An Interview with
Interviewer Luan Gaines: What was your inspiration for The Second Perimeter?
Mike Lawson: The primary thing that “sparked” the book was an incident that actually happened, and that I mention in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, which was the loss of a couple of classified CD’s at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a place that fiddles around with nuclear weapons technologies. That incident got me thinking about a “spy story,” and I decided to set it up at the place where I used to work, the shipyard in Bremerton, Washington.
De Marco has an interesting job, working behind-the-scenes for Speaker of the House John Mahoney in Washington, DC. How does his unique position allow De Marco to accomplish what more public officials cannot?
The thing about De Marco, as I explained in the first book, is the Speaker hired him “off the books” because De Marco’s dad was a Mafia hit-man, and therefore not a guy Mahoney wanted tied to his office. De Marco, in fact, has less authority that most public officials, but he can use Mahoney’s clout, and Mahoney uses him for things that he doesn’t necessarily want to be tied to politically. I’ve had people ask me: do you think people like De Marco really exist, and I’ve said: Would you have believed that the “plumbers” in Richard Nixon’s White House really existed if they hadn’t been caught at the Watergate?
As Mahoney’s “fixer”, De Marco was the main protagonist in your first novel, The Inside Ring. In this novel, De Marco’s friend Emma, an ex-DIA agent, assumes the more central role. How does Emma’s particular expertise drive the plot of this book?
It isn’t so much Emma’s expertise that drives the plot as it is Emma’s and Li Mei’s shared history. Emma was a spy and what she did, directly or indirectly, to the Chinese spy, Li Mei, in Hawaii twenty years ago is what drives the plot – i.e., Li Mei’s desire for revenge. The Second Perimeter is on one level an espionage story, but it’s really more of story about two women, both spies, and the one’s desire for vengeance and the other’s desire, to a certain extent, for atonement.
When the Secretary of the Navy’s nephew, Dave Whitfield, implies that something is amiss at the Bremerton, WA, naval yard where he is employed, the general assumption is that Whitfield resents the success of others, in other words sour grapes. Given the nature of national security these days, how common are such complaints and how seriously should they be taken?
Whitfield’s resentment is very true-to-life but not related to national security. In many government organizations, including the Navy, private contractors are called in all the time to review operations and try to improve them, and Whitfield’s original resentment stems from “outsiders” (Carmody and his crew) analyzing and possibly criticizing the job he’s doing. Plus, Whitfield’s a bit of a whiner to begin with. Whitfield doesn’t know that Carmody’s a spy – not at first - he just knows that Carmody’s guys are making more money than he is, reviewing his work, and don’t seem to be qualified for the job – a fairly typical and predictable reaction to the circumstance.
Phil Carmody, the leader of the suspected group of government swindlers at Bremerton, is an ex-Navy SEAL, given extraordinary access to sensitive information, including aboard nuclear ships. How commonly are ex-government contractors used by federal agencies? What are the inherent dangers of such a policy?
Like I said in the previous answer, it’s very common. People retire from the military or government service and then go to work for the government as private contractors. A lot of people I used to work with are doing this today. (Maybe because they don’t write novels.) There’s always the inherent danger of people getting jobs that they’re really not qualified for through the “old-boy network,” but on the other hand most of these people have a lot of valuable experience to offer and it would be a mistake for the government not to take advantage of it. There are a lot of other pros and cons to this practice, and all those aren’t worth going into here, but at any rate, it’s very common.
The bureaucratic tangles of the agencies involved are staggering, certainly impeding Emma and De Marco’s ability to accomplish the kind of thorough investigation they need. Has the DHS increased bureaucratic issues or simplified them? In what way?
I’m not in any better position than you are answer that question – but I suppose that’s no reason not to give an opinion. I mean, hell, that’s what people that write editorials do. My feeling is that putting a bunch of organizations that have related functions like Customs and Immigration and Airport Security and the Coast Guard under DHS probably makes good sense. (Not sure FEMA belongs there, and I imagine some folks in New Orleans would probably agree.) But I think the organizational structure of DHS makes sense, it’ll take time to work the bugs out, and there will always be competition and information gaps between organizations doing similar or overlapping functions.
The reason the so-called Intelligence Czar was established after 9/11 was to improve communication and coordination of the various spy shops, but you still see very public turf wars between the CIA and Pentagon intelligence organizations, and no one seems to know what the NSA is up to. So why should DHS be any different? Welcome to Washington.
Mahoney is positioned to expedite De Marco’s requests in the investigation of the Bremerton incident and the subsequent problems, but Mahoney is a pragmatic man, with an eye always to his own political gain. As he becomes involved in this complicated case, is Mahoney ultimately a threat or an asset to De Marco? Why/ why not?
Mahoney’s agenda is always Mahoney. He’s motivated primarily, but not exclusively, by self-interest. He’s a politician, but not necessarily a bad one, and though he’s never really a threat to De Marco, he won’t help De Marco if whatever De Marco’s doing could have a political downside. But like in The Second Perimeter, Mahoney’s not all bad. He uses his clout to help find Emma after she’s kidnapped and remember the scene when he’s having dinner with the union guys, trying to figure out how to help them? Mahoney’s a rogue, but I think a likeable one, and I certainly hope he comes across that way.
Emma’s past returns to claim her with a vengeance in the person of Li Mei. How does the spy’s personal enmity for Emma endanger the effectiveness of her mission? What is Li Mei’s priority as circumstances change through Emma’s interference?
In the book, before Li Mei realizes that Emma is involved, Li Mei was simply a spy trying to do her job, trying to gather intelligence. But as soon as she realized that Emma was in Bremerton, her whole focus shifted from her mission to getting back at Emma. Although Li Mei was still trying to fulfill her mission – to get the information she’d acquired back to the Chinese – she ultimately became so obsessed with Emma that she failed her country.
Because of a shared, tragic past, Emma has more sympathy for Li Mei than she would for another spy in a similar situation. In fact, Emma feels the United States government is responsible for what the Li Mei has become. How does Emma’s attitude relate to the concept of “winning hearts and minds” and what could have been done differently in Li Mei’s case?
I think Emma’s reaction to what happened to Li Mei would not be shared by everyone. Some would think that torturing a spy – which is what happened to Li Mei in Hawaii – is fair game, particularly in the times we currently live in. Emma felt differently. She felt that Li Mei was a soldier acting in the service of her country and deserved humane treatment, and was particularly upset when she learned that Li Mei’s child died as a result of the torture. To answer your question − what could have been done differently? − is that Li Mei could have been interrogated for a longer period, not subjected to drugs, and maybe she would have eventually coughed up the information the CIA wanted. Who knows? This is the same argument that is going on in this country today at the highest levels: whether or not terrorists should be tortured when captured, and the country is obviously very divided in how far we should go to protect ourselves. Emma just happens to be on one end of the spectrum, and a guy like Mahoney, is on the other end. Another little side story: in the last chapter of the book I refer, from Emma’s point of view, to the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Well, right after the book came out, a good friend of mine, whose son is in the military, and who served in an “intelligence” capacity at Abu Ghraib, was sorta put-off by Emma’s comments that scene in the book. Like I said, there’s a lot of debate on this issue and I imagine there will continue to be.
Phil Carmody is a particularly interesting character, a double agent, but clearly not an evil man. Can you speak a bit to the realities of spies and counter-spies? In your opinion, has the face of spy craft altered much since the end of the Cold War and 9/11?
Spies are real, they do exist, and even though the Cold War is supposedly over, governments still spy on each other, allies still spy on each other, and some people are still willing to become traitors. The Chinese government is today – as pointed out in The Second Perimeter – a very real, current espionage threat, as is North Korea and Iran. How has spying changed since 9/11? I think in so far as legitimate governments spying on each other, the world has probably changed very little but now we have added to the equation terrorist cells and organizations who belong to no government yet still have the desire to acquire intelligence about their enemies, and unfortunately, as is the case in The Second Perimeter, there are people who are willing to become traitors if blackmailed or paid. The job our intelligence agencies have − to protect information and to find the spies and terrorists − is enormous, it’s huge, and I have nothing but respect for those who have to wrestle with this very complex problem. Has spy-craft changed since the Cold War? Yes.
At a critical juncture, De Marco walks away from Mahoney for Emma’s sake. As it turns out, he is one of the few dedicated to Emma’s protection. Why does Emma’s safety fall between the bureaucratic cracks and how commonplace is this problem?
In the book, Emma didn’t exactly fall between the bureaucratic cracks. The DIA and the FBI were looking for her, and Mahoney’s position was legitimate. He was just telling De Marco: go do your own job and I’ll keep the heat on the people responsible for finding Emma. And Mahoney tried to do this. But De Marco was stubborn, felt a very real loyalty to his friend, and felt compelled to try to help her even though he didn’t have at his disposal the resources of the government. You could say that Emma fell between the cracks, however, in the sense that organizations like the FBI have a very large mission and can’t devote all their manpower and money to a single person or event, so in that respect De Marco was more driven to help her than the big agencies appeared to be.
The range of characters in the novel is fascinating, an assortment that is impossible to track, let alone infiltrate, spy networks, street gangs, mercenaries, etc. How does the ever-changing cast of characters affect the security of this country, not to mention the issue of our porous borders?
Wow, huge question, one that I’m certainly not smart enough to answer. Obviously terrorists are an enormous threat not only because of what they do but because they aren’t controlled by governments that we can deal with or apply pressure to or negotiate with. So we’re effectively at war with hundreds or possibly thousands of terrorist cells who have the desire to do us harm, and as you said, the borders are long and porous and it’s almost impossible to stop people from crossing them. I think the issue of mercenaries is interesting because on one hand, in places like Iraq, we’re using mercenaries to augment our military, which I personally don’t think is a good idea, yet this may be the only way to accomplish the mission if military recruitment continues to be lower than desired. Could we possibly have in the end private armies that contract to the government? Street gangs, clearly, are an internal criminal threat, but pose many of the same problems as terrorists do in terms of law enforcement’s ability to penetrate these groups, acquire intelligence about them, and stop them. But your question – how does this cast of characters affect security – the answer to that is “badly”. But the bigger question of what to do about it is probably something that nobody has the complete answer to, certainly not me. Or, to put it another way, if the problem was easy, we would have solved it by now.
One of the most disturbing issues you highlight in this novel is The Department of Homeland Security’s almost exclusive focus on the Middle East. How does this distract from other areas that may be exploited by our enemies all over the globe?
It’s not just Homeland Security. The CIA, the DIA, NSA, the military in general, have to devout a large amount of their resources to the Middle East because of the threats that originate from there and because of the turmoil in the region. An issue like Iran getting nuclear weapons capability is obviously taking up enormous amounts of time and money and resources, and the number of terrorist spawned because of Iraq and Lebanon, etc. is probably growing exponentially. The danger, also obviously, is that if too much manpower/money is devoted to one area, then the threats posed by other hostile groups and governments will not being monitored to the degree that they should be. It’s the old game at Chuck E. Cheese, the one where the heads pop up and you have to whack ’em down with a hammer – there are always more heads than you can hit with your hammer.
In The Second Perimeter, you weave international threats with the everyday idiosyncrasies of Washington politics, revealing that the human element is the most unpredictable of all. What is this government’s approach to the second perimeter and how successful are we in this endeavor?
If you’re asking about the prevention of espionage and catching the spies, I would guess, but don’t know for sure, that the U.S. is probably as successful as any government. As mentioned in the book there have been a number of very damaging spies – like Aldrich Ames – but these people were eventually caught. At the same time, for all we know, there is some spy today at the CIA or in the Pentagon doing more damage than Ames, and we’ll never know until he blunders. What I do know is that typical security screening procedures – background checks on employees and interviews with people the employee knows – will never be one hundred percent effective. I think polygraph testing – and I was involved in one program where this was used to better guarantee security – but I can’t tell you the name of the program − is probably more effective because people know they’re going to be tested and thus less likely to do something illegal. So, it’s pretty much, as I say in the book: you control information as best you can, you limit access to it, you do what you can to identify people who may be susceptible to being bribed or blackmailed, you hire a bunch of dedicated security people to watch the farm as best they can, you tell all your employees to be watchful, and then you hope that you catch the bad guys. I think one of the biggest threats today is the one I pose in The Second Perimeter (and this is the answer to your earlier question on modern spycraft), and that’s computer technology: you can put so much information on a flash drive and email it to somebody that this has really changes the magnitude of the threat, i.e., the amount of information that can be obtained and the ease of hiding it and disbursing it. It ain’t like in the old Le Carre books where the spy draws a map of a military installation and then has to pass it on to a courier.
As well as an excellent plot, you make a strong case for paying attention to the long-term ramifications of collateral damage, the human cost of such events. In the current atmosphere, where the United States is generally unpopular, what can be done to remedy the perception of the way we treat others?
I don’t think the major issue is so much the perception of how we treat others or even how unpopular we are. I mean those are valid issues, they’re valid diplomatic concerns, but they’re only by-products of a much harder question. I think the harder question to answer is how humane can we afford to be when we’re trying to gather intelligence, particularly in the case of intelligence from terrorists who don’t have allegiance to any particular government and have the very real potential to kill thousands of people as demonstrated on 9/11. Should you torture a guy to find out where he hid the loot he robbed from a 7/11? The answer to that question is very clear and very easy: no. But should you torture a guy who may have smuggled a nuclear device into the country? Like I said in the answer to question above, there’s a lot of debate at the highest level of government regarding methods used to interrogate prisoners – not just the question of whether it’s moral or not, but whether it’s even effective. Some will argue as Emma did in the book that we must take the moral high-ground and be better than our enemies no matter the risk – and others will take Mahoney’s position and say you do what you gotta do to survive. Where do I fall on this issue? I think I’ll keep that opinion to myself for now.
Knowing what you do about intelligence from personal experience, how do you feel about the state of defense in today’s environment? Do potential lapses in defense management make you anxious or are you confident in our current capabilities?
First of all, I don’t claim to know a lot about intelligence. (I don’t even claim to be intelligent.) I had a Top Secret security clearance, know quite a bit about the U.S. Navy and its nuclear power program, was briefed into special programs, was briefed on intelligence issues, but would never claim to be any sort of intelligence expert. Regarding how I personally feel about defense in the current environment, I’m very worried. Not only does the nature of terrorism pose a unique challenge for our security and military forces, I’m also concerned that the Iraq war has had a tremendous negative impact on our ability to retain and recruit soldiers and our ability to properly fund them, and as you alluded to in one of your questions, it makes us vulnerable on other fronts. I don’t consider myself an alarmist, but I think the world today is as dangerous if not more dangerous than during the Cold War because the possibility is large that some rogue group can acquire nuclear or biological weapons and penetrate our security. But regarding lapses in defense management, I feel that for every time you hear about a lapse or an error there were a thousand good things that happened that you didn’t hear about. We have dedicated, smart people doing the best they can to protect us, and I have more faith in them than not.
Do you believe that the ultimate answer to national security lies in the “second perimeter”?
The ultimate answer to national security is far more complicated than my watchful-people-line of defense in The Second Perimeter. National security is dependent on technology and law and law enforcement and military readiness and diplomacy and national policy and allegiances and communication and on and on and on. The book talks about a “second” perimeter – but there are probably a thousand perimeters when you think in terms of all the necessary functions performed by government and private companies and individuals. Ultimately, there is no ultimate answer.
A novel such as this has built-in challenges, balancing disparate elements, moving the action towards a satisfying conclusion, creating believable characters. What did you find the most difficult? The most satisfying?
Honestly, I find it all satisfying. I like developing the characters, I like giving voice to them, I like making up the plots. I truly enjoy writing and don’t find it all that hard – by comparison, that is, to what I used to do: overhauling nuclear powered warships. However, I know I still have a lot to learn and a lot to improve on. What do I find most difficult? I hope some critic doesn’t read this and then make the same observation based on my own admission - I find dealing with emotions in books to be difficult: e.g., how to express accurately and originally varying degrees of anger or sadness or love or whatever. That’s something I’m working on, so don’t take a shot at me for another book or two.
Are you planning another adventure for Joe De Marco? If so, can you share something about it with us?
Yes. I’ve got two new De Marco books written, they’re back with my agent right now, we’re deciding which one to go with next, and he’s helping me fine-tune the books. One of the books is about terrorism – sort of – and the other has to do with a presidential candidate that may or may not have ties to some bad guys.
Any advice for would-be writers of the genre in which you are so successful?
First of all, I don’t think I can claim to be successful. I’m very grateful to have published two books, and I’ve got a lot of very positive feedback from fans and reviewers, but I think success in this business, like in any business, is ultimately measured in terms of sales. Regarding advice for would-be writers – and keep in mind again that this is coming from a guy that’s only published two books – my advice is this: First of all, you have to love to write. If you don’t feel almost compelled to write every day, you’re probably not a writer. Second, you need to read in the genre you want to write in. This isn’t a matter of understanding the competition, it’s a matter of learning from those who do it well without trying to imitate them. Third, you gotta have persistence. Unless you’re pretty unique, you’re gonna get a lotta reject slips along the way to being published. You have to have the toughness to keep plugging away as well as the ability to still enjoy writing even while you’re getting rejected. And lastly, and I hate to say this, but pray for luck. Unfortunately, as in all human endeavors, luck plays a part – and I’ve been a very lucky guy.
MIKE LAWSON served for years as a senior civilian executive for the United States Navy. He is the author of The Inside Ring and lives in the Pacific Northwest. The author can be contacted at his Web site,
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines interviewed Mike Lawson, author of The Second Perimeter, about
his book via email for curledup.com. No part
of this interview may be reproduced without permission. Luan Gaines/2006.