Vince Flynn and the Clandestine Services

October 7, 2010

One of my favorite pastimes is attending book signings. For one who is being urged to write a book, hearing how others do so successfully is enlightening and inspiring. Last fall, I attended Vince Flynn’s book signing for his 11th novel, “Pursuit of Honor.” Unlike other authors, Flynn spoke little about how he approaches his craft; rather, he addressed the issues that are the basis of his plot lines: Islamic fundamentalism, the military and clandestine services, and our national security.

Flynn’s 12th novel, “American Assassin,” will be available Oct. 12. After contemplating it for 15 years, Flynn has finally given readers the back-story on his protagonist, Mitch Rapp. Recently, I met with Flynn and posed the questions I’d been harboring since I first heard him speak. For starters, I asked, did he consciously decide to become a voice for those about whom he writes, or did that just evolve?

In the late ’90s, Flynn explained, he began writing about the exploits of Mitch Rapp because he wanted to tell an entertaining story that was relevant. After 9/11, however, his books assumed a more serious tone as it became clear to him that Islamic fundamentalism would become a defining issue of this generation. He discovered the issues resonated with many people.

As he dug in to understand the roots of the extremist movement, he developed a network of sources within the CIA and the military. His contacts were frustrated by the lack of support among bureaucrats and elected officials on Capitol Hill, but barred from voicing their concerns. In Flynn, those who work in the shadows found an ally who views them as the good guys and recognizes how committed the “nut jobs” are to their intolerant belief systems. They were eager to share.

Over time, Flynn became outspoken about these issues, at book signings and media appearances. When I heard him speak last fall, I observed an interesting phenomenon. He spoke passionately about how many in Congress were publicly excoriating the CIA for torture, but privately condoning the practice, and how that demoralized those who were putting their lives on the line to keep Americans safe. His support for the CIA’s practices was clear. At some point, the tension in the room became palpable, as Flynn crossed the line for a segment of the audience. That happens frequently, he said, because people would rather think or read about the dark side of national security than talk about it in public. He can tell when the tide shifts at his appearances because people look down or away or shake their heads. Then he knows it is time to change the subject.

Flynn’s book “Extreme Measures” was inspired by a conversation with a man who worked in the clandestine services. Flynn asked him what his biggest fear was, expecting to hear that the fanatics would set off a nuke and kill his family. The actual answer surprised him. My biggest fear, his source revealed, is that one of these times I am going to return from a mission, step off the CIA jet and find a dozen FBI agents waiting to arrest me for doing exactly what I was tasked to do. Like many others over the past decade, this man left the CIA.

Flynn observes a distressing inconsistency in America. “Despite the fact that the KKK was geographically and philosophically different from northerners and many of their southern peers, we wisely chose not to tolerate them merely because they were different,” he said. We didn’t need to understand why a white man hated a black man and tied him to a tree. We knew it was wrong. Murder is murder. Bigotry is bigotry. Why then, he asks, must we tolerate the bigotry of non-U.S. citizens?

The problem is political correctness, he explains. If you say anything critical of Islam as a group for not confronting Islamic radical fundamentalism, you’re called an Islamophobe or a bigot. Yet, a cornerstone of the fundamentalists’ beliefs is that they are superior — to women, Jews, homosexuals, and all non-Muslims. “Affording tolerance to an intolerant group of bigots might sound enlightened in a classroom, but in reality, it’s a great way to get your butt kicked on the battlefield,” Flynn says.

He is also perplexed by “the pervasive silence from women’s organizations” about radical Islam’s intolerance towards women, as well as its practice of recruiting young males to be suicide bombers. While he acknowledges there are undoubtedly some strong Saudi women, he observes that women are considered chattel in that society and wonders why it is so rare to hear about oppression of Muslim women in the Arab world. Furthermore, he observes, “If a group of American women found out that their preacher was recruiting their boys to be suicide bombers, the women would tear the man apart in the parking lot before the fathers had the chance.”

Finally, I asked, what messages would his sources in the clandestine and military services wish he would convey on their behalf? First, he noted, they are not monsters. Secondly, they work extremely hard to keep the rest of us safe and they do so with little pay and thanks. Instead of jumping up to criticize, people should support them. Lastly, he wryly concluded, few things are more ugly in society than an ingrate.