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An Officer and a Spy

Robert Harris's novel about the Dreyfus affair of the 1890s is a perfect story for the age of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden.

By Erik Spanberg / January 30, 2014

An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris, Knopf Doubleday, 448 pp.

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For those who may be fuzzy on their history, let’s get this much straight right up front: don't think “Fifty Shades of Grey.” The Dreyfus affair is not that kind of affair.

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Instead, the Dreyfus affair was an infamous spy scandal of the 1890s, a court case fueled by the black-and-white paranoia of the French government. It made international headlines as accusations mounted against a 35-year-old French officer for sharing military secrets with Germany.

Alfred Dreyfus, who not coincidentally happened to be Jewish, was imprisoned in horrid conditions as a result of the investigation. He was, it turned out, improperly accused and convicted, framed by military and intelligence officials panicked and prejudiced by the humiliation and suspicion of state secrets revealed, secrets that were revelatory of nothing – and provided by another French officer who escaped unpunished despite conclusive evidence.

In other words, the Dreyfus affair is a perfect story for our times and for British thriller writer Robert Harris.

Taking a bit of musty history, polishing the tale and taking a few dramatic licenses, Harris’s latest book manages to be both breezy and thoughtful as well as very much of the moment. Look no farther than WikiLeaks and Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is serving a 35-year prison term for disclosing classified military documents in 2010 regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Manning declared himself of transgender last summer and changed his name to Chelsea.) And, even more recently, the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, a whistle-blower/leaker who remains in Russia under protection from the US after disclosing American surveillance tactics, including extensive online and smartphone snooping of millions of citizens, last year.

Colonel Georges Picquart and Dreyfus, as well as the top political and military leaders in France during the 1890s, knew the moral hazards of such terrain well.

For 12 years, Dreyfus and, eventually, Picquart fought to clear their names of charges of treason and revealing military secrets, respectively. Picquart, much like Manning and Snowden, engendered fierce opposition in part because of his role as an insider who offered harsh critiques of his own government and the people running it. To be sure, there are many differences, too, but each episode centers on the philosophical struggles of a democratic government weighing national security measures against the preservation of civil liberties.

In the cases of Dreyfus and Picquart, their names would ultimately be cleared, but at staggering costs.

The machinations, the treacheries, the anguish, and the public fascination of the Dreyfus affair prove to be ideal fodder for Harris, whose thriller settings have ranged from World War II-era Germany and ancient Rome to a contemporary mash-up of financial markets and artificial intelligence.

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