In the 1980s, with Israel and Egypt in what was called a “cold peace,” the Palestine Liberation Organization at its ill-behaved height, Iraq’s Saddam Hussain in an eight-year war with Iran that took millions of lives and the late Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi a one-man North African wrecking crew, the Australian ambassador to Egypt was in conversation with his staff assistant in his car when he began to talk about Warren Reed, an undercover agent for the Australian Secret intelligence Service stationed in the Cairo embassy.
That the driver was an Egyptian who almost certainly reported back to the Egyptian secret police, unmasking the master spy Reed and set him on a real-life voyage out of the country with his life in danger provides the central theme of Reed’s second novel, which has been extensively rewritten and republished after the first edition in 2013.
The novel is set around 1989-90, a decade after Reed, who was trained in London by MI6, had to make his escape from the Middle East. His personal knowledge of human intelligence or HUMINT tradecraft was something that makes this book exciting reading – the same sort of expertise that made Ian Fleming and David Cornwell – John Le Carre – into the premier spy novelists of the past several decades.
The character of Ambassador Trenchard is based on the ambassador who exposed Reed’s identity, harking back to Reed’s personal experience and developed either as thinly disguised fact or skilfully intertwined with imagination. Those who know the background of the author will be left guessing.
Hidden Scorpion has two distinct parts. The first 290 or so pages relate to the protagonist Ben Johnson, assigned undercover to the Australian Embassy to establish the ASIS station. The second part takes readers on a journey of escape after the ambassador blew Johnson’s and his assistant Meg’s cover to his driver.
Johnson – or perhaps Reed, who was involved in building up a group of friends, associates and sources of use to him who would assist in intelligence gathering. Of particular interest was a project dubbed Hidden Scorpion, of which only scant information was known across the so-called Five Eyes security setup, an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.
There was also a suspicion that the Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein had his own agenda, independent of the other Arab nations, which would affect them personally near the end of the story. Here, Reed reflects the realities where the smaller members of the Five Eyes are always keen to come up with something their two big brothers, Britain and the US, haven’t yet go onto.
Australia being relatively new to the region in terms of intelligence presence, gave Johnson a real challenge in building an effective intelligence network. However, he was given assistance from parties who in the end saved his and Meg’s life. One of Reed’s recurring themes here is the close camaraderie that Five Eyes officers usually have with each other.
To some, the first part may appear a little humdrum and routine, although there were a few surprises and twists along the way. Reed does show out the endless grind, with nights filled with work, leading to lack of sleep and no personal life. Also laced in are the moral, social, and psychological dimensions of the work, where relationships with other agents, be they traitors, or mercenaries tended to be very unnatural. Reed shows this in Johnson’s relationship with Hamid, an operative whom he cultivated, inveigling him into betraying his country’s most closely guarded secrets, something of a complete antithesis to the character of Johnson, and everything he stands for.
Yet Johnson feigns friendship to build up the relationship. Nevertheless, within these confines, a sort of friendship with respect does develop, which becomes enjoyable. In some sense, Reed highlights the loneliness of being an intelligence operative, living with this abnormality. However, this clockwork routine does in its own way keep building up some expectation through the pages. Reed described accurately diverse cultural practices within the Cairo expatriate environment, to a degree, that this became interesting in itself.
This was one of the gems of the novel, being set within the 1989-90 time period, where the emphasis was on HUMINT rather than sophisticated technologies, focusing on the interpersonal dynamics, suspicions and expectations involved in intelligence work.
The pace changes abruptly after the ambassador blows Johnson’s and Meg’s cover, forcing them to flee to safety outside of Egypt in the expectation that Egyptian security agents were on their tail. The novel thus becomes an adventure story across desert and water until they reach Kuwait just before the Iraqi invasion by western allies Desert Shield, adding to the suspense before the two could reach safety.
Within the novel, other domains make it interesting. The first part encapsulates many sub-plots and lessons pertaining to inter and intra department and organization dynamics and politics, competing objectives, contradictions, and organizational blocks. These dynamics add lots of flavor and make mini case studies for students of organization politics and dynamics. They also show how public policy influences what intelligence matters and what is ignored.
As I had originally intended to read Hidden Scorpion for the tradecraft, it was the story that I ended up enjoying. Reed’s writing style manages to put complex situations into easily understandable frames. Hidden Scorpion truly lives up to the standard of the classic spy novel set within the post-Cold War era.