BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Plausible deniability ...

I picked up Enter the Past Tense: My Secret Life as a CIA Assassin by Roland W. Haas at the dollar store the other day. Having been sort of “full up” on business books, I jumped into this and read it over just a couple of days. It purports to be an autobiographical look at the career of a kid who sort of fell into doing CIA “black ops”, but there are “issues” here with the truthfulness of this. To start out, even in the introductory materials in the book, the author is being defensive about being able to prove anything, and the few photos that are in the book only serve to “pin” the general arc of the story, but not the particulars.

I really try to avoid reading others' reviews of books before I slog into mine, but in this case I took a peek over on Amazon. This has quite a lot of reviews, with about 1/3rd of them quite negative, and 2/3rds of them being raves, or defenses of the book. I also found it interesting that the author jumped in to comment on many of the negative reviews, at least the ones posted before his accidental death (which was also detailed there) in August 2010. Some of the reviewers/commenters suggested that some of the defensive reviews were likely written by Haas as well. Many of the negative reviews go into a lot of detail about what is factually untrue in the book … I have no way of judging these, but the number of them is suggestive.

Of course, in this area, it's hard to say for sure. Everything in this might be perfectly true, but the level of compartmentalization and deniability for “the agency” could easily prove to make confirming anything here difficult. Certainly, there is no reason to suspect the early parts of the book being untrue … the author was the child of German immigrants who came to the US following WW2, and he was badly treated by kids where he grew up. Now, the specifics here are heavy on how smart he was and how much abuse he could take, etc., which does sound a bit like embellishment, but on the whole, it comes across as plausible. He ends up in NROTC at Purdue and is not particularly enthusiastic about either, being more interested in booze and drugs. One day he's called into the office and introduced to a guy from D.C. who proceeds to recruit him for clandestine work … this was the first point where I had plausibility issues, as it was my impression that being as messed up as Haas indicates he was would immediately disqualify one for those sorts of attentions … but this was the late 60's and things might have been different then … and there was the element that he might have been just the “psychological profile” they were looking for.

He goes through training, and some odd twists (his CIA handler has Haas get himself arrested and expelled from school) and is then sent off to Germany, from where he's sent to Iran, Afghanistan, India, etc. for some hits. While this part of the book reads well, there are points that do seem “iffy” in terms of how they actually worked. When reading this, I simply assumed that he'd gathered bits of many different operations and wove them together into one narrative that lacked a certain continuity due to this. He does various projects from his West German base (it seemed odd how he was easily able to get teaching positions, but that was usually his cover) as the Cold War wound down. Following the reunification of Germany, he returns to the US and develops a health club in California (one of the things in the photo section is a newspaper piece about this club), which eventually gets co-opted by the Hells Angels (with some more implausible bits), making it so that he has to move again.

At this point the book changes and gets a lot more sketchy in the details, he mentions that he did a number of hits, but says he can't say anything about them, and he moves to the southeast and ends up, through several highly unlikely events (which he attributes to his CIA handler's influence), getting set up in an Intelligence job with the military. The focus here, however changes from his “black ops” work to his health, both his heavy drinking, his drug use, and the onset of diabetes. Most of the rest of the book deals with his problems with these issues.

This was the main problem I had with the book … it was at least a good story for the first 3/4 or so, and then just stopped and became something completely different. I don't know if Haas intended this to be somehow inspirational (when he eventually gets clean and sober), or just ran out of interesting things to write about, but the book “falls off the table” and drags on to the end.

Again, a lot of people think that Enter the Past Tense is almost wholly a fabrication, but it's at least interesting for most of the way. I found it a quick, entertaining read, up until the point where it wasn't. I don't read many spy books, or thrillers, so this was a bit of “fluff” for me, and I don't know if it's something that I could recommend to those who typically read this sort of thing. It's still in print (so somebody must be buying it at retail!), but you can get “good” copies for a penny, and “like new” copies for under 50¢ (plus shipping, of course) from the new/used guys, which is probably where you'd want to go (unless you can find a dollar store copy like I did) if this sounds like something you'd want to read.

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Tags: book review
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