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The Spy Who Couldn't Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code, and the FBI's Hunt for America's Stolen Secrets Hardcover – November 1, 2016
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Praise for The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell
“An excellent, highly engrossing account of the search for a man who was cunning, avaricious—and a dreadful speller....It is a pleasure to be in the hands of a writer who so skillfully weaves his assiduous research into polished prose....The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell presents an estimable, thoroughly enjoyable overview of espionage in the digital age.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Yudhijit Bhattacharjee has brought to light an intriguing tale of espionage and betrayal—a tale filled with twists and turns and powerful revelations.”—David Grann, New York Times Bestselling Author of The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
“Brian Regan was an all too human spy, a trailblazer in the digital age—a mole who managed to squirrel away thousands of classified documents—and a brilliant, dyslexic cryptologist who was caught in part because he couldn’t spell. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee has penetrated the FBI and other parts of the intelligence community to write this fantastic true story—a captivating, gracefully-written narrative that is destined to become a classic in the history of code-breaking.”—Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize-winning Author of The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames
“The cat-and-mouse espionage tale at the heart of The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell is so strange and so riveting that you can’t help but marvel at every turn. Enriched by years of painstaking reporting and a keen eye for detail, Yudhijit Bhattacharjee's true-life page turner explores not only the complexities of modern spycraft, but also the ways in which humans can lose their moral bearings. This is a book to be savored as an expertly crafted thriller, and pondered as a nuanced meditation on the banality of evil.”—Brendan I. Koerner, Author of The Skies Belong to Us and Now the Hell Will Start
“A riveting, fast-paced account of how modern computer forensics and cryptography, combined with old-fashioned detective work, caught a most unusual spy. The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell is a real page-turner.”—David Wise, Author of Tiger Trap: America's Secret Spy War with China
“The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell is a propulsive read about an insider whose betrayals we’d do well to remember. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee combines his talent as a top science writer with a gimlet eye for intrigue to sculpt a rich, suspenseful narrative.”—David Willman, Pulitzer Prize-winning Investigative Reporter for the Los Angeles Times and Author of The Mirage Man: Bruce Ivins, the Anthrax Attacks, and America’s Rush to War
“Like the FX show The Americans in a contemporary setting, or a John le Carré novel, The Spy Who Couldn't Spell is the dramatic nonfiction story of the pursuit, capture and conviction of United States spy Brian Patrick Regan....Alongside news of WikiLeaks, Snowden disclosures, the Panama Papers, The Spy Who Couldn't Spell is as real as it gets. Cryptography, hard drive scrubbing, server spoor tracking, old-school surveillance tails and wiretaps, psychological profiling and high-definition courtroom drama: Bhattacharjee tells a story that would make a kickass movie.” —ShelfAwareness
“Readers...will thoroughly enjoy this fast-moving account of a failed spy who, despite his incompetence, easily filched thousands of secrets.”—Publishers Weekly
“The author offers a compellingly seedy portrait of Regan, motivated to contemplate treason due to debt, career stagnation, and marital malaise....A well-written...tale of thwarted amateur treason underscoring the disturbing vulnerability of today's intelligence systems.”—Kirkus Reviews
“In his first book, Bhattacharjee...will leave readers wondering whether classified information from the U.S. government is always vulnerable to being sold, for the right price....Readers interested in spy thrillers, cybercryptology, and the history of U.S. espionage will find this book to be both entertaining and helpful in understanding today’s complex landscape of leaked classified information.”—Booklist
“What distinguishes this real-world chronicle from similar others...is the author’s humane perspective...Recommended for spycraft buffs and general enthusiasts of U.S. intelligence operations and psychosocial factors behind espionage.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“A gripping tale and a powerful case for spell check.”—Esquire
About the Author
Yudhijit Bhattacharjee is an award-winning writer whose features and essays on espionage, cybercrime, science and medicine have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Wired and other U.S. magazines. Yudhijit spent 11 years as a staff writer at the weekly journal Science, writing about neuroscience, astronomy and a variety of other topics in research and science policy. His work has been anthologized in the Best American Science and Nature Writing series. Yudhijit has an undergraduate degree from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and a master's in journalism from The Ohio State University. He lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C., with his wife, his two children and a big red dog.
Top customer reviews
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Yudhijit Bhattacharjee does an exceptional job of bringing this story to life in exquisite detail in this well-researched and easily readable thriller. Bhattacharjee tells the story simultaneously from the perspectives of both Regan and lead FBI investigator Steven Carr, providing a gripping look at both the caper itself--and the myriad reasons why Regan decided to pursue traitorous activities--and the race against the clock to prevent Regan from accomplishing his goal.
Bhattacharjee makes this subject, which can be complex at times, extremely readable. My only minor complaints are that the author has the occasional tendency to engage in gratuitous editorializing, and that the book does not explore in enough depth the security measures that Regan had to face to maintain his security clearances.
In short, a great read for anyone interested in spies, spy hunts, codes, foreign policy, or the US Intelligence Community.
I received an advanced copy of this book from Penguin's First to Read Program with no requirement to review book.
The name Brian Patrick Regan is little remembered. Yet just after the turn of this century Regan "pulled off the biggest heist of classified information in the annals of American espionage" before Edward Snowden. He was "the first spy to exploit digital access to American defense secrets on a massive scale." Regan's theft of documents in 1999-2001 from the CIA, NSA, and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), his employers, represented a bigger threat to American security than anything that had occurred in the 20th century. (Some might argue that the theft of atomic secrets in the 1940s was more serious, but the Americans convicted of espionage for that crime were minor players compared to German physicist Klaus Fuchs, who was tried and convicted in Britain, not the US.) Journalist Yudhijit Bhattacharjee tells Regan's amazing story in a spellbinding book, The Spy Who Couldn't Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code, and the FBI's Hunt for America's Stolen Secrets.
Technically, Regan was convicted of attempted espionage, because he never succeeded in transferring any secret documents to the three countries he hoped would enrich him: Libya, Iraq, and China. He had downloaded and printed thousands of pages of documents and stolen top secret training videos. He had also pilfered a guide to all US surveillance satellites that alone could have compromised American security for decades. As Bhattacharjee so deftly illustrates, Regan failed to score the millions of dollars he sought because he simply wasn't as smart as he thought he was.
The Spy Who Couldn't Spell is a blow-by-blow description of the frustrating and protracted investigation spearheaded by the FBI. The author enlivens his tale with colorful detail, not just from Regan's life but from that of several of the investigators at the FBI, the NSA, and the NRO. Ultimately, the key to their success was the elaborate cryptographic system Regan developed to hide his activities—a system that was so convoluted that Regan himself couldn't remember how to decode critical portions of it. Bhattacharjee relates the finely detailed technical work that lay at the center of the investigation, and he does so in a lively manner. The book reads much like a novel.
The FBI's talent, dedication, and elbow grease notwithstanding, Regan was caught because the government got lucky. In his first effort to approach a foreign government, he had naively mailed several documents and a coded cover letter to the Libyan Embassy. An FBI informer snagged the package there and forwarded it to the Bureau. Otherwise, Regan's scheme might well have gone undetected. He later made other big mistakes. But it's highly unlikely the FBI would have become aware of them. That package intended for Muammar Gadaffi was his undoing.