Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Jim Popkin might have waited a fairly long time to write his first novel, Code Name Blue Wren, but his vast experience as a journalist certainly helped to make it a deserved bestseller. The non-fiction book tells the true story of Ana Montes, who spent 17 years working as an expert on Cuba for the government by day, and transmitting classified information to that very same country by night.
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Jim Popkin Sheds Light on Ana Montes
Acts of espionage have historically been conducted for different reasons, and while the mercantile nature of today’s world would lead one to assume most did it for money, the reality is that ideological motivations still play the major role in such scenario. Ana Montes is a good example of this truth, and in Code Name Blue Wren, Jim Popkin gives us as full of an account of her case as possible.
For those who aren’t familiar with the name, or feel like they’ve heard it but can’t really place it, Ana Montes was (and in some ways, still is) the name at the centre of possibly the biggest espionage scandal over the last twenty years in the United States. She was arrested shortly after 9/11, and was only recently let out of prison, on January 8th, 2022.
Jim Popkin doesn’t simply try to recount her story to us from start to finish, but rather, he weaves it into a long and relatively complex psychological portrait of the woman. He tells her story in parallel to that of her sister, from their childhood at the hands of a father with a violent temper, and through their respective careers for the United States government.
The author examines not only Ana‘s actions throughout her life, but also the rest of her family, as well as the various governmental organizations which, in one way or another, were affected by her seventeen-year-long deception. Her personal life is laid bare before us from every perspective imaginable, explaining her unusual decisions, as well as the reasons she was able to get away with it for so long.
Additionally, I think I ought to mention this for those who are keenly-aware of the whole situation, Jim Popkin does offer previously-unpublished information in regards to her arrest, as well as the whole investigation which ultimately led to it. Not to mention, he was given exclusive access to her CIA behavioral profile, which in and of itself adds many welcome layers of depth to the woman’s story and unrepentant character.
Peeling the Layers of a Perfect Family in Code Name Blue Wren
With the type of information the author had access to when writing this first book of his, I think it’s only logical for him to have spent so much of his time and effort trying to paint a psychological portrait of his main subject. Jim Popkin truly is dead-set on understanding what made Ana Montes do what she did, and much of his digging was centred on her personal life.
In my opinion, he does a commendable job at describing the Montes household with so many rich and atmospheric details, it becomes very easy to picture what the earlier stages of her life must have looked like. We get a good sense of the strict and choking environment she grew up in with her sister Lucy, and how the beatings they received from their father affected them both down the line.
Ironically enough, her father was a former US Army Colonel, not to mention her brother and sister-in-law, as well as her only sister, worked for the FBI. Despite a tightly-knit family atmosphere, the author does his best to try to an explain how she ended up pulling away in such a drastically-different direction, and how her anti-US sentiments were fostered.
All in all, Jim Popkin gives us an extremely detailed dissection of the Montes household in Code Name Blue Wren, to the point where we have enough information to gain a solid understanding of the kind of people they all are and how they think. The little dynamics between them didn’t escape the author’s investigative efforts, but the question remains: does it actually help in understanding why Ana Montes did what she did?
In my opinion, it does in a certain way. The more we know about the world she lived in, the better an understanding we will intrinsically get of the ideology which drives her, and how it could have been formed in the first place. Personally-speaking, after knowing all the author had to teach me about her family history and connections, I had an easier time imagining her as a person, making the decisions she did, and what really pushed her over the edge.
As much as Code Name Blue Wren is the story of Ana Montes and her grand betrayal, it’s also the story of the various people and organizations which failed in not only stopping her in the first place, but allowed her to continue for seventeen years. After all, though she did prove herself calculating, resourceful and guileful, she wouldn’t have got as far as she did without some major bungles on the US government’s part.
Jim Popkin doesn’t pull any punches in criticizing his own government for its failures, detailing all the overlooked red flags when Ana was being given security clearance of classified documents. Those flags included lying about her credentials, harbouring anti-US sentiments, and having anti-US revolutionary family members in Puerto Rico, just to name a few. In my opinion, the harsh criticisms are well-deserved.
Naturally, Ana isn’t the only spy in human history to have operated for years upon years without being caught, but it seems as if in every case there is a recurring theme: ignoring evidence as it accumulates. This is another point on which Popkin (rightfully, I believe) shines the light of shame, raising the question as to how the organizations responsible for a country’s safety could prove to be so blind at times.
Naturally, he doesn’t just rip his government to shreds for the whole book, also detailing the operation to apprehend her, once it had finally been decided that she was up to no good. Popkin does well to pay homage to the specific people who made it possible, starting with the lone NSA agent who managed to decrypt a flow of coded radio traffic from Havana to Montes. He shows how efficient the FBI can be when it finally decides to act on something, even if only under external pressure.
In addition to it all, Jim Popkin also provides some extremely fascinating insight into spycraft on both the American and Cuban ends, describing the different techniques they employ and why they are so efficient. It is yet another small but useful window into the shadowed world of espionage we know so little about, and I think it’s worth appreciating every second of it.
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The Final Verdict
Code Name Blue Wren by Jim Popkin is an extremely well-told and profoundly-researched account of Ana Montes‘ life and work for both the US and Cuban governments, detailing not only what she did, but trying to pierce the veil and explain why she did it in the first place.
If you’re curious to learn virtually all there is to about Ana Montes at the current moment, or are simply in search of a gripping non-fiction espionage book, then I strongly recommend you give this book a chance.
Jim Popkin is an American journalist and author whose works have been printed in the Washington Post, Magazine, and WIRED, among numerous other publications. He also worked as senior investigative producer at NBC News as well as an on-air correspondent. He has so far published one book, Code Name Blue Wren, a true account of Ana Montes, arguably one of the more damaging female spies in US history.