Light on the shadowy world of cloak and cloak and dagger; CIA as victim -- a fictionalized view; The Spike, by Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss. New York: Crown Publishers.

This flimsy, underwritten, only spasmodically suspenseful novel of suspense may well turn out to be an important book. The reason is simple. No book so far, fiction or nonfiction, has driven home its central point nearly as well: the Soviets, by skillfully spreading disinformation, via agents both witting and unwitting, have eroded and are still eroding America's intelligence-gathering capacity.

Because the authors are in a position to know what they are talking about, their book cannot just be written off as a run-of-the-mill thriller. Arnaud de Borchgrave has been farroving foreign correspondent for Newsweek for the last 16 years. Robert Moss edits Foreign Report, a publication put out by The Economist of London.

Their plot caroms from Paris (1967) to Vietnam the following year, to Moscow, New York, Hamburg, and Rome in the 1970s and to Washington "in the near future." The central figure is crusading reporter Robert Hockney.

When the Jane Fonda-like woman he loves is brainwashed and ultimately destroyed, Hockney makes a sharp turn to the right, for she is the victim of the enemy he has in effect been aiding by his journalistic assaults on the CIA. Instead of exposing intelligence agency practices, he now turns to tracking down Soviet methods of infiltration, incurring the wrath of liberal think tanks and the do-good press, which once extolled him.

When Hockney induces a highly placed Soviet agent to defect, and the agent's revelations point to the US vice-president and many others in authority as being in collusion with the enemy, Hockney's newspaper editor spikes the story -- hence the title.

The characters are one-dimensional, or pale facsimiles of public figures. The President is called Billy Connors. He has a "papier-mache smile," and he comes from Flats, Miss. Serbian Milorad Yankovich, head of the National Security Council, is simply the Polish Brzezinski writ small.

No matter. As the story hurtles along, we learn a good deal about three kinds of Soviet spies: (a) the principal agents who maintain an intimate relationship with the KGB; (b) the wholehearted sympathizer, who while not formally recruited is totally to be trusted and often serves as a talent spotter for potential agents, and (c) the unconscious source who acts under KGB control without knowing it and is sometimes the most valuable of all.

The heart of the Soviet methodology is made vivid and believable: "The key to a successful disinformation operation is to start with a kernel . . . of truth. Around that you weave your fabric of falsehood. If you want to discredit true information, for example, the best way to do it is to circulate reports that are superficially similar, but can easily be shown to be false."

The words are Nick Flower's, and Nick is a double for James Angleton, the former chief of CIA counterintelligence. Nick understands why it is more popular and more stylish to attack his own intelligence apparatus than the enemy's -- and is fired for doing so.

It is this central point, hammered home under its thin veneer of fiction, that makes "The Spike" more than just a slack spy yarn.

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