The best books on counterintelligence

James M. Olson Author Of To Catch a Spy: The Art of Counterintelligence
By James M. Olson

Who am I?

I’m passionate about spying. It was an absolute privilege for me to have been able to spend my life in the shadows, so to speak. I was undercover my entire career doing espionage and covert action operations for our country and the CIA. I discovered very early on that I had a particular fascination for the arcane and Byzantine subspecialty of counterintelligence. It’s hard to describe the exhilaration I felt when we nabbed an American traitor and brought him or her to justice. It doesn’t get any better than that.   


I wrote...

To Catch a Spy: The Art of Counterintelligence

By James M. Olson,

Book cover of To Catch a Spy: The Art of Counterintelligence

What is my book about?

I’ll give you my bottom line upfront. I don’t like traitors. I don’t like Americans who sell us out to China, Russia, Cuba, or any other country for money, ego, or sex. In my 31-year career at the CIA, including time as Chief of Counterintelligence, my greatest satisfaction was catching spies. My book tells readers how we do it. It’s a world of betrayal, defectors, surveillance, double agents, and clandestine tradecraft. It’s not always pretty. Very few Americans realize the extent to which foreign intelligence services are recruiting our citizens, stealing our technology, and hacking into our databases. I believe To Catch a Spy will come as a shock to many readers. I hope it will be a wake-up call.

The books I picked & why

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Traitors Among Us

By Stuart A. Herrington,

Book cover of Traitors Among Us

Why this book?

No book I know of does a better job of illustrating the “art” of counterintelligence than Colonel Herrington’s account of two major counterintelligence cases he oversaw: Clyde Lee Conrad and James Hall, two spies who definitely needed catching. I am in awe of the professionalism, creativity, and doggedness shown by Stu and his team of CI specialists in these lengthy and complex investigations. Every tool of good counterintelligence is on display here, especially analysis, surveillance, and double agentry.


True Believer: Inside the Investigation and Capture of Ana Montes, Cuba's Master Spy

By Scott W. Carmichael,

Book cover of True Believer: Inside the Investigation and Capture of Ana Montes, Cuba's Master Spy

Why this book?

This book is the best example I can come up with of how good counterintelligence must be patient and tenacious. Ana Montes was the senior analyst on Cuba for the Defense Intelligence Agency---and also a spy for Cuban intelligence. Scott Carmichael led the DIA’s investigative team, which overcame countless delays and roadblocks to get the job done and eventually caught her. This was US counterintelligence at its best.


The Spy's Son: The True Story of the Highest-Ranking CIA Officer Ever Convicted of Espionage and the Son He Trained to Spy for Russia

By Bryan Denson,

Book cover of The Spy's Son: The True Story of the Highest-Ranking CIA Officer Ever Convicted of Espionage and the Son He Trained to Spy for Russia

Why this book?

This case makes me very angry. As a former CIA officer myself, I felt deeply the malignancy of this betrayal from within. I was riveted by Denson’s account of how Howard James Nicholson, a CIA clandestine service colleague, let his personal problems and amorality get the better of him. Selling out to the Russians was certainly not the right answer for him, nor was dragging his son into spying. Denson has written a compelling counterintelligence treatise.


Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal

By Ben Macintyre,

Book cover of Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal

Why this book?

I love double agent operations. I sometimes refer to them as the caviar of counterintelligence because in my experience there is nothing quite as delectable as a good juicy double agent operation. The protagonist of this book, Eddie Chapman, is as good an example as there is of how a double agent operation should be run. Counterintelligence requires its adherents to outwit the opposition, and the British MI5 did exactly that in brilliant fashion during World War II as it duped the German Abwehr.    


The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

By John Le Carré,

Book cover of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Why this book?

Some of the best books on counterintelligence are fiction, and in my opinion, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the best of the lot. Le Carre gets it right when he describes this fiendishly clever CI operation by MI6 to bring down its nemesis, Hans Dieter Mundt, the Chief of East German counterintelligence. But be forewarned. In the murky world of counterintelligence, all is not what it seems to be. I personally identify with the main MI6 officer involved, Alec Leamas. He’s one of us.    


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