John Wells is the only CIA agent to ever penetrate al Qaeda. While living in the mountains of Pakistan, he became a Muslim, convinced of the decadence and shallowness of the United States.
“An intriguing thriller studded with alarming possibilities.” -NEW YORK DAILY NEWS “A thriller worthy of Le Carré” Kirkus Reviews
a reporter for The New York Times, Alex Berenson decided to write
a novel that would explore the complexities of the fight against terrorism
in the post-9/11 era. That novel, The Faithful Spy, is being
published by Random House in April 2006. Berenson explains why
he made the switch to fiction, what al Qaeda has in common with
the CIA—and why Keanu Reeves is his new favorite actor.
Q: You’re a reporter by trade. Why did you decide to write a novel?
Alex Berenson: As a reporter, you have to follow certain rules, of
which the most basic is to tell the factual truth. Once you unmoor
yourself from the facts you’re not a reporter any more. To be blunt,
you’re lying. And I never forget that, not when I’m working for The
New York Times. But sticking to the facts can be frustrating. Sometimes you can’t
get the facts, no matter how hard you try. You have to leave questions
unanswered. I wanted to see how it would feel to build a world
where for once I had all the facts, and I knew what everyone was
Q: So? How did it feel?
AB: Pretty good. They lie to each other all the time, my characters.
Sometimes they even lie to themselves. But they always tell me the
Q: You’re probably not the first author to feel that way. Why a spy
AB: I liked the tension and the speed. Maybe one day I’ll try my
hand at literary fiction, something slower-paced. But for my first
novel I wanted to write a tight book, a book that would keep readers
in suspense until the last page, that would be gritty and real and
build to a conclusion that feels surprising and inevitable at the same
time. Also, and maybe this is cruel, I wanted to see how my heroes
would react to extreme pressure. John Wells has worked for years
and years to build his cover inside al Qaeda and along the way he’s
lost the trust of the CIA. Now he’s as alone as a human being can be.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Exley, his handler at the agency, has also given
everything up for her job—her marriage, her children. Yet they both
know they must keep fighting, that they can’t afford to give up, because
Qaeda will never give up.
Q: Why a modern thriller, instead of, say, one set during World War
II or the Cold War?
AB: The topic resonated for me. I live in New York. I work about a
hundred feet from Times Square. I think New Yorkers feel terrorism
a little bit more viscerally than other Americans. I think we all feel
we’re going to get hit again sooner or later. Then of course I saw the other side of the coin firsthand as a reporter for the Times in Iraq, where the United States is intersecting with Islam every day, for better and worse. Our effort to reshape the
Arab world, to reshape Islam—because that’s what we’re doing,
let’s be honest—is one of the great stories of the first part of the
twenty-first century. I don’t know whether we’ll succeed or fail. But
I wanted to write a book that would comment on that effort.
Q: The terrorists in your book are all Muslim. Do you think some
readers will feel that’s unfair?
AB: If they do, they’re deluding themselves. Yes, terrorists come in
all shapes and sizes. But Muslim terrorists are by far the greatest
threat to the United States, and Europe, too. Across the world, from
Algeria to Indonesia, hundreds of millions of Muslims are struggling
for survival. They’re angry at their leaders, and they’re looking for
a solution. In Europe, millions of young Muslim men are alienated
and unemployed. Fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden offer them an answer:
Blame the United States. Blame Israel. Blame your leaders, because
they aren’t real Muslims. Go to war to reclaim the glory of Islam.
Americans are killing Iraqi civilians. Give the infidels a taste of their
own medicine. That message is attractive for people who don’t have
Q: Then are you saying you’re sympathetic to bin Laden?
AB: Not at all. His methods and his goals are repugnant. Even in
war, deliberately targeting civilians is criminal. And I suspect that
very few Americans would want to live under a Muslim theocracy. I
know I wouldn’t. But . . .
Q: But . . .
AB: But though I don’t admire bin Laden or his methods, I respect
his seriousness. He and his men want to destroy the United States as
much as we want to destroy them. They are risking their lives for
their cause. They aren’t going away anytime soon. We’re fooling
ourselves if we pretend otherwise.
So writing about this conflict is very different than writing about
the Cold War. In the Cold War, the two sides were recognizable to
each other. They played by the same rules: Don’t kill civilians, don’t
target the other side’s agents. Don’t push too hard. Neither side
wanted a nuclear holocaust. The game was a chess match, complex
and difficult but controlled. Of course no one did a better job capturing
that complexity than John le Carré.
Now we’re confronting an enemy that doesn’t just want to win
the game. It wants to tear up the board. And thus it’s difficult to
sympathize with the other side. But as a novelist you have to make
both sides real to the reader. The bad guys can’t just be cardboard
Q: How did you reconcile that contradiction?
AB: By portraying the terrorists as honestly as possible, as real people.
They all have reasons that they’ve joined Qaeda; they aren’t idiots
Q: You mentioned le Carré. Is he your model?
AB: I admire le Carré’s skill as a writer, his ability to create characters
and build complex, real worlds. I’m not sure our politics are the
same. Anyway, it would be more than a little premature to make
that comparison. If I keep doing this—and I hope I do—maybe in
Q: Your book feels very real. Did you have help from the CIA or
AB: To be honest, no. I drew on three major sources of information.
First, the time I spent in Iraq helped me understand the military,
which plays a major part in the book. Second, I’ve done quite a bit
of investigative reporting for the Times, so I’ve dealt with FBI and
federal prosecutors as they investigate criminal cases, and I appreciate
the government agency mindset.
Prosecutors have incredible power: the power to search a suspect’s
home, to make indictments and arrests. Yet they also have
enormous responsibility. If they make a mistake, they can destroy
the life of an innocent person, or allow someone guilty to go free. At
the CIA the stakes are even higher. Meanwhile, the people at the
top, who are political appointees, have their own agenda, which is
basically not to embarrass themselves or their administration. So the
folks on the front lines are under incredible pressure to balance
these competing demands. I think I do a good job portraying that
Finally, and this will come as no surprise, I found a tremendous
amount of information from open sources: books and electronic
databases and the Internet. It’s all there, from how the National Security
Agency intercepts electronic communications—to how to
build a truck bomb. Comforting, huh?
Q: This is your second book. Was the first also a novel?
AB: Actually, it was a short history of Wall Street called The Number—
nonfiction, also published by Random House. It came out the
week we invaded Iraq, so not too many people have heard of it.
Q: It doesn’t sound like it has much in common with The Faithful
AB: On the surface, it doesn’t. But in an odd way, The Number prepared
me to write this book.
Q: How so?
AB: Fiction is hard. Much harder than nonfiction. Nonfiction, you
look around the world and you tell the story as best you can. Fiction—
you have to look inside your head for the answer. If it’s not
there, you have nothing to write. Fiction is far more personal. It can
be terrifying. And I’d never written much fiction before, maybe a
couple of short stories in college. If I hadn’t written The Number,
I’m not sure I would have been able to finish The Faithful Spy. Because
I had that experience, I knew that sometimes you have to push
on, that you can always fix your mistakes, but you trap yourself if
you keep writing the same paragraph or page over and over.
Q: So you’re Keanu Reeves’s biggest fan. Why?
AB: Well, I was very fortunate to sell the movie rights to The Faithful
Spy well before it was published. It’s in development now at Regency
and Fox. I think the sale was due mainly to the fact that my
agent shipped the manuscript to Keanu’s manager, and apparently
Keanu is interested in playing John Wells. I always have to smile
when I refer to him as Keanu, like I know him, which of course I
don’t. But I owe Keanu one for sure.
Q: You’ve written two books and you work full-time for The New
York Times. How old are you?
AB: Thirty-three (January 6, 1973).
Q: You don’t sleep much, do you?
AB: No, I sleep. I write fast, not super-fast, but my writing is very
clean, which helps. I’m not married, and I don’t have kids. And I
knew what I wanted this novel to be. I knew it was something I had