The Maverick Approach To Spy Thrillers

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When I first started writing The Maverick Experiment, I pondered how I would accomplish two tasks; first of which being the ability to capture my experiences as an intelligence officer without sharing sensitive information that risked the lives of my colleagues or future operations.  Secondly, I wanted to carve out a new niche within the spy novel genre, which was, and continues to be, populated with many successful writers.  The first was quickly addressed by utilizing the Agency’s Publication Review Board, who was of great assistance in approving all aspects of my first novel.

After months of deliberating over how to best describe the life of an intelligence officer and my experiences abroad, I determined that the best way to address my second concern would be to use elements of my past, mixed with fictional concepts frequently discussed around the fire-pit in Kabul on how we should do things.  After all, some of our best ideas in Afghanistan came from discussions around the fire with a glass of scotch and a cigar in hand.  It was there that my colleagues and I discussed the failures of the day, whether operational or managerial, and how we would accomplish them if our legal lanes were a bit wider and more forgiving.  As I worked on the story in my room late at night, I took snippets of our conversations around the fire and my own ideas on how things should be run and the Maverick Program was born.  The operators on the Maverick team would be granted the carte blanche ability to perform their assignments as we have all dreamed would happen for years.  Knowing full well that such a thing would not occur in real life, I was able to build new operations and assignments according to the new team and mix them with names and locations of some of my previous assignments.  Ultimately, what is real and what is fiction will of course remain a secret, but the mix quickly became the foundation for this and future books in the series.

The next step that I tackled was carving out my own niche, based upon what has already been written.  I knew the genuine descriptions of intelligence officers and real life places would help, but I wanted to do more to separate myself and decided to approach the length of the novels.  Traditionally, the length of spy novels surpasses the 500-page mark and beyond, which at times can be a burden.  Thus, I decided to attempt The Maverick Experiment, with a different approach; fast, page turning installments, which hopefully left the reader desiring more.  My goal is to have each book in the series fit neatly into a 250-300 page story that further develops the characters, the Maverick program and ultimately the series.  If readers purchase the book in an airport and are able to race through it with excitement, while being educated and wishing it hadn’t ended by the time they land, I have succeeded and that shall be the premise upon each book is written.

Drew Berquist is an intelligence contractor for the US government, and previously worked directly for the nation’s top intelligence organizations. He is the author of The Maverick Experiment and the forthcoming second installment, The Maverick Protocol.

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Afghanistan: The Support Driven War

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“What are our goals in Afghanistan?”

What a great question, and at one point it was accompanied with a clear response.  However, as someone who has spent the better part of the eight years in the war torn country, I don’t think I can give you a solid answer. For those of us who have operated in Afghanistan on one level or another since the early stages of the war, this is deeply frustrating.  The old sentiment of “do what it takes to accomplish the mission,” meaning eliminate al-Qaeda operatives and their leadership, has long passed.  The reason: our leadership and policy makers in Washington have failed to assist their people in the field with clear guidance and the freedom to operate. Instead, fear has penetrated the intelligence community and any intelligence operator who is worth his salt understands that operational thinking and tactics that once led to great intelligence and capture/kill operations is now, almost certainly, something that will land him in the front office for a consultation and possibly dismissal.  Aggressive thinking will not be tolerated.  Okay, maybe that’s a strong statement, but the principle is dead on and leaves many of our personnel in the field wondering whether or not we want to win.

So, why all the confusion?  As an intelligence community, where have we gone wrong?  While the answer is not simple, and this particular response will not by any means be comprehensive, I will attempt to explain some critical points of failure.

Most people understand the concept of special operations or special projects, as it pertains to intelligence and the military.  The mass public understands that this indicates small, secretive and specialized units who are well-trained and have a “failure is not an option” mindset.  Such groups are often called upon to solve our nation’s most perilous national security dilemmas.  These “dilemmas” span an extremely wide variety of problems, some of which cannot be handled with force.  Still, the concepts of strategic and precise plans make sense and are almost always more effective.  When the war in Afghanistan first started, this was our approach.  There is plenty of literature to support this, but I suggest reading Gary Schroen’sFirst In, which describes the CIA’s efforts immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Years later, we find ourselves in a completely different phase of the war.  Any operator that is worth a damn will tell you it’s always best to serve in the very beginning of a conflict because folks from headquarters haven’t reared their ugly heads yet.  Simply put, leadership just doesn’t understand the environment as well at the beginning, so there are no clear lines or policies that inhibit operations.  In turn, this allows for more of a “get the job done at all costs” type mentality.  Then, after some time, the inevitable occurs, management gets more involved and ill-trained thrill seekers venture into the war zone hoping for some excitement and even better, a promotion upon returning home.  This phase is soon accompanied by an even more depressing stage, which is where we find ourselves now.  On a political level, the American public grows weary and less patriotic about sending their sons and daughters into battle and subsequently, this pressure causes policy makers to waffle.  God forbid our representatives lose their seats over supporting something worthwhile, because their ill-informed constituents get anxious over the war. Still, this is what happens.  Then, more importantly, on an internal level, many individuals in the field grow frustrated with the conservative approach to the mission and move on to new projects.  After all, why stay if leadership won’t afford you the resources to accomplish the very mission that they assigned you?

This leads to a shortage of personnel in the intelligence community with war zone experience to draw from, creating the necessity for unwritten policies and standards being developed, i.e. “deploy to a war zone or we won’t consider you a strong candidate for promotion.” In fact at one particular organization, this became an actual policy.  So what does that get you?  Simple. A large number of under-qualified officers, who often mean well, but are thrown into an environment that they are not trained to work in.  Most intelligence officers from the civilian sector are trained to operate in more traditional clandestine environments, such as Moscow, Prague, and the like.  The other straining issue is time.  While most tours to traditional locations are several years in length, war zones tours are much shorter for staff officers.  With limited training and expertise in the region, these short stints in a country are nowhere near enough time to learn the problem set and make a difference.  It’s often toward the end of the tour when these officers create a niche for themselves and start producing.

When the surge in Afghanistan occurred, it only further compounded these problems and created what I call a “support-driven environment.”  Essentially, this means that because of an influx of those officers mentioned above, analysts, whom can do their job from home, and the countless support staff that it requires to feed, house, and supply these officers, we have a situation where support personnel far outweigh the operational staff.  This is a significant problem because support personnel are, frankly, less trained and approaching issues from a completely different angle.  Unfortunately, over time their numbers have increased and those who should remain in a support role, now have a voice at the table, which severely impacts operations, oftentimes for the worse.

Consequently, less trained officers create a CYA environment on steroids, as legal offices, in conjunction with security and leadership, fear the injury or death of intelligence personnel and make their policies accordingly. Essentially, most officers in management positions want to ensure that any misfortunes that occur during their deployment don’t leave them responsible.  The attitude is protect yourself and others, if it’s going to impact your career.  Not protect others because it’s the right thing to do.  I will never forget being lectured in a meeting over movement policies in Afghanistan by a member of senior leadership who told me “she was not willing to lose her job over us getting killed.” I was disappointed, but not shocked, by the comments, and the environment has only worsened since.  Too many heads at the table, especially when they are non-operational, has and will continue to lead to failure.  The simple fact is that sometimes throwing more bodies at a problem doesn’t lead to improvement.  Instead, we should consider supporting those who are already in the fight and are passionate about winning.

Drew Berquist is the author of The Maverick Experiment, and a former US intelligence officer with fifteen operational deployments to Afghanistan and the surrounding region.  Visit www.drewberquist.com to read more entries from Drew and learn about the Maverick Series.  Berquist’s second book, The Maverick Protocol, is due out later this year.

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The Maverick Protocol is coming

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I have traveled more the past year and thus it has taken longer than anticipated to finish the second in The Maverick Series, The Maverick Protocol. It is ready to move into production for a release later this year.  My sincere apologies for the delay, but I believe that all will find the second installment even more entertaining than the first.  Derek and the team will face more than they have faced since joining the Maverick Program and I hope that you are left wanting more.  This time I promise not to drag my feet on the third story.  All the best!  ~Drew

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Visit the Homeland Security Today and read Drew’s piece here.

Also, be sure to check back for future blog postings on www.themaverickexperiment.com.

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An Intro to the World of Intelligence

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Welcome to A Spy’s Mind, a blog by former US Intelligence Officer Drew Berquist.  Throughout the course of this blog, I will comment on current events, my life as a spy on a functional level, as well as personal level, and other areas that are of interest to the reader.

This week I will take a moment to address some common questions I have received about my career and what is really involved in being an intelligence officer.  Of course, there is much that I cannot go into given the nature of my work and past experiences, many of which are still classified.  Still, there are some things that I can discuss and would love to share with you.

Before addressing some questions, let me preface by saying the following:

Americans have always been intrigued by the spy world.  Like most things in life, we always want to know more about things we aren’t supposed to. The aura of mystique is without question the most powerful element to the spy world.  No one knows exactly what goes on behind the closed doors of America’s senior policy makers as they direct their analysts and operatives to ensure our nation stays safe.

Excitement is compounded further by television and film portrayals of the intelligence community.  Characters on screen are idolized, and many viewers want to walk in their fictional shoes.  And why wouldn’t they? Who wouldn’t want to be Jack Bauer, Jason Bourne, James Bond, and the like?  The list is probably pretty short long?.  Spies on screen live the high life– fine food and cocktails, gorgeous women, high-speed car chases, and gun fights galore.  All the things an alpha male craves when he rolls out of bed in the morning.

However, while moments of genuine excitement exist in our little crazy world, sometimes more frequently than others, it’s important that the general public understand we are not watching you sleep from a satellite deep in space, and we have not all been in high-speed car chases through exotic environments around the world.  In fact, as you go about your business, we are likely writing a report or sending out operations requests to make sure leadership approves of our little plans.  These plans, by the way, are usually denied due to the fear that has permeated the intelligence community from possible public backlash should things fail.  I will go into this dynamic in a separate post.

On a personal level, I have been extremely fortunate to be a part of almost exclusively operational units.   However, the vast majority of intelligence officers never leave the front of their computers, sans quick trips to lunch and to relieve themselves.  Before you judge though, the spy world is vital to our national defense and those officers who sit behind desks can play critical roles too.  While their jobs are far more research-focused, it’s their minds that help drive the small number of case officers and operators’ missions around the world more often than not.  Think of examining data captured from all over the world and then trying to piece together plausible identities, associates, and whereabouts of bad guys.  This is intelligence.  The next step is to feed that information to those in the field and let them use their clandestine assets and other methods to verify the data and accomplish the mission.

So with that I will answer some brief questions.  Feel free to send in additional questions to the site, and I will make every effort to incorporate and answer them in future posts.

Q: How much can a real spy actually incorporate into a fiction novel such as The Maverick Experiment?
A:
Great question.  Being a spy requires signing document after document stating you will protect your country and the information that becomes available to you. We are held to high standards within the intelligence community when it comes to information-sharing.  Still, the CIA has been very gracious to many creative-minded authors who decide to write books, essays, and the like, so long as they submit their work to the Publication Review Board.  The PRB encourages people to write as they please but ensures that all information released, whether truthful or fiction, does not contain anything  classified that would compromise or be harmful to the CIA.  The Maverick Experiment is peppered with several true statements or descriptions of the CIA and its operational thinking. However, much of the story, to include its characters, is predominately fiction.  Of course there are some parts I cannot comment on.

Q: What is it like being an intelligence officer?
A:
Being an intelligence officer, like many career fields, has its ups and downs.  I thoroughly enjoy getting to serve my country and believe wholeheartedly in our mission.  However, the job can be very difficult on families and relationships.  I spend a majority of the year overseas doing things I cannot tell my family about.  As if being away was not hard enough, the inability to communicate what I am doing or often where I am going is discouraging at times.  Fortunately, the camaraderie among my teammates has always been strong, and I have developed life-long relationships with them.  The work itself is most often rewarding, but constant report-writing becomes exhausting and battling the increased level of bureaucracy and internal Agency politics can make anyone crazy.

Q: What type of training do you receive as an intelligence officer?
A:
It depends.  There are several career tracks within the intelligence community.  For those who are more operational in nature, i.e., case officers, paramilitary , interrogators, strategic debriefers and other specialized skills officers, the training cycle usually includes basic intelligence collection courses.  In these courses, individuals learn about the history of intelligence and are taught how to properly build rapport – in an effort to manipulate the target, ask proper questions, and report their findings in a clear and concise manner.  Officers are routinely given weapons training, hostile area driving courses, surveillance/surveillance-detection training, and alias travel courses.  This list grows as your assignment requires and officers are able to request additional training depending upon their assignment and their manager’s approval.

Q: How do I become an intelligence officer?
A:
There are several ways to become an intelligence officer, but none of them are necessarily easy.  I suggest taking courses and obtaining skills that set you apart from your classmates or colleagues, e.g., Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, or Pashtu language skills or getting an advanced degree in international affairs or some form of policy studies.  The Agency wants you to not only have special skills but also to understand the world around you.  Always maintain a strong awareness of key world leaders, their policies, and current events.  You will be asked about them.  Finally, apply to several agencies as their missions all have much in common and the most elusive element to an outsider is a Top Secret clearance.  Once you have your foot in the door with a TS clearance, you can learn more about the community and set career goals.

Q: Where have you spent most of your time as an intelligence officer?
A:
Without a doubt, Afghanistan.  Afghanistan and Pakistan are at the very heart of the War on Terror and, as such, I have had to deploy over a dozen times to Afghanistan to conduct operations.

Q: What is the most exciting thing you have ever done in the intelligence community?
A:
I’ll respond to your question with a question. Do you really think I can answer that?  I will say, however, that I have been fortunate enough to be a part of some extremely sensitive units and thus involved in some very exciting operations.

Q: What is one of the funniest things you see portrayed in spy films?
A:
There are so many it’s hard to choose.  Because of this, I will do a specific post on dispelling or confirming certain things shown on screen at a later date, but for now I will say:  the gadgets.  Actors on screen have a gadget for everything, it seems.  While in real life our technology is superior to most and we are capable of doing things that I would have never imagined possible, the average officer on the street is usually armed with a pen, notepad, and—hopefully– a keen sense of awareness.  We don’t have belts or bags full of gadgets for every specific instance, rather a well-trained mind that can adapt to very specific situations.  This is where the Bourne series is stronger than most. Although most of the plot is, albeit entertaining, completely unrealistic, Bourne’s character seems to use his environment around him well.  However, I have yet to meet someone as well-rounded as Jason Bourne, sorry to disappoint.

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