Orders to Kill

Title:                      Orders to Kill

Author:                 Amy Knight

Knight, Amy W. (2017). Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder.  New York, NY: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press

LCCN:    2017028156

HN530.2.Z9 V535 2017


  • Covert violence as a Kremlin tradition — How the system works : Putin and his security services — Galina Starovoitova : Putin’s first victim? — Terror in Russia : September 1999 — Silencing critics — Mafia–style killings in Moscow : Kozlov and Politkovskaya — The litvinenko story — The poisoning — Continued onslaught against Kremlin challengers — Boris Berezovsky : suicide or murder? — The Boston Marathon bombings : Russia’s footprint.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      December 15, 2017

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[1]

A report that has circulated in world intelligence circles for years has finally surfaced publicly in a book by an author who the New York Times has called “the West’s foremost scholar” on the KGB– that Russian strongman (and former KGB officer) Vladimir Putin is a pedophile with a preference for young boys.

The allegation it contained in Orders to Kill, Amy Knight’s book, which is a richly detailed account of the murders of multiple Putin foes over the years, including one brazen assassination of a would-be “reformer” literally in the shadow of the Kremlin. Although evidence strongly points to President Putin as responsible for many of the killings, “Putin is never seen holding a smoking gun,” as Ms. Knight writes.

One of the murders she analyzes is the death (by polonium poisoning) of Alexander Litvinenko, one-time fellow KGB officer and friend of Mr. Putin. The two had a falling out when Litvinenko gave Mr. Putin a scathing report on corruption within the government and the FSB (successor agency to the KGB). He was also appalled by Mr. Putin’s harsh conduct against dissidents in Chechnya.

For self-preservation, Litvinenko fled to London, where he became close to another Putin enemy, Boris Berezovsky. He also became an asset of MI6, the British Secret Intelligence service.

Litvinenko died an agonizing death in 2006 after someone slipped polonium into his cup of tea in a London cafe. (One source of the rare radioactive element is a KGB lab.)

According to Ms. Knight’s account, Litvinenko “sealed his fate” with a 2006 article in the Chechen Press in which he described a “bizarre incident” outside the Kremlin. Mr. Putin chatted with a group of tourists, “then went over to a small boy, lifted up his T-shirt, and kissed him on the stomach.”

Litvinenko wrote that “nobody can understand why the Russian president did such a strange thing.” As Ms. Knight writes, Litvinenko “went on to explain that Mr. Putin had been known by KGB insiders to have been a pedophile and that there were secret tapes he destroyed once became head of the FSB showing him having sex with underage boys.”

True or not, a Litvinenko associate said the accusation was enough to “make Mr. Putin mad regardless of whether he is a pedophile or not.”

So, is the accusation true? I first heard the allegation several years ago when a prominent KGB defector asked me to help him find an agent to market a collection of articles he had written about the KGB. One article dealt with KGB associates who called their colleague Mr. Putin a pedophile. (The book was never published.)

Concerning the current spate of murders in Russia, one sees a different modus operandi from the old KGB, which used its own agents to carry out murders ordered by Joseph Stalin and the longtime KGB head, Lavrenti Beria. In the Putin era, of the few murderers brought to trial, many were low-grade Chechen thugs who killed either for money or to escape punishment for other crimes.

Ms. Knight sees Mr. Putin in an unholy alliance with Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya since 2007. Mr. Kadyrov “has run Chechnya as his own little country, although it is part of Russia, terrorizing its citizens with violence, kidnappings and extra-judicial killings.” Thus, rebellious Chechens are held in check.

“At the same time, Mr. Kadyrov has acted on behalf of Mr. Putin as his ‘hatchet man’ in getting rid of the Russian president’s troublesome critics.” Mr. Kadyrov has called Mr. Putin “a gift from God.” Ms. Knight contends that Mr. Kadyrov thrives because Mr. Putin bills him—falsely as an ally with the West in the fight against Islamic terrorism.

A striking feature of the Russian murders is their brazen character. In separate killings, two investigative reporters are gunned down in city streets. A leading reformer was shot on a bridge only 300 yards from the Kremlin. Authorities claimed that security surveillance cameras on the bridge were not working and hence did not photograph the assassin.

A British inquiry into the Litvinenko death— a masterpiece of criminal investigation—fingered two Chechen characters as the guilty parties. Russia refused to extradite either of them—and indeed, one won a seat in the Duma, the Russian legislature, and became rich as a TV personality.

One involved section of Ms. Knight’s book— making ample use of circumstantial evidence—points a finger at Russian involvement in the Boston Marathon bombings. Men involved in the attacks indeed learned much in Russian-sponsored training camps; here a “smoking gun” is implied rather than proved.

No matter. Her detailed indictment makes a strong case that Vladimir Putin and the criminal empire he created survives because dissidents are slain without any consequence.

Oddly, President Trump scoffs at reports that Mr. Putin has sponsored murders. Campaigning, he said, “Nobody has proved that he’s killed anyone. He’s always denied it. It is not been proven that he’s killed reporters.”

Mr. Trump has voiced disdain for reading books. Perhaps someone should slip a copy of Orders to Kill onto his nightstand.[2]

Another Assessinent, a review by Peter Oleson[3],[4]

Orders to Kill is a powerful but chilling book. In describing today’s Russian politics, Dr. Amy Knight explains the organizations, elements, methods, and personalities that control a criminal state through intimidation and murder. She details the intricate relationships, often based on corruption, other criminal activity, and kompromat (compromising information of each others’ crimes) that binds the surviving oligarchs and siloviki (those that emerged as national leaders from the security services after Vladimir Putin came to power). She explains the long history of assassinations in Russia and the St. Petersburg connections of those cronies close to Vladimir Putin, many drawn from his days in the KGB (Committee for State Security).[5]

Putin—by 1998 head of the FSB (Federal Security Service)—was supported by some oligarchs, such as Boris Berezovsky, who were close to the ineffective, corrupt, and alcoholic President Boris Yeltsin, to be prime minister. When Yeltsin resigned, Putin became acting president on 31 December 1999. Since his accession, the use by the state of false legal charges, imprisonment, and murder have increased significantly. Knight admits she does not have definitive proof of Putin’s or his allies’ complicity in these many murders, pointing out “that would be impossible, given that they control the investigations and that there would be no written orders.” But she details convincing circumstantial evidence.

Russia has often reached beyond its borders to conduct extraterritorial killings. Famous historical cases include the axe murder of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940 and Nikolai Khokhlov, a KGB defector, poisoned by radioactive thallium in Germany in 1957. The list of extraterritorial killings has grown significantly under Putin, especially after the Russian Duma passed a law in 2006 legalizing (at least in Russia) such killings of “terrorists.” “‘Terrorism’ would become the Kremlin’s label for many forms of political opposition,” Knight points out. BuzzFeed has listed 14 deaths linked to Russia in the United Kingdom alone.[6] There have been other questionable deaths in Europe, the Middle East, and the United States.

While Putin had been successful in silencing many of the oligarchs that he turned against to consolidate power through trumped up prosecutions or forced sale of their assets to his cronies, he still had many critics. Knight lays out in detail many of the prominent murders of Putin opponents. Methods varied. Some killings were Mafia-style in which the authorities enlisted the criminal underground. Examples included the gunning down of anti-corruption banker Andrei Kovlov and journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Some were poisoned: Alexander Litvinenko by polonium-210, Alexander Perepilichnyl bya toxic fern (Gelsemium elegans, which induces a heart attack), and Oleg Gordievsky (who survived) by radioactive thallium.[7] Poison has been a favorite Russian technique for decades. There has been a special NKVD/ KGB/FSB laboratory dedicated to perfecting untraceable poisons for assassinations since the 1930s. Fatal automobile “accidents” have also occurred.

Journalists critical of Putin or his cronies have been favorite targets. In 2000 alone five were killed covering the atrocities of the Second Chechen War. Two were clearly assassinated. In another case Igor Domnikov, a reporter for Novaya Gazeta, a crusading anti-Putin periodical, was beaten unconscious in his apartment house on 12 May 2000 and died six weeks later. Paul Klebnikov, the editor of Forbes magazine in Moscow and a US citizen, was shot in broad daylight on 9 July 2004. He died in a hospital elevator that was hijacked by unidentified thugs. Klebnikov had accumulated detailed information on the origins of the wealth of many of Putin’s supporting oligarchs. One of Klebnikov’s sources, Ian Sergun was also killed. “In the Klebnikov case,” Knight observes, “like those of many other political murders in Russia, investigators went through the motions of trying to solve the crime without really doing so. It was if they had been hired as actors in a play, where the scenario was already written.” Another Novaya Gazeta journalist was particularly irksome to the Kremlin. Anna Politkovskaya reported on the horrors of the Chechen war. Her reports prompted the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to condemn the Russian government. She was particularly critical of Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, the Putin supported dictator of Chechnya. On one flight to Chechnya she was poisoned but survived. However, on 7 October 2006 she was gunned down in her apartment house in Moscow. The government blamed the Chechens and dragged the inconclusive investigation out for over six years.

Parliamentarians were not immune to audacious murders. The first was Galina Starovoitova, leader of the Democratic Russia party, who campaigned against corruption in St. Petersburg when the city was largely run by gangs with which Putin maintained a close relationship. She was gunned down in St. Petersburg in November 1998. Vladimir Golovlev, a Duma deputy and leader of the opposition party, Liberal Russia, that was formed by Berezovsky, Sergei Iushenkov, and others, was shot dead on the street on 21 August 2002. Iushenkov himself, who was investigating the suspected involvement of the FSB in the September 1999 multiple apartment building bombings in Moscow, blamed on Chechen terrorists and which helped catapult Putin into the presidency, and the FSB’s use of poison gas that killed all the Chechens and many innocents in the Moscow theater siege in October 2002, was shot when exiting his apartment building in April 2003. On 3 July 2003, IIuri Shchekochikhin, another Duma deputy and deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, died from an unknown poison. Authorities declared his diagnosis a “medical secret.” Shchekochikhin had been investigating weapons smuggling, tax evasion, and bribery and was talking with the FBI about money laundering via Bank of New York.

Others were added to the “list” of those to be eliminated over time. Andrei Kozlov, first deputy of Russia’s Central Bank, was gunned down in September 2006. He was investigating money laundering via Russia’s Diskont Bank and Austrian Bank Raiffeisen. “With Kozlov gone, the way was clear for those high up in the Kremlin to pursue their corrupt financial dealings unimpeded.”

The Alexander Litvinenko case made international headlines. A former FSB officer who defected to the United Kingdom in 2000, he was close to exile Boris Berezovsky. He was supporting Italian and Spanish investigations of Russian money laundering. He wrote highly critical articles about Putin, including alleging that he was a pedophile. Poisoned by two former FSB associates in London, Litvinenko died on 23 November 2006. Knight details how his inept assassins, using polonium-210, left a radioactive trail on airplanes, in apartments in Germany, and in hotel rooms, restaurants, and cars in the UK. After more than one try they succeeded by poisoning his tea, but also exposed many others, including their own families, in what was a case of international nuclear terrorism. Six years later, overcoming resistance by the British government that did not want to upset relations with Moscow, an inquest by Sir Robert Owen laid the killing at the feet of Vladimir Putin.

Boris Berezovsky was always a controversial figure. An oligarch and initial supporter of promoting Putin to be FSB chief and then prime minister, the two soon fell out. Facing charges in Russia, Berezovsky fled to Britain and obtained asylum. With his enormous wealth he funded anti-Putin activities and became “enemy number one,” especially after the anti-government demonstrations in Russia in 2012. He was a supporter of Alexander Litvinenko’s scathing attacks on Putin. On 23 March 2013, Berezovsky was found dead in his bathroom. Initial findings were of a suicide. However, subsequent analyses cast doubt on that conclusion. At the time of publication of Knight’s book the case remains a mystery.

On 27 February 2015, Boris Nemtsov was assassinated by two gunmen on a bridge within sight of the Kremlin’s walls. A former Duma member and deputy prime minister, Nemtsov had become a harsh critic of the regime’s corruption and human rights abuses. He had testified before the US Congress, supporting legislation that imposed sanctions on many of Putin’s associates. This was viewed by those targeted as treasonous. He was preparing a damning report on the corruption surrounding the Sochi Olympics when he was shot. Knight concludes “… Nemtsov’s revelations about Russian corruption were directed specifically at Putin and his close cronies, which is why he was killed. His associate, Vladimir Kara-Murza, was poisoned in May 2015, a month after appearing before the US Congress but survived despite being in a coma for over a week. After promoting a film in praise of Nemtsov throughout Russia, Kara-Murza was poisoned again in February 2017.

Not well covered in the US press is the evidence that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing brothers, may have been a Russian agent, recruited by the FSB to demonstrate that Chechen terrorism was not just a problem for Russia. With the International Olympic Committee worrying about security of the upcoming 2014 Sochi Olympics, Knight traces the evidence that suggests Tamerlan may have been indoctrinated covertly and recruited by the FSB during his 2012 visit to Russia to be a jihadist and conduct the Boston bombing, demonstrating for public opinion that Chechen terrorism was a worldwide problem, and not just in Russia.

Knight explores the dependent relationship between Putin and Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, whom she describes as “deeply connected to the Chechen criminal world.” Moscow funds Kadyrov’s government, including his 80,000-man militia. Kadyrov in turn pledges obeisance to Putin and has provided him with assassins when requested. Like Putin, Kadyrov is sensitive to criticism. Natalia Estemirova, a human rights advocate, had challenged Kadyrov for human rights abuses and the reign of terror by his forces against the general population in Chechnya. She was kidnapped and shot in July 2009 after being threatened by Kadyrov.

Knight points out that Western governments have largely failed to confront the “uncomfortable truths” of Russian state sponsored murders and explains how Putin took advantage of the post-9/11 political environment to manipulate White House anti-terrorism policies and get favorable treatment from Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. This gave Putin a pass to pursue his savage war in Chechnya and suppress his opponents both inside Russia and overseas. Obama’s “reset” of policy toward Moscow failed to yield anticipated benefits as Putin continued his murderous ways.

Putin can be charming but is a master manipulator. George W. Bush once said that he got a “… sense of his soul…” In reality, Putin’s soul is that of a serial killer. Anyone who believes that Putin is someone to be admired ought to read this book.

[1] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 2 Fall 2017, pp. 104-105). Joseph C. Goulden is a long-time review of espionage and spy books for Intelligencer, for the Washington Times, for law journals and other publications. Some of these reviews appeared in prior editions of the Washington Times or the Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association). Joe Gouldon’s most recent book is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. His 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books.

[2] Readers are also directed to a second assessment—by Peter Oleson—of this important book which follows Mr. Goulden’s review.

[3] Dr. Amy Knight is a scholar of Russian politics and history. She has written six other books and many articles on the Cold War and Soviet/Russian intelligence. She has a PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and has taught at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), George Washington University, and Carlton University in Ottawa, Canada. She was a Soviet/Russian expert at the Library of Congress for 18 years. The New York Times has called her the “West’s foremost scholar” of the KGB.

[4] Peter Oleson is the author of “Stalin’s Disciple:Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Newest ‘Wet Affairs,’” the Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2, Fall 2016, pp 19-27. In his article he detailed over 4o political murders that have occurred since Putin gained power. Oleson is a former associate professor at the University of Maryland University College, senior intelligence advisor to the Under Secretary of Defense (Policy) and Assistant Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

[5] The KGB was disbanded In 1991. Its parts were divided into several organizations, which are described in Knight’s book.

[6] BuzzFeedNEWS, “Poison in the System,” “From Russia with Blood,” “The Man who Knew Too Much,” and “The Secrets of the Spy In the Bag.” https://www.buzzfeed.com/heidiblake/from-russia-with-blood-14-suspected-hits-on-british-soil?utm_term=.isa8d3jdj6#.omRdQp7Q76 .

[7] Gordievsky was a defector from the KGB. See Andrew, Christopher (1991) and Oleg Gordievsky. KGB: The Inside Story of Its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev. New York: HarperCollins Publishers

Posted in Russia | Tagged , , | Leave a comment


Title:                      Lenin

Author:                 Victor Sebestyen

Sebestyen, Victor (2017). Lenin: The Man, The Dictator, And The Master of Terror. New York: Pantheon

LCCN:    2017008076

DK254.L4 S34 2017

Scope and content

  • “Since the birth of Soviet Russia, Vladimir Lenin has been viewed as a controversial figure, revered and reviled for his rigid political ideals. He continues to fascinate as a man who made history, and created the first Communist state, a model that would later be imitated by nearly half the countries in the world. Drawing on new research, including the diaries, memoirs, and personal letters of both Lenin and his friends, Victor Sebestyen’s biography–the first in English in nearly two decades–is not only a political examination of one of the most important historical figures of the twentieth century, but a portrait of Lenin the man. Lenin was someone who loved nature, hunting, fishing and could identify hundreds of species of plants, a despotic ruler whose closest ties and friendships were with women. The long-suppressed story of the complex love triangle Lenin had with his wife, and his mistress and comrade, reveals a different character to the coldly one-dimensional figure of the legend. Sebestyen also reveals Lenin as a ruthless and single-minded despot and a ‘product of his time and place: a violent, tyrannical and corrupt Russia.’ He seized power in a coup, promised a revolution, a socialist utopia for the people, offered simple solutions to complex issues and constantly lied; in fact, what he created was more ‘a mirror image of the Romanov autocracy.’ He authorized the deaths of thousands of people, and created a system based on the idea that political terror against opponents was justified for the greater ideal. One of his old comrades who had once admired him said he ‘desired the good… but created evil.’ And that would include his invention of Stalin, who would take Lenin’s system of the gulag and the secret police to new heights”– Provided by publisher.

LC Subjects

Other Subjects

  • HISTORY / Europe / Russia & the Former Soviet Union.

Date Posted:      December 14, 2017

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[1]

Let not October pass by without proper notice of the 100th anniversary of one of the greater calamities of modern history: the seizure of control of Russia on Oct. 25, 1917, by what became the Communist Party.

As biographer Victor Sebestyen writes in his horrifying biography of Vladimir Lenin, under communism “millions of people were killed, jailed or sent into the great maw of the gulag.” The estimated body count, in Russia and the rest of the world, is in multi-digit territory.

Should we fret about communism now that the Soviet Union and its subsidiaries are defunct? Think again. Recent public opinions show that some 80 percent of Russians look with favor upon Joseph Stalin, Lenin’s successor as dictator. President Vladimir Putin recently spent millions restoring Lenin’s tomb in Moscow—an artifice that Mr. Sebestyen labels as “part shrine, part tourist trap.” Mr. Putin’s goal of “restoring Russia’s rightful grandeur” is frequently stated.

The Hungarian-born Sebestyen, a foreign correspondent for several London dailies, including the Times, the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard, traces Lenin’s origins as a member of the comfortable minor nobility. Born Vladimir Ulyanov, he was radicalized when an older brother was hanged for working against Tsar Nicholas II.

Appalled, the young man took the revolutionary name of “Lenin” (one of more than 100 pseudonyms he used over the years) and launched his career as a revolutionist. Arrested, he defended himself with an assertion oft repeated over the years: “Terror is the only form of defense, the only road individuals can take when their discontent becomes extreme.”

Sentenced to Siberia, on release he fled to Europe, spending most of 17 years in Switzerland. There he published newspapers supporting revolutionaries in Russia.

In 1913 the Tsar permitted a semblance of elective government, headed by Alexander Kerensky. But the opposition became a noisy mélange of competing factions. With World War I casualties well over a million by 1917, and inflation out of control, the inept Nicholas II lost control of the then-capital of Petrograd—essentially dethroned.

Along with other exiles, Lenin tried to meld the opposition into a unified party. After a hot debate over Marxist teachings, the faction that Lenin headed became known as the “Bolsheviks,” or majority; the remainder were the “Mensheviks.” The schism would haunt the Communist Party for decades.

As war continued, Lenin saw an opportunity. At risk of being branded as a traitor, he obtained German support to return to Russia. (Considerable money apparently went to him as well, although the exact amount is unknown.) A “sealed train” carried him through Germany and Finland to Petrograd, where he plunged into the revolution with an oratorical fervor, leading what he termed “Soviets.”

He was not universally popular. Debate foes termed him “dominating, abrasive, combative and often downright vicious.” He disdained cooperation with Kerensky. “All power must go to the Soviets,” he declared. But, as Mr. Sebestyen writes, “he had developed a voice that would revolutionize workers.”

With Kerensky’s mandate due to expire on Oct. 27, Lenin saw the chance to install his own government. By a vote of 10 to 2, the governing board of the Bolsheviks anointed him as leader, and he emerged as the dominant figure.

Generalities were his only promise. As he told future rival Leon Trotsky, “First, we must seize power. Then we decide what to do with it.”

Revolutionary betrayals began immediately. Despite his calls for “freedom for all,” he detested peasants as a class. Hence, vows of “land reform,” under which farmers would gain possession of their own land, became collective agriculture.

When farmers in the grain-rich Ukraine did not deliver the desired amounts of foodstuffs, Lenin ordered their farms seized. Thousands of families were displaced; many were killed. The resultant famine brought death to uncounted millions of persons.

Lenin detested the working class, deriding them for their “trade union consciousness.” What was needed, he declared, was a “tribune of the people.” So, a “legislative assembly” was convened. It lasted only a few hours until Lenin lost a key supporter and let it collapse.

Even more deadly, he pushed the theory that “dissent” was equivalent to treason. As Trotsky astutely observed, “When Lenin talks about the ‘’dictatorship of the proletariat’ he means the dictatorship over the proletariat.”

A free press? Censorship was imposed the second day of Lenin’s rule “to stop the torrent of filth and slander against the new order.”

Such was arguably the most evil legacy of communism—a rule that gave Lenin and subsequent dictators the authority to murder dissidents at will. As he put it, “How can you make a revolution without firing squads?”

Lenin did not anoint a successor, although his initial choice, later withdrawn, was Stalin. Nonetheless, as Victor Sebestyen writes, “Lenin created the monster, and it was his greatest crime that he was now leaving Stalin with good prospects of becoming the Soviet dictator.”

[1] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 2 Fall 2017, pp. ). Joseph C. Goulden is a long-time review of espionage and spy books for Intelligencer, for the Washington Times, for law journals and other publications. Some of these reviews appeared in prior editions of the Washington Times or the Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association). Joe Gouldon’s most recent book is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. His 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books.

Posted in Russian Revolution | Tagged | 1 Comment

Whistleblower at the CIA

Title:                      Whistleblower at the CIA

Author:                 Melvin A. Goodman

Goodman, Melvin A. (2017). Whistleblower at the CIA: A Path of Dissent. San Francisco: City Lights Publishers

LCCN:    2016047282

JK468.I6 G6633 2017


Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

  • “Mel Goodman has spent the last few decades telling us what’s gone wrong with American intelligence and the American military. He is also telling us how to save ourselves.”–Seymour M. Hersh, The New Yorker Whistleblower at the CIA offers a fascinating glimpse into the secret, behind-the-scenes world of U.S. intelligence. Melvin A. Goodman’s first-person account of the systematic manipulation of intelligence at the CIA underscores why whistleblowing is so important, and why the institutional obstacles to it are so intense. At its core it’s an invaluable historical expose, a testimony to integrity and conscience, and a call for the U.S. intelligence community to keep its top leaders in check. Urgent, timely, and deeply recommended.”–Daniel Ellsberg “In this fascinating and candid account of his years as a senior CIA analyst, Mel Goodman shows how the worst enemies of high quality intelligence can come from our own midst, and how the politicization of intelligence estimates can cause more damage to American security than its professed enemies. Whistleblower at the CIA is a must-read for anyone interested in the intricate web of intelligence-policymaking relations.”–Uri Bar-Joseph, author of The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel Melvin Goodman’s long career as a respected intelligence analyst at the CIA, specializing in US/Soviet relations, ended abruptly. In 1990, after twenty-four years of service, Goodman resigned when he could no longer tolerate the corruption he witnessed at the highest levels of the Agency. In 1991 he went public, blowing the whistle on top-level officials and leading the opposition against the appointment of Robert Gates as CIA director. In the widely covered Senate hearings, Goodman charged that Gates and others had subverted “the process and the ethics of intelligence” by deliberately misinforming the White House about major world events and covert operations. In this breathtaking expose, Goodman tells the whole story. Retracing his career with the Central Intelligence Agency, he presents a rare insider’s account of the inner workings of America’s intelligence community, and the corruption, intimidation, and misinformation that lead to disastrous foreign interventions. An invaluable and historic look into one of the most secretive and influential agencies of US government—and a wake-up call for the need to reform its practices. Melvin A. Goodman served as a senior analyst and Division Chief at the CIA from 1966 to 1990. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Harper’s, and many others. He is author of six books on US intelligence and international security”—Provided by publisher.
  • “The revealing story of a man with a conscience working at the CIA (1966-1990) during the height of the Cold War between Washington and Moscow, Mel Goodman settles old scores as he offers first-hand accounts of the inner workings of the CIA and how high-level officials compromise national security by pressuring those below them to support their career-advancing political agendas”— Provided by publisher.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      December 13, 2017

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[2]

The writings of former senior intelligence officers deserve special attention particularly when they are also teaching intelligence-related courses at prestigious institutions. Whistleblower at the CIA is an important example. Retired CIA senior analyst Melvin Goodman claims whistleblower status “because of [his] revelations before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence during confirmation hearings for Bob Gates [as DCI].” (p. 9) In his final chapter, he adds, “I wish I had gone further as a whistleblower.” (p. 379) Whistleblower at the CIA can be seen as an attempt to fulfill that wish.

After a few words about his background and why he joined the CIA in 1968, Goodman launches a relentless and spirited attack on Congress, the Defense Department, the State Department, the Intelligence Community—including the DNI—the media, and most of all the CIA. His concerns range from corrupt behavior to politicization in intelligence matters.

Following up on a theme of his 2008 book, Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA[3] (Rowman and Littlefield), he writes in Whistleblower, “The CIA’s decline over several decades was marked by mediocre leadership, particularly by directors such as William Casey, Robert Gates, Porter Goss, and George Tenet, who tailored intelligence to satisfy the neoconservative biases” of presidents Reagan and George W. Bush. And “Tenet and Goss, as well as Michael Hayden and John Brennan, endorsed barbaric interrogations methods, and Brennan tried to block the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of torture in secret prisons.” (p. 21) Later, Goodman returns to the topic of CIA directors, labeling Generals Hayden and Petraeus “unsuited to lead the CIA,” adding that John Brennan “lied to the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee,” and then criticizing President Obama for “selecting CIA chiefs, considering the disappointment of Panetta, Petraeus, and Brennan.” (pp. 270-271)

Other topics subjected to Goodman’s hostile scrutiny include the chapter on “CIA’s Double Standards and Double Dealing,” a discussion on the “lack of internal oversight … [and] the demise of the Office of the Inspector General and the virtual disappearance of the statutory inspector general” (p. 214); the myth that the Intelligence Community functions like a community (p. 230); the unwillingness of the press “to adequately question and investigate government” (p. 313); the preferential treatment given some members of the press (pp. 324-327); and the willingness of some in the media to succumb to CIA pressure. Even Steven Colbert—”(or his lawyers)”—is included. (p. 332)

But Goodman reserves most of his bitterness for Bob Gates, to whom he gives indirect credit for his whistleblower status. This criticism of Gates is focused in Chapter Eight, where he explains how the two met in 1968 and why they drifted apart. Goodman depicts Gates as complicit in CIA’s institutionalized politicization of intelligence, fueled internally by corrupt officers from the top down—a harsh judgment, coming from an “insider” who left the agency over three decades ago.

What has been quoted above is but a small sample of the Goodman’s explicit dissatisfaction with the Intelligence Community, its elements, its personnel, and its performance. The only personnel who are uniformly praised are his fellow whistleblowers, from Ellsberg to Snowden. Goodman concludes with the unsupported comment that “as long as the secret government manages to operate beyond the law and allows former officials such as Mike Morell, Jose Rodriguez, and John McLaughlin to lie about illegalities and abuse, the Agency will remain an enemy of democracy—and I will champion the path of dissent.” (p. 379)

Readers who encounter Goodman’s doggedly negative opinions of the CIA and the Intelligence Com-munity should note the absence of any contrary views.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance — at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 2 Fall 2017, p. 117). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at http://www.cia.gov

[3] Goodman, Melvin A. (2008). Failure of Intelligence: The Decline And Fall of The CIA. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield

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Practise to Deceive

Title:                      Practise to Deceive

Author:                 Barton Whaley

Whaley, Barton (2016). Practise to Deceive: Learning Curves of Military Deception Planners. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press

LCCN:    2015035352

U167.5.D37 .W53 2016

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      December 12, 2017

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

Denis Clift, president emeritus of the National Intelligence University, writes in the book’s introduction that “the most important readings” in advanced denial and deception are the writings of Barton Whaley. One of the teaching techniques Whaley employed involved practical exercises, using actual case studies. Practise to Deceive contains 88 of those studies with detailed analysis of their objectives and application.

The case studies are typically one to five pages in length and contain examples from Sun Tzu to the first Iraq war in 1991. They are arranged in four categories: the first three consider learning, planning, and seeking approval for specific operations from the working level; the fourth looks at these factors from an institutional point of view. Cases are presented chronologically within each topic.

For example, case #2 deals with tactical deception measures employed by Gen. Lord Roberts, when his army relieved the siege of Kimberly during the second Boer War. Whaley notes that Roberts’ intelligence officer, Lt. Col. G. F. R. Henderson, based his recommendations for deception on lessons drawn from his study of Stonewall Jackson’s operations during the US Civil War. Operation ERROR (case #15, pp. 39-42) is concerned with deception operations in the India-Burma theater—planned and conducted by Col. Peter Fleming (Ian’s brother).

Three interesting cases (numbers 19, 52, and 53) involve British scientist R. V. Jones, including his discussion of the “Theory of Practical Joking and the Theory of Spoof,” and his contribution to defeating the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.

Whaley also includes two controversial cases. The first concerns “Maj. Meinertzhagen and the Haversack Legend, Palestine 1917.” Meinertzhagen was Gen. Allenby’s intelligence officer, “who plagiarized a real plan and pretended to carry it out—thereby fabricating the celebrated legend of the ‘Meinertzhagen Haversack Ruse.’”[2] (pp. 75-76)

The second and even more controversial case involves Lawrence of Arabia’s exploits, that Whaley labels “a myth.” (p. 80) But he doesn’t stop there. “Simply put,” he writes, “Lawrence was a con man whose deceptions were directed more against allies than foes.” (p. 81) Curiously, one of his sources is the unreliable Menertzhagen. Thus readers are cautioned against accepting these views without consulting the great volume of evidence to the contrary.

The more recent case studies include “General Schwarzkopf’s Deception Planners, Iraq 1991” and “Jody Powell and the Iranian Rescue Mission, 1980.” (pp. 245-246).

Two of four appendices examine the deception planning for operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s preparation for invading the Soviet Union. Another examines Operation CLOAK, the British deception plans against the Japanese in Burma. The fourth lists other important operation—for example, Operation BODYGUARD, prior to the invasion of Europe in World War II, and source material for further study.

Overall, Practice to Deceive is an interesting and valuable account of deception theory in practice.

[1] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 2 Fall 2017, pp. 116-117). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at http://www.cia.gov

[2] In his published post-war diaries, Meinertzhagen claimed to have placed false war plans in a haversack that successfully deceived the Turks as to the location of the main attack into Palestine. For example see Meinertzhagen, Richard (1960, 1959). Middle East Diary, 1917-1956. New York: Yoseloff [LCCN: 60013137]. Lockman showed that to be a false claim, but the myth has persisted. See J. N. Lockman, Meinertzhagen’s Diary Ruse: False Entries an T. E. Lawrence (1870; reprinted Grand Rapids,k MI: Cornerstone Publications, 1995). For another view, see Capstick, Peter A. (1998) and Fiona Capstick (1999). Warrior: The Legend of Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen. New York: St. Martin’s Press

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Code Girls

Title:                      Code Girls

Author:                 Liza Mundy

Mundy, Liza (2017). Code Girls: The Untold Story of The American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II. New York: Hachette Books

LCCN:    2017020069

D810.C88 M86 2017


  • Introduction: your country needs you, young ladies — Part I. In the event of total war women will be needed — Twenty-eight acres of girls — This is a man’s size job but I seem to be getting away with it — The most difficult problem — So many girls in one place — Part II. Over all this vast expanse of water Japan was supreme — It was heart-rending — Q for communications — The forlorn shoe — Hell’s half-acre — It’s only human to complain — Pencil-pushing mamas sink the shipping of Japan — Part III. The tide turns — Sugar camp — All my love, Jim — Enemy landing at the mouth of the Seine — Teedy — The missionary and the surrender message — The train platform — Epilogue.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      December 8, 2017

Reviewed by Meryl Gordon[1]

In the fall of 1941, mysterious letters appeared in the mailboxes of a select group of young women attending the Seven Sister colleges. Chosen for their aptitude in such subjects as math, English, history, foreign languages and astronomy, the women were invited to meet one-on-one with senior professors. At Wellesley, the students were asked unusual questions: Did they like doing crossword puzzles, and did they have imminent wedding plans?

Those women who gave the right answers—yes, and no—were asked to sign confidentiality agreements and join a hush-hush government project. With war raging in Europe, the United States Navy had been staffing up its cryptanalysis division for several years but this was a new recruiting strategy. The female undergrads were offered campus training in code breaking, with the promise of government civilian jobs in Washington upon graduation.

In the months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II, such a patriotic summons became more urgent. Not only did the Navy reach out to women from a wider range of colleges but the Army began ramping up its own rival code-breaking unit. After Army brass were chastised for competing with the Navy for the same female campus talent pool, the Army switched tactics and sought out small-town schoolteachers eager to participate in the war effort and take part in a big-city adventure.

In Liza Mundy’s prodigiously researched and engrossing new book, Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, she describes the experiences of several thousand American women who spent the war years in Washington, untangling the clandestine messages sent by the Japanese and German militaries and diplomatic corps. At a time when even well-educated women were not encouraged to have careers—much less compete with men to demonstrate their mastery of arcane, technical skills—this hiring frenzy represented a dramatic shift. The same social experiment was simultaneously unfolding on the other side of the Atlantic. The British debutantes and their middle-class peers recruited to work at the secret Bletchley Park code-breaking operation came to outnumber the men.

In an era when history is being updated to reflect the math and science accomplishments of 20th-century women with such accounts as Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race[2], Mundy’s book offers valuable insights and information about those unsung women who made crucial contributions during wartime.

Their work was often mind-numbingly tedious and frustrating as the women spent 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in steamy offices staring at incomprehensible columns of numbers and letters and trying to decipher patterns. They learned to recognize ciphers—where one letter is substituted for another letter or number—and to interpret “additives,” extra numbers thrown in to stump prying eyes. They built and operated “bombe” machines to decode the thousands of German messages sent out via the complex Enigma machine, work that was done in conjunction with Bletchley Park.

Mundy’s narrative turns thrilling as she chronicles the eureka moments when the women succeed in cracking codes, relying on a mixture of mathematical expertise, memorization and occasional leaps of intuition. Thanks to their efforts in retrieving and passing along vital information about enemy battle plans and the whereabouts of Japanese vessels, the American military was able to sink enemy supply ships, shoot down enemy planes and blunt attacks on American targets. This was emotionally fraught work since the women occasionally learned, in advance, that the Japanese had targeted ships in regions where their loved ones were serving. As Mundy writes, “Some of the women broke messages warning about attacks before they happened but were helpless to avert them.”

In the run-up to the D-Day landing in Normandy, the women were also charged with creating phony coded American messages to deceive the Germans about the site of the invasion.

A former Washington Post reporter, Mundy was inspired to tackle this book after her husband, Mark Bradley, a veteran Justice Department official, read a declassified World War II document about a counterintelligence operation, which noted that many women schoolteachers worked on the project.

The author of three previous books that touch on feminist themes, Mundy paints a vivid portrait of the daily lives of these energetic single young women—the upheaval and challenges of adjusting to the high-pressure military environment, the condescension and sexism from male colleagues and superiors, the cramped living quarters, the constant anxiety over brothers and boyfriends in harm’s way, the wartime romances, weekend high jinks and stress-related breakdowns.

Three-quarters of a century later, with firsthand recollections of World War II vanishing daily in the obituary columns, Mundy was able to track down and interview more than 20 former code breakers such as Ann Caracristi, an English major at Russell Sage College who turned out to be such a problem-solving prodigy that as a 23-year-old she became the head of an Army research unit. Dorothy Braden Bruce, a 97-year-old former Virginia schoolteacher known as Dot, described the tense experience of decoding urgent data from Japanese supply ships and also offered up amusing and poignant details about wartime life.

These accounts are supplemented by numerous oral histories, declassified documents and exhaustive research at the National Archives. Mundy delves deeply into a transitional pre-Betty Friedan moment in American life when institutional discrimination was the norm. As she points out, a 1941 Navy memo proposed paying female clerks, typists and stenographers $1,440 per year, while men in the same posts were to receive $1,620. The gap grew even larger higher up the ladder: Female Ph.D.s were slated for $2,300 salaries compared with $3,200 for their male counterparts.

The author unearths the stories of pioneers like Agnes Meyer Driscoll, a math, physics and language whiz who joined the Navy in 1917, broke Japanese codebooks in the 1920s and ‘30s and went on to train a generation of male code breakers, only to be patronized and pushed aside during World War II. The talented cryptologist Elizebeth Smith Friedman was hired by the Coast Guard in 1927 to break the code of rumrunners and went on to work for other federal agencies, designing the codes used by the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the C.I.A. Yet her husband, the Army code breaker William Friedman, was sometimes given credit for her work.

In her effort to cram in an enormous amount of information and give so many women their due, Mundy’s book suffers at times since it’s hard to keep track of her vast cast of characters, many with similar backgrounds. As their stories began to blur, I found myself frequently flipping back to remind myself who was who. When she attempts to tell the tale thematically, her time-shifting can be confusing. At the end of Part Two of the book, it’s the summer of 1944, the United States military has just retaken Guam and Dot Braden is feeling optimistic that the Allies are doing well in the Pacific. When Part Three begins a few pages later, we’re back in 1943; then the story abruptly zigs to dismal times in 1942.

At the end of the war, virtually all of the female code breakers were given their walking papers and returned to civilian life. Only a few superstars were asked to stay on (among them Caracristi, who went on to become the first female deputy director of the National Security Agency).

For these accomplished and resourceful women, who had been given a heady taste of professional success, it was jarring to have to fight to be accepted to top graduate programs on the G.I. Bill or embark on traditional paths as wives and mothers. Warned not to reveal their secret wartime lives, many remained silent about their valuable service. Thanks to Mundy’s book, which deftly conveys both the puzzle-solving complexities and the emotion and drama of this era, their stories will live on.

[1] Meryl Gordon, the director of magazine writing at N.Y.U.’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Bunny Mellon: The Life of an American Style Legend. A version of this review appears in print on November 12, 2017, on Page BR14 of the New York Times Sunday Book Review with the headline: “Rosie the Cryptographer”.

[2] Shetterly, Margot Lee (2016). Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation into Space. New York, NY: William Morrow

Posted in Crypotography | Tagged | Leave a comment

Global Intelligence Oversight

Title:                      Global Intelligence Oversight

Author:                 Zachary K. Goldman

Goldman, Zachary K. (2016) and Samuel J. Rascoff, eds. Global Intelligence Oversight: Governing Security in The Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Oxford University Press

LCCN:    2015051038

K3278 .G56 2016


  • Intelligence services, peer constraints, and the law / by Ashley Deeks — Oversight through five eyes : institutional convergence and the structure and oversight of intelligence activities / by Richard Morgan — Oversight of intelligence agencies : the European dimension / by Iain Cameron — Global change and megatrends : implications for intelligence and its oversight / by Christopher A. Kojm — The FISC’s stealth administrative law / by Daphna Renan — In law we trust : the Israeli case of overseeing intelligence / by Raphael Bitton — Review and oversight of intelligence in Canada : expanding accountability gaps / by Kent Roach — The emergence of intelligence governance / by Zachary K. Goldman — The president as intelligence overseer / by Samuel J. Rascoff — Intelligence oversight : made in Germany / by Russell A. Miller — Intelligence powers and accountability in the U.K. / by Jon Moran and Clive Walker — Executive oversight of intelligence agencies in Australia / by Keiran Hardy and George Williams.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      December 7, 2017

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

Of the 15 contributors to this volume, 11 are lawyers, all are academics, and none claim any professional experience in the intelligence profession. They come from seven countries: Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Israel, Canada, and the United States. Oversight in each nation is discussed, and one contribution considers it in the “Five Eyes” context. In her preface, former Congresswoman Jane Harmon writes that “the world wants to know … who is watching the watchmen?” Oversight is her answer. (p. xiv) To illustrate that oversight works, she cites “the inspiring example” of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation techniques. (p. xv) She admits that Congress can do better,” suggesting that “members ask spies the tough questions every chance we get.” (p. xvi, emphasis added.)

Global Intelligence Oversight gives an overview of how oversight has developed and how it is currently working. Compared to the United States, “parliamentary oversight across the liberal democratic world is not as robust,” (p. xix) the editors assert. Several contributors expand on this point. More generally, they “offer insights into the purposes intelligence oversight may serve beyond legal compliance.” (p. xxvi)

As might be expected from lawyers, the descriptions and recommendations concerning oversight are not always expressed in simple declarative sentences. For example, in an otherwise informative study, on “Oversight Through Five Eyes,” the author argues that “the similarity of intelligence structures and oversight across the Five Eyes states is neither coincidental nor unintentional. Rather it is the result of a phenomenon of isomorphic ‘institutional convergence’ that results in homogenization of state practices across a wide variety of contexts …” (p. 38) He argues that the process of isomorphic convergence has resulted in a model that could become an “international norm for intelligence oversight.” (p. 70)

In addition to chapters on oversight in the countries named above, other topics include global technical changes under way in government and industry, the legal aspects of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and the challenging issues associated with oversight within the European Union. The chapter entitled “The President as Intelligence Overseer” surprises no one by concluding that “the White House ought to be an object, not a source, of intelligence oversight.” (p. 235)

Global Intelligence Oversight does leave some issues for the future. For instance, the term oversight is never defined, which makes it difficult to identify the line between oversight and management. Likewise, there is the implicit assumption that the legislative branch of government is the proper body to conduct oversight, as opposed to an independent joint commission of experts. Finally, one may reasonably ask whether the conference from which the book emerged would have benefited from the contributions of an experienced career intelligence officer.

[1] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 2 Fall 2017, pp. 115-116). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at http://www.cia.gov

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Hidden Figures

Title:                      Hidden Figures

Author:                 Margot Lee Shetterly

Shetterly, Margot Lee (2016). Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation into Space. New York, NY: William Morrow

LCCN:    2016021050

QA27.5 .L44 2016


  • Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as “Human Computers,” calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines, and pencil and paper to support America’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space. Drawing on the oral histories of scores of these “computers,” personal recollections, interviews with NASA executives and engineers, archival documents, correspondence, and reporting from the era, Hidden Figures recalls America’s greatest adventure and NASA’s groundbreaking successes through the experiences of five spunky, courageous, intelligent, determined, and patriotic women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine. Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a history of scientific achievement and technological innovation with the intimate stories of five women whose work forever changed the world — and whose lives show how out of one of America’s most painful histories came one of its proudest moments.


  • Setting the scene — A door opens — Mobilization — A new Beginning — The double V — The “colored” computers — War birds — The duration — Breaking barriers — No limits — The area rule — An exceptional mind — Turbulence — Progress — Young, gifted, and black — What a difference a day makes — Writing the textbook on space — With all deliberate speed — Model behavior — Degrees of freedom — Out of the past, the future — America is for everybody — One small step.

LC Subjects

Other Subjects

  • United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration–Biography–Juvenile literature.
  • United States. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
  • African American women–Biography–Juvenile literature.
  • Space race–Juvenile literature.
  • Women mathematicians–United States–Biography–Juvenile literature.
  • Employees.
  • African American mathematicians.
  • African American women.
  • Space race.
  • Women mathematicians.
  • United States.

Date Posted:      December 7, 2017

Reviewed by Cara Buckley[1]

Growing up in Hampton, Virginia in the 1970s, in the shadow of Langley Research Center, where workers helped revolutionize air flight and put Americans on the moon, Margot Lee Shetterly had a pretty fixed idea of what scientists looked like: They were middle class, African-American and worked at NASA, like her dad.

It would be years before she learned that this was far from the American norm. And that many women in her hometown defied convention, too, by having vibrant, and by most standards, unusual careers.

Black and female, dozens had worked at the space agency as mathematicians, often under Jim Crow laws, calculating crucial trajectories for rockets while being segregated from their white counterparts. For decades, as the space race made heroes out of lantern-jawed astronauts, the stories of those women went largely untold.

Four of them are the subjects of Ms. Shetterly’s first book, Hidden Figures. The book garnered an early burst of attention because its movie version, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, was scheduled for a year-end [2016] release and set for an Oscars run. The movie rights were snapped up weeks after Ms. Shetterly sold her book proposal in 2014, and well before she started writing the book in earnest, a disorientingly fast, if exhilarating, turn.

“The thrilling thing to me about the book, and the movie, is this is an American story that we’re getting to see through the faces of these women,” Ms. Shetterly said during a recent visit to Hampton, which sits on the southeastern end of the Virginia Peninsula, surrounded by aquamarine waters and Navy ships. “It’s just as American a story as if it were John Glenn or Alan Shepard telling it.”

Ms. Shetterly happened upon the idea for the book in 2010, when she and her husband, Aran Shetterly, then living in Mexico, were visiting her parents here. The couple and Ms. Shetterly’s father were driving around in his minivan when he mentioned, very casually, that one of Ms. Shetterly’s former Sunday school teachers had worked as a mathematician at NASA, and that another woman she knew calculated rocket trajectories for famous astronauts.

Ms. Shetterly remembers her husband perking up and asking why he had never heard this tale before. “I knew women who worked at NASA as mathematicians and engineers,” Ms. Shetterly said, “but it took someone from the outside saying, ‘Wait a minute’ for me to see the story there.”

(A book on a similar topic, Nathalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls[2], about women working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the ’40s and ’50s, was published in April.)

Two of the women she would focus on are still living in the area. Christine Darden, now 73 and retired, had worked her way out of NASA’s computing pool to lead engineering research into sonic booms. Katherine Johnson, who recently turned 98, lives in a retirement home with her husband of 57 years, James A. Johnson, and is enjoying a recent surge of fame. She calculated rocket trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions, and last year President Obama personally awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her life’s work.

Mrs. Darden and Mrs. Johnson still socialize, and on a recent summer day, made meltingly hot by a heat wave, met to play bridge at Mrs. Johnson’s apartment. (Mrs. Johnson and her partner won.) Ms. Shetterly was visiting too, and presented both women with an early copy of her book. “Fantastic,” Mrs. Darden said, as Mrs. Johnson, whose eyesight is failing, peered at the cover with a slight smile.

Yet asked how she felt about the coming film, in which she is played by Ms. Henson, in the starring role, Mrs. Johnson became solemn. (Mrs. Darden is not portrayed onscreen, as the film focuses on the years preceding her arrival at NASA.)

“I shudder,” Mrs. Johnson said. She had heard, she said, that the movie might stretch the facts, and that her character possibly came across as aggressive. “I was never aggressive,” Mrs. Johnson said.

Ms. Shetterly reminded Mrs. Johnson of her persistence in the late 1950s, when she successfully pressed her supervisor into admitting her into traditionally all-male meetings. “You took matters in your own hands,” Ms. Shetterly said. “For other women, it was a revelation.”

Ms. Johnson said: “Well, I don’t ever wait for something. I remember asking the question, ‘Is there a law?’ And he said, ‘Let her go.’ It was easier than arguing.”

Listening in, one of Mrs. Johnson’s health aides chuckled. “Yep,” he said, “That’s the Katherine Johnson I know.”

Though outwardly their stories are remarkable, both Mrs. Darden and Mrs. Johnson remained matter-of-fact when describing their careers, an attitude that seems to have prevailed among their peers. Ann Hammond, whose mother, Dorothy Vaughan, was one of the first black women to be hired by what was then called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, in 1943, said her mother never wanted a pat on the back. Mrs. Vaughan died in 2005 at the age of 98, and is played in the film by Octavia Spencer.

“My mother would’ve probably said, ‘I was just doing my job,’” Ms. Hammond, 80, said, speaking in the Hampton bungalow where she grew up with her five siblings.

But what jobs they were. While military budget cuts and sequestration have hurt the economy here in recent decades, some 75 years ago the hungry wartime machine needed manpower, and womanpower, to fill its depleted ranks. This helped open the door for black female mathematicians, who were recruited through job bulletin boards and newspaper ads. Their job title? “Colored computers.”

Mrs. Johnson, a math savant, graduated summa cum laude from what is now West Virginia State University at 18, and heard about the job through a family connection. Mrs. Darden, who went to college at Hampton Institute and earned a master’s degree in math at Virginia State College, was hired to be a NASA data analyst out of graduate school in 1967, and went on to become an aerospace engineer.

The military boom lasted for decades, allowing the women and their families to have what Ms. Hammond described as a good life, despite enduring the indignities of segregation in the early years—working, eating and using restrooms apart from white colleagues.

Ms. Shetterly discovered in her research that the space agency’s leaders were well aware of the negative effects of segregation. As Virginia began vigorously fighting public school desegregation in 1956, one higher up worried about the face that the United States, with its roiling racial problems, was presenting to the world, using words that still have resonance today.

“In trying to provide leadership in world events, it is necessary for this country to indicate to the world that we practice equality for all within this country,” NACA’s chief counsel, Paul Dembling, wrote in a file memo that year. Two years later, the segregated computing pool was disbanded.

Through it all, by most accounts, the black women at NASA held their heads high.

“Her whole life, my mother never felt superior and never felt less than anybody else,” said Joylette Hylick, the eldest of Mrs. Johnson’s three daughters. “She didn’t let it get in her way.”

[1] Cara Buckley. A version of this article appears in print in The New York Times on September 6, 2016, on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: “Space Race Math Whizzes Hidden From History”.

[2] Holt, Nathalia (2016). Rise of The Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to The Moon to Mars. New York: Little, Brown and Company

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