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.

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The books I picked & why

Traitors Among Us

By Stuart A. Herrington,

Book cover of Traitors Among Us

Why did I love 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.

By Stuart A. Herrington,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Traitors Among Us as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As director of the elite Foreign Counterintelligence Activity, author Stuart Herrington was the U.S. Army's top counterintelligence officer. In this thrilling and informative account he details one of the most damaging and delicate cases of espionage ever committed against the United States. Between 1972 and 1988, thousands of highly classified documents were sold to the Soviet Union and her Warsaw pact surrogates. They were secrets so sensitive that had war broken out in Central Europe, our ability to defend our NATO allies would have been seriously compromised. It was up to Herrington and his team to root out the elusive…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Scott W. Carmichael,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked True Believer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ana Montes appeared to be a model employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), advancing quickly through the ranks to become its top analyst on Cuban affairs.

But for sixteen years Montes sent Castro some of America's most closely guarded secrets and at the same time influenced what the United States thought it knew about Cuba. She is the only member of the U.S. intelligence community ever convicted of espionage for the Cuban government, yet her arrest ten days after 9/11 went largely unnoticed.

This book calls attention to the grave damage Montes inflicted on U.S. security--Carmichael even implicates her…

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 did I love 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.

By Bryan Denson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Spy's Son as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The riveting true story of the father-and-son co-conspirators who sold US national secrets to Russia.

Jim Nicholson was the highest-ranking CIA officer ever convicted of espionage. A single father, respected mentor, and brilliant case officer, he was also a double agent selling thousands of state secrets to the Russians. However, it was from behind the bars of a federal prison that he conducted his greatest betrayal. Just 12 years after Jim's conviction, his youngest son, Nathan, was arrested for the same crime.

Through interviews, private letters, and access to Jim's personal journal, Pulitzer Prize finalist Bryan Denson pieces together a…

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

Why did I love 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.    

By Ben Macintyre,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Agent Zigzag as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the bestselling author of Operation Mincemeat, now a major film SHORTLISTED FOR THE COSTA BIOGRAPHY AWARD 'Engrossing as any thriller' Daily Telegraph 'Superb. Meticulously researched, splendidly told, immensely entertaining' John le Carre 'This is the most amazing book, full of fascinating and hair-raising true life adventures ... It would be impossible to recommend it too highly' Mail on Sunday _______ One December night in 1942, a Nazi parachutist landed in a Cambridgeshire field. His mission: to sabotage the British war effort. His name was Eddie Chapman, but he would shortly become MI5's Agent Zigzag. Dashing and suave, courageous and…

Book cover of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

Why did I love 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.    

By John le Carré,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked The Spy Who Came in From the Cold as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Our Kind of Traitor; and The Night Manager, now a television series starring Tom Hiddleston.

The 50th-anniversary edition of the bestselling novel that launched John le Carre's career worldwide

In the shadow of the newly erected Berlin Wall, Alec Leamas watches as his last agent is shot dead by East German sentries. For Leamas, the head of Berlin Station, the Cold War is over. As he faces the prospect of retirement or worse-a desk job-Control offers him a unique opportunity for revenge. Assuming the guise of an embittered…

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