Richard Clarke’s Unsecret Agent

On the afternoon of Monday, March 29, the man who convinced Richard Clarke to set pen to paper walked into a dark restaurant on the Upper East Side. “It has kind of a Mafia feel,” Len Sherman said cheerily as he took off his sunglasses and settled into a quiet booth.

Tanned, tieless and laid-back in a high-strung way, Mr. Sherman, a trim 48, had flown in very early that morning from Phoenix. Mr. Sherman is a writer, a maker of television documentaries and an occasional literary agent, and he was in town managing the hoopla around Mr. Clarke, his jackpot of a client, the author of the best-selling Against All Enemies .

Every few minutes, Mr. Sherman’s cell phone would light up and shimmy in place on the red tablecloth. First was his wife-like him, a New Yorker transplanted to Arizona. She wanted Stila lip polish No. 2 from Bloomingdale’s. Then came calls about the television projects he has in the works. “Would any network do it?” he asked one caller. “I live in Phoenix, so I can just hop over to L.A.,” he said to someone from Hollywood.

Bruce Nichols, Mr. Clarke’s editor at the Free Press, called to inform Mr. Sherman that Mr. Clarke-saying that he was just too tired-had canceled his planned Monday-night appearance on Chris Matthews’ Hardball . “He did?” Mr. Sherman said. “Shit.” But Mr. Sherman didn’t seem too upset. Why should he be? One week after its release, the book is already in its seventh printing, with 600,000 copies.

Not bad for an agent who only has two active clients(besides himself)-Mr. Clarke and Steven Emerson, author of another bestseller, American Jihad (2003). So, has the Clarke book been good for business? “No,” Mr. Sherman said nonchalantly. Really? Well, “some,” he continued. O.K., “it can’t hurt,” he concluded. “Unless you’re trying to sell an ad campaign to the R.N.C.” And is he? “They’d have to call first,” he said with a laugh. Mr. Sherman has excellent comic timing.

A Match Made in Afghanistan

How an Arizona-based maker of television documentaries who is also the author of such books as The Canyon Ranch Guide to Living Younger Longer and Big League, Big Time (about the birth of the Arizona Diamondbacks) came to represent the man who now arguably poses the greatest threat to the Bush administration after, say, Senator John Kerry and Osama bin Laden can be summed up in one word: Afghanistan.

In the late 1990’s, Mr. Sherman was a self-styled literary-investigative impresario, writing books and working on TV documentaries on topics ranging from baseball to terrorism. The events in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan caught his attention, and through a mutual friend he contacted Julie Sirrs, an Afghanistan expert and former analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency who had traveled on her own in the country and later fell out with the C.I.A. and the State Department. Ms. Sirrs told him harrowing tales of traveling in a burqa and meeting the late Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud in a camp in the mountains. Talking to Ms. Sirrs fired up Mr. Sherman’s imagination. “A destination gives you a narrative and a story,” he said.

In 2000, Mr. Sherman traveled with Ms. Sirrs and a cameraman to Afghanistan to film a documentary. “I went to the north, to this P.O.W. camp run by the Northern Alliance, and I interviewed Al Qaeda guys and Taliban guys who said they’d love to come to the U.S. and blow up buildings,” Mr. Sherman said.

By the spring of 2000, when the documentary, called Abandon All Hope: Welcome to Afghanistan , was being edited, Mr. Sherman was convinced that he was sitting on crucial material. “When I came back, I said, ‘This is important information, and I think somebody in government should know about this,'” he recalled. “These guys came from Britain to Burma. Most had walked to get to Afghanistan. To walk from Yemen shows a certain dedication, which I think we didn’t understand.”

Mr. Sherman discussed what he’d learned about Al Qaeda with Mr. Emerson, a counterterrorism investigator he’d first met in the late 90’s through his Afghanistan research-and who later became Mr. Sherman’s first client as a literary agent, when Mr. Sherman helped Mr. Emerson conceive American Jihad . When Mr. Sherman asked whom he should contact in the Clinton administration, Mr. Emerson told him to call Richard Clarke, for whom he’d provided counterterrorism expertise in the past.

(In Against All Enemies , Mr. Clarke writes that American Jihad “had told me more than the FBI ever had about radical Islamic groups in the U.S.”)

Mr. Sherman brought his tapes to Mr. Clarke’s office in the White House. They met for “at least an hour,” Mr. Sherman recalled. “He’s a good listener.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Sherman was having trouble selling his documentary. “I couldn’t give it away when I did it,” he said. Then came Sept. 11; Mr. Sherman sold Abandon Hope to MSNBC on Sept. 12.

The two men stayed in touch, Mr. Sherman said, and spoke “now and again” between 2000 and January 2003, when Mr. Clarke left the administration. After Mr. Clarke’s resignation, Mr. Sherman said, “my first question was, ‘When are you going to write a book?’ His history is the history of counterterrorism of the past 30 years. He’s in every single major event.” Mr. Sherman grew even more animated. “He’s Zelig, but not as a bystander-as a participant.”

Back Story

“He was interested,” Mr. Sherman continued. In the winter and spring of last year, Mr. Clarke worked on a 20-page book proposal with a sample chapter. In May 2003, Mr. Sherman started shopping the proposal around.

In June, he set up a one-day auction, which Mr. Nichols at the Free Press won. Mr. Nichols had also bought Mr. Emerson’s American Jihad , and he’d been in touch with Mr. Sherman while Mr. Clarke was working on the proposal.

Neil Nyren, the publisher and editor in chief of Putnam, was also vying for the Clarke book. “We all met with him; we all were extremely impressed,” Mr. Nyren said. “We bid a substantial amount of money for the book because we were quite enthusiastic. At the last moment, the Free Press bumped up its bid a considerable amount, and it was just above the level that we had for ourselves at that time.”

Mr. Nichols declined to comment on the auction or the author advance. According to one person familiar with the contract, the Free Press paid Mr. Clarke an advance “in the mid- to high six figures” for the book. Another person familiar with the deal said the contract didn’t include an author bonus if the book became a best-seller, as it has.

Mr. Sherman said that, contrary to publishers’ expectations, Mr. Clarke turned out to be a good writer and easy to deal with. “Every single publisher immediately assumed we’d have a ghost writer,” Mr. Sherman said. “I’ve done that kind of work before. It was totally unnecessary. He writes fast and well, but since he wrote it himself, it took a while to hit on the right formula.”

Mr. Clarke finished the manuscript in the fall of 2003 and gave it to the White House to be vetted for confidential material on Nov. 4, Mr. Nichols said, adding that the White House first returned the manuscript in January, at which point Mr. Clarke “went through a couple of rounds of negotiations showing them the changes.” Free Press received the final vetted manuscript on Feb. 4, Mr. Nichols said. (That also happens to be the same day that President Bush reversed his earlier stance and agreed to support a two-month extension of the deadline for the 9/11 commission to complete its investigative report.) A spokesman for the National Security Council, Sean McCormack, confirmed the chronology and said a three-month vetting was “average for a book of this length and a book dealing with these kinds of issues.”

Free Press put a tight embargo on the book-only four people within Simon and Schuster, of which Free Press is an imprint, were allowed to set eyes on it-and had originally planned an April publication date. Martha Levin, the publisher of Free Press, dismissed theories that publication was rushed to coincide with the 9/11 hearings. The date was moved up twice: first to March 29 from April 29, “because other books were coming up from Simon and Schuster that would have interfered” with its impact, Ms. Levin said. (She declined to specify which books, but a likely candidate is Bob Woodward’s embargoed Plan of Attack , which is bound to rock some boats when it comes out on April 20.)

Then, on March 10, Mr. Clarke told Free Press that he had been subpoenaed and would speak at the hearings on March 24, Ms. Levin said. That week, Mr. Clarke taped the 60 Minutes segment that aired on March 21, the day before the book came out and the hearings began. “When we knew that he was testifying, we knew we had to move the pub date up [again], because the testimony is televised and we would have lost 60 Minutes if we hadn’t moved it up,” Ms. Levin said. The book was released on Monday, March 22.

For his part, Mr. Sherman is now angling to sell the movie rights to Mr. Clarke’s book. “We’re starting to get those calls, and we’ll see where it leads,” Mr. Sherman said. “I’d be very surprised if something didn’t happen.” For movie rights, Mr. Sherman is working with a co-agent, Ron Bernstein at ICM. “He did Black Hawk Down and understands this better,” Mr. Sherman said. Mr. Sherman then riffed on how Hollywood would treat Mr. Clarke’s book. “It’s part Jack Ryan, part George Smiley!” he said in mock Hollywoodese. “It’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington , without the naïveté.” He seemed to be enjoying himself. “It’s like All the President’s Men or Patriot Games !” he continued. “Can Toronto look like Kabul?”

Sherman’s March

Born in the Bronx and raised in Westchester, Mr. Sherman majored in political science at the University of Pennsylvania and has a degree from Columbia Law School. Not unlike the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team built from scratch, Mr. Sherman moved to Arizona from New York nine years ago, essentially because it gives him a good base from which to maneuver. He seems to like being a big fish in a small pond. Mr. Sherman lives there with his two young daughters and his wife, a former publicist for Turner Films.

Not long after moving to Scottsdale, Mr. Sherman asked Joe Arpaio, the tough-minded sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., if he could work with him on his autobiography. “This book demands to be read,” Rush Limbaugh said on the front-cover blurb for America’s Toughest Sheriff: How to Win the War Against Crime (Summit Pub Group, 1996). “I couldn’t sell it to a New York publisher!” Mr. Sherman said. “They said maybe if he was a New York sheriff. So we sold it to a Texas publisher.”

In 1999, he published How You Play the Game with Jerry Colangelo, the owner of the Phoenix Suns and the Arizona Diamondbacks. That kind of thing just wouldn’t be possible in New York, Mr. Sherman continued. “Can you imagine asking George Steinbrenner about writing his autobiography without going through 80 levels of secretaries? You’d have to go through Howard Rubenstein!”

Mr. Sherman is spinning with ideas. He has a few television documentaries in the works. He wants to write a novel about his experiences in Afghanistan, a book on how the Southwest is changing, another on how the Internet and the media are fragmenting American society. If everyone tunes in only to the channels that correspond to their own beliefs and interests, “how do you keep a government together? How do you keep a nation a nation?” Mr. Sherman asked. “That will only become a bigger problem and very, very soon-more than terrorism-can easily destroy the U.S.,” he said. “There’s no cohesion.”

Mr. Sherman said he’s liberal on domestic issues and more hawkish on foreign policy. Unlike Mr. Clarke, Mr. Sherman said he supported the war in Iraq. “I was in favor of the invasion,” he said. “Not because of the weapons of mass destruction, but because it could change everything” in the Middle East. But Mr. Sherman said he won’t be voting for Mr. Bush in the next election. “I’m a Democrat,” he said.

Will he continue working with Mr. Clarke? Will he be the go-to agent for counterterrorism books? “I don’t know. I like doing interesting things, so that would be great,” Mr. Sherman said. “I’m not trying to be obtuse,” he added, being obtuse. Besides, he said with a laugh and a glint in his eye, “I’m trying to get that bin Laden memoir!”