This was in a sci-fi collection, pre-1990 and probably Asimov-era.

Told as a series of letters of the form "we've encountered the aliens and they might be shapeshifting telepaths. I'm putting the new guy, 'Tom', on it." Letter from the boss replies, "Who the heck is Tom? Why are you listening to him? I need to speak to him immediately!" Subsequent letter from the boss goes "Tom has explained everything to me. He's very persuasive. Please do everything he says." Repeat till Tom is like, President or something.

I was reminded of this story by the notion that Paul Ryan might become Speaker of the House and then President without ever running for the office, and this recent XKCD.

  • Maybe something by Eric Frank Russell? I know I've read it, but can't remember the author.
    – sueelleker
    Apr 11, 2016 at 6:25
  • Well, it's not I Spy, Postscript, or Top Secret (the one where they get their communications garbled to read "ostrich" instead of "outstretch").
    – Noumenon
    Apr 11, 2016 at 7:02
  • 2
    I know this one, too, I think. Here are some details I remember that might help: 1) epistolary format, but more like military inter-office memos than letters, 2) Terrans had just captured their first live enemy pilot (of the mind-controlling type, not sure about shapeshifting), 3) series of increasingly bad strategic decisions start coming from HQ, always based on the new guy's very convincing arguments, 4) at the end, protagonist orders border fleets to annihilate HQ while barricaded in his office with the new guy in his waiting room. If any of these seem right to you, let me know.
    – Otis
    Apr 12, 2016 at 2:49
  • The first three are right and I don't remember #4. Thank you. I seem to remember one of the bad strategic decisions was putting the defending ships around Earth in a ring, which of course was weak everywhere. So then they tried putting them all together or something, which was an even bigger disaster.
    – Noumenon
    Apr 12, 2016 at 2:53

1 Answer 1


The story is "The Prisoner" by Christopher Anvil, part of the series "The War with the Outs". I read it in the collection The Trouble With Aliens, which I think I found by following a link in another story-identification question on this site... but I can't find that one now.

Your "Tom" is actually named Colonel Gorley. As you read the story, it slowly becomes clear that Colonel Gorley is able to convince human military leaders to implement bad strategy, but he can only do it by speaking to them in person. So while he's fooling people at HQ, the commanders in the field are skeptical about the orders they're receiving, so he has to keep running around. After he leaves, the last person he fooled gradually starts thinking clearly and eventually Gorley has to go back and influence them some more.

I don't think he's a shapeshifter, it's just that his telepathic power includes the ability to make people think they're seeing a human when they're not.

Apart from that, all of the elements match, including Otis's additions.

Here's an excerpt of a message from someone under Gorley's influence:


Office of the Undersecretary for Defense


I have covered the situation for you down at the Opchief's office, and I am sure you must be mistaken about Colonel Gorley. He seems straightforward and solid, and explained the defense setup to me in such a way that for the first time it made sense to me. I can think of no one we might pick who would make a better advisor to the President on military matters.

  • I didn't remember Otis's #4 because I actually never understood what the protagonist was up to. I thought humanity lost in the end. Thank you very much. I feel like this was a tough one.
    – Noumenon
    Apr 12, 2016 at 4:32
  • 1
    Wumpus, probably the Jul 07 2014 question about Anvil's "Mind Partner," which I also followed to the linked Baen collection and is probably where I read this. Nice job!
    – Otis
    Apr 12, 2016 at 4:57

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