by Tom Siebert
What's the opposite of zeitgeist? Whatever it is, ex-Newsweek Moscow bureau chief Bill Powell taps it in this curiously hollow and unsatisfying real-life spy story about Cold War shenanigans immediately before and following the Soviet Union's collapse.
In July 1998, shortly after being released from prison, Vyacheslav Baranov, a former member of Soviet military intelligence, walked into Powell's Newsweek office claiming he was an exposed double agent for the CIA. Baranov said he was betrayed by a mole who felt sure the ex-spook was still at large. He was having no luck contacting U.S. authorities, and was now turning to a journalist for help. Though dubious at first, Powell gradually bought into his story and ended up getting caught between the fallen spy, the CIA, the FBI, and the ethics of professional journalism.
It all sounds much more interesting than it actually is, because Powell doesn't really get personally involved until Page 126 of this 208-page book. More than half the story is devoted to Baranov's rise through the ranks, disillusionment, seduction by the CIA, betrayal, arrest, trial, imprisonment, release. Though things move at a rapid clip, it also feels like filler, not helped by Powell's often melodramatic tone and fondness for cliché.
Once Powell gets dragged into Baranov's orbit, the narrative gains some traction, but never quite escapes the fact that these spy games feel dated and somewhat irrelevant in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent overt war on terrorism, the soon-to-be war in Iraq, and the covert war on personal freedom.
Worst of all, after you plow through Treason — which is at least a quick and easy read — there is no satisfactory closure. Near the end, after Baranov and U.S. intelligence hook up, Powell is largely cut out of the loop. He assures us from his sources that the U.S. mole has been caught, and even names him (somebody you've heard of, too!), but then gives a long list of reasons it couldn't be the guy.
Beyond the frustration of Powell only having half a story to tell, the lone take-away is unsettling stuff we already know: The U.S. intelligence community is arrogant, sometimes incompetent, and best at covering its own ass. But you can get more timely reports about that by picking up the newspaper.