Questions & Answers / A Conversation With Haggai Carmon

The creator of a new thriller series, featuring a Mossad operative named Dan Gordon, draws on his own years of experience gathering intelligence for the Americans

In addition to running a law practice that stretches across continents, Haggai Carmon embarked several years ago on a second career, writing thriller novels. His hero is Dan Gordon, an Israeli-born lawyer employed by the U.S. Department of Justice to hunt down white-collar criminals who have smuggled millions of dollars, usually stolen, out of the country. Before he became a lawyer, the fictional Gordon spent three years in the Mossad (he quit after his identity was exposed on an international mission, and was afraid he'd be limited in the future to office work ). The spycraft he picked up there comes in handy as he travels the world - now for the U.S government - and often risks his life, following the money trail.

Since 2005, Carmon has published three Dan Gordon intelligence thrillers: "Triple Identity," "The Red Syndrome" and "The Chameleon Conspiracy" (all published by Dorchester, paperback, $7.99 ) with a fourth ("Triangle of Deception" ) scheduled for release next month. Their covers resemble those of hundreds of other suspense novels that one can find in the racks of airport bookshops around the world, but Carmon's have an authenticity that sets them several notches above run-of-the-mill thrillers. Although Carmon says he did not serve in the Mossad (though he sure seems to know a lot about it ), his 20 years of undercover work for the U.S. government involved sensitive intelligence gathering, often overseas. So he knows of what he writes, and when Dan Gordon, who narrates all the books, describes how to "dry clean" someone who's tailing you, extort essential information from a crooked banker, or escape from a highway shoot-out in Russia, the reader senses that this is how it's really done.

Since 2004, when he retired from his own job with the U.S. Justice Department, Haggai Carmon, 64, has continued with his private legal practice, though much of his work is still done for the U.S. government, often in Israel. His wife, Rakeffet Carmon, is a partner in the law firm, and the oldest of their five children, Ittai, runs the office in Tel Aviv. Haggai Carmon spoke to Haaretz from his home in New York.

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Q: When your next book comes out in October, you will have published four books in four years. How do you run a law practice and still find time to write these complex thrillers?

A: I have to be very organized, prioritize and focus on the important things. In fact, I have an increasing case load every day in my practices in Israel and New York, and I have five children and one granddaughter. That load sometimes makes me rude or impatient, but people are understanding.

Q Does your law firm deal with the same areas of the law as Dan Gordon, your character?

A: I'm not Dan Gordon, if that's what you're asking. I didn't serve in the Mossad. Gordon worked exclusively for the U.S. Justice Department doing intelligence gathering. I did this for 20 years, but it was in addition to representing the U.S. government as a lawyer. Between 1985 and 2004, I was engaged by different U.S. federal agencies to perform intelligence gathering and asset recovery; they sent me to work in more than 34 countries, where I mostly worked undercover. When I stopped doing that, I started fictionalizing reality. All my books have a mix of fiction and reality, which I try to intertwine so that it will be unclear what's real and what's not. I continue to represent the U.S. government in civil litigation in Israel. In October, I'll appear before the Israeli Supreme Court, in two labor courts and in one statutory committee. All of these are mundane, routine civil litigation matters, but with strong and complex underlying issues of international law.

Q: What made you decide to start writing?

A: "Triple Identity," I started writing in northern Europe in a small hotel room. I was on assignment collecting intelligence on a particularly vile and brutal organized crime group. At 4 in the afternoon, my Interpol contact came over to my hotel room and said, "You've been exposed. The next flight out is early tomrrow morning. Until then, stay in your room, and we'll put peripheral protection around the hotel and we'll take care of you." I was angry. I wasn't carrying a gun, so I couldn't defend myself. The TV was black and white, and programs were in some dialect of Russian. I had my laptop, but no Internet. So I started writing, at 4 P.M., and continued until about 3 in morning. I wrote about 100 pages.

At one time, my supervisor at Justice, David Epstein, who is now retired, told me something I didn't know, and indirectly, I think this is what encouraged me to write. He had said, "I always look forward to reading your reports." When I asked why, he said, "Because the way you present the facts, they read like a thriller." So it dawned on me that maybe I should try writing a book.

Q: In "Triple Identity," though, you say that writing up of an intelligence report is something of a science, with very strict rules. I wouldn't think that would allow for interesting storytelling.

A: When you report on an agent meeting with a source, you should describe it accurately so that the person reading it will know exactly what has happened. You keep your impressions and opinions to the section of the report that assesses the information. That means not writing reports that read like legal opinions, with lots of "on the one hand" and "on the other hand." Rather, you have to rate information gathered in terms of its level of reliability. If you have only one source, you should say that. If it's hearsay, say that. You have to be clear to be objective. But that doesn't mean the writing can't be very interesting.

I'll give you an example of what I mean about the dangers of speculating. I was on the trail of a banker who had absconded from the U.S. I led a team I had assembled especially for the mission. They were all locals who had no idea who I was or the truth behind my interest in the banker. We had tracked the suspect to Geneva, to the Noga Hilton. Usually when you're looking for stolen and laundered money, it's hidden in multiple locations. If you find it in one of them, and you act against that in local courts or through governmental seizure, there's a risk that the person will pull the money out of the other locations and move it. So, you really have only one bullet in your gun: You have to act against all the locations on the same day. That takes a lot of coordination and work.

In the case of this banker, I knew he liked sushi very much. He would order it every day up to his hotel room. Then I got a report that he was also visiting a Chinese restaurant regularly. I read the report, and it said that he was visiting it at 8:30 in the morning. Now, nobody goes to a Chinese restaurant at 8:30. The next morning I went to the hotel and stood with my back to Lake Geneva observing the corner where the hotel was situated. There were escalators right there, and atop the canopy protecting them from the weather was a sign that read, "Chinese Restaurant." After I saw the banker going up the escalator, I followed him upstairs. At the top, to the left, there was indeed a door to a Chinese restaurant. But on the right - was a door leading to a Swiss bank. My operators didn't go the extra mile; it didn't even dawn on them that you don't have breakfast in a Chinese restaurant. The devil is in the details. Not in the assumption that something is what it appears to be at first sight.

Q: It seems like the international nature of crime is increasing, especially as technology becomes more sophisticated.

A: This is a trend, but it's been going on for several years. The Internet has made certain things easier to do. One is to conduct multistate criminal activities and another is that it facilitates "traditional" crime by allowing one to use the Internet to hide criminal activity. I'm talking about tens of millions of dollars being stolen and laundered; in "The Red Syndrome," I show how terrorist organizations use organized crime to launder money. Back when I was still doing this work, terrorist organizations didn't have the sophistication to do the money laundering themselves, so they would rely on organized crime to transfer and hide their money. That's the premise of the book, in which Islamic terrorists join forces with the Belarus mafia to mount a major biological attack. Organized crime knew how to do it, even before the Internet era. So, you have an unholy alliance between terrorists and criminals, which I believe continues to this day.

Q: Dan Gordon seems to have an innate understanding of human psychology, so that like an actor or con man, he tailors his behavior and words to get people to give him what he needs.

A: This is typical of the way intelligence professionals working overseas operate. Forget about James Bond. He's the worst of the worst. He leaves bodies, wrecked cars and burned buildings behind him, which draws all the attention in the world. In the real world, intelligence operatives have a clear agenda: to obtain information, recruit sources, etc. and for that, everything must be done quietly and elegantly. You must leave no trace, nor cause any commotion. Therefore, I think Dan Gordon is the real thing, not James Bond: At the end of the day, he retires to his hotel room, reads the paper, drinks a beer, and calls his children.

In my 20 years in the field, none of the stuff that James Bond does ever happened to me. I didn't have sex with different women in every city, wear a tuxedo, go to casinos and drink martinis. The glitzy descriptions are good for Hollywood, but they are unrealistic.

Q: You have Dan meet a wonderful woman in "Triple Identity," Ariel. Why doesn't she appear in the next two books?

A: I have an answer for that. I have a computer file .... I started writing the sequel to "Triple Identity" before I wrote "The Red Syndrome." I called it "Where Is Ariel?" and I hope to complete it one day. In it, Dan and Ariel live together in New York in harmony and great love. Then she vanishes into thin air, and after he conducts a worldwide search for her, Dan comes up with some shocking discoveries. I've written about 30-40 percent of it. Unfortunately, my legal work interferes with my hobby because it doesn't leave me with much time to write.

David B. Green

Haaretz Books, September 2009