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The Book of Honor: Covert Lives & Classified Deaths at the CIA





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About the book:

Inscribed on a wall at Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia, is a quote from the Bible: "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). On the other side of the lobby, five rows of stars are etched into the white marble wall, each representing a CIA officer killed in the line of duty. Below the stars is a case containing the "Book of Honor"--"a tome as sacred to the Agency as if it held a splinter of the true cross," writes Ted Gup--and in it are the names of the men and women who gave their lives serving the CIA. Well, not all the names; about half the entries are blank because the CIA says it doesn't want to compromise ongoing operations. Yet, as Gup argues in his own tome, also called The Book of Honor, the truth behind many of the stories that aren't being told threatens nothing--except perhaps the agency's own sense of shame over botched operations.

Gup, a well-known investigative reporter with experience at The Washington Post and Time, interviewed hundreds of current and former CIA case officers to tell the stories behind the stars. "In the aggregate, the stories of the stars form a kind of constellation that, once connected, reveal not only the CIA's history but something of its soul as well," he writes. Yet this is, thankfully, not an indiscrete book. He writes of "a young woman who died a violent and selfless death in 1996 ... her name is withheld from this book. The Agency made a compelling case that to identify her would put others at risk." The bulk of The Book of Honor does, in fact, name names and describe how they died. In this sense, it is similar to the runaway bestseller Blind Man's Bluff, which described the secret history of American submarine espionage during the cold war. Yet what's most striking about Gup's accounts is how many of the deaths were routine or accidental. Many agents merely had the misfortune of being on planes that crashed--hardly the stuff of a James Bond adventure. Throughout, Gup is sensitive to a situation in which, "between the values of an open society and the demands of a craft rooted in deception and betrayal, the CIA is asked to steer an uneasy, often irreconcilable course." This fascinating book strikes a clean blow for the open society--but it serves a larger purpose as well: telling the truth. --John J. Miller

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