What would a nation do to avoid going to war? That’s the central question in Spymaster, the latest book from New York Times bestselling author Brad Thor. Thor returns to the Stratfor Podcast to discuss the international intrigue, espionage, betrayal and geopolitics behind Spymaster with Stratfor Chief Security Officer Fred Burton.
Spymaster by Brad Thor, available July 3, 2018
Beirut Rules by Fred Burton and Samuel Katz, available October 23, 2018
Lessons From Old Case Files, Fred Burton’s collected writing on Stratfor Worldview
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Fred Burton [00:00:00] Hello, I'm Chief Security Officer Fred Burton, and this podcast is brought to you by Stratfor, the world's leading geopolitical intelligence platform. To learn more about Stratfor Worldview, Threat Lens, or Stratfor's custom advisory services, visit us at stratfor.com.
Brad Thor [00:00:30] If war is hell, which it is, in my thriller, Spymaster, I ask the question, what might we do to avoid going into hell? What rules would we be willing to break to stay out of war?
Ben Sheen [00:00:55] Welcome to the Stratfor podcast, focused on geopolitics and world affairs from stratfor.com. I'm your host, Ben Sheen. International intrigue, espionage, spies, Russians, betrayal, geopolitics, and a story that sounds more truth than fiction. We welcome New York Times bestselling author Brad Thor back to the podcast to discuss his latest book, Spymaster, with Stratfor Chief Security Officer, Fred Burton. Thanks for joining us.
Fred Burton [00:01:29] Hi, I'm Fred Burton, here today with my good friend, Brad Thor. Brad is the number one New York Times bestselling author of 18 thrillers. On July 3rd, his new book, Spymaster, comes out. I have to say, I'm really blessed, because Brad was kind enough to send me an advance copy, and I got to say, Brad, in my judgment, it's the best one you have done so far.
Brad Thor [00:01:55] That's very kind of you to say, Fred, thank you.
Fred Burton [00:01:59] It's filled with Russian spies, even Ghurka bags, my favorite. Brad, talk me through a little bit, how do you go about putting together a storyline like this? This is ripped from the pages of The New York Times today.
Brad Thor [00:02:16] Well, so for me, my dad is a no-longer-active Marine, I grew up in the Midwest, I've got that good, Puritan work ethic, I strive to get better with each book I do. I'm a voracious consumer of news. I'm constantly watching what's happening, not only at home, but abroad. The RAND Corporation published a report back in 2016, it was fascinating. They had gotten together all of these high-ranking American military members, and they had done kind of a red against blue scenario where Russia decides they're going to take the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. They kept switching up these admirals and generals and putting them on the red team, then the blue team, you're U.S. and NATO, you're Russia, and they kept mixing it up and they rolled the dice a thousand times, and it kept coming up Russia, every single time. Within 36 hours, Putin and his forces were able to take all three of these Baltic NATO-member countries, and that was that. I was fascinated and somewhat terrified that Putin could move in so quickly, so I dug into this scenario. How would he do it? What would he need to do to hold it? What did that mean for NATO, and how might NATO respond? Then I compared all that against our current political situation. My president is... It's fiction. But Mark Twain once said that the difference between fiction and reality is that people expect fiction to make sense. I've got to set my books against the real world, and we've been at war in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and we've got a somewhat war-weary
Brad Thor [00:04:04] population here in the United States. But we also have a commitment to NATO, and particularly Article 5, which is, an attack on one is an attack on all. It's only been used once. We, the United States, used it in the aftermath of 9/11 to go into Afghanistan. I asked myself, with this war-weary public in the United States and a current president, not the same as the president in my book, but a current president who I don't think would want to get into a war someplace, how would Americans respond to an attack on, not one, but three NATO members that they probably couldn't find, the Baltic states, on a map? Would they want to support an Article 5? It's important, you've got a very sophisticated audience for your podcast, and most of them understand what the Article 5 represents, and that Russia really sees the U.S. and NATO as its greatest foes. It would thrill Putin to no end to make a move on one or all three of those Baltic nations, and have the U.S. sit it out, it'd be the end of NATO, and Putin would love that. If war is hell, which it is, in my thriller, Spymaster, I ask the question, what might we do to avoid going into hell? Would we be willing to tear up our own rule book and take some of our best intelligence operatives and best Tier 1 operators and set them loose over in that part of the world in order to prevent ever having an Article 5 be necessary? What rules would we be willing to break to stay out of war? That's the basis for Spymaster.
Fred Burton [00:05:43] Wow, that's an unbelievable storyline, I've had the pleasure of reading the book, and I'm really amazed at, not only the geopolitics of, as you outlined here, but also the tradecraft, which, is this a little bit of a departure for your hero, Scot Harvath, to delve against probably one of the best intelligence services of the world, and that would certainly be the Russian GRU?
Brad Thor [00:06:12] It's funny, because I've got a couple of sources who have gone head-to-head with the GRU, and really had some interesting pieces of information for me. I can't do what I do without the help of men and women who have been there, done that, and have the t-shirt to prove it, so to speak. It's funny, because when you talk to people who work in counterintelligence or counter-terrorism, they really explain, okay, well, here are all the steps. I would say, okay, well, that's 10 steps, nobody's going to sit through, in a thriller novel, all 10 steps, I need to condense it. I may use one cutout, where the GRU may use five different ones, and they're really going to wash stuff so that there isn't a direct connection, or even one step removed from a handler, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But you can't have a book, Fred, called Spymaster, and not pack it full of tradecraft. The challenge is, doing it and making the book exciting, creating those short, crisp, cinematic chapters where somebody sits down to just read one, and all of a sudden, they look up, and it's three hours later and they're almost done with the book, and they decide, well, I'll figure out how to make it through work tired tomorrow, I got to get to the end of this and see how it all turns out.
Fred Burton [00:07:30] Well, you've done a very good job with that, I can tell you firsthand. Brad, you are such a successful author. Help me understand your process. When do you write? How do you write? Do you got a special place you go to? The research you do for these books, for someone like me, too, who dabbles in a little bit of writing, is amazing. How do you make the sausage, so to speak?
Brad Thor [00:07:56] Yeah, I'm a husband and I'm a father, so I treat this as a regular, steady gig, Monday through Friday. Jack London once said, you can't wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club, and that's true. I have, close at hand, Steven Pressfield's fantastic book, The War of Art. Pressfield's an amazing, amazing author. The Gates of Fire, about the 300 and the Battle of Thermopylae, which is required reading for Delta Force and some other different units out there. Pressfield's an amazing author, and he talks a lot about the process of writing, and how you have to sit down. There's somebody that said, the water doesn't run unless the tap is open. You have to actually, the seat of pants to seat of chair, and make it happen. I will get up in the morning, make breakfast, catch up on the news, see my kids off to school, I will work out, and then I will be at my desk by 8 a.m., and I just write, no matter what. I have to do it. If I don't write, my family doesn't eat. I sit at my laptop, I've got a desk in my office at home, I've got a couch. A lot of times, when I change characters or plotlines, I'll physically move to a different part of the office. But it's funny, it doesn't get easier. You would think, this being my 18th thriller, that wow, Thor puts out one a year, he's just cracking them out, it's going to be easy, and it's not. I try to raise the bar for myself, because the readers are the people I work for. Simon & Schuster's not my employer, it's the readers, it's that customer
Brad Thor [00:09:35] who looks forward to a Brad Thor thriller every summer. We've got people that plan their vacations around the publication date of the books, and I think I owe it to them to give them a better book every single year. There's a lot of sweat, no blood, but there's a lot of sweat, no tears, but it's a lot of hard work, but because it's hard, I find it rewarding. If it was easy, it'd be boring, and I'd be off doing something else.
Ben Sheen [00:10:07] We'll get back to the conversation with author Brad Thor in just one moment. But if you're interested in picking up a copy of his latest book, Spymaster, be sure to visit bradthor.com. That's where you'll also find information about his other Scot Harvath books, and even a blog post on the other books behind Spymaster. We'll include a link in the show notes. You can also read more about Fred Burton's experience as a counter-terrorism agent with the U.S. State Department's Diplomatic Security Service at Stratfor Worldview. We've collected his reflections in other podcast interviews in a series called Lessons from Old Case Files. Now, back to our conversation with Fred Burton and author, Brad Thor.
Fred Burton [00:10:50] I also think that the interesting part of your books, too, as I go through them, and I've read them all, is the amount of research you do into the tools of the trade, the weapons that Scot Harvath has at his disposal, and so forth. Just being a former agent, you and I both know that when agents or operators get together, they're always talking about these kinds of things. In Spymaster, I was looking through this, and I'm thinking, oh my goodness, how does Brad go about researching all these weapons?
Brad Thor [00:11:23] It's funny, it's one of the most flattering pieces of feedback I get, is from men and women in the field who say, oh my gosh, that's exactly the kind of gear that I carry, I've got that knife, or, I've used that weapon repeatedly. It's from talking to people like you, Fred, who have been there and who have done that. You joked around at the beginning about Ghurka bags. Well, the reason there's a Ghurka in this is because of you. I follow you on Twitter, you talked about Ghurka, and I was unfamiliar with that brand. I looked at Ghurka, and I'm like, wow, this is really cool stuff, and I've carried a black nylon briefcase, soft briefcase, with PALS webbing inside and outside, forever, and it just looks like a tactical bag and stuff. Then I saw your Ghurka tweet, and then a couple of weeks later, after reading that tweet and going to their website, I was in an American Airlines lounge in New York, and there was a gentleman sitting across from me and he had one of those bags, a gentleman from Texas, actually. I said, is that a Ghurka bag? And he said, yeah, and he was such an advocate of that brand, and he goes, I even know the woman that answers the phone, let me call her right now. You like this brand? Let's see if they have it. I mean, the guy was such a brand champion. I said, all right, Fred loves this brand, this guy's raving about it, so I ended up buying one, as you know, because we had that funny back and forth, it may have been a year ago, on Twitter, where you posted a picture, along with, I think it was
Brad Thor [00:12:51] maybe a Smith & Wesson .38 that you had?
Fred Burton [00:12:53] Yeah, an old five-shot.
Brad Thor [00:12:54] Yeah, and I had one too, and so I had my brand-new bag, and I had just bought that new .38, that Smith & Wesson myself, so it's a funny story, but that story between you and me and Ghurka, it just, it's how it happens. It's me talking with people and asking them what kind of gear do you use? I used to know the founder of BlackHawk Industries, Mike Noell, who was a SEAL, who was on a mission down range, and he had a strap break on a key piece of equipment that he had, and he swore to God that if he made it back alive, he was going to start a company, and all their products were going to be made to such high quality, they were never going to break. I remember talking to him about that experience, and so, it's being around people who have gone down range, whose lives depend on what they carry, that I pick up these things. I like to say, I've bought a lot of steak dinners, bought a lot of pitchers of beer, and I'm smart enough to sit there and keep my mouth shut, because I'll learn more by not talking about myself, but by listening to the stories of other people.
Fred Burton [00:14:01] Based on your endorsement of Ghurka and mine, I think the company should hook us both up with some brand-new leather bags, don't you?
Brad Thor [00:14:10] There you go, there you go. I got to tell you, it's funny, 'cause, this bag, I mean, I'm in my forties, I'm going to take this bag with me for decades. It's going to go around the world, I just got back from London, I took it there, I got compliments on the airplane on it, it's really neat, it's something that I'll probably hand down to my son.
Fred Burton [00:14:30] Yeah, no doubt, they make wonderful products. I have to say this too, Brad, I was chatting with Joshua before we started our podcast, and the one thing about you, and I tell this to everybody, is that you are such a nice guy. For example, I almost fell out of my rocking chair when I was at home, reading my advance copy of Spymaster, and I come across your characters, your operators on their secret mission, reading my book that will be published in October, called Beirut Rules. That was a very kind thing for you to do.
Brad Thor [00:15:10] Well, it was my honor, I appreciate the fact that you let me read an advance copy. It's funny, I'm hoping that The Today Show will have me for fall book picks so I'm able to pick it. Because I'm going to be on The Today Show the day my book comes out, Tuesday July 3rd, and they asked me for a non-fiction pick, and I couldn't use Beirut Rules. It doesn't matter how awesome I think that book is, they needed something that was in the marketplace, so hopefully I'll be back in the fall. But it's interesting, a lot of the guys that I know that go down range are big readers. It's funny, it's these intense periods of incredible action punctuated by long periods of absolute boredom, is the way it's been described, a lot of the work that our brave men and women do. There's a lot of 'em that I know who are big readers, and so I thought, oh, this is kind of fun. Why not put in books that I love, that I'm telling my friends and family about, why not put those kind of Easter eggs in my novel? The biggest thing is, people will be disappointed that they can't get Beirut Rules this summer, that they'll have to wait for the fall, but it'll just make their appetite for it all the more keener.
Fred Burton [00:16:19] Well, thank you again for doing that, that was simply amazing on your part. Tell me a little bit about Scot Harvath. He's a fascinating character who many of us have grown to really enjoy. How do we see him growing old?
Brad Thor [00:16:38] Well, it's interesting, because Harvath has tracked with my age through the books, and I've got buddies that are in their mid-forties, that have many years left in their career of going down range and doing some exciting things. But I got to fly with the Blue Angels out of Pensacola a few summers ago, and while I was down there, there was a gentleman from SEAL Team Three, who I know, that took me by this fascinating scientific sports medicine institute that tunes up football players before the combine and things like that. But they'd also been working with a lot of Tier 1 operators, so guys from DEV group with the SEALS, and The Unit on the army side. They realized that a lot of the injuries that professional athletes were getting are similar to what our special operators were getting, and that a lot of the medical science could be applied there. A lot of this research that's been done to help keep these top-performing NFL and NBA players performing at their peak, and helping them to recover more quickly from injuries, they could apply to the special operations world. It's interesting, because I refer to a particular series of injections and things like this that Scot Harvath is getting, and I know some of the guys, some of the real guys, to keep their edge, even getting into their forties, who are doing these things as well. But the 30,000-foot view on Harvath is that he was a Navy SEAL that was on, what was, back then, SEAL Team Six, came to the attention of a U.S. president during an operation, and got recruited by the Secret Service
Brad Thor [00:18:25] to help bolster their counter-terrorism expertise at the White House. Went there, and the president's like, this is the biggest waste of a resource I've ever seen in my life. This guy should not be playing defense at the White House, we should be taking the chain off and letting him go chase America's bad guys. I've long had this thing about, I understand the Geneva and Hague Conventions, but if there are people who are not signing on to them, who refuse to show up on the field of battle wearing a uniform, not even wearing an armband, and they want to hide behind women and children, well, the rules shouldn't apply to them. We should be able to go out and hunt them down and take them out. Ralph Peters, who is no longer at Fox, had written a great op-ed piece called, Kill, Don't Capture, years ago, where he said, we round these guys up, we give them three hots and a cot, when we used to just kill 'em as spies. If we found them on the battlefield and they weren't wearing a uniform, they're of little to no intelligence value, we used to just shoot them on the spot, and that was the way we used to conduct warfare. There's a lot to that. Readers enjoy seeing a character who is not bound by Marquess of Queensberry Rules, and I think we all hope that we have these people out there, conducting the nation's most dangerous business in a way that's going to help secure and continue to protect our freedom.
Fred Burton [00:19:46] Well said, Brad, I could not agree with you more. You've done a wonderful job of portraying Scot Harvath in that kind of capacity, that this is an individual that doesn't mind coloring outside the lines, so to speak, to get the job done, for, at the end of the day, his actions are saving lives for all of us, which is a very noble cause.
Brad Thor [00:20:13] It is indeed, and I always, we talk a lot about the American Dream, in my house, with our children, and I always make sure that that talk is coupled with the following, which is, there is no such thing as the American Dream without those willing to go out and protect it. Without our brave men and women doing that, you don't get to work at Stratfor. You're, Josh, who's helping behind the boards there, doesn't have that job at Stratfor, I don't get to be an author, there is no American Dream without those willing to protect it. And so I try to honor those men and women with how I portray them in my thrillers.
Fred Burton [00:20:53] Well, and that, you do better than anybody, Brad, and I think that that's a good place to stop our talk, and I will say this, for folks that are listening to this podcast today, Spymaster comes out on July 3rd, you can pre-order it now, I would strongly encourage you to purchase this book, and I say this all the time, all you have to do is read one, and you're going to be a Brad Thor fan for life. After the first one, you're going to read all 18 others. Brad, thank you so much for joining Joshua and I today, and thank you so much for mentioning my upcoming book in your book.
Brad Thor [00:21:35] Well, it's my pleasure, I really enjoyed Beirut Rules, and I wish you all the best with that, and again, thank you for having me on again this year, I really, really love your podcast, and I appreciate this opportunity to chat with you and your listeners.
Ben Sheen [00:21:56] Thanks again for joining us to discuss Brad Thor's newest book, Spymaster. If you're interested in picking up a copy, be sure to visit bradthor.com. We'll also include a link in the show notes. If you'd like to immerse yourself in the world of geopolitics and echoes of the Cold War that were the canvas for Thor's work, be sure to visit us at Stratfor Worldview, where our analyst team lays out the grand strategies of nations and the underlying forces that shape decision-making each and every day. If you're not already a Stratfor Worldview member, you can sign up for our free newsletter, or learn more about complete access to our analysis through individual, team, and enterprise memberships at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe. For more geopolitical intelligence, analysis, and forecasting to reveal the underlying significance and future implications of emerging world events, follow us on Twitter @Stratfor.