HH: Yeah, in fact, in one place in The English Spy, you write about the cyber warriors of Russia. And on Page 101, their cyber warriors are blasting away at our financial institutions with everything they’ve got in their nasty, little toolbox. They’re also targeting our government systems. And the outer networks of our biggest defense contractors, so it’s not just the Chinese. We just know the Chinese did this OPM hack. The Russians are doing it, and I assume the Iranians are doing it as well.

DS: The Russians are probably at the top of the heap in terms of cyber activity. And the Iranians are sophisticated, and getting more sophisticated by the day. But the Russians are really, really aggressive in their cyber espionage. I think that most analysts would consider them, even though the Chinese, we’ve got this example of what they did this week, that the Russians are actually probably top of the heap, and very, very good at what they do.

HH: And for the benefit of everyone who is listening on a new affiliate, whether in New Hampshire or South Carolina or anywhere else in the United States, because I keep adding them, Daniel, Daniel Silva has been doing this for a lot of years, beginning with The Kill Artist, about one book a year, and he has lots of friends in the business. And in fact, Mike Morell, I think, is one of them. Mike was on the show with me, and I’ll be talking about that a little bit later. Pretty much everyone from American intelligence and Israeli intelligence at least, and I supposed United Kingdom intelligence, reads Daniel Silva. And they have their opinions. And I think they talk to you quite a lot, but especially on the Iranian deal, which is where I want to go right now. One of your, I’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere, America. That music tells me I will be taking a break and I’ll be back to talk about Iran with Daniel Silva. The President received a letter today from five of his former advisors saying stop, stop, stop. I’ll tell you about it when I come back with Daniel Silva. The English Spy is linked as well as all his other books at

— – – – –

HH: But I want to talk about the letter the President got today. This is probably even more important than everything else the Court does, because if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, it is, changes everything. The President received a letter today, according to the New York Times, that was signed by David Petraeus and by four of his other senior advisors, and Dennis Ross among them, Gary Samore, who was Mr. Obama’s former chief advisor on nuclear policy, James Cartwright, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, an architect of Mr. Obama’s effort to build up the military force in the region, and Robert Einhorn, a long-time State Department proliferation expert who helped devise and enforce the sanctions against Iran. And they say look, the agreement will not prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons capability, don’t do it. So Daniel Silva, you have got a lot about Iran in here, and again, I never give away details of a book like The English Spy. But Vevak, if I’m saying that correctly, explain to people what Vevak is so we can then move on to what the Iranian deal represents.

DS: Vevak is one of the names that we use to refer to the Iranian intelligence service, the ministry of intelligence, or there’s numerous names. Vevak is the name that I choose to call their foreign intelligence service.

HH: And the other one that people might not recognize is SVR, and that is the new KGB, right?

DS: Well, the SVR is the, it is in effect the old First Chief Directorate of the KGB, which was the foreign intelligence operation. And remember that the KGB was this monstrous sort of state within a state that oversaw internal security as well as was the Soviet Union’s external espionage service. So that got split apart. So you have the SSB, which handles internal Russia, and the SVR, which handles foreign intelligence. And the SVR is actually based in Moscow center in Yasenevo on the old campus of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate.

HH: And so it’s really amazing that both of these are tied together. But one of the parts of The English Spy takes place at the location of the ongoing negotiations which are supposed to deadline on the day your book comes out, right?

DS: Exactly.

HH: There’s a June 30th deadline, so you’ve got the Iranian negotiations running in The English Spy. What do you think of this letter the President received? What do you think of the Iranian negotiations in The English Spy? And just generally of this drama within a drama that’s been playing out?

DS: I found today’s news fascinating in that you have five very serious players saying in effect, in effect, that the deal that as written, or as we think it’s written, the deal that’s on the table right now, that the President should probably walk away from, because he’s already acceded, you know, he’s crossed lines that he said he would never cross. And you know, we can get bogged down on the details of the agreement, but regardless of what the administration says, it does not prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. And I’ll be hesitant to use the words that Netanyahu used, that it paves the way to a bomb, but it puts them, it leaves them right on the doorstep of a bomb. It doesn’t take away their enrichment capability where they’re going to be very hesitant to tell us what they did in the past. I don’t know how we’re going to get this inspection regime to work. I, you know, it’s probably not going to come as a surprise to you, but I don’t support this agreement, and I don’t think we should enter into it. But today’s development was interesting, because these are serious, sober people with no political axe to grind, people who have worked for the President in the past saying that this thing is deeply flawed.

HH: Now the consequence of this, it’s coming out on a day when Obamacare is upheld. The Supreme Court has upheld the subsidies of the Affordable Care Act, and that’s going to be on everyone’s lead tonight, Obamacare survives again, Chief Justice Roberts sides with Kennedy and the liberals to uphold it. And it will get lost. And the negotiations will go forward. Do you think that the President is committed regardless of what people tell him to a deal?

DS: Yeah, I do, actually, and I think that they’re going to, I mean, first of all, I’m not sure we’re going to get a deal by the 30th. All the indicators are saying that that’s probably not the case, but it’s possible we may get some sort of, yet another little deal and then we keep talking. I, you know, can’t hazard a guess on how this is going to turn out, but he has made it pretty clear that he’s committed a great deal of his personal prestige to this venture. And I don’t think he’s going to turn back from it now.

HH: Now okay, against him is arrayed a bunch of people, including Michael Oren, former Ambassdor of Israel to the United States, now a member of the Knesset. He has a new book coming out called Allied, and I’ll be talking to him next week. They’ve really begun to throw hammers at him, and at Benjamin Netanyahu. And there are no Americans in The English Spy, which is interesting to me. Again, there’s always been Americans in the past. And do you think the relationship is fraying? Is that a telegraph?

DS: No, it just didn’t, I didn’t require it. I think that obvious, the political, at the political level, the relationship is completely disastrous. And as Ambassador Oren’s book is going to demonstrate and show us, it was really bad right from the beginning, worse than we even imagined, and very personal, very ugly. And you know, he was in the room, saw everything, took copious notes. And I think that he has no reason to exaggerate or to mislead anyone about what happened during that time. But at a technical level, at DOD, IDF, and Mossad to CIA, I’m told that the relationship is as strong as ever, and that’s a good sign, because Israel needs those partnerships. And you know, I was just in Israel on a two week research trip, and talked to lots of people. There are things that I heard over and over and over again is you know, just in the modern world, we can’t operate alone. You have to have partners. You must have partners. And that’s why this has been such a serious episode for Israel. And I did find it interesting, though, that the White House asked the prime minister of Israel to distance himself from a book that was written by a former ambassador. It just means that you know, the charges that Ambassador Oren leveled in the book were, hit pretty close to home. Something about it bothered them.

HH: Oh, very much, and I’ll talk with him in studio next week when I’m back in California. Looking forward to it. But it was, it was an accident that in The English Spy there are no Americans, not your reflection of a declining relationship between the Office, the MI6 and the United States?

DS: No, no, not, it was not an accident. They just, there was no need for an American presence in this book. But one thing that I got right, as it turned out, is that we had cut the Israelis out completely. We weren’t briefing them on what was going on at the negotiating table. And the Israelis had to figure out other means how, what was going on in that room.

DS: Interesting. Other means…I’ll be right back with Daniel Silva.

— – – – —

HH: Daniel Silva, there are a couple of other things I want to talk to you about. There are two quotes at the beginning of The English Spy, one by Graham Greene, and it talks about the necessity of secrecy. When a man rubs out a pencil mark, he should be careful to see that the line is quite obliterated, for if a secret is to be kept, no precautions are too great. That goes to OPM. And then Mary, Queen of Scots, no more tears, I will think upon revenge, which goes to your treatment of the IRA. And I’ve been to Belfast only once. I drove around looking for where James Hewitt left in 1868, and I found it in Saintfield. But there’s a lot of Ulster in here, and you’ve never really dealt with Ulster before. And what I was most interested in, in a little backstory. In 1983, I worked on a case when I was a clerk on the D.C. Circuit called Hanoch Tel-Oren. It began in 1978 when 11 PLO terrorists landed on the Haifa Highway. They seized two buses, two cars. They murdered 22 adults and 12 children.

DS: Exactly.

HH: They wounded 73 adults and 14, and they brought their case to the United States. And I was the clerk on the case, and our judges ruled we can’t touch this, because it involves the terror network. And we can’t go there because of political question. We’re going to get into stuff we don’t have the clearances for. Nobody knows how these terrorist groups operate. And you lay it open in The English Spy.

DS: Well, one of the things that plays a big role in this book, one of the events, was the bombing of Omagh in 1998. And we all remember that terrible day, worst single act of violence in the war, 28 or 29 people killed.

HH: In Northern Ireland, for people who don’t know where Omagh is. It’s a huge, terrible day in British-Irish history.

DS: It had the effect of being so horrific that it really galvanized support for the Good Friday agreement. And it had the real IRA, which carried it out, was really decimated after that. But curiously, sadly, no one has ever been brought to justice for the Omagh bombing. And that is something that I deal with in this novel. And it probably won’t surprise you to learn that Gabriel Allon dispenses justice in the case of the Omagh bombing.

HH: But what I drew from it, because it goes back to my 1983 experience, is Claire Sterling originally posited that the Russians and the Arab terrorists and the IRA hardcore, and the ETA in Spain, and a number of others in the East German days, there were a bunch of…

DS: All linked.

HH: They all linked up. And they all helped each other. And it reminded me Mike Morell was on the show a couple of weeks ago, and he said the most dangerous man in the world is in Yemen, and he’s a bomb maker.

DS: He’s a bomb maker.

HH: He’s teaching other people how to make bombs, which is exactly what The English Spy is about.

DS: It is. And I have no sympathy whatsoever for the Irish Republican Army. I had certain sympathy for the civil rights aspect of it in Northern Ireland at the end of the 60s, but you know, maiming innocent people, killing and maiming innocent people, so let me just lay down that marker. These guys at the end of the war suddenly had a lot of time on their hands, and they went out into the world, many of them, and spread this technology and their expertise around. And the IRA were incredibly good at what they did. I mean, you remember the bombing campaigns in London.

HH: Sure.

DS: Those bombs, those massive bombs that wiped out Canary Wharf and Bishopsgate, these things were put together in barns in South Omagh and smuggled across the Irish Sea and assembled in Britain, and taken to their targets at a time when the place was totally wired with spies and intelligence. I mean, these guys were amazing. And they also built incredibly sophisticated devices. And in 2006, some of them helped the Iranians build anti-tank weapons and roadside bombs that found their way into Hezbollah, and into Southern Iraq, where they were used against British forces down there. So it was a very sad irony that British servicemen in 2005, ’06, ’07, serving in Southern Iraq, faced the very same types of weapons that were used against the British servicemen in South Omagh during the worst days of the war. But bomb makers, these guys who really know the technology, are incredibly important to terrorist networks.

HH: We’ll be right back to talk more about that. The new book, The English Spy, explains it all for you as I, again, the headlines are in this book. It’s uncanny, actually. It’s chilling. I’ll be right back on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

— – – —

HH: I don’t know if I have it keyed up and ready. Devin Nunes and I, and a bunch of other people were on Face The Nation this past weekend, Daniel Silva, and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee kind of stunned us when he had this to say:

DN: Well, we face the highest threat level we have ever faced in this country today.

JD: Including after 9/11?

DN: Including after 9/11, and there’s a couple of reasons why. One is the flow of fighters that went from Europe and other Western countries like the United States to fight in Iraq and Syria who have now come out. We don’t know all the people who went in, nor do we know the people who have been back and are now on the streets in the United States. The FBI director said there are cases open in 50 states. The second and probably more important fact is that on the internet, young people are being radicalized.

HH: All right, stop right there. And so Daniel Silva, you have on the one hand Vevak working with the IRA bombers, and people like the bomber in Yemen that the former deputy director of the CIA worries about. On the other hand, you have the recruitment via the internet of thousands, if not tens of thousands of willing couriers. And in The English Spy, you get a sense of how all of this works in a giant swirl in the terror network that makes us at great risk, actually.

DS: I hope that he’s wrong in his assessment. I hope that he’s wrong. You know, to me, they haven’t quite demonstrated the ability to carry out a true mass casualty terror spectacular on the order of 9/11. And we’ve also gotten much better at what we do in the wake of 9/11. And so my hope right now is that ISIS is more concerned about the near enemy, you know, its activity on the ground in Syria and Iraq, and trying to build the caliphate, and that they’re not actually going to be attacking us. I hope that I’m right and he’s wrong. I’m not sure about that. The best way to get the United States into the war in Syria, and to crush ISIS, would be to carry out a mass casualty attack here, because the President would have no choice but to go in and wipe them out. What is the worst decision Osama bin Laden ever made? And that was the carry out the 9/11.

HH: Right.

DS: That was the end for him.

HH: I wonder, though, these ISIS fanatics don’t seem to be, they don’t seem to carry much beyond the next day. These videos are just, the pool video this week makes me think. There’s a Wall Street Journal story today, Daniel Silva…

DS: Yeah.

HH: …that has in it this line. The spreading perception that the U.S. isn’t really interested in defeating the Islamic State has undermined local resistance to the militant groups in Anbar. It represents a major obstacle to recruiting local Sunni tribes, one of the U.S. strategies in the war, provincial leaders say. There’s just this general idea that we’re not in the game anywhere, even as the technology advances. I mean, that little bit on the subway, the microburst of transmission of data that no one can track…

DS: Yeah.

HH: It’s scary.

DS: I mean, how can these people not feel that way? I mean, we have more trainers on the ground in Iraq than there are trainees. We are carrying out fewer sortees, you know, for the entire campaign than we did in a couple of days during the Iraq war. It does create the impression, rightly or wrongly, that we’re sort of slow-rolling this, and handing it off to the next president, and just doing enough so that it looks like we’re doing enough. And if you’re on the ground, and you’re caught in the crosshairs of ISIS, I mean, you’re definitely not going to feel confident that the United States is going to be coming to your aid anytime soon, and they’re right to feel that way.

HH: In your next novel, Daniel Silva, are you going to be dealing with ISIS at all?

DS: I have a hard and fast rule about not talking about future novels, and I’m going to break that rule today on the Hugh Hewitt Show and say I’m already working on it, and it does deal with ISIS.

HH: And see, I just couldn’t figure it out. The last thing I want to ask you, Daniel, it’s a terrific book, by the way, and everyone should know that. It’s, I think your artistry has gotten better with every single novel, and this is just amazing.

DS: Thank you.

HH: But the last thing is there is Madeline and Katrina. People don’t believe this. They might watch The Americans on HBO and think it’s a relic of the Cold War. But there are still sleepers. There are still specially-trained people. The bad guys haven’t stopped thinking about how to hurt us, have they?

DS: No, and look, the United States remains the primary obsession, target, of Russian intelligence. And the United Kingdom is number two on that list. And there are thousands and thousands and thousands of Russians, and many, many more, hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans in Russia, and look, I mean, you don’t have to take my word for it. MI6, MI5, British foreign secretary, all say that Russia is emerging as the biggest threat to British security in the 21st Century, and that Russian intelligence activity on British soil is at Cold War levels. And I think we should assume that that’s the same here in the United States.

HH: Yeah, back when I was in the Reagan administration the first time at the Department of Justice working on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act applications of the FISA court for the AG, they were all over the place. And my guess is the same number of applications for warrants on foreign nationals in the United States under diplomatic cover is there. And you bring that clear in The English Spy. All over England, the resident of the SVK is running around and talking to his various people. They just don’t let up. That’s not in Putin’s nature. And Putin is at the center of this book, and it’s interesting. You’re the novelist whose figured out earliest and longest that Putin is the guy we have to watch.

DS: Look, I was struck early by what he, what his goals were and how aggressively he was going about it. There was also, and maybe you saw this wonderful piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday about the new sort of 21st Century authoritarian regimes and how sophisticated they are.

HH: Yup.

DS: And what they do, and he is the poster child for that. I mean, there’s no gulag anymore. I mean, there are people who get gunned down in the streets, but the state is much more sophisticated in using its repressive powers to keep people in line.

HH: Everywhere. Daniel Silva, great to talk to you again, The English Spy is linked at It’ll be in airports and bookstores everywhere next week. You’ll of course want to get it. Talk to you again next July if not before, Daniel Silva. Stay tuned, America.

End of interview.


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