Tips for writing about espionage and military intelligence, from the authors of the explosive new book which asserts Israel killed five Iranian nuclear scientists.
We’re the first to confirm that it’s no easy task to write a book about intelligence agencies. The people you want to interview are not used to speaking with anyone at all about their work – not even their spouses and children.
So, over the years, as we’ve written books together on these topics dating back to 1989, we’ve developed a few techniques that might help other journalists and historians, too.
1. Build up trust: One cannot suddenly decide to write a book about spies and spymasters, not without laying the groundwork. Yossi, based in Tel Aviv, has been a newspaper reporter and analyst for over two decades, specializing in Israel’s innovative defense structure – notably, its famed intelligence services. Dan, based in Washington, does all sorts of stories for CBS News but he used to be based in Israel; and he, too, has done his best to cultivate contacts. Over the years, it’s your track record for fairness and accuracy that rewards you with unique and fascinating stories.
2. Do your homework: When speaking to people involved with secret diplomacy and covert international operations, it is helpful to be well read; because highly unexpected places, names, and connections may be mentioned. When a journalist is hearing scoops about an event twenty years ago in Khartoum, the special moment – a writer learning something new from a trusting and trusted source – can be ruined if the recipient has to stop and ask: Where’s Khartoum?
3. Focus on the old men. When we wrote about Israeli intelligence in 1989 and 1990, some of the original architects of the Mossad and its sister agencies – indeed, builders of the State of Israel itself – were reaching the grand old age whereupon a person wants to leave his or her mark on history. Legacy and a sense of “having made a difference” become very important to these people, and the tales of the pensioners – depending largely on those who had retired from clandestine careers – were the truly singular stories.
When woven together, the result of the various strands was a whole cloth that could approach the truth about a secret world.
By the years 2011 and 2012, as we did research – in Israel and in other nations – for the new Spies Against Armageddon, there were legions of retired intelligence personnel who had splendid stories to tell.
But they were only willing to tell the tales to journalists whom they trusted. See Step 1 above.
The writers are co-authors of the best-seller Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel’s Intelligence Community and other books, including the new Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars (Levant Books: paperback and e-book).