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Intriguing, but flawed
on November 7, 2014
This is a fascinating story that suffers somewhat in this particular telling. A shame, since we may never get a superior version. Too many of the principals are no longer with us -- for various and sometimes nefarious reasons.
It starts out promisingly, with long lists of primary and secondary sources. Many of those names are headliners, and the reader will surely recognize the job titles of many of the lesser-known interviewees. One has to suspect, though, that many of the interviews were relatively brief and that some of the info provided to the writers was less than candid -- and perhaps less than thoroughly vetted or crosschecked. The authors do, however, make note of grossly conflicting info from different sources when presented in the book.
I'm not sure the book makes a convincing case that Maxwell was really "Israel's superspy". He certainly hobnobbed with an impressive list of leaders and high-level functionaries, but the salient questions are these: Was he so blinded by self-esteem that he was nothing but a cat's-paw in the hands of, say, Eastern European spymasters? How much useful, unique information did he actually provide to Mossad? Was he really that much more than a profiteering global entrepreneur (ultimately a failed one)? And perhaps the central question, was he in fact murdered by a Mossad assassination team? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reader will have to draw his own conclusion regarding that last issue. The title shouts it, the book suggests it, but the final evidence is inconclusive.
It's difficult to come away from this book with a positive impression of Robert Maxwell. The same can be said regarding the authors' depiction of Mossad. I'm not claiming this was the authors' intent -- they don't write with an obvious bias -- but the facts certainly speak for themselves. And any book that shines light into the subterranean world of spies and subterfuge may well leave the reader feeling a bit slimed afterwards. I, at least, would love to see a world that had no such books, because there was no such subject matter ripe for publication.
Though the events are momentous, the writing struck me as rather pedestrian, particularly given the authors' literary résumés. It's readable enough, but there are two big issues that cost the book two stars. First, sloppiness and egregious errors (mostly spelling, and I'm discounting Britishisms like "chilli" for "chili"). I have to assume this started with the authors, but it certainly should've been caught during the editing process.
And they start very early in the book. It's difficult for me to step out of "editor mode" once I start cataloguing this kind of thing. Some examples: "Sendaro Luminsos" for "Sendero Luminoso"; "Tupamoros" for "Tupamaros"; "Wackenut" for "Wackenhut", "Schipol" for "Schiphol", "Beriut" for "Beirut", "Mai Lai" for "My Lai", "Makorov" for "Makarov". Given their preference for this kind of subject matter, getting the names of airports, cities, historic events and terrorist groups wrong is hard to excuse. And getting this kind of simple stuff wrong can't help but cast suspicion on what they have to say about much more important things.
Then there's word usage, such as "tenure" where they mean "tenor", "Achilles' heal" where they mean "heel", and "interdict" where "intercept" is more correct. Sam Clemens adjures writers to "use the correct word, not its second cousin". They fail to abide by this dictum all too often.
They can't even seem to agree on the name of one of Maxwell's sons. Throughout the book it's (properly) "Ian". Then suddenly in the last 50 pages it becomes "Iain". Good Lord, where were the proofreaders and editors?!
A strange cluelessness rears its head -- sometimes ludicrously. Of Israel's nuclear bomb factory at Dimona: "The windowless concrete building's walls were thick enough to block the most powerful of satellite camera lenses from penetrating." Seriously, spy satellites can't take photos through windowless concrete walls? Or did they mean the walls were thick enough to prevent falling satellites from crashing through them to snap pictures inside?
Medicine fares not much better. Maxwell apparently took Halcion and Xanax together to combat insomnia, and the authors try to explain the results: "Maxwell had developed a tendency to suddenly fall asleep during a meeting ... [this is] one of the side effects from Halcion ... [Xanax] differed from Halcion in one important respect: One of its side effects was that a person could suddenly fall asleep." So they differ in that they can both cause one to suddenly fall asleep? How was that, again?
One of the most fascinating threads in this book is the software program "Promis". Promis is really a huge component of this story because Maxwell was central to its being sold globally; this is, perhaps, where his "Superspy" label might be somewhat applicable, although it was Promis itself that actually did the spying.
The authors do a workmanlike job of explaining who wrote it and why, how it was stolen by both Mossad and the FBI and decompiled ("deconstructed", to use their term), rewritten separately by each to include backdoors ("trapdoors") and to evade copyright infringement (unsuccessfully). They detail how Maxwell and others sold it far and wide to governments, both friendly and deeply inimical, both for profit and so the spy agencies could harvest data clandestinely through these backdoors. But the authors are very weak on the technology.
For example, they describe it as being filched by Mossad on "a disk". Disks in the mid-Eighties could only hold a few hundred kilobytes of data; it's most unlikely that a program this powerful could've been stored on such a disk. In another place, it's described as being on a "computer tape", which makes much more sense. Amusingly, they go on to say that the "trapdoor" added by Mossad took the form of a "microchip" and "microcircuitry". I had to keep reading to be sure they were still referring to the program -- because, e.g., router backdoors do get implemented on ROM chips on their circuit boards. Yes, they were talking about a program, not a piece of hardware -- and don't seem to grasp that one can't add backdoors to programs by implanting chips in either a disk or a computer tape!
They go on to contradict themselves when, early on, they say that it was Israel's "LAKAM programmers" who suggested to Rafi Eitan the virtue of adding a backdoor to Promis. Then later they assert that it was Eitan's own idea, and the programmers only implemented it. This is why I say it becomes difficult to accept their larger contentions at face value when they can't get the smaller ones straight.
One more point about their description of Promis and then I'll shut up. They portray it as a miracle program. Simply put, it's a database aggregator; it can suck data from a number of different types of database files and pull the results together so patterns can be identified. (The user still needs access to the databases, of course, which is a non-trivial requirement.) In this regard, it's most certainly the direct progenitor of PRISM -- the application revealed recently by Ed Snowden -- and they likely cobbled chunks of it into Stuxnet as well. But the authors seem to have swallowed whole the claims by sources that it can be used to navigate Trident nuclear attack subs, and even steer ICBMs to pinpoint their targets precisely. Yeah, and it irons your underwear too! Once again, the authors' credulity has to make readers wonder whether their sources were having a bit of fun leading them by the nose in other areas as well.
[In fairness, I have to add that quite a bit of what's on the web about Promis, or PROMIS, or ProMIS, seems to have fallen prey to its magical pixie-dust reputation. Several sites even state it can read any data from any type of database structure or file type, irrespective of "the computer language it's written in". OK, sure it can. I'd love to see an authoritative analysis someday.]
So, for all that this is an intriguing tale of a deeply flawed man and equally flawed government institutions, these authorial flaws make it difficult to suspend my disbelief fully when reading what's intended to be a factual tale. And I have to rate it accordingly.