I picked up this nonfiction account of the espionage war between the United States and the Soviet Union at the suggestion of longtime GPF reader Milo Jones. The author, Eric Haseltine, joined the U.S. National Security Agency in 2002, leaving a job at Walt Disney Imagineering to become the NSA’s director of research, and later, associate director for science and technology.
It was in that capacity that Haseltine met Charles Gandy, at that time a retired NSA executive who sat in on one of Haseltine’s earliest briefings. Haseltine was struggling with budget requirements that demanded a focus on threats like al-Qaida, but Gandy insisted that state actors like Russia still posed a major threat and that the U.S. had already compromised its interests by underestimating Russia, especially its technological savvy.
The book is just one of Gandy’s stories, told at a brisk pace, about how Gandy and the NSA determined the Soviet Union had successfully bugged even the most secure areas of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in the late 1970s and early 1980s with technology that the U.S. hadn’t dreamed the Russians capable of. The true thrust of the book, however, is not the spy story, though it is an enjoyable one, with some excellent writing by Haseltine explaining the finer points of the technology of surveillance without drowning his reader in too much detail. Instead, this is a book about the internal politics of the U.S. intelligence community, a disheartening look at why Gandy and the NSA had just as much if not more trouble dealing with the State Department and the CIA than it had in figuring out what the Russians were up to. The result of the political infighting was that Russia was able to gather untold amounts of data and even to expose the identity of U.S. informants and U.S. agents on the ground.
At a time of renewed great power competition, Haseltine’s account is a warning against complacency and proof that usually, one’s worst enemy does not come from the outside, but from within.
Jacob L. Shapiro, director of analysis
Like a lot of people who work in this field, I like to think of myself as worldly. I’ve lived, worked and traveled abroad my entire life. Yet it’s hard to deny that my perspective on things can be decidedly Western, and it’s humbling when I am reminded of it. Few books have done so as effectively as Tamim Ansary’s “Destiny Disrupted.” In a mere 357 pages, Ansary delivers a sweeping history of the Islamic world itself since the founding of the umma – the community – and the way that community interacted with the world around it.
In my education, the Middle East was always peripheral. The Islamic world was discussed only when it came into contact – mostly through conflict – with the Western world, without a sufficiently in-depth consideration of the political, social and economic forces that were driving that part of the world at any given time. Even the phrase “Middle East” is Western-centric, of course, so Ansary refers to the region as the Middle World. He puts the part of the world that stretches from Andalusia to India at the center of the story, relegating the East and West to the periphery. Even then, however, he does an excellent job of contextualizing the meetings of the Middle World with Europe and China and everything in between.
“Destiny Disrupted” explores Islam as a more than just a religion. It treats it as a social project and a political force – and, therefore, as a geopolitical entity. He details the doctrinal schisms that bore the various schools of Sunnism and the branches of Shiism. But he also recounts how a series of great empires and rulers wielded or adopted Islam to achieve their political ends, from the Umayyads and the Abbasids to successive Turkic empires to modern-day secular modernists. The book is excellently researched, but Ansary is a professional writer, not a historian, making this an entertaining and digestible read, even for those not particularly familiar with its subject matter.
Where others have described a clash of civilizations, Ansary describes more quotidian encounters between the West and the Middle World, driven often by trade, sometimes by competition, but not as fundamentally unable to intermingle or cooperate. He harbors no false optimism, though. Ansary sees a basic lack of understanding as an accelerant in today’s conflicts between the West and the Islamic world. Each “side,” as Ansary sees it, is a “vast complex of communal purposes moving through time, driven by its own internally coherent assumptions.” We fail to understand the complexity and coherence of the other. But I do think that a reading of “Destiny Disrupted” can help change that.
Emma Pennisi, editor