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The Debriefing by Robert Littell


Rating: (Recommended)


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Robert Littell’s success with his New York Times bestseller The Company, led Overlook Press to reprint some of his earlier spy novels, including one we missed in the late 1970s and recently read, The Debriefing. This tightly written exploration into deceit reveals that the difference between the good guys and the bad guys can become indistinguishable, a disturbing conclusion. Along the way, Littell delivers fine writing, a thoughtful exploration of the ways of espionage, and the choices individuals make in exploiting power. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 3, pp. 28-35:


           The image that leaps to Stone’s mind is that of a lap dog in heat—a combat between instinct and decorum. With decorum coming out second best. He spots it first in the taut faces of the Marine guards at the entrance, in their hands making edgy passes over the undone flaps of their Navy-issue holsters. He sees it in the maniacal gleam in the eyes of the ambassador’s woman Friday, a near-sighted career officer who speaks seven languages, none of them really well. Muttering under her breath in ancient Greek, she plucks Stone out of a gaggle of journalists being held at bay by the Marines, plows through corridors full of milling staffers as if she is the prow of an icebreaker, barges past the civilian security contingent into the oak-paneled inner sanc­tum, with the limp American flag at one end, hissing hysterical­ly, “He’s come, he’s here, I have him in tow.”

Stone sees it—shoots of panic breaking through what appears to be an ordered surface—in the person of his holiness the am­bassador, a tall, heavy-handed, very rich political appointee whose name appears regularly on someone or other’s ten-worst-dressed list. “Welcome aboard—yes, indeed—welcome aboard,” gushes the ambassador, wringing Stone’s hand as if he is trying to pump up water from a reluctant well, smiling all the while with his facial muscles but not his eyes. “Mighty glad,” he mut­ters, and he repeats it several times without specifying precisely what he is mightily glad about. He takes Stone by the elbow and steers him toward an enormous suede couch, out of earshot of the half dozen or so first and second and third secretaries, clip­boards at the ready, parked around the vast room. Stone, worn out from the trip, sinks gratefully into the soft cushions, catches a glimpse of several framed photographs over the couch. One shows the ambassador chatting amiably with a woman Stone takes to be his government-issue wife; others show him chatting amiably with various Presidents or Heads of State or Film Stars. In every photograph his expression is precisely the same: his shoulders are hunched, his head is thoughtfully inclined, fro­zen in a nod of agreement, his lips are pursed, his eyes are squinting as if he is hard of hearing.

“Let me put you in the picture,” the ambassador begins. In keeping with the atmosphere, which has more in common with a library reading room than an ambassador’s inner sanctum, his voice is a hoarse whisper. “What I’ve got is trouble with a cap­ital T.” He impatiently waves off one of the young second secre­taries, who tiptoes over with an outstretched clipboard marked “Incoming—Eyes Only.” “I’ve got this Russki courier, name of Kulakov, holed in upstairs with a diplomatic pouch chained to his wrist which he says will blow up if anybody tries to take it away from him by force. I’ve got State breathing down my neck to open the pouch and take a look-see what’s in it, never mind the guy it’s chained to. That’s for starters. I’ve got the Russian ambassador lodging diplomatic protests with anybody dumb enough to return his calls. I’ve got security people at the airport telling me the Russkies are flying so many warm bodies into town you’d think they booked the Parthenon for a convention of Old Bolsheviks. I’ve got—”

One of several phones on the large mahogany desk purrs. The woman Friday lifts the receiver, listens, says something in mod­ern Greek, smothers the mouthpiece in her ample bosom. “Mr. Ambassador,” she stage-whispers, “I’m afraid it’s the undersec­retary of foreign affairs, Mr. Tsistopoulos, on the line again. He is very insistent. They have him on hold.”

“Hold him on hold,” whines the ambassador. To Stone, he offers this as a potential last straw. “I’ve got the Greek undersec­retary of foreign affairs, Mr. Whoosis—”

The woman Friday coughs discreetly to catch the ambassa­dor’s attention. “Mr. Tsis-to-poulos,” she prompts him.

The ambassador’s eyes strain for a moment at the top of their sockets. “I’ve got the Greek government climbing the wall for us to get this guy out of here, with or without his pouch, before the whole diplomatic shebang comes down around our heads. I’ve got the English and French and Germans—our Germans, of course, not theirs—clamoring for a piece of the action. I’ve got a passel of congressmen of Greek ancestry flying in day after to­morrow. I’ve got a reception on some Sixth Fleet aircraft carrier scheduled for five P.M. I’ve got an operation that’s ground to a dead standstill. Did you see them standing around the halls downstairs? You couldn’t get a passport processed here in any­thing under two months, for love or money. What else I got? I’ve got journalists from countries I never heard of shooting ques­tions I’m not sure I’m supposed to answer even if I knew the an­swer, which most of the time I don’t. Sweet Jesus! For all I know, the only thing in the damn pouch is Brezhnev’s unpaid laundry bills!”

The catalogue of trials and tribulations has worn the ambas­sador down; feeling very sorry for himself, he sinks back onto the couch and presses a large palm to his large forehead to calm a migraine he senses is lurking just behind his eyes. “What I need,” he says weakly—for a fleeting instant Stone is actually afraid the ambassador will burst into tears—”is official guid­ance.”

Drained, the ambassador stares hopefully at Stone. The wom­an Friday and the army of first and second and third secretaries actually take a step or two in his direction.

Stone studies his shoes longer than he has to; he can’t resist. He wonders at what point silences become silly, at what point someone will suddenly see the ridiculousness of it all and burst into laughter. But everyone holds out. When Stone finally looks up, the faces peering at him are still intense. “Mr. Ambassador,” Stone says slowly. The sound of a human voice speaking out loud echoes through the vast office and appears to shock several of the secretaries. “I’m going to do better than give you guid­ance. In two hours, two and a half on the outside, anybody asks you about the Russian upstairs, you’ll laugh and say, ‘What Russian are you talking about?”


There are two Marine sergeants posted in the stairwell, and two embassy security men outside the door of the room within a room, constructed by the Seabees so embassy people could talk shop without worrying whether their conversations were being picked up by hidden microphones or delicate sensors that can lift voice vibrations off windowpanes. Inside, the decor is State Department Conference Room, beige, with the only touch of color coming from a bouquet of plastic daffodils in a vase filled with the stale water that nobody has changed for years. Two more civilian security types are playing gin across a corner of the conference table and casting an occasional bored look at their charge, the diplomatic courier Kulakov, who is stretched out on the cot that has been set up for him. His face at first glance seems like a death mask: leaden features that will never change expression, eyes that appear to have closed from the weight of the lids. The diplomatic pouch, still chained to Kula­kov’s left wrist, is in full view on his chest.

As Stone enters, Kulakov swings his legs off the bed, sits up, gazes dully at the feet of the new arrival.

Stone addresses the security men. “Could I trouble you gen­tlemen to step outside for a few moments?”

They look at one another, then back at Stone. “We got instructions to maintain ourselves here,” one starts to protest.

“It’s all right,” the ambassador’s woman Friday stage-whis­pers from the doorway. “He’s from Washington.”

Obediently, the two collect their playing cards and cigarettes and leave. Stone scrapes one of their chairs over to the cot, sits down, without a word offers Kulakov a cigarette. The Russian studies the pack as if he is drawing lots and there is a prize to be had for a good guess. Eventually he settles on a cigarette and plucks it from the box. He accepts the book of matches, looks without curiosity at the advertisement on the cover, strikes one. His fingers tremble on the match. Stone looks away so as not to embarrass him.

What. . . are.. . you?” Kulakov asks in his slow, accented English.

Stone answers in Russian. “I’m a representative of the Ameri­can government. I’m here to help you.”

There is a spark of interest in Kulakov’s eyes—the first Stone has seen. “You speak Russian”—Kulakov reverts to his own language—”so you are from the famous CIA.”

Stone isn’t from the CIA, but he doesn’t correct him, not now, not ever. “I’m here to protect you,” he says. “To protect you and to help you. This is the beginning of a new life for you. The first step.”

Stone is careful to use short sentences, to deal with Kulakov as he would deal with a child, but Kulakov’s attention wanders anyhow. “My stockings got wet,” he complains. He takes a deep drag on his cigarette, chokes on the smoke. “I don’t know how they got wet. I must have walked somewhere in water. I must have. . .“ The thought trails off; Kulakov makes an effort to hang on to the thread, but it slips through his fingers. Suddenly he leaps to his feet and starts pacing agitatedly. “Why is there no window in this room? Where is the window? What month are we, January or February?” He returns to the cot, grips Stone’s wrist. “I must telephone Moscow,” he argues vehemently. “I must explain to them why I ran away. I must convince them I’m not a traitor. . . .“ This thought slips away too, and Stone is re­minded of other defectors he has handled: men going through the motions with an energy that comes mainly from force of habit. Experience kills, Thro told him when all the trouble over his daughter began. It kills whatever you were before you had the experience.

Stone’s eyes drift to the diplomatic pouch. Kulakov follows his gaze, clutches it to him. A cloud passes across his face. Dark suspicions hang there like suits in a closet, cleaned, pressed, ready to wear.

“Would you be willing,” Stone asks quietly, “to let me have the pouch?”

“When I arrive in America, I’ll give it to you,” Kulakov says. “I warn you, don’t try to take it from me. If there is a struggle and I pull on the chain, the contents will be destroyed.”

“Do you have any idea what’s in it?”

Kulakov can’t restrain a sneer. “Papers that are too impor­tant to send through the mail.”

The woman Friday suddenly pokes her head in the doorway. “Do you have the pouch?” she stage-whispers in English. Kula­kov, startled, clutches the chain in his right hand and prepares to pull on it.

“Get out,” Stone coldly orders her. “Don’t open that door again until I tell you to.” The woman Friday shrinks back in confusion. The door clicks closed.

“Have you eaten?” Stone turns back to Kulakov. “Have you had something to drink?”

The Russian nods. “They gave me a sandwich, a beer.”

“Listen to me carefully,” Stone tells him. “If all we wanted was the goddamn pouch, we could have slipped you a drug and taken it. All we had to do then was find the key. It will be hid­den in a coat lining, or tucked behind a collar. We could have taken the pouch. We could have dumped you back into the hands of the local KGB. But that’s not how we operate. We’re not like them. You’ll see that for yourself, Kulakov. You’ll see we’re not like them. You keep the pouch. I’ll take you to Amer­ica. You can give it to me when we get there. Okay?”

“Okay,” Kulakov agrees.

“Okay.” Stone stands up. “I know this is very difficult for you—not knowing what’s going to happen to you, wondering if you did the right thing after all. You have to hang on to two things. You can’t undo what you’ve done. If you go back, they’ll kill you. The second thing to hang on to is the belief that it will all work out.” He puts a kindly hand on Kulakov’s shoulder—the first of many gestures Stone will make to win his confidence. “It will work out, I promise you. It always works out.”


The arrangements take longer than Stone thought they would. He has difficulty getting authorization from the Navy to commandeer one of their mail planes parked on the Athens tar­mac, and once he gets the authorization he has trouble tracking down the pilot and crew. They are finally run to ground in a Pir­eaus nest called the Black Cat Inn and brought back to life with pots of black coffee mixed with dire threats about what will happen to them if they don’t turn to. Four hours after his con­versation with the ambassador, Stone is ready to put the show on the road. All the embassy’s Cadillacs, including the ambassa­dor’s pride and joy, which is bulletproof, along with several ci­vilian cars belonging to the security people, are pressed into ser­vice. The convoy, when it finally pulls down the curved driveway, is very impressive. In the lead are two Greek police cars with flashing blue lights on their roofs. (The Greek govern­ment will later deny any of its vehicles participated, and will confiscate photographs that prove the contrary.) Then come nine embassy cars, with the bulletproof Cadillac sandwiched in the middle. Halfway down the first narrow street, the last of the nine cars swerves to a stop across the road, blocking the dozen or so cars full of journalists chasing after the convoy.

Fifteen minutes after the convoy departs, a small Greek van with the faded markings of a laundry company on the panel sides pulls unobtrusively to a side door. Two workmen in white overalls carry in several large straw hampers, and return mo­ments later with the hampers full of dirty linen, which they stow in the back. The van starts off down the side streets in the gen­eral direction of the coast. In one of the narrow back alleys in the rat’s maze of roads between Athens and Pireaus, a Mercedes suddenly veers in front of it, forcing it to the curb. A second Mercedes jams up behind. While two heavies hold the two frightened workmen at gunpoint, four others pull open the rear doors and rip the straw lids off the hampers. Much to their astonishment, all they come up with are armloads of dirty napkins and tablecloths from official embassy dinners.

At that moment, the ambassador’s bulletproof Cadillac, with Kulakov in the back seat and Stone riding shotgun, is pulling through an unmarked gate of the Athens airport straight onto the tarmac. On the far side of the runway, its engines warmed, its takeoff clearance already granted, sits the Navy mail plane that will carry them to Malta, where an Air Force Globemaster will take them, with only a fuel stop in the Azores, to a SAC base in Virginia.

Robert Littell has written more than a dozen novels, and in The Debriefing, his stark economy of words increases the compact unity of the novel, and allows readers to appreciate the nuances of behavior unfolding on these pages.

Steve Hopkins, August 26, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the September 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Debriefing.htm


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