"CIA Reports Officer, Russian Yacht Watcher, Satirist” – with Alex Finley
Andrew Hammond: Hi, and welcome to "SpyCast." I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, historian and curator here at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "SpyCast's" sole purpose is to educate our listeners about the past, present and future of intelligence and espionage. Every week, through engaging conversations, we explore some aspect of a vast ecosystem that looms beneath the surface of everyday life. We talk to spies, operators, mole hunters, defectors, analysts and authors to explore the stories and secrets, tradecraft and technology of the secret world. We are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: This week's guest is Alex Finley, who spent six years in the CIA as a reports officer, who she describes as a bridge between the case officers who recruit and run spies and the analysts who make sense of the information. She now lives in Barcelona, Spain, as a Russian yacht watcher. Yes, she quite literally has a sideline in tracking and exposing the yachts of Russian oligarchs. And she has just finished a novel that completes her trilogy about fictional CIA officer Victor Caro. "Victor in Trouble" looks at Russian influence operations and oligarchs through a satirical lens, and we have a delightful chat about her time in the agency and her life as a writer.
Andrew Hammond: In this episode, we discuss life as a CIA reports officer; her take on CIA analysts vs. case officers, having worked closely with both; information and disinformation and fact and fiction; Ukraine, the 2016 election and the Russian historical playbook; and the regularity, even mundanity, of much of daily intelligence life. Remember, you can get detailed show notes with links to further resources, a full transcript and a few other bells and whistles if you go to thecyberwire.com/podcast/spycast. That's thecyberwire.com/podcast/spycast. I think if you go to the show notes once, you'll go back again, but I can only lead you to the water.
Andrew Hammond: Well, I'm really pleased to speak to you this morning. One of the things that I was going to ask before we get going - what's it like to live in Spain and Barcelona? Is it as awesome as it sounds, or do you kind of get used to it and it becomes a bit meh?
Alex Finley: No, it's pretty much as awesome as it sounds.
Alex Finley: No, we were just talking the other day. Somebody was like, people come here to vacation, and we live here. It's so great.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) How long have you been there?
Alex Finley: Three years.
Andrew Hammond: Three years?
Alex Finley: Yeah. Yeah, and the thing - we got here, and - what? - seven months later, everything shut down. But it was actually a good place to go through the pandemic because there's so much outdoors and the weather's always nice. So after we got through an initial very difficult lockdown - after that, it was very good. And then we had the city to ourselves - with no tourists, right? - for a year.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Alex Finley: So we got to discover the city the way most people don't ever get to. It was great.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. I never thought about that. That's amazing. But I know there's been lots of problems with overcrowding and stuff before COVID in Barcelona, so it must have been amazing to just have the city to yourself.
Alex Finley: Yeah, yeah. This was it. I mean, it was - like, the local market - the Boqueria - the locals here were like, we never go there anymore because it's just so overrun with tourists. And every week, we were meeting friends there to go have tapas. You know, there were people there, but it wasn't, like, totally full or anything. So we really got to enjoy the city, I think, in a different way than most people do. It was nice.
Andrew Hammond: And I've read elsewhere that you find living there conducive to writing about American foreign policy for national security intelligence - the space that you used to work in when you were in the CIA. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? Was Barcelona for a specific reason? Was it connected to writers or the politics? Or was it just, that sounds great, let's try that out?
Alex Finley: No, we just decided to try it out. We had a good social network here, and we wanted to be by the sea. That was it. There wasn't any big calculus that went into it. And it's just a nice city to live in, and it is a great - like, I mean, just being overseas, I think, does give you a very different perspective on what's happening in the United States because you are seeing it from the outside. You're not deep in the middle of it, especially in Washington or something like that. You're getting external observations and opinions as well, right? So I'm hearing from all of my sort of international friends what they think, too. And so that really makes you think differently and perceive differently what the news is and how you look at the situation there.
Andrew Hammond: So just before we discuss your series of novels, for our listeners that haven't listened to the "SpyCast" you were on previously, just tell us a little - our listeners a little bit more about your past. So you were in the CIA. You were in West Africa. You were in Europe. you were operations. You worked counterterrorism. Just flesh out a little bit more for us as much as you can, please.
Alex Finley: Sure. I worked in the director of operations. I was a reports officer, so I was not a case officer, which is, I think, what most people think of when they think of somebody at the CIA. And so my job was to sort of bridge between the analysts and the case officers - so to work with the analysts to say, what are the requirements? What are we missing? And then to turn to the case officers and say, OK; who do we have who can get answers for us and then, how do we go about getting some of those answers? Then there was a certain amount of information validation that went into it. So when information came in, looking at it and saying, does it make sense that this source has access to this information? Does it seem to track along with other patterns that we've seen, or does it seem totally an outlier that we need to really question whether or not this is valid information?
Alex Finley: I served in West Africa and in Europe and a bit at headquarters, and that's basically it. That was my career at CIA.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) And how long were you in for?
Alex Finley: Six years - 2003...
Andrew Hammond: Six years - wow.
Alex Finley: ...To 2009.
Andrew Hammond: Interesting years.
Alex Finley: Well, that was it, right? So joining in 2003 really was a strange time to be getting into it. So we were just out of 18 months past 9/11, and we were about to invade Iraq. And so I think it's safe to say the agency was really going through a very tumultuous time. There were a lot of changes happening internally, a lot of changes happening across the intelligence community in general. And the agency was being blamed in a number of ways, both for 9/11 and then in the coming months for the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So there was a lot that was going on, and I was a very low-level peon in the agency at the time, but I definitely had a front-row view to some pretty incredible things.
Andrew Hammond: For what you're doing now, being a writer, I think the, you know, being a low-level peon, as you describe it, there's a certain value in that as well - isn't there? - just seeing the organizational dynamics and seeing the bureaucracy and the leadership and the management and everything else, especially if you want to be a satirist?
Alex Finley: Absolutely. One of the challenges I actually ran into when I wrote my first book, "Victor in the Rubble," was people saying, well, you know, you're not George Tenet; you weren't a high-level person, so we really tend to look more for memoirs. And I kept saying to people, but I have a totally different perspective of what was happening here. And, of course, the high-level people, they're involved in a lot of those decisions, but those decisions affected me and everybody that I was working with right around me. So we really did have the seats in the house that showed how these policies came downhill and how it affected how we were actually working in the field, collecting intelligence and trying to do our jobs. It didn't always work well together. There really was this dynamic of what was happening at headquarters was sort of in tension with what was happening out in the field. And I think that made, like you said, it made great material, I think, for writing satire.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. I find that really fascinating because to me, if you're looking at the first world war - just to build on what you said - if you're looking at the first world war, you can learn as much, if not more, about that war from within the memoirs of someone that was in the trenches than compared to a general that was in the chateau, right?
Alex Finley: Yeah, absolutely, because these are the people in the end who are out doing it on a day-to-day basis. It's one thing to sit in an office back in Washington and to make these rules and to sort of manage an entire organization. That's not to put down what George Tenet did and Michael Hayden did. I mean, these are all very important things, of course.
Andrew Hammond: Of course.
Alex Finley: Field soldiers, like you said, who are out there day to day putting themselves at risk, their families, also, you know, having to set their lifestyles to go along with this kind of a job and, of course, then the sources, the assets who are definitely putting themselves at risk - and so that's a whole other narrative. That's a whole other part of the story that I think doesn't often get told.
Andrew Hammond: And I love the reports officer part of your past because to me it's like analysis and operations are like the veins and the arteries, but reports officers are like the capillaries. They take information, shuttle it back-and-forth between the arteries and the veins, which is very important as well, but often overlooked. Can you just tell us a little bit more about that? What was your life like? What was your day like? What were some of the challenges and the high points and low points of being a reports officer?
Alex Finley: Sure. The high points were that I got to work with some of the smartest people in the world, who were the analysts. The analysts are just absolutely incredible people. Everybody that I worked with, they're super smart, but they know details that nobody else knows. And you're kind - sometimes you're like, can we move past those details? I need to just...
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Alex Finley: I need a bigger...
Andrew Hammond: Just stay with us, yeah.
Alex Finley: ...Picture here. So sometimes getting them to focus is its own challenge, but absolutely fascinating. You could ask them the most detailed, specific questions about the topic that you're working on, and they have the answer, and they are very excited to share it with you. Case officers, though, are also totally fun, but they don't give a damn about details. They don't care about policy and regulations. They just want to run out and be crazy out in the street and do whatever it is that they need to do. And that's also really fun, but also has its challenges because you're trying to get them to focus on how they're going to build their operations not just to get X, but also to get Y. And then also, case officers are notorious for not being great writers, so - and I say that with great affection. I am actually married to a former case officer...
Andrew Hammond: OK.
Alex Finley: ...So it's - I say that with great affection. But that information then comes in and sometimes needs to be edited a little bit. And that was one of the other things that, as a reports officer, I would do. But I will add, actually, that the job became more challenging as I was going through the years. So as I said earlier that there were these changes in the intelligence community and in the agency itself, one of the main things that was happening was this wall that had been a very strong, set wall between the operational side and the analytical side was starting to come down. That started with the Counterterrorism Center, where we started putting analysts and operators together to work the information together and develop new operations built off of analysis that was coming in. And so things were much more real time. There was actionable intelligence, where you could act on it immediately. And so that started within the Counterterrorism Center. And slowly but surely, over the years, that wall was coming down everywhere. So the role of the reports officer was really changing, actually, as I got towards the end of my tenure at the agency. So in some ways, I was a little bit superfluous because, by that point, the analysts were already talking with the operators, and so there was a little bit less responsibility for the - those go-betweens.
Andrew Hammond: That's what I was just thinking, actually, when you were talking. As a reports officer, if you're sitting on top of the wall and helping the people on one side and the other communicate with each other, if the wall is no longer there, then the job's either different or redundant or easier or harder, but it definitely changes.
Alex Finley: Absolutely. And I've actually made fun of that in some of my writing, where I did sometimes feel that my job was redundant, which is part of why I left. I didn't really see where my future was and where I was going to move up to. I recognized very well that I don't have the personality to be a case officer, and so that just wasn't of interest to me. And the analysts, again, are super smart. But to focus only deeply, deeply on one subject was also not for me. So that was part of why I left. Since I've left, you've now had a complete and total overhaul of the agency. John Brennan did that in 2015 and created these mission centers. And my understanding is that that wall is gone completely now. And so you really do have much more communication between all of the different moving parts now. So I don't even know if - what the role of a reports officer is anymore.
Andrew Hammond: But the CIA still have them?
Alex Finley: I don't know, actually.
Andrew Hammond: You don't know?
Alex Finley: I haven't - I...
Andrew Hammond: OK, OK.
Alex Finley: Yeah, and I haven't looked at their sort of job board or anything recently, so I don't know.
Andrew Hammond: OK (laughter). And for the reports officers, you touched upon them - we hear of the stereotypes of, you know, analysts are smart and they're eggheads. And the reports officers are ripping and running and going off-piste and so forth. Was there an archetype of a reports officer?
Alex Finley: No, I don't think so. Reports officers, I think, were calming. They were...
Andrew Hammond: OK (laughter).
Alex Finley: ...Sort of a calming force within the office and very good with details and with writing and very detail oriented. Many reports officers are also trained to do operations, and so they do go out and also collect intelligence as well. So there - you know, there are a few different roles there. But, yeah, no, there's a little bit less, I think, of a stereotype for reports officers than we have for case officers and analysts.
Andrew Hammond: And how does one become a reports officer? Is it, like, a particular job that you apply for, or do you do aptitude tests and they say we think that you be good at this, or is it a combination of both? Help us understand how you arrive there.
Alex Finley: Yeah, it's a combination of both. You know, you're sort of brought in, and I know plenty of people who came in thinking they were going to be one thing, and slowly it became clear, you know, maybe this is a better fit for you over here. And at the time that I was there, once you were in one cadre, it was a bit difficult to move. My understanding is - from people that I know who were there before, it used to be very easy, actually, to move in between. But, you know, I also know some analysts who later became case officers and some case officers who became analysts. So, you know, there was a certain amount of movement. And generally, the bureaucracy can be inflexible in many ways. But also, if you have good people in place and good managers in place who recognize that you have a certain talent and good skills, you know, they'll work with you to try to put you in a place where you'll be happy and you'll be contributing.
Andrew Hammond: And how do you - to end up there as a reports officer, do you go through the training the analysts do or the case officers do, or is it something different?
Alex Finley: You go through the same operational training as the case officers.
Andrew Hammond: So you go to The Farm?
Alex Finley: Yeah, there's different - yes, basically. Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: Just finally, on this point, when you were a reports officer, is it mainly oral, or is it in writing, or is it a little bit of both? It sounds a lot like shuttle diplomacy, when you hear Kissinger during the negotiations with the Chinese in the early '70s or the Middle East peace process with President Carter and Brzezinski - you know, that kind of going from one side to the other and trying to finesse and coordinate everything - is that - would it be more oral, or would it be more written or something else?
Alex Finley: It's mostly written, actually. And luckily, you're not negotiating anything. You don't have two parties who are - you're trying to get them to agree on something. You're just talking and saying, OK, you know, where are our gaps in intelligence? What is it that we don't know? And then you get to come back and work with the case officers and brainstorm, OK, what are ways that we can get this? Do we already have somebody in place who can provide this? Do we need to start developing, you know, targeting people to develop, to recruit who could provide this? And then, how do we develop an operation around that to get it?
Alex Finley: And so it's fun because you do have sort of the intellectual side where you're working with the analysts and saying, OK, I understand you can't get a full picture of this topic until we get these other pieces of the puzzle. But now we get to work creatively in operations and say, OK, how do we get it, and to brainstorm. And that actually was one of the most fun parts of the job, I think, was just sitting in a room with people and brainstorming. And you don't censor yourselves. You just sort of let whatever ideas come. And of course, some of them won't work. And of course, you disregard a bunch of them. But you just never know. And you can start with the most ridiculous thing, and it could lead somebody else to think of something else, and you develop a brilliant operation.
Andrew Hammond: And so moving on to the next part of the interview, tell us a little bit more about you becoming a writer. Was this something that you always wanted to do even while you were in the CIA? You always had that ambition to write novels or satire, or was it something that you came upon afterwards? Or - yeah, help us understand the Alex Finley becoming a writer.
Alex Finley: Sure. I was always a writer. From a very young age, I wrote my little books and would staple the pages together. And I was always a writer. And in fact, I then was a journalist for a number of years before I joined the agency, so writing was very much already part of my life.
Alex Finley: When I was at the agency, like I said before, you know, I was maybe a peon in it, but I had great front-row seat, so I was watching some pretty incredible things that were happening. And the writer in me said, wow, you could - these are good stories. But of course, you got to find the way to tell those stories because of course, you can't give away anything classified. You know, you don't want to tell the true story. But already, when I was at the agency, I was seeing a lot of absurdity, particularly at the agency with the bureaucracy, and then also within the war on terror. And all of that was sort of coming together and came to a head as I was ready to leave the agency.
Alex Finley: And so when I left in 2009, I knew that I wanted to write a book. And I knew that it would be a satirical book about the agency and the war on terror. And I think part of that was a catharsis. This war was very difficult on a lot of people and a lot of people close to me and friends. And, you know, I know a lot of people who suffered and went through some trauma because of the war on terror. And so that first book was a way of sort of working through some of that, but trying to find the absurdity and the humor in it, which I think was just my way of dealing with it. I think it's much more fun to laugh and have dark humor about things to process them, rather than to hold it too closely and look at it with dramatic fashion. So it was really actually self-healing for me.
Alex Finley: And it turns out, I was very happily surprised after it was published. It was healing to a lot of other people. I had a number of people from the agency and from the military community, for example, who came to me after it was published and said, you know, thank you for writing this. You really nailed it. And that was the best feedback I could have hoped for.
Andrew Hammond: And did you always know that you wanted to write a trilogy? Your latest book is the third in the series, right?
Alex Finley: Right. No, so when I wrote the first book, "Victor in the Rubble," it was a total leap in faith, leap of faith. I had no idea. OK, I had grown up, said, I want to write a book one day. I want to publish a book. Well, so first, you say, I want to write a book. So then you write it. And then you say, well, wait a minute. That's not - I don't feel successful yet. So then you say, now I want to publish my book - right? - because what's the point of the manuscript sitting in a drawer? OK, so then you manage to publish it. And then, you say, well, wait a minute. That's it? I'm done? That's not. No. You want to keep on going.
Alex Finley: But I think because the first book was so well-received and because I did get the feedback from readers that I was getting, that sort of gave me that push to say, OK, I can do this, and I'm reaching people. You know, I'm helping people. Maybe they just laugh a little bit or something like that, and then they put the book aside. But that's great. I've connected with somebody, and I like that. And so because of that reader feedback on the first book, I was able to go ahead and say, OK, I'm going to go ahead and write the second. And then - well, yeah, if you have two, you have to have a third. So I went ahead, and I finished up the trilogy.
Andrew Hammond: And that's the last in the Victor series? Is that correct?
Alex Finley: Correct. Yes. All three books are Victor Caro. And - yeah, OK, we say trilogy, right? But we - who knows? Who knows, right? Victor may come back. We just don't know.
Andrew Hammond: "Star Wars" was a trilogy once upon a time, right?
Alex Finley: See?
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Alex Finley: That's right. Well, when Disney buys the rights to the Victor Caro series, they can develop whatever other side stories they want.
Andrew Hammond: Do what they want, yeah.
Alex Finley: I'll be fine with that.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah, you can get in touch with Alex through Twitter, @Disney, if you're listening.
Andrew Hammond: You mentioned the you saw a lot of, like, absurdity and so forth when you were in the agency and during the war on terror, so was it more like - just to translate it into literary terms - was it, like, a tragicomedy like Samuel Beckett, or was it more like being trapped in a Kafka novel where you're just shaking your head and you're like, none of this makes any sense, but we have to do it anyway, or was it more like Ray Bradbury, like "Catch-22," where there's just much more - you know, you just have to take a step back and shake your head and wonder if you really know what's happening?
Alex Finley: Yes.
Andrew Hammond: Was it...
Alex Finley: Yes, all of it.
Andrew Hammond: All of it, OK.
Alex Finley: Yeah. There were points where I found myself in the middle of nowhere, West Africa, and there are these moments where you're like, how did this - like, how did I end up here? This makes zero sense. And then there were the bureaucratic catch-22s. That's really - literally what they were, where - that this doesn't make any sense. If I want to do X, I have to first do Y, but to do Y, I have to first do X. And it made absolutely no sense.
Alex Finley: And then, just sort of the overall policy of it that was absurd. What were we trying to accomplish? Are we going to kill our way to peace? Like, this - none of it really made sense. And then, this war just kept growing, right? I mean, you have one problem on 9/11, which is bin Laden. And then very quickly, it has exploded that somehow, we now have tons and ton - like, we are at war with everybody. So it didn't really make sense. And certainly, on a day-to-day basis, as we saw the war expanding, for those of us - a number of us, I think, in the field - like, it just didn't make sense.
Alex Finley: But then, you had, you know, just the day-to-day absurdities of an officer in the field trying to get an answer to his cable. And, you know, this is important life-or-death kind of thing, where he has to go and meet a source, and he's waiting for an answer from headquarters, and the desk officer at headquarters is back at the gingerbread house competition and just, you know...
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Alex Finley: ...Doesn't have time to answer that cable. And those are realities, but they're totally absurd. And those were the moments you're shaking your head, like, what? What? Nothing makes sense.
Andrew Hammond: And reading your novels, I had a bunch of laugh out loud moments. But I just wondered, are you a funny person in your daily life? I guess it's a spectrum, but you get a kind of larger-than-life comedian - oh, yeah, Alex is a kick in the pants. She's constantly making jokes. Or are you kind of the more quiet, wry observations that you kind of have an ironic laugh into your own head kind of thing, or - help us understand, like, that part of the novels and its connection to you as a person.
Alex Finley: That's really funny, actually because nobody had asked me that question before. And then, last week, somebody asked me that for the first time. And after I answered, my son was like, so what did you say? And I said, I said, I don't think I'm actually a funny person naturally, if you just meet me in person. And my son says, that was the right answer.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Alex Finley: OK. Thanks. But I would say, yes, I'm much more of an introvert, and I - and observer. And I've had people say to me, you'll just be silent, silent, silent, watching, watching, watching. But then, occasionally, I'll just sort of come out with a zinger because that's it. I will watch until I see there is some hypocrisy or something that I have to call out, and then I'll find a humorous way to call it out. But no, like, if you meet me at a party, you're not going to be like, oh, she's so funny. I just want to hang out with her all night. She's telling jokes all the time. I'll probably just be the quiet one in the corner observing everything.
Andrew Hammond: And tell us how the first novel came to be. So you've discussed this a little bit about the character Victor Caro - like, how did you come up with him? Sometimes we get emails saying, you know, these people that are successful and have written all these books - they make it sound so easy, but I've tried it, and it's really not. So just help us understand how it all came together - the character, the plot, how you devised the mechanism that you were going to use to get all the stuff that was inside of you across to the reader.
Alex Finley: Sure. That - yeah, I had lots of first drafts, but - so I guess they weren't first drafts. I had several - like, first drafts I would throw away, and then, I would just start over completely. When I started "Victor In The Rubble," I actually started with a female lead because I wanted it - writing from my own background and my experience. I wanted so much to be focusing on the war on terror, the absurdities of the war and the absurdities of the bureaucracy. But writing it with a woman lead to also write reality was running into other challenges. And those were not the ones that I was interested in writing about, at least at that time.
Alex Finley: So I said, OK, so let's make it - let's just say I. Let's make it first person. First person didn't work either. And so then I said, OK, let's just make a male character because he won't have to deal with a lot of the personal issues that I was dealing with as a woman and a mother at the time. And I just - I didn't want to write about that at the time. I wanted to focus on the war and on the agency itself. And so a male lead was - turned out to be the right vehicle to be able to do that.
Alex Finley: A lot of what Victor goes through are my own experiences - some of them - but some of them are experiences from friends and colleagues around me. When people learned I was sort of keeping a list of these ridiculous things that were going on, people started just coming to me. It was like, oh, my God, you're not going to believe what happened now. You have to hear this. And, you know, I would sort of keep notes on some of these ridiculous things and put it all together.
Alex Finley: Forming the story was then difficult. As I said it, the first book had been much more of a catharsis. But once you get your guts out onto the page, now it has to form a story. And so what I found was, I first just wrote without censoring myself, get everything out. And then, I sat down with what I had. OK, now I have words on a piece of paper. And now I can start outlining and organizing how to put this into a story and create a plot. And then it came together. And I worked with an editor, of course, to help me do all of that because there was a point where I was totally stuck, and I said, I just can't break through this on my own. And so working with the editor did really help to restructure it and make it a much better story.
Andrew Hammond: And tell our listeners a little bit more about your most recent novel. So in terms of the narrative arc of the Victor trilogy, tell - just - yeah, just give us a precis. Lay it out for us just so that our listeners can get a sense of what it's about.
Alex Finley: So I'll go through a little bit of the arc of the three books, and then I'll...
Andrew Hammond: Sure.
Alex Finley: ...Launch more into detail on the third book. So as I said, the first book is "Victor in the Rubble," which is Victor in West Africa taking on the war on terror. The second book is called "Victor in the Jungle," which takes place in South America and looks very much into the perils of populism. You have a South American dictator who is in cahoots with narcotraffickers to stay in power. And in terms of Victor's arc, this is where, actually, I started bringing a little bit more of my authentic story into it. He goes to South America with his family this time.
Alex Finley: So in the first book, Victor is completely on his own. In the second book, he has his family with him. And part of what I wanted to show there is that working for the agency isn't just a job. It really is a lifestyle because the entire family really has to be on board. But the second book, after I had gotten over what I needed to get out of me for the first book, for "Victor in the Rubble," "Victor in the Jungle" was much more about the fun and the camaraderie and the adventure of being in the agency and just having fun, and when you have the right team together and an operation really comes together, how great that can be.
Alex Finley: The third book is "Victor in Trouble," and this one actually is Victor's retirement tour. He arrives in Rome for what he believes will be a wonderful final two years to his career, with great food, great wine and La Dolce Vita. And it turns out that the world actually has other plans for him. So he finds himself recruiting a source to learn about Russian influence operations in the West and then has to protect his source from the very government politicians who have been corrupted by those Russian operations. So that's the basis of the book - and all of this done in a context where there's this giant disinformation storm whirling around them. Again, in this one, his family plays a role.
Alex Finley: And the whole story grew out of my research after the 2016 election. I was writing a lot of non-fiction articles covering the Mueller investigation, for example, in the United States, about Russian interference in U.S. elections. And one of the things that was so frustrating to me as I was writing this and listening to the debate in the United States was that it was so politically centered. It really only viewed what was happening through politics. And to me, what was being lost in that conversation was the national security implications of what we were discovering was happening. And so we were not talking nearly enough about Vladimir Putin. And so I set out to try to find similar examples. So one of the things that we knew was happening within national security circles was that Putin actually had launched very similar operations all across Europe. And, you know, his goal was just to destabilize democracies in general in order to keep himself, basically, more powerful at home.
Alex Finley: And there are a lot of examples - very good, clear, declassified examples in Europe - of Russian intelligence operations trying to buy off politicians and buy journalists and these types of things to set a pro-Russia agenda. So I said, if I can maybe highlight that these types of operations are also being done in Europe, then maybe we can start discussing it much more as a national security issue rather than looking at it only as a political issue in the United States. So all of that is a very long way of saying that notion of what I wanted to show became the foundation for "Victor in Trouble," which is the third book.
Andrew Hammond: It was interesting that you mentioned the national security rather than just the horse race of politics because, like, for me, reading your book and looking at Russian information operations - and it opens up with a great quote from Oleg Kalugin, where he's talking about all of the stuff that basically we have seen these past 10, 15 years - destabilization, putting your thumb on the scale enough to try to turn these countries that have historically been adversaries - trying to destabilize them, trying to make them more politically fluid and unstable and so forth. So I just find that really, really interesting and the way that you deal with that in the novel as well. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Alex Finley: Yeah. I think one of the things that people are just now starting to discover is that what Russia is doing is not new. The Soviets perfected this. They did this a lot - the active measures, as we call them. And I think what's strange, particularly for an American audience - or even just for a Western audience - is that we don't do this nearly as much. OK, I mean, yes, the CIA does a certain amount of covert action, for example. But it's covert action that is done with a presidential finding.
Alex Finley: You have oversight from the Gang of Eight in Congress. You have - there's a legal system put in to make sure that certain rules are followed. And you don't really set out anymore for regime change. I mean, things that the CIA did in the past, for sure - there have been committee hearings and new regulations put in place and these types of things. So you don't really have this sort of run amok - trying to subvert other countries.
Alex Finley: Russia is not that way. They use active measures commonly, and there's no regulation system in - put in place. Putin just says, this is what I want to do, and everybody says, OK, well, we'll find a way to achieve that objective. And it's not done with any sort of checks and balances. But it was developed during the Soviets, and so it's much more part of their culture to do that and to just subvert - like you said, to influence and to try to subvert. And they see absolutely nothing wrong with buying influence with politicians, buying influence with journalists to change that media landscape and to change the narrative and - not always to convince people of something but sometimes just to convince people of nothing, to think it's not possible to know anymore what the truth is. If you take an example like MH17, which is the Malaysian Airline plane that was shot down over Ukraine, there is plenty of evidence - I mean, it's gone through courts and everything - there's all this evidence that it was shot down by a Russian weapon by pro-Russia separatists.
Alex Finley: And yet, if you look at Russian media, if you look at the number of trolls and bots who are claiming to be French or Ukrainian or Russian or whatever, they come out and say, no, no, no, Russia didn't do this. And they developed a hundred different narratives for why that airplane was possibly shot down. Well, I heard that there was a Ukrainian plane in the place. Well, I heard the Venezuelans had sold very similar weapons. They find ways that - they set so many different stories out there that the - a number of people who don't look very closely, they say, well, I just don't even know anymore what the truth is. And therefore, I'm not going to participate anymore in the debate. And that withdrawal from civic engagement is what is so corrosive to democracies.
Alex Finley: And I think the public doesn't still really understand that. But democracy is based on rule of law and civic engagement. And if we, as a public, don't engage, or if we do engage but without real facts that we're all agreeing on, then that entire foundation falls apart. And I think that's exactly what Putin is trying to do.
Alex Finley: And so one of the things I tried to do in "Victor in Trouble" is to show exactly how - step by step, how that happens. So you see the source being recruited by the Russians. You see what they're asking him to do. And then separately, you see actions on the side of a troll agency like the Internet Research Agency and using memes and using journalists and everything and all kinds of influencers to change that media landscape. And so I try to show, step by step, how that actually happens so that people can understand it. And I hope that it's done in an entertaining way. So - because a lot of times when people just have it lectured to them, they lose interest and they think, well, this person is being so dramatic or something. So I hope that the book is insightful in that way.
Andrew Hammond: I think it's a really good way to teach people this stuff in a way that engages them. I mean, here at the Spy Museum, we try to do something similar almost. It's almost sometimes a little bit like bait-and-switch. The name spy, the allure of dead drops and brush pasts and defectors and high stakes things - that brings them in the door. But we want to tell them about signals intelligence or MASINT or FISINT and all these types of things. But if you lead with that, their eyes are going to glaze over. But when we get them in, we try to, in an engaging way, educate them about the whole ecosystem of intelligence. So it seems to me that, in some ways, your novel is doing that. And I wondered if that was part of the rationale to do the novels or if that was just a byproduct - like, you said I'm going to write a novel, and actually, this is quite a good educational opportunity for people to learn stuff. Help us understand that power of the fiction and the almost pedagogy of your novels.
Alex Finley: You know, exactly what you said. I mean, I really wanted to highlight to people what is really going on because, look, if you tell people that it's really - there are boring parts of the job or if you tell people that Russian spying isn't all assassinations and defenestrations, that there really is mundane, bread-and-butter spying that goes into this and it's not always super exciting, right? I mean, if James Bond had to fill out expense reports, that would be a really boring movie. But those are the realities of how this job is actually done, and I think it's important for the public to know and understand that it isn't all sexy stuff. And particularly with the Russian influence operations, a lot of it is not sexy. I mean, we definitely have heard about the assassination attempts or the actual assassinations, bombing of ammunition depots and these types of things. But some of them are just very mundane. But because they're mundane, we then don't pay attention to them.
Alex Finley: So one example that I like to give, Estonian intelligence declassified - that they had discovered a - an academic conference in Athens that, in fact, was created and sponsored and financed by the GRU, Russian military intelligence. And if you went to this conference, you know, you see academics there, people talking about Europe and sanctions and these types of things. But then you find out, well, Russian intelligence actually organized and paid for this. So who were the speakers and what were they saying? And what you find is that the Russians are finding people who are very palatable to us, right? So they find Greek academics and Greek people to present pro-Russia points to a Greek audience.
Alex Finley: They do the same in Italy and in France. We've seen it. We've seen it all over the - we see it in the United States. We see it in Europe. That - if now those talking points are coming from somebody who looks like they're pro-American - right? - and they look like they're on the side of America, it's much easier for me, as an audience, to take and receive that information. And then it's very hard for anybody to say, well, no, that's actually an intelligence operation to make that narrative more palatable to you. It's this very subversive way of moving these narratives and these policy thoughts, these policy points, into the mainstream public debate. And if you do that with enough politicians and enough academics, then you end up with what we're seeing now.
Alex Finley: In Italy, for example, you have the head of Cinque Stelle, the Five Star Movement, coming in with a peace plan that says we should not be arming Ukraine, and this is what the peace plan should look like. And it's very much a pro-Russia peace plan. And so these things don't look sexy. They don't sound sexy. They're very hard to prove. But those are the little things that, from underneath, are really shaping how we have public conversations.
Andrew Hammond: Interactives are very popular in our museum, and I've often thought it would be great to have an interactive where you're just filling out an expense report or something...
Alex Finley: (Laughter).
Andrew Hammond: ...Or even an interactive where - I remember reading that for the Aldrich Ames mole hunt, they would get his garbage bin and then they would empty it all out and they would take photographs and then they would have to painstakingly recreate it and lay everything in the exact same way so that if he came and had a look at it, it all looked like it was when he left it. I've often thought that would be another great interactive just to see....
Alex Finley: Have somebody unloading trash...
Andrew Hammond: ...How boring it can be.
Alex Finley: ...And put it back.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah.
Alex Finley: Or just have somebody run, like, a 12-hour stakeout where they just have to sit there for 12 hours watching.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) In a car with someone else farting and...
Alex Finley: Exactly. Exactly.
Andrew Hammond: ...You know, eating Cheetos and stuff. Yeah (laughter).
Alex Finley: And you're not allowed to talk because who knows who's going to be coming by and who might be listening in.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) I feel like lots of societies are guilty of navel-gazing and just viewing the world through the lens of their own politics. But it's interesting to me that, as you said earlier, that this is always interpreted through the lens of Democrats and Republicans and Progressives and Conservatives and so forth because to me, as a European, this is about an effort to decouple the United States from Europe and to make Europe less unified and so forth. So to me, you know, it's basically global security that's at stake. It's not the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. It's the structure of international system, and it's national security here and also security and freedom in Europe that's at stake. How do you combat that? How do you try to get people to see beyond the - you know, just the tribes of conservatives and liberals?
Alex Finley: It's extremely difficult. And that's part of why I wrote "Victor in Trouble" was to try to highlight exactly that. And now I'm, like, screaming it from the rooftops, especially now with the Ukraine war. This is it. I mean, we are on the precipice. And we are at this point, I really think, where this struggle between authoritarianism and democracy is going to be decided in Ukraine and will set the security landscape for the West for the next generation. I don't know how to get people to engage with that or to listen to that or to understand that it's important. It's made even more difficult - not just in the United States, but particularly it affects me since I'm an American - when you have a number of politicians who are willing to use a lot of these same techniques and to put forward conspiracy theories and to put themselves very much on the side of authoritarianism. They're very willing to back a lie and not to hold accountable the people who are knowingly lying to the public.
Alex Finley: So in the end, what Putin was doing in his attempt to destabilize - I mean, the whole point here is to - for him to keep his corrupt system so that he can be using the system to enrich himself and the people around him, and that government and the state can serve just a small group of people. And unfortunately, what we're seeing now in the United States is the same thing. And I don't think people grasp that. And so that's why I wanted to show what's happening in Europe, too. And I think a lot of Europeans are a little bit blind to it. So maybe if we can highlight to them what's happening in the United States, it'll open their eyes to what's happening at home, as well. But I don't think that people realize that we really are at a pivotal moment of history.
Andrew Hammond: Living in Spain, with your background and training and so forth, a lot of our listeners, they won't follow the ins and outs of Spanish foreign policy particularly closely. But help us understand how you view living there. Like, where is Spain at the moment? Is it very pro-NATO? Is it kind of - has it been destabilized and it's a bit more like Hungary where it's in NATO but it's like, Russia's not that bad? Or - I mean, I know that there's issues there with Catalonia. You live in Barcelona. But help us understand what it's like there, living as a former CIA officer who's very interested in national security and foreign policy.
Alex Finley: So it's very interesting. Like you said, like, the Catalonia issue - you have a very large independence movement in Catalonia as a whole to make Catalonia independent. And we've had a number of protests and things. And it's very interesting because it's - in some ways, it's easy to be an ex-patriot here because then it's not my problem. They're having a protest. And so it's interesting to me to observe, but it's not my government this time that's screwed up. So I can just sort of watch it as an observer. But it's also been a really interesting place to watch these developments with Russia. I mean, there have now been a number of reports about connections between the independence movement and Russia.
Alex Finley: One of Putin's main goals, of course, as we've said, is to destabilize the West. And so one of the ways to do that is to break up NATO and to break up the European Union. And so Putin has done a great job of finding these pressure points where he knows if we can break these pieces apart, then we have a bunch of - I'm only competing one-on-one with each country, I'm no longer competing with Europe as a whole. Brexit, I think, was part of that. So, OK, he's managed to get the U.K. out of the EU. The independence movement here in Catalonia is another one of those wedge issues where you're destabilizing Spain. So Spain now becomes so caught up in having to work through their own internal domestic politics that, can Spain participate as much within the EU and internationally as they would? Now they're using resources and political points for domestic issues. And if Spain were to break apart and then Catalonia leaves the EU or, you know, what happens then?
Alex Finley: So you're putting all kinds of pressure on the European Union by doing that. And it's not just here in Spain, you - movements like that across Europe that the Russians have seemingly got their fingers in. But we also, here in Spain, do have a far-right movement called Vox. And you see a lot of the same trends that you're seeing with far-right movements across Europe and in the United States - very anti-immigrant, white nationalists claiming to be conservative, but it's really not conservative values in any way. It's just far-right values. So all of these trends that we see in the United States, we're actually seeing in Europe, as well.
Andrew Hammond: Have you detected the Russian money or influence has been brought to bear on the Catalonian independence question?
Alex Finley: There have been a number of reports. The New York Times, actually, and OCCRP, which I'm now going to forget exactly what it stands for. But they do a lot of corruption and organized crime reporting, and they recently did a whole series on connections between the independence movement and Russia.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And also, like, I'm originally from Scotland. I also think about that, as well, because Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish executive, has said she's going to have another independence referendum. So I'm wondering, is Russian influence or money going to be - going to find its way into that campaign somehow because the nuclear deterrent for the U.K. is based in Scotland. It's the only ports currently where they can reside. If the U.K. breaks apart, does that mean that the U.K.'s seat on the UN Security Council becomes up for debate and so forth? So to me, there's just so many implications from these seemingly smaller - well, Scottish independence - that's just a tiny, little regional issue. Like, who cares, right? But it has much broader effects.
Alex Finley: This is it. They have much larger implications across the entire union. And I think what's going to be really interesting - because I - years ago, I would have said absolutely that there was Russian money pushing for the Scottish nationalist movement. But now there's such a push in Scotland to be part of the EU, they were very unhappy to have Brexit. So now I'm wondering if Scotland will declare its independence, but then join the EU.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) I think that was the plan, I think. Yeah.
Alex Finley: Which goes against what Putin was hoping for.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) And I think NATO, as well. Yeah, it was to get out of the union with England but to get straight back into the European Union and NATO, which, yeah, was maybe not what Putin was thinking of. Tell us a little bit more about your yacht-watching 'cause this ties into what we've been speaking about with the system in Russia and the - and reaching a particular cadre of people in the oligarchs. And I believe that three yachts have been seized in - is it in Barcelona or - and Spain more generally? Yeah, tell us a little bit more about your yacht-watching, Alex.
Alex Finley: Yeah. So #YachtWatch actually would not exist without "Victor in Trouble." It totally grew out of the book. Part of what I learned when I was researching Putin's destabilization activities was the role of the oligarchs. And the oligarchs played a very big role in financing a number of these activities and moving their money out of Russia and into the West. And of course, if you have an oligarch - so I said, OK, well, so, of course, one of the characters in "Victor in Trouble" has to be an oligarch. And if you're going to have an oligarch, well, an oligarch has to have a yacht. I mean, that just - the two go together. You - it doesn't work, one without the other. So then I started researching their yachts because I had to make an entire scene. There's actually an entire chapter in "Victor in Trouble" which takes place on a yacht with all of the ridiculous accoutrements that are there.
Alex Finley: And so I started researching their yachts and the ridiculous amount of money that they spend on them. And just, like, these things are just - they're absolutely insane pieces of machinery. And so I was doing that research. And then at the same time, I live in Barcelona, and a lot of those ships were here. One of them, Dilbar, which is owned by Alisher Usmanov, is the largest private yacht. And it was here regularly. It was just a regular sight in the port of Barcelona. Everybody knew it was Usmanov's. The thing is just enormous. I've put pictures up on Twitter and people think it's Photoshopped in 'cause it just looks so ridiculous next to all of the sort of normal, human-sized ships, which are actually big ships, too. So I was very familiar with a lot of these yachts. And, again, a lot of the Russian ones were here.
Alex Finley: And so in the runup to the invasion, I became very - it became very clear to me that Putin was going to launch this war. And it became very clear to me that the follow-on consequence would be that the West would put sanctions on the oligarchs. And there had been a lot of push already within national security circles that - if you're going to sanction the oligarchs, you need to actually start seizing their assets. And so to me, the yachts were - it was just the natural, follow-on thing.
Alex Finley: So I started sort of highlighting which yachts were here in Barcelona. I tweeted out a bunch of photos showing them. And then I started - just started following them. And by chance, I was down at the port one day when Solaris, which is one of Roman - one of Roman Abramovich's many mega-yachts, was out running sea trials. And I thought I was witnessing this yacht fleeing to the east. And in fact, she stayed a few more days. But in fact, then a few days later, she did leave and go to Turkey just as sanctions were coming down on Abramovich.
Alex Finley: So in tweeting all of this out, it just started to go viral, and everybody started jumping in on all the different yachts that they were seeing. And we all started crowdsourcing information about yachts and counting which yachts were detained and what was the status of all of the different yachts. So far here in Spain, there are - one, two, three, four - there are four that have been detained in Spain - one in Barcelona and one just south of Barcelona, and the other two are out in Mallorca. Yeah. So that set off yacht watch.
Andrew Hammond: Wow (laughter). And just to wrap up, can you tell us a little bit more about what the next steps are for you, Alex? I believe you have another novel underway at the moment. And even beyond that, do you want to keep writing novels, or do you feel like this was something you had to get out of your system and now you want to move on to something else?
Alex Finley: No, I love writing novels. And I miss - gosh, I've been so busy that I do have this half-written fourth novel, and I find myself in the middle of the night starting again to think about the characters and what they should be doing. So they're calling me, so I need to get back to that. But - so, yes, I do have a fourth novel in the works. It is not a Victor Caro novel. It is still a CIA novel, and it is still a satire but all new characters. And, yeah, I hope to keep going with that. And, you know, after they listen to this and Disney buys the rights to the Victor Caro series...
Andrew Hammond: Exactly (laughter).
Alex Finley: ...Then I can just write whatever I want.
Andrew Hammond: Exactly. And can you give us a little teaser about what the next novel is going to be about?
Alex Finley: Just a little teaser.
Andrew Hammond: Just a little.
Alex Finley: The main character is going to be a case officer who has basically spent several years - like, her entire career overseas with her family and then gets brought back to Washington and has to deal with a number of assets that have been pulled out of dangerous places for various reasons and are now relocated in the United States. And it looks much more at the question of, what is home? Where is it that we feel comfortable? What makes us foreign or not foreign, even when we are foreigners in a foreign country or American at home? And sometimes those things don't always add up. And so it looks into some of those questions.
Andrew Hammond: Well, I look forward to that novel coming out. And you have a website that listeners can go to.
Alex Finley: Yes. The website is alexzfinley.com - Z like Zoey.
Andrew Hammond: Well, thanks ever so much. It's been really great to speak to you.
Alex Finley: Thank you so much for having me. This was fun.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Go to our webpage, where you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalog for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter at @intlspycast, and share your favorite quotes and insights or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter at @spyhistorian. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum. The "SpyCast" team includes Mike Mincey and Memphis Vaughn III. See you for next week's show.