Former CIA agent Joe Goldberg publishes 'Secret Wars' based on his experiences
The realism in Wheaton author's 'Secret Wars' is no accident -- Joe Goldberg says it's based on his experiences as a CIA agent
Former CIA agent Joe Goldberg will tell you his book, "Secret Wars: An Espionage Story," is a work of fiction, that any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
But the Wheaton resident also will tell you he made the book as realistic as possible.
"My mantra while writing this was to be as accurate as I could without going to prison," he says in his author's note.
U.S. military actions in the Gulf of Sidra and bombing of Tripoli in Libya, along with terrorist bombings in Rome, Vienna and the Berlin discothèque in which two American soldiers were killed, all happened in the mid-1980s when the story takes place.
Central Intelligence Agency agents such as Goldberg were in the thick of gathering intelligence about who was doing what and influencing events.
"I've got real people doing real things in the context of all the events around then," Goldberg said. "The fact that people think it's more nonfiction than fiction to me is a win."
Goldberg also acknowledges that there is a lot of himself in Mike Garnett, the young CIA agent in charge of using video to collect intelligence and create propaganda. Like Garnett, Goldberg graduated from the University of Iowa with a background in communications. The CIA recruited him on campus and he was hired to develop its video department.
Initially, he spent hours and hours watching international and domestic TV coverage of news events to gather information and convey it to the right people. He also used his expertise in electronic media to create propaganda. Like Garnett, Goldberg believed it was a necessary part of his job.
"You just do," he said. "Things need to be done."
In Goldberg's thriller, Garnett doctors a video to aid in the CIA's efforts to recruit the Libyan foreign minister, but does not anticipate that the foreign minister will react in a way that gets him thrown into Libya's most dreaded prison where he will surely die if he is not rescued. Intelligence is not all black and white. Goldberg says.
"It's a big area of gray," he said. "The operation was successful at a cost."
Goldberg's debut novel has won the praise of the likes of Lt. Col. Oliver North, who became a friend after Goldberg left the CIA, and Mark Greaney, best-selling author of "Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect." At the urging of others, Goldberg has set to work on a sequel.
His first objective was to write a good story, but Goldberg said he also wanted to pay homage to the dedicated men and women of the CIA who are simply doing their jobs. There aren't any larger-than-life superheroes in his story.
"Overall, it was a bunch of nameless, hardworking people who are doing this job and not getting credit," he said. "If they do something right, hopefully, no one ever hears about it. That gets hard."
Goldberg himself got out of the CIA after eight years. During his time there from 1985 to 1993, he worked in propaganda, analysis, recruitment and training -- all the areas that most interested him. He organized the CIA's video department and aided in the first Gulf War and the fight against terrorism.
Goldberg said it was a roller-coaster ride, alternating between exuberance over challenging projects and depression when they were over.
A married man with a growing family, he went undercover but found living a secret life hard. "You have to live a life of deception, and that was trying on me," he said.
To keep his cover, Goldberg avoided joining organizations and maintained few close friendships. That type of life ended when he left the CIA.
By then, Goldberg had been transferred to the Chicago area and moved to Wheaton. He became active in Glenbard South High School, where his children attended, and in the B.R. Ryall YMCA, where he was named Volunteer of the Year at one point.
"When I got out I ricocheted into joining everything," he said. "I could be a part of something. I could be part of a community."
After leaving the CIA, Goldberg worked in corporate intelligence for Motorola for 16 years. He now works as a consultant, providing advice and services internationally to governments, political parties and advocacy groups. He said he has worked in about 24 countries in Europe, Africa, and Central and South America.
Goldberg is also a board member of WorldChicago, a citizen diplomacy organization that supports and houses overseas visitors.
Pursuing a secondary career as a writer, Goldberg said getting "Secret Wars" published was been a journey of its own. He wrote it between 1999 and 2001 before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. When the attacks came, he thought there certainly would be an interest in terrorism.
Publishers didn't agree, although they made some kind comments about his book. Goldberg put the book aside and finally decided to join the growing world of self-published authors late last year. He's marketing it through social media, as well as Amazon.com and his own website.
A speaker on intelligence topics, Goldberg said terrorism has changed since his days with the CIA.
The drug trade and human trafficking have enabled terrorists to become self-funded, and electronic communications have allowed terrorism to become more dispersed.
"Terrorism then was state-sponsored. Funding was from countries you expected," he said. "The Soviet Union falling down really changed things."
Like then, the CIA mostly comes into the public eye when its practices are called into question. A recent report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence criticized the CIA for its "enhanced interrogation" techniques after Sept. 11. Goldberg said he believes the CIA is trying to change, but acknowledged that the agency's culture does open itself up to problems. Sometimes writing reports or attending meetings are valued over the quality of the intelligence gathered, he said.
"(There is) attention to process over what needs to be done," he said. "They sometimes don't learn from previous generations."
But Goldberg holds firm to his belief that most CIA staff members, including those serving after Sept. 11, are dedicated professionals.
"People thrown in these situations have to deal with these things in an extremely difficult environment," he said. "They're all trying to do as best they can."
Goldberg's book can be ordered at joegoldbergbooks.com and www.amazon.com. It also is available at the Glen Ellyn and Wheaton libraries, and at The Bookstore in Glen Ellyn, Anderson's Bookshop in Downers Grove and TownHouse Books in St. Charles.