Reviews of America
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New York Times
January 25, 2007
Returning to the Spy World to Uncover a Political
Reviewed by Janet Maslin
In his first book, “Overworld,” Larry
J. Kolb told a dizzying, spy-studded story of his lifelong adventures
as the son of a senior United States intelligence official. It was
an amazing account, almost too much so, filled with events far too
strange for fiction. And it was packed with guest stars, from Muhammad
Ali to Ronald Reagan. For a man who had lived so much of his life
in the shadows, Mr. Kolb used this book to cast an improbably bright
“Overworld” came out in 2004. According to Mr. Kolb’s
sketchier but equally lively second book, “America at Night,”
its publication greatly changed his fortunes. By then he was no
longer in his James Bond phase; this was not “one of the decades
in which I lived in suits and ties, especially if tuxedos count
as suits,” he writes in the new book. But thanks to the exposure
that “Overworld” brought him, he says, life became newly
glamorous. He was in Los Angeles, headed for a meeting about a movie
deal and possibly to a party full of supermodels when duty called
and threw him into a new set of adventures.
“It’s an ugly story, except for the girl,” he
writes. Nice line. Too bad there isn’t really a girl in this
story, unless you count one who is spotted on the street wearing
gold lamé genie’s shoes, or another who tries to make
him part of a Nielsen television survey.
That noir, hard-boiled style is better suited to someone writing
in the spirit of James Ellroy (Mr. Ellroy expressed great admiration
for “Overworld”) than to a data-oriented member of the
espionage community. And one of the lessons he learned from his
father, Mr. Kolb says, is that dreary, dogged research is a big
part of penetrating the secrets of the espionage bureaucracy or,
as he calls it, the “espiocracy.”
His close familiarity with the histories of two veteran con men,
Mr. Kolb says, is what drew him into the events that “America
at Night” describes. The more visible of the two is Robert
M. Sensi, who “could go into a revolving door behind you and
come out ahead of you.” Mr. Sensi has served time for embezzlement
and fraud and has been a C.I.A. operative.
Although Mr. Sensi has also been involved with the Bush family and
the Republican National Committee, Mr. Kolb contends that there
is no political animus at work in his pursuit of Mr. Sensi. And
he points out that he voted for President Reagan. Instead of having
a partisan agenda, he says, he helped the Department of Homeland
Security pursue two men who might have no qualms about helping terrorists,
since they had no apparent qualms about anything else.
Mr. Kolb was also asked to find information about a lawyer named
Richard Marshall Hirschfeld. As “Overworld” explains,
they originally crossed paths when both traveled to Beirut with
Mr. Ali — or, as his name is best dropped here, Muhammad.
It was not the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
According to the very tall Mr. Kolb, the very short Mr. Hirschfeld
was “packaged and produced by the same studio that gave you
the midlife Mickey Rooney." He adds that Mr. Hirschfeld was
someone who “could sell fried snowballs to the great chefs
Among Mr. Hirschfeld’s claims to fame, as stated here, were
a fraudulent effort to market “the world’s only known
cure for herpes,” maneuvers to help wealthy foreign criminals
enter the United States and a parole scam (after Mr. Hirschfeld
went to prison) involving Habitat for Humanity. The Washington Post
described him as a “flashy fugitive” after he fled the
At the start of “America at Night,” with its title referring
to the generally murky atmosphere in which such individuals operate,
Mr. Kolb is asked to help identify “Richard Marshall,”
a lawyer who may be abetting terrorists. Since all photographs of
Mr. Marshall have conveniently vanished, Mr. Kolb must find other
ways to pursue his hunch that Mr. Marshall and Mr. Hirschfeld are
one and the same.
This leads him on a twisted path, and quite an entertaining one.
It draws him into the kind of story about which fiction writers
can only dream. One of its minor figures got rich selling shoes
to the Turkish army, for example. This man’s son ran a hugely
profitable mail-order contact lens company from prison while doing
time on charges involving cocaine. “And you should see the
guy’s wife!” a C.I.A. official tells Mr. Kolb.
In the course of “America at Night,” the author uncovers
a potential dirty trick that may influence the 2004 presidential
election. It is a link between John Kerry's unwitting campaign treasurer,
Robert Farmer, and money laundering for Al Qaeda, but it turns out
to be only one piece of this book’s larger puzzle. In breathless,
overcrowded fashion, “America at Night” looks under
a rock and finds a staggering array of crooked, ruthless activities
attributable to Mr. Sensi and Mr. Hirschfeld — and, by implication,
their friends in the world of politics.
“How high up do you think this goes?” someone asks Mr.
Kolb. It goes as high up as reading “All the President’s
Men.” But this book, for all its wild and entertaining cloak-and-dagger
crime stories, can’t otherwise compare with that one.
February 22, 2007
In from the cold, a spy foils the plot
Reviewed by John Freeman, Special to the
In his 2004
memoir Overworld, Larry J. Kolb spun the kind of life story it seemed
only existed in Tom Clancy novels. Raised by a spy, trained by the
great CIA spymaster Miles Copeland, Kolb had participated in all
kinds of covert shenanigans, from the Iran-Contra deal to hostage
negotiation in Lebanon.
But it was all
true, and in America at Night, the retired spy recounts another
caper: In early 2004, he learned of a plot to fix the upcoming presidential
election and decided it was his responsibility to stop it.
on for this adventure, there are a few things one has to accept
about Kolb. He is a nervy, energetic writer, and he likes to set
a scene. There are a lot of glamorous locations and supermodels
and fast cars.
News of this
presidential election plot comes to Kolb at a swank restaurant in
Los Angeles. A bon vivant and fixer on his way to Libya for business
drops it into conversation. Kolb, retired to an anonymous life on
a Florida beach, is intrigued.
Using just his
files, an Internet connection, a vast Rolodex and a telephone, he
tracks down the two men at the heart of the plot faster than the
Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the CIA combined.
Along the way,
Kolb instructs readers in tricks and tools of the trade, from "elicitation"
- how to extract information from people without their knowing -
to mundane details of file keeping.
He also provides
a damning look at the intelligence system and how agencies involved
don't share information. In some cases, he writes, they don't even
have access to the Internet.
modem, Kolb had another jump on his own government. He had crossed
paths in the Middle East with the two suspects, Robert Sensi and
Robert Hirschfield, when they were employees of the CIA under close
direction, he says, of then-Vice President George Bush.
Sensi was introduced
to Kolb as the chairman of the Ambassador's Club of Republicans
Abroad. Kolb met Hirschfield in 1985 during the Lebanese civil war.
figured the Republicans Abroad job was just Sensi's CIA cover, but
the job title would later tell him a lot about what kept Sensi and
Hirschfield in business when they crossed back over to the criminal
As Kolb discovers,
before (and perhaps during) the time Sensi and Hirschfield were
working for the CIA, they were also involved in serious crime. Hirschfield's
past was littered with imploded bank schemes, bankruptcy, SEC filings
and a mysterious death or two.
Sensi was no angel either, and Kolb learns his latest employment
(before disappearing) was arranging safe passage, visas, sometimes
even passports for dubious sorts who needed to get in and out of
the United States.
In one breathtaking
story, Kolb describes how a Russian aluminum magnate was given a
vivid demonstration of Sensi's pull. The man was flown into Washington
on a private jet, quickly processed through immigration and taken
to the White House, where he shook the hand of President George
Kolb is quick
to point out that Bush may not have known whom he was meeting, but
there is a trail of evidence linking America's most powerful political
family and these two con men, from the lawyers who bail them out
when they get in trouble to the access they get to top level legislators
to the contracts they get to do business in Iraq.
In the end,
Kolb learns they have an explosive plan to "swift-boat"
John Kerry in his run for the presidency by tying his campaign manager
to Al-Qaeda. Their mark is a successful Turkish businessman in Miami,
whose phone-card empire they infiltrate to make it look like he
was working for terrorists. They then very quietly - while tipping
off the CIA - sign up one of Kerry's campaign treasurers to be chairman
of the company's board.
Kolb is a cinematic
writer, and much of this book seems too wild to be true. But he
has produced a mountain of evidence - much of it available on his
Web site, larryjkolb.com - and 30-some pages of footnotes. This
kind of documentation makes this exciting read also a bracing one.
It also goes to show maybe the shenanigans of Watergate aren't behind
us: They've just gone freelance.
John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.
The Republicans wouldn't really try to steal an election, would
they? According to former CIA operative Kolb, you bet they would.
A story that's murky but exciting from beginning to end, Kolb's
narrative opens with a hushed inquiry in a Hollywood restaurant,
where an attorney with deep connections to the shadow world asks
what he knows of a man named Robert Sensi, chairman of Republicans
Abroad. Well, Kolb answers, he worked for the CIA, with close ties
to Bill Casey and George H.W. Bush, and he went bad. A strange picture
forms: Sensi and an ally, Richard Hirschfeld, have arranged for
a Turkish entrepreneur with connections to bin Laden and company
to make a contribution to John Kerry's 2004 campaign, with the idea
of then exposing it as terrorist money. It's circumstantial, but
Kolb knows what buttons to push: Given that Karl Rove was a disciple
of Donald Segretti, chief of dirty tricks in the Watergate affair,
"would Rove balk if Hirschfeld or an intermediary approached
him with a scheme to link Kerry with Al Qaeda? Read Rove's record,
and you decide." It gets murkier when Kolb takes the evidence
he's accumulated to Kerry's camp, where it's immediately leaked
to the Bush people, and Kolb is running for his life. Along the
way, he lends credence to the notion that Casey engineered the October
surprise by which the Iran hostages were freed to influence the
election of Ronald Reagan ("A very dirty trick, if it was true.
And without quite saying it, Sensi seemed to be telling me it was
true"); casts serious doubt on the efficacy and morality of
the drug war; and gives good reason to doubt everyone with an ounce
of political power. "Like so much of the rest of the true story
of my life . . . it's preposterous," Kolb says in passing.
Look at the record, and you decide.
After 20 years of CIA covert operations, Kolb looked forward to
retirement and the obligatory memoir (Overworld, 2004), when he
discovered the wildly sinister plot recounted in this engaging book.
As a favor to the Department of Homeland Security, he consulted
colleagues, his files and the Internet for information on Robert
Sensi and Richard Hirschfeld, once vaguely
CIA-connected but now wanted by the FBI for numerous financial scams.
The avalanche of data he unearthed makes the inability of the FBI,
CIA and DHS to gather information very disturbing. Specifically,
Kolb discovered the pair had placed the treasurer of Sen. John Kerry's
campaign committee on the board of a company that (perhaps inadvertently)
sold supplies to al-Qaeda—a
revelation that would have devastated Kerry's 2004 presidential
campaign. Kolb also recounts details of his subjects' long career
of fraud and extortion, often with cooperation from prominent Washington
figures. Stories of powerful men behaving badly have irresistible
appeal, and Kolb relates them in prose far more lively than the
average bureaucrat's, while backing his story with footnotes, Internet
addresses and quotes from named sources.