“Danny, if I find you’re a threat to my family, I’ll put a bullet between your eyes. Family is everything.”
“I understand that, Clyde. If I were in your position, I would say the same thing—and mean it.”
“You would; wouldn’t you?” He smiled as he studied me.
Those are the opening lines of Damian and Mongoose, Danny Williams’ memoir of his central role in taking down one of the most notorious spy rings ever to afflict the United States military. They promise a real-life spy thriller, better than anything John le Carré, Robert Ludlum, or Ken Follett could have dreamed up.
Unfortunately, the promise is not kept.
The reason is simple: Williams, who spent most of his Army career as a counter-intelligence agent, treats the memoir as if it were another debriefing with his superiors. He reports verbatim conversation after conversation, whether with Clyde Conrad, the leader of the spy ring, or any of Williams’ co-workers, superiors, or handlers. I understand that Williams wanted to use Conrad’s own words to reveal his motivations and personality, but when there’s so much dialogue, it can be hard for the average reader to process it all and separate out the important material.
The names in the title are significant, and self-assigned. Conrad’s code name, Damian, means “one who subdues or tames,” and he certainly did that to his recruits. Williams’ code-name, Mongoose, is, of course, the reference to the weasel-like animal that kills snakes.
Early on, Williams repeatedly says he considered Conrad a friend, and continued to feel that way even after he (Williams) had done the work that led to Conrad’s arrest by German authorities, his trial, conviction, and sentence to life in prison. Williams also states that he considered Conrad one of the most professional soldiers he’d ever known. For this military veteran, these statements are hard to square with what Conrad did. Williams eventually explains that while Conrad was in the Army, he did everything exactly right, and even went above and beyond what was required by regulation and procedure.
But those actions, it turned out, were so that Conrad could gain the confidence and trust of the people around him. That allowed him to later talk them into becoming spies, or at least sources of highly classified information for the Hungarian and ultimately the Soviet intelligence services. He did his work so well that NATO and German authorities later believed that if there had ever been war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, NATO’s war plans would have been so compromised that the allies would have had to resort to nuclear weapons almost immediately.
Yet even after Conrad’s conviction, Williams considered him, a traitor to the United States, a friend. His explanation, that business is business and friendship is a separate thing, is unconvincing, to say the least.
Despite these flaws, this book’s look inside the worlds of espionage and counter-espionage are both fascinating and chilling. As a military officer, I was continuously cautioned against the kinds of behavior that could lead me to be compromised. The people who handled the classified documents Conrad eventually acquired and turned over—mostly relatively poorly paid enlisted personnel, it should be noted—surely received the same kinds of training and warnings, yet Conrad was so skilled he was able to overcome them.
Williams walked a fine line as he gathered the information needed to build the case against Conrad. On the one hand, he had to keep Conrad’s trust—to con the con-man, in other words—while at the same time not break any laws or do anything that would cause the investigation to fail, while retaining the confidence of his superiors, who doubted his non-standard methods of working with their target.
A more tightly woven and better-edited story would have made Damian and Mongoose a can’t-put-it-down read. I wish it had been.