It was July 16, 1991, and 17 November, the Greek terrorist group, had just attempted to assassinate the Turkish charge-d’affaires in a car bomb attack. I had driven through the very intersection where that attack took place with my family, 10 minutes before the fateful event took place. Despite varying our routes and times of departure every day on our way to work, we could easily have been the victims that morning.
“In Zero Day: China’s Cyber Wars . . . I was able to draw upon 30 years of experience as an Operations Officer in the CIA to portray true-to-life operational scenarios.”
Years before, in China, I had faced a very different sort of menace. The Chinese security services viewed foreigners, particularly American diplomats, with a great deal of mistrust, even animus. Local citizens, the Public Security Bureau, and the counterintelligence professionals surveilled their targets constantly, monitoring their every move. From the moment we left our residences until we returned home in the evening, American diplomats were under some form of surveillance. Even the housekeepers we hired to clean our apartments were required to report on their employers’ contacts and patterns of activity. It genuinely felt as though we were living in a goldfish bowl.
In the late 1990s, I was part of the NATO SFOR Stabilization Force in Bosnia Herzegovina. There were snipers in the hills between the embassy and my location at Camp Ilidza, SFOR Headquarters. There were mines and other unexploded ordinance strewn all over the country. A misstep here, or a wrong turn there, could spell disaster. But I had a job to do and I accepted those risks as part of my everyday life as a CIA officer deployed to a war zone.
These are just a few examples of the types of threats CIA personnel all over the world face day-in and day-out as we go about fulfilling our respective missions. We accept these risks because we view ourselves as the first line of defense against America’s enemies, foreign and domestic. We have sworn an oath to defend the Constitution, and we take that pledge seriously.
In Zero Day: China’s Cyber Wars, as well as my two previous novels, Cooper’s Revenge and Unit 400: The Assassins, I was able to draw upon 30 years of experience as an Operations Officer in the CIA to portray true-to-life operational scenarios imbued with the kind of rich contextual detail that only comes from actually having lived and worked in the cultures and geographic locales that I portray. It’s the difference between gazing down on a scene from 10,000 feet and being plunked down in the thick of it. One’s senses are sharpened from participating in the real life experience on the ground, and with any luck, the author is able to transport the reader to that same place with a measure of authenticity that enriches the reading experience like no other. As John le Carré famously said, “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.”
The methods of espionage, known in the business as tradecraft, have evolved over the years, with the most modern technological advances typically cloaked in secrecy decades after they are added to the ‘toolbox,’ unless they are somehow compromised and are thrust into the public domain. But the age old techniques of running surveillance detection routes and conducting recruitment operations remain very much the same as when they first appeared in the early days of spy literature. These methods have been bountifully described in the espionage literature of the 19th and 20th centuries. This might lead one to conclude that anyone could write a convincing scene describing the lead-up to a clandestine meeting in a high-threat counterintelligence environment, or the planning that is involved in conducting a recruitment operation against a high priority foreign target.
Would you trust your mechanic to do your heart surgery? I’m sure that anyone could read Gray’s Anatomy and come away with some sense of where to start, but you would not want that person wielding the scalpel. There is a reason why people gravitate to experts in all things. It is because we intuitively understand that they are the best at what they do. That’s no less true when you are looking for an authentic voice in the books you read.
T.L. Williams ran clandestine human intelligence (HUMINT) operations in Asia and Europe for over 30 years as a CIA operative. Now retired from active duty and living in Florida, he has written three espionage thrillers, including his latest release, Zero Day: China’s Cyber Wars. The CIA was so concerned about Williams’ extensive knowledge of sensitive national security information that it prevented the book’s publication for months while vetting the manuscript for classified information.