Bill Harlow has one of the odder jobs in government: director of public affairs for the CIA. Asked about this paradoxical post, Harlow initially plays down the irony. “It’s not unlike being the chief spokesman for any other major government organization,” he says. “We deal with news media requests, and although we don’t have daily press briefings, like the State Department, we answer questions, give background briefings, and respond to allegations.”

OK, but isn’t there a teensy issue about secrecy? “Yes, that certainly plays into it,” Harlow acknowledges. “It adds an extra level of challenge to the job, because there are things that it would be second nature to do in other organizations that you can’t do as easily in the CIA. If you ask me how many employees we have, I can’t tell you. If you ask for information about our budget, I can tell you the overall budget for the intelligence community, but I can’t tell anything below that. Some of our employees are people I can’t discuss, either about who they are or how they do their jobs. The biggest challenge is that our greatest successes are things we can’t talk about. Other organizations would put out a press release,” he adds. “We’re just the opposite.”

The secrecy inherent in Harlow’s job also makes it a little harder for him to practice his sideline occupation: writing military thrillers. Harlow has just published his first novel, Circle William, about two brothers—one a presidential press secretary, the other the maverick captain of a Navy destroyer—who attempt to foil a Libyan plot to use chemical weapons against Israel and the United States. (The term “circle William” refers to a naval vessel’s state of preparedness for chemical or biological attacks; its name comes from the “W” markings on fan covers and vents that need to be shut.)

Harlow first submitted the manuscript to the vetting shop at the Navy, where he was finishing off a 25-year hitch, and then (though it wasn’t required) to the publications board at the CIA, where he had just been hired. Fortunately, Harlow’s ingrained discretion as a public affairs officer dealing with sensitive matters made the vetting process easy: It took only a few days, and neither the sailors nor the spooks felt moved to change much.

Harlow retired from the Navy as a captain, having served in London (where he handled information on actions in Libya and Lebanon) and Washington (where he spun the news on everything from spy scandals to hijackings). He later served as a press official in two stints at the Pentagon, inside the Reagan and Bush White Houses, and in the Office of the Secretary of the Navy. Such experiences obviously instilled in Harlow some political savvy: When asked the differences between working in Republican and Democratic administrations, Harlow says he’ll “take a pass on that one.”

Circle William has already been a hit among U.S. presidents—Clinton, Bush, and Carter have reportedly all read the book. (“Saturation in that market!” CNN anchor Miles O’Brien exclaimed when he interviewed Harlow recently. “Well, it’s a niche market, but it’s a good market.”) Clinton was given the novel by a mutual friend, Harlow says; the president then read it while traveling to Jordan for King Hussein’s funeral. Clinton subsequently passed the book on to others, including his press spokesperson, Joe Lockhart. A more appropriate gift, perhaps, than Leaves of Grass. — Louis Jacobson