Tuesday, September 9, 2003

Action tumbles out of 'Jericho' thriller

Bare-bones narrative in Oliver North's novel leaves more room for spies-in-Iraq action

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The best thing about Oliver North's new Jericho Sanction is also the most grim: It's fiction, but he uses real people and real situations, all based on knowledge he gathered first as coordinator of U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in the '80s and later as an embedded reporter for Fox News in the early days of the war in Iraq.

That's why the one thing you don't want to ask him is if Iraq is as dangerous as he paints it in the book. His answer is ugly:

"My portrait is right on the mark. The situation there (Iraq) is more dangerous than you can imagine," North said last week from Chicago, a stopping point on his 40-city book tour. "Nothing in there is far-fetched in any way. You asked about my portrait of Uday and Qusay (Hussein) and if they were really that bad. They were. After all my years doing this, I can tell you they were two of the most evil people on Earth."

Jericho (co-authored with Joe Musser) is the follow-up novel to Mission Compromised and second in a trilogy about Marine Lt. Col. Pete Newman, a National Security Council operative assigned to sensitive covert activities - the kind most of us assume go on all the time, and the kind North knows goes on because he was once privy to that kind of thing. Maybe even did that kind of thing.

Jericho picks up three years after Mission - Newman has disappeared after a badly botched operation. Fingered as a terrorist by a corrupt U.N. official, he's on BOLO ("Be On the Lookout for") posters at all over airports and border crossings. In reality, he's hiding out in Israel.

But this is spy fiction, so of course he doesn't stay hidden for long. Chapter Two, to be exact.

In short order, Newman's found - thanks largely to a report by a young Marine named Oliver North, a figure who pops up here and there in the book - and tapped for another mission in Iraq.

This time, he's to sniff out the hidden nuclear weapons hidden that Saddam wants to use against Israel and the West.

This central premise is based on what many claim is fact, namely that some nuclear weapons were stolen in the chaos following Russia's collapse. Those weapons could have ended up hidden away in some hostile nation. In the case of Jericho, that's Iraq.

"The book's title is taken from what we call 'the ultimate catastrophe.' By that, I mean Israel has made it very clear that if attacked it will respond in the only way it can - nuclear weapons delivered by Jericho missiles.

"And I can tell you this, also. One of the reasons we went to war (in Iraq) was to see that Saddam never detonated the weapons in Israel. If he had, it would truly be the ultimate catastrophe - nuclear war."

North is emphatic about what Saddam does and doesn't have: "Of course he has weapons of mass destruction. We know he had them in the weeks leading to the war, we just don't know what happened to them."

He's also emphatic about why we don't know what happened to them: "This country needs an intelligence system. A real intelligence system, with spies - like a real CIA, not what we have now. That's been ineffective since the '70s.

"But they do have their technology. It's funny, we have satellites that can read a license plate from miles in space, but they can't track a single terrorist, as we're finding out now."

All of this, and then some, surfaces in Jericho's crisp and lean narrative where North writes very much like the military man he is - direct, no extra words, little excess chatter. It's like he's commanding troops: Get in there and get on with it.

That sparse style might put off some readers. . But after a while, it begins to work with the plot, almost in an organic sense - these people are, after all, undercover operatives jumping from one place to another, always one step ahead of a bullet. Not a lot of time for flowery adjectives.

That leanness doesn't keep North from adding a subplot or two, including the kidnapping of Newman's wife and her friend, Dyan, by bad guys who are thinking they can use the leverage. Nor does the leanness cut down on the exotica. Set in Israel, Iraq, Syria, Cypress and half a dozen other cities, Jericho is a bit of a tour of places most Americans will never visit.

The other thing that leanness accomplishes is it leaves more room for action, and that's something Jericho has in abundance.

No. 3 in the trilogy, The Assassins, is due next year.


E-mail jknippenberg@enquirer.com

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