NEED A GOOD BEACH READ? Things are heating up in the literary world this summer, so in case you’re headed to the beach or the pool to cool off, we thought you might be interested in what national security experts consider the best reads of the summer.
As you know, The Cipher Brief always taps experts and independent reviewers with experience in the national security world, to share their thoughts on what’s worth packing in with your flip flops and summer-weight trench coats. 


Spies, The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West by Calder Walton is an ambitious examination of East vs West, spy vs. spy.  Former CIA officer (and Cipher Brief Expert) Dan Hoffman reviewed Spies for us and praised Walton for “masterfully weaving together geopolitics with a comprehensive and fascinating history of cloak and dagger espionage.” For more on this book, be sure to check out our recent Cover Stories podcast interview with Calder Walton as well.
Former Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, (and Cipher Brief Expert) Mike Vickers’ life of secrets is exposed this summer with the publication of his memoir, By All Means Available: Memoirs of a Life in Intelligence, Special Operations and Strategy.  The memoir offers incredible insights into some of the most consequential intelligence and special operations missions of our time. From the killing of Osama bin Laden, to efforts to try and stop Iran from getting a bomb, to forcing Russia out of Afghanistan, the former Green Beret turned Intelligence leader shares lessons learned.  Here’s a review.  
The Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carre, edited by Tim Cornwell. One of the most influential spy novelists of the 20th century lived one hell of a life himself – some of which he described in letters that were collected and edited by his son. Former Senior Member of the British Foreign Office (and Cipher Brief expert) Nick Fishwick read the book and reviewed it for us and said the letters gave him a deeper appreciation of le Carre’s honesty and humanity.
Fixing American Cybersecurity: Creating a Strategic Public-Private Partnership, Edited by Larry Clinton. We are “losing the fight to secure cyberspace and losing it badly” according to Clinton and we need to “incentivize, modernize and economize” how we respond.  Former NSA General Counsel and Cyber Initiatives Group PrincipalGlenn Gerstell reviewed it for us saying the book is a great read for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of today’s cyber vulnerabilities…but doesn’t provide solutions for tomorrow.


“I personally LOVE to see women entering the realm of spy fiction, especially really interesting women who, as authors, are the literal brains behind every operation.  I listened to the audio version of Red London by former CIA Intelligence author Alma Katsu that follows on another book of hers, Red Widow, that was my favorite summer read last year.  This year, we tapped a ‘couple’ of CIA veterans to review it.  Former CIA ‘couple’ Anne and Jay Gruner found this one to be “an engaging read, with breathtaking international intrigue, Russian skullduggery, and old-fashion Anglo-American cooperation”.”


“While I haven’t had time to read all the books on the list (yet), I really liked Unwavering: The Wives Who Fought to Ensure No Man is Left Behind which lays out the heroism of the families of Vietnam POWs and MIA in ensuring that no one is left behind and conversely, I liked Code Name Blue Wren which details how DIA analyst Ana Montes betrayed not only her country but her family as well, by spying for Cuba.”

  • Unwavering: The Wives Who Fought to Ensure No Man is Left Behind by Taylor Baldwin Kiland and Judy Silverstein Gray tells the inspirational story of the wives of Vietnam POWs and MIAs who fought to ensure that their husbands were not forgotten by successive American administrations that were all too ready to do so.  For this book, we reached out to Monica Kuhlmann Ferrera to do the review. Her father, an Air Force major, was shot down in 1968 and his remains were found, recovered and buried at Arlington National Cemetery 27 years later.
  • Code Name Blue Wren: The True Story of America’s Most Dangerous Female Spy – and the Sister She Betrayed by author Jim Popkin. A remarkably story about Ana Montes who was the top Cuban analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency – while spying for Cuba. Montes spent twenty years in prison and was released just days after the book was published.  A post-arrest CIA profile described her as “egocentric, manipulative…and arrogant.” Montes was also successful for far too long. I enjoyed this book and explain why in this Cipher Brief review.


Sailing Upwind: Leadership and Risk from TopGun to the Situation Room by Admiral Sandy Winnefeld is a combination military memoir and leadership book by the former Vice Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Reviewer, former CIA officer (and Cipher Brief expert) Marc Polymeropoulos was particularly drawn to the Admiral’s descriptions of his days as an F-14 pilot and aircraft carrier commanding officer and the key “anchors” to good leadership that Winnefeld salts throughout the book.

In the Nation’s Service: The Life and Times of George P. Shultz by Philip Taubman.  Ambassador (and Cipher Brief expert) Gary Grappo’s review calls this “an inspiring, comprehensive, and provocative book” about George Shultz whose public service ranged from duty as a Marine in World War II to multiple cabinet level positions most significantly as Secretary of State during the Reagan administration and playing a critical role in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful end.

The Negotiators Cross, a novel by Dr. Kenneth Dekleva, a practicing psychiatrist and former physician-diplomat for the US government. Dekleva’s debut novel tells a story of a Texas-bred Catholic priest who finds himself who unexpectedly finds himself assisting the CIA in dealing with drug cartels and Russian spies. Need to know more?  Read Joe Augustyn’s Cipher Brief review here.

Our Man in Tokyo: An American Ambassador and the Countdown to Pearl Harbor is an insightful and highly readable account of the U.S. ambassador to Tokyo during the run up to World War II.  We tapped Roman Popadiuk, president of the Diplomacy Center Foundation and first U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, to help enhance our appreciation for this book in a review we published in January.

Striking Back: The End of Peace in Cyberspace — and How to Restore It by Lucas Kello is a timely book that deftly intertwines international relations theory, military history, and policy analysis and according to our reviewer, Evan Rosenfield, the book is accessible to cybersecurity experts and novices alike.

Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington by James Kirchick.  Former CIA senior officer Andy Dunn reviews a book he describes as an “overdue, groundbreaking and comprehensive book, and the best—by far—of any that has tackled this history of LGBTQ life and work in our nation’s capital.”

The COVID-19 Intelligence Failure:  Why Warning Was Not Enough by Erik Dahl.  Pandemics are more than health emergencies, they are national security crises. Cipher Brief contributor (and author himself) Dr. Ken Dekleva reviews this very timely book and explains why Dahl dubs COVID-19 a profound intelligence failure.

Judging Iran – A Memoir of the Hague, the White House, and Life on the Front Line of International Justice by Charles N. Brower is a memoir of a different kind of Cold Warrior.  In her review, Elizabeth C. MacKenzie Biedell praises a “solid legal memoir with anecdote aplenty that will benefit anyone seeking to understand the key international legal frameworks we all live under.”

Age of Danger: Keeping America Safe in an Era of New Superpowers, New Weapons, and New Threats by Andrew Hoehn and Thom Shanker examines the range of threats the United States faces and suggests ways the government needs to to be realigned and adjusted to find ways to meet those threats.  Author, naval officers and military strategics George Galdorisi penned the review for us and commended the book for laypersons and policy experts concerned about the nation’s security.

The Dirty Tricks Department: Stanley Lovell, the OSS and the Masterminds of World War II Secret Warfare, by John Lisle is the story about the man who was America’s “Q” during the second World War helping develop devices, weapons, concealment devices and more for the OSS.  To review the book. we turned to Robert Wallace who performed similar services running the CIA’s “Office of Technical Service” a half century later.

A True American Patriot: A Novel Former senior CIA officer Daniel O’Connor, who served as chief of security for multiple CIA directors, serves up his first novel in this fast-paced action thriller whose hero (like O’Connor in real life) goes by the name “Doc.” So we turned to our own Doc, Dr. Kenneth Dekleva – novelist, former State Department officials and practicing psychiatrist to review the book.

The Declassification Engine: What History Reveals About America’s Top Secrets by Matthew Connelly is a complex examination of how artificial intelligence might be used in examining the process of declassifying U.S. government intelligence. The results are mixed – and sometimes confusing according to our reviewer, veteran government attorney Terence Check. But whether data science and artificial intelligence will help tackle the problems of classification is one that will only grow.

Don’t forget to subscribe to the Cover Stories podcast, where we do interviews with authors, publishers, agents and Hollywood movers and shakers.

You’ll note that we always try to find reviewers with deep expertise and interests of their own to match that of the books’ authors. If you think you have what it takes to be a Cipher Brief reviewer, email us at [email protected]. We’ve got plenty of good books (and a few bad ones) on the horizon – and need good reviewers to help us sort them out.

Check out our Reviewer Guidelines

The Cipher Brief participates in the Amazon Affiliate program and may make a small commission from purchases made via links.

Read more expert-driven national security insights, perspective and analysis in The Cipher Brief because National Security is Everyone’s Business


Author: Suzanne Kelly