Real-life CIA agent Jason Matthews on Red Sparrow


First aired on The Current (03/06/2013)

They say write what you know, and there are few people in the world that know espionage like veteran CIA officer Jason Matthews. Matthews, who spent more than three decades stealing secrets in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, has drawn from his long career to write his first novel, the modern spy thriller Red Sparrow. In the tradition of intelligence agents-turned-storytellers like John le Carré and James Bond creator Ian Fleming, Matthews is able to sprinkle insider details into his narrative, lending deep authenticity to it.

"The whole novel is filled with tidbits and techniques and evocative chapters from the historiography of spying," Matthews said on The Current during a recent interview. "The characters are composites of foreigners that I've known. A lot of it is based on my experiences."

So what's being a spy really like? Is it more like the jet-setting, action-packed life of Bond, or le Carré's cynical, spy-as-bureaucrat George Smiley? Matthews, who described his career as being "80 per cent grind and 20 per cent adventure," said le Carré painted the more realistic portrait of a spy. "However, Ian Fleming was a master storyteller. His book From Russia with Love is actually a fantastic description of an exfiltration operation (getting a person out of a totalitarian state to safety in the West)."

Matthews is often asked what's the most dangerous thing he's done. Driving in Istanbul, he'll tell them. Or driving in Los Angeles. But that doesn't mean there was no excitement in his spy career. Matthews said there was the thrill of "the game" -- the constant back-and-forth of foreign agents trying to elude surveillance teams for clandestine meetings, and the delicate relationships formed between operatives from different countries to exchange information and, sometimes, recruiting someone to your side.

red-sparrow-jason-120.jpgThe story in Red Sparrow centres on Russian intelligence agent Dominika Egorova, a young woman trained in the art of seduction in order to charm foreign businessmen and visiting diplomats while extracting state secrets from them. A major part of the plot is when Nate Nash, an American agent, tries to recruit her as a double agent, while she attempts to discern the identity of the Russian mole feeding him intel.

The relentless strategizing, trap setting, and double-crossing in the book was an important aspect of Matthews' real-life job. He got accustomed to spotting surveillance teams by noticing "inordinate attention" paid to him or seeing the same person over the course of time and distance. In certain countries, he would recognize the same surveillance operatives time and time again, but he tried not to let on that he was aware of their presence. Still, spies and their watchful observers shared a bond, and sometimes had a little fun with their messages.

"In certain totalitarian countries during Christmas time, we would leave a turkey or a goose in the back seat of the car, lock it, [and] go into our apartment. In the morning it would be gone. It was a present we'd left for the surveillance team."

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