James Grady writes riveting spy-thriller fiction, but the Iranians keep walking into his made-up plots.
In 1975, the movie version of Grady's iconic novel of Watergate-era paranoia, “Three Days of the Condor,” featured a renegade CIA hit man donning a mail carrier’s gray uniform to kill a CIA researcher played by Robert Redford.
Five years later, an assassin dispatched by Tehran showed up on the doorstep of an anti-regime exile activist in Bethesda, Md., dressed up as a postman, to carry out the hit.
Another loop: Redford's (and Grady's) fictional CIA unit read books to come up with ideas for espionage. Yet another: A few years ago Russian defector Sergei Tretyakov claimed that the KGB, inspired by Grady's thriller, set up a unit to -- you guessed it: read books for spy ideas.
"It stunned the hell out of me," Grady said.
Grady eventually tracked down Dawud Salahuddin, the American Muslim convert who undertook the Bethesda assassination, who had escaped to Iran, and asked him where he got his inspiration.
“Dawud said he wasn’t sure if ‘Condor’ was a tactical influence on him or not, that he may have gotten the idea from a friend,” Grady told me today from his home in Silver Spring, Md.
Now comes an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
As it turns out, Grady’s short story “Destiny City” (just republished in “Best Mystery Stories of 2011”) posits a U.S. undercover agent’s penetration of an al Qaeda cell in Washington.
Close: According to the feds, an undercover DEA agent tipped Washington to a real alleged Iranian plot against the Saudi ambassador.
The whole thing sounds pretty far-fetched, even to U.S. officials who privately admit they don’t quite understand it, either.
FBI Director Robert Mueller said the charges read like "a Hollywood script" -- as did the Iranians -- although Mueller called it "serious."
“The U.S. government and the CIA have very good experience in making up film scripts,” said Ali Akbar Javanfekr, a spokesman for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Maybe it's not so far-fetched, says former CIA operative Art Keller, whose recent novel "Hollow Strength" is set in a vicious internal Iranian power struggle over the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, suspected of sponsoring the assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador.
Grady agrees. “The most bizarre element about Iran wanting to use Mexican cartel hit men to whack a Saudi diplomat in D.C. is not as crazy as it sounds,” Grady told me.
“Drug lords in Afghanistan have worked with the Taliban for mutual goals, and a report last year by the Congressional Research Service noted that the number of foreign terrorist groups involved in the global narcotics trade jumped from 14 groups in 2003 to 18 in 2008. All it takes for an official government ‘spy’ to try to use drug cartels as killers is a little imagination.”
When he talked with Dawud Salahuddin, Grady thought he might get some insight on the terrorist mindset.
“I interviewed Dawud to get a realistic background sense of how Islamic terrorists might think, not about the operational scheme I'd come up with for my ‘Destiny City’ story,” Grady continued. “He was guarded but friendly. We only had e-mail contact,” which ended some years ago.
In another art-torn-from-life twist, Grady said, “We'd first been put in touch years ago by Carl Shoffler, the famous Watergate arresting officer who became a legend in DC,” who died in 1996. “Carl … was working Dawud's case, trying to persuade him to surrender. I can only speculate that Carl insisted on putting us in touch to help Dawud feel like people in America might understand him.”
Dawud should be careful about getting involved in even fictional plots.
According to an Iranian opposition web site, an Iranian actress has been sentenced to a year in jail and 90 lashes “related to her role in an Australian-made film portraying social alienation, artistic repression and drug use in Iran.”
It was called “an outcome that could have been lifted from the pages of the movie's script."