Read The director: a novel Online

Authors: Ignatius, David

The director: a novel

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It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently.



Graham Weber first encountered James Morris at Caesar’s Palace Hotel in Las Vegas. Weber was watching the controlled chaos of the Palace casino just beyond the lobby. This was the gambling proletariat: The heavy hitters were deeper in the hotel at the Forum casino or in private rooms. Weber studied the people at the tables with the curiosity of a successful businessman who didn’t like to gamble except on a sure thing. A younger man approached Weber from behind, tapped him on the shoulder, showed him his government identification and offered to carry his bag.

Weber was just under six feet, wearing an azure-blue sports jacket over a pair of tan slacks. He had the blond hair, ruddy cheeks and good health of a man who in his youth might have been a high school football quarterback, or an assistant golf pro. His eyes were an aqua blue that seemed to sparkle from reflected light in the same way as water in the sunlight. Weber was in fact a businessman in the communications industry, closing in on his first $500 million, when he met Morris. He had come to town to give a speech on Internet privacy to a convention of computer hackers.

“I’d turn off your cell phones, sir,” said Morris. “Take the batteries out, too, if you want to be safe.” He had led Weber out of the crowded din of the casino, back toward the fountain by the reception desk, whose perpetual cascade covered their conversation.

Morris was tall and thin, with close-cut brown hair and a pair of glasses that floated on his long nose in a way that resembled the cartoon character Michael Doonesbury. He was wearing a black T-shirt that readAREA 51 WAITING AREA, under a gray linen jacket. He worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, as director of its Information Operations Center. He had been assigned by his bosses to escort Weber, who served as a member of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

“Why turn off the phones?” asked Weber. “I need to communicate with my office while I’m here.”

“Because they’ll get pounded,” said Morris. “This is a convention of hackers. These people come here to steal stuff. Take a look.”

Morris gestured to the crowd swirling through the lobby, and it was true, they didn’t look like the normal Vegas visitors. Many were wearing cargo shorts and T-shirts; some had Mohawk haircuts; others had gelled their hair to the stiffness of porcupine quills. They were cut and pierced and tattooed across every inch of flesh.

“I have a BlackBerry and an iPhone,” Weber protested, “straight to AT&T and Verizon. The messages are encrypted. The phones are password-protected.”

“They’re wide open, Mr. Weber. People have set up bogus Wi-Fi and cellular access points all over Las Vegas this week. Your phone may think it’s connecting with Verizon, but it could be a spoof. And on the passwords and encryption, I’m sorry, but forget it.”

Weber looked at his earnest, bespectacled guide and nodded assent. He opened the back of his BlackBerry and withdrew the battery. He looked quizzically at the iPhone with its nonremovable power source. Morris reached into his pack and handed him a small black bag with a Velcro top.

“Put the iPhone in this,” Morris said. “It’s a signal-blocking pouch. It prevents your phone from talking to any friendly or unfriendly networks.”

“Handy,” said Weber appreciatively. He inserted his phone in the pouch.

“You want to know how vulnerable you are, Mr. Weber? I’ll show you later at the Rio. What you see there will frighten you, I promise.”

“That’s why I came,” said Weber.

An hour later, after Weber had unpacked his bag and made some business calls on the hotel phone back home to Seattle, the two men were in a taxi taking the short ride from Caesar’s across I-15 to the Rio, which was hosting the main events of the convention. Morris led the way. He’d changed into a black hoodie. On the way in, he got nods from occasional passersby. Weber wondered whether these were other intelligence officers trolling for talent, or agents inside the hacker world, or perhaps just kindred spirits.

They stopped to register at a VIP booth just outside the main convention area. Weber felt uncomfortable, watching the Mohawks and bullet heads walk past. Their T-shirts advertised their passion for undoing the ordered world:HACKITO ERGO SUM, read one.HACK THE CLOUD, boasted another.CARNAL KNOWLEDGE OF DEATH, warned a third.

A convention organizer handed Weber his entry badge. It was an odd-shaped device, with plastic representations of Egyptian gods and mummies below an electronic pod with a circuit board packed with chips and transmitters. There was space for three AAA electric batteries on the back. Weber began to insert the batteries he had been given as part of his registration kit.

“Don’t turn it on,” said Morris. “It’s a mini-computer that will connect to the mesh network. It can track wherever you go here. It may have a camera and microphone. Leave it off. You’re a speaker. You don’t need the badge turned on. I’ll get you through if there’s any hassle.”

Weber put the odd-shaped device, unwired, around his neck and passed through the entry portal, to respectful nods from the gatekeepers toward his guide.

“I take it you’ve been here before,” Weber said, joining the stream of the crowd entering the convention space.

“I’ve been coming to DEF CON for ten years,” said Morris, leaning toward Weber and speaking quietly. “It’s my favorite honeypot.”

“You recruit here?” asked Weber.

“I’ve hired some of my best people off the floor.” He pointed to an overweight, pimple-faced young man in baggy cargo shorts and sandals, and a Goth girl shrouded in black who was sucking on a lollypop. “These people may not look like much, but when they write code, it’s poetry.”

Weber nodded to Morris as if to say, I get it.This was why he had accepted the invitation to speak at the hacker convention. As a member of the Intelligence Advisory Board, he wanted to see the future of intelligence. He had asked the board’s director if the intelligence community could suggest a smart young tech specialist who knew the scene. They had assigned him James Morris, who had already earned a reputation at the CIA’s Information Operations Center for his technical prowess.

“Come on, sir, I want to show you something scary,” said Morris, leading the older man down a long, black-walled corridor to a crowded area at the center of the convention space. They moved through a knot of people who had dressed as if for a Halloween party; eventually they came upon a jumbo screen framed by cardboard cartoon cutouts of sheep standing in trench coats and sunglasses. On the screen was a scroll of names and numbers.

“What the hell is this?” asked Weber.

“It’s called the Wall of Sheep.” Morris pointed to the information scrolling above them in a continuous thread. “Those are the log-in names and passwords of people whose communications are being intercepted, right now, in real time.”

Weber shook his head. His hand went to the cell phones in his pocket.

“It’s that easy?” he asked.

“This is slow. You should see what I can do with my machines at the agency.”

Morris guided Weber through some of the other exhibits. They wandered into an area called Lockpick Village, which was devoted to cracking physical locks on doors, windows, safes and anything else that could be “locked.” They strolled past booths where vendors offered specialized computer gear, cheap circuit boards, T-shirts, beer. In another room, teams were arrayed at different tables playing a specialized version of Capture the Flag, in which they competed to break into each other’s servers and protect their own from attack.

Morris handed Weber a program listing the lectures going on in various rooms. It was a school for mischief: Hacking Bluetooth connections on phones. Hacking RFID tags on cargo containers. Building your own drone. Controlling automobiles remotely through their electronic systems. Hacking routers. Installing backdoors in hardware and software. Breaking the “secure” architecture of cloud computing. Manipulating unrandom “random-number” generators and unreliable computer clocks. Breaking wireless encryption keys. The list of lecture sessions went on for pages.

“This is dangerous stuff,” said Weber. “Can anyone attend this convention?”

“Look around. You’ll see Chinese, Russians, Germans, Israelis. Basically, they let you in if you pay the cash registration fee. There’s no point in trying to keep people out physically. They’d just get the information on the Net. This way, at least we know who’s here.”

“And they’re all trying to get inside our pants?”

“Yes, sir. And vice versa, in theory.”

Weber nodded. It was indeed the ultimate honey trap. “Is the agency keeping up with this?” he asked.

“Sort of,” said Morris. “The agency moves like an elephant.”

“What about Jankowski? He’s the director. He should be all over this crowd.”

Morris pulled Weber aside and spoke in his ear.

“Director Jankowski is just trying to keep his head above water. The FBI is looking at his bank accounts.”

Weber pulled back in surprise. “How do you know about that?”

“I just know,” said Morris. “People say Jankowski won’t last.”

It was true, what Morris had said. The Intelligence Advisory Board had been briefed on the preliminary investigation several weeks before. It was one of the most closely held secrets in the government, and here was Morris whispering it in his ear.

“The agency needs a new director, sir,” Morris said quietly. “Everyone knows that.”

Weber was silent for a moment. He felt like he was getting pitched, which made him uneasy, but he liked the younger man’s intelligence and intensity.

“The CIA needs a lot more than a new boss,” said Weber. “It needs to enter the twenty-first century. Listen to my speech this afternoon, if you want to know what I think.”

Morris nodded. “I reserved a front-row seat.”

They wandered for another half hour, looking at exhibits, and then it was time for Weber to go to the Green Room and get ready for his talk. Morris left him at the door and proposed that they meet up afterward and see more of DEF CON.

Weber delivered his speech in a theater that sat several hundred. It was packed with young people, row after row of black T-shirts and hoodies. He took off his Italian sports jacket before he began speaking and rolled up his shirtsleeves. His corporate communications staff had written a speech titled “Stakeholders in Internet Freedom,” with an accompanying PowerPoint presentation, but Weber junked it. Instead, he gave what he liked to call his “American dream” speech about how security and liberty could coexist. He had delivered versions of it before, for different audiences, but never one quite like this.

The room quieted. Weber hadn’t been sure what to expect. He had visions of a mosh pit at a Megadeth concert. But they were hushed and respectful.

Weber used his own company as a case study. When he began twenty-five years ago, he reminded the kids in the audience, the Internet browser didn’t exist and most of what people describe as IT hadn’t been invented yet. But it was obvious that people were going to communicate more, and that the government would make a mistake only if it tried to limit or control communications . . . or spy on what people were saying to each other. But thank goodness, the government had been smart back then. It had let technology morph and multiply in a million ways that nobody could have predicted. Weber had expanded his business by doing the obvious, no-brain thing, which was to build some of the pipe through which the communications would travel, whatever they might be—buy spectrum and bandwidth, and let other people decide how to fill it.

And then the government got stupid, after September 11, 2001, Weber said. Intelligence officials got nervous and decided that the open information space was dangerous and needed to be controlled. It wasn’t the government’s fault; the whole country was frightened. But in its ferocious self-protection, it had built a surveillance colossus that struggled just to keep track of the dangerous people. The surveillance was too big and bureaucratic. And it began to eat up the free space that the new technology had created.

The audience was listening, even the geekiest kids with the spikiest hair. Weber could tell because they had stopped looking at their devices and were watching him.

“I didn’t like what was happening,” Weber said. And then he told the story that most of them knew, which was the reason, really, why they had come to hear him—about how he had protested the government’s surveillance orders, at first in secret, and then in litigation that made its way through the courts, and then by working with members of Congress and finally by refusing outright to comply with what his lawyers told him were illegal orders and daring the government to shut his company down, all while he was a member of the Intelligence Advisory Board. He said they could fire him from that position, too, in addition to closing his business, but he wouldn’t quit voluntarily. In the end, they didn’t do either.

Weber looked at James Morris as he began the last part of his speech, about intelligence. He saw that the young man was smiling and nodding. There was a sparkle in his eyes, and his mouth was open slightly. It was a look you sometimes see in a church when believers are moved, or at a concert when listeners get lost in the flow of the notes.

“I have tried to help my country in every lawful way I could,” Weber said. “I have tried to help the CIA, NSA and FBI do their jobs. I have served on one of the most sensitive oversight boards in the government. I will keep those secrets, and I would say yes tomorrow if someone asked me to help with proper activities. But I will not do things that are unconstitutional. I can’t run my business in a country that controls information. I’d rather shut it down. As you know if you’ve been reading the news, we’re winning that fight. And I think that now, maybe, people are realizing that security and liberty aren’t at war with each other . . . because in America, you can’t have one without the other.”

The DEF CON audience loved the speech. People stood and clapped so loudly that it embarrassed Weber. When he was finished, a man in a suit came up to him from the wings and presented his card. He said he worked for Timothy O’Keefe, the national security adviser. He said Weber had given a great speech that put into words what the president believed. He asked if he could share a video of the speech with his colleagues at the White House, and Weber said of course, it was for anyone who wanted to listen. The man asked if perhaps Weber might be willing to join O’Keefe for lunch sometime soon to discuss how the administration might chart a new path in intelligence.

Weber was flattered. But he was a businessman, not a politician. He always worried when people were too friendly. That meant that they would come looking for something down the line.

Morris was waiting outside the Green Room. He stood unobtrusively apart from the crowd that had gathered to congratulate Weber, or give him business cards, or otherwise ingratiate themselves. It was only when Weber was finally alone that the younger man approached him.

“That was a hell of a speech,” said Morris.

“People at your agency wouldn’t like it. They’d feel threatened.”

Morris smiled, an inward, almost coy look of someone who had a new secret.

“Too bad for them,” he said. “Let me show you what the hackers are up to.”

They walked the halls for several more hours, meeting people, drinking beer and talking about technology. As the evening progressed, they moved deeper into the convention space. Eventually they came to a large hall in the back, where they heard hundreds of people shouting, “Don’t fuck it up!”

Weber was curious; he moved toward the hall and in through the door. A packed house of very drunk-looking people was screaming at contestants on stage, who were trying to answer geeky questions about computer hacking and technology. Some of the contestants had their shirts off, men and a few women, bare skin. Out in the audience, people were bouncing a huge rubber ball from aisle to aisle, shouting and chugging down more beer, while onstage a woman in a black bra and garter belt was vamping around the contestants.

“What’s this all about?” asked Weber, wide-eyed as he watched the fracas.

“It’s Hacker Jeopardy,” explained Morris. “It features free beer and a woman named Miss Kitty with a big paddle. It’s humiliate or be humiliated.”

“That’s the hacker ethos, I take it,” said Weber. “Humiliate or be humiliated.”

“Yes, sir.” Morris nodded. “I won this game three years running. Now they won’t let me play.”

Another hour of wandering, and Weber had seen enough. He bought dinner for Morris and himself at Nobu, back at Caesar’s Palace. The young man was talking faster now, pumped by all that he had seen, and Weber couldn’t track everything he was saying.

“Do they let you do your thing at the agency?” Weber asked as he was paying the bill. He was relaxed after his speech, enjoying his day of slumming in the hacker world.

“Not really. They’re scared of me. What I do is subversive, by definition. It doesn’t have boundaries. It cuts across directorates. They don’t like that.”

“But that’s what the CIA is for, right?” said Weber. “It’s their job to be in the space that other people can’t get to. If you can knock on the front door, then send the State Department.”

“Yes, sir. But these people are scared of the future. They aren’t sure how to live in an open world. For most of them, the clock is still stuck at 1989. For some of them, it’s still 1945. Their big event every year is the OSS Dinner. I mean, that’s sad. They act like it’s still a social club.”

Weber listened to what the young man said. It worried him. Despite his private battles with the government over the past few years, he wanted a strong intelligence agency.

“How does it get fixed?” he asked.

“Honestly? People could start by doing what you said today, trying to think about what a modern American intelligence agency would look like. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but the CIA operates like a second-rate copy of MI6. We’re un-American.”

Weber looked at his watch. This last comment made him nervous. He had let Morris get tipsy, and now he was going too far.

“I should crash,” he said. “I have an early flight back to Seattle tomorrow. This was an eye-opener. I’m grateful to whoever made the arrangements.”

“Thank my deputy, Dr. Ariel Weiss. She’s the person in my geek shop who gets things done.”

“Well, tell Dr. Weiss that she’s a superstar.”

Morris nodded, but he wasn’t quite ready to let Weber go.

“You know what?” he said, leaning toward Weber, his eyes swimming behind those thick glasses. “I hate working for stupid people. It offends me. That’s why we need a new director.”

Morris reached his hand into the pocket of his hoodie and then extended it and shook Weber’s hand. In his palm was the medallion of the Information Operations Center, with the center’s name along the lower circumference and “Central Intelligence Agency” around the top. On the face of the coin was a blue bald eagle atop a globe formed of zeroes and ones. Above the eagle’s head were the words “Stealth,” “Knowledge” and “Innovation,” above them a large silver key.

Morris let the coin slip from his palm into Weber’s as they shook hands.

Weber took the gift. He studied Morris, reticent and opaque as he withdrew his hand and retreated back behind his black-framed spectacles. Weber’s eyes fell to the coin, gleaming gold, silver and blue, topped by that big, mysterious key. It was the first moment in which he thought seriously about the possibility of running the CIA, and the idea grew to become a passion in the months ahead—until one October morning, fifteen months later, it became a fact.

James Morris spent one more day in Las Vegas. He wanted to see an old friend from Stanford named Ramona Kyle. She was speaking at DEF CON, too, on civil liberties and the Internet. Morris sat in the audience for her talk. She spoke so fast, the other panelists had trouble keeping up with her. She was a wiry, intense woman, a passionate intelligence packed into a tiny frame. Her hair was tumbling red curls, like Orphan Annie.

When it came time for questions, several attendees with neat haircuts asked about investments. She was something of a cult figure in the venture capital world. She had joined a fund out of Stanford, and discovered start-ups in Budapest, Mumbai, São Paolo, Santiago—all the places, she liked to say, that produced chess champions and didn’t have their own investment banks yet. Sometimes she created the companies on her own, bringing people together in a coffee shop in Rio or a bar in Dubai. Eventually she started her own venture fund, and the money flowed so fast she stopped counting it—and started thinking about more serious things.

Kyle had a knack for making money, and people wanted to know her secrets even at this hacker’s conference. But she waved off business questions. They bored her. She wanted to talk about the surveillance state, the threat to liberties, the new information order of the world.

A questioner asked her if it was true what was rumored in the chat rooms, that she was the biggest secret funder of WikiLeaks.

“Are you a cop?” responded Kyle. “Next question.”

When the panel was over, she handed out cards with the name of an organization she had recently founded, called Too Many Secrets. It took its name from the rearranged anagram of “Setec Astronomy,” which was a puzzle at the denouement of the classic hacker movieSneakers.The organization didn’t have a phone number or email address, but if Kyle met someone interesting, she wrote down her contact information in a tiny, precise hand.

Ramona Kyle didn’t go out of her way for most people, but Morris was an exception. For years after they graduated she had stayed in touch, mostly at meetings for high-tech eccentrics. She had messaged him a few weeks before the Las Vegas gathering, suggesting that they meet for drinks after her talk. She proposed a bar called Peppermill in the north strip of Las Vegas, a seedy cowboy-hooker part of town where nobody would recognize either of them.

The place was nearly empty. In the center of the bar was a fire pit surrounded by unoccupied pink couches. Kyle was sitting in a dark corner in the back drinking pomegranate juice, no ice. She looked like a homeless girl: tiny body, rag-doll clothes, red hair still wet from a shower after the speech.

Morris sat down next to her on the banquette. At Stanford, he had momentarily wanted to sleep with Ramona Kyle, back when she was anorexic and pure brain energy. Now that she was healthier, she wasn’t quite as sexy. As he moved closer to her, she disappeared deeper into the shadows of the booth.

“Did you take precautions?” she asked.

“Of course. I took two cabs and a bus.”

“They are out of control,” she said. “You have to be careful.”

“Stop worrying,” said Morris. “I’m here.”



Graham Weber’s new colleaguesthought that he was joking when he said at his first staff meeting that he wanted to remove the statue of William J. Donovan from the lobby. The old-timers, who weren’t really that old but were cynical bastards nonetheless, assumed that he wouldn’t actually do it. Donovan was the company founder, for heaven’s sake. The statue of him, square-legged with one hand resting on his belt, handsome as a bronze god, ready to win World War II all by himself, had been in the lobby since Allen Dulles built the damn building. You couldn’t just get rid of it.

But the new director was serious. He said the agency had to join the twenty-first century, and that change began with symbols. The senior staff who were assembled in the seventh-floor conference room rolled their eyes, but nobody said anything. They figured they would give the new man enough rope to hang himself. Somebody leaked the story to theWashington Postthe next day, which seemed to amuse the director and also reinforced his judgment about how messed up the place was. To everyone’s amazement, he went ahead and removed the iconic figure of “Wild Bill” from its place by the left front door. An announcement said the statue was being removed temporarily for cleaning, but the days passed, and the spot where the pedestal had stood remained a discolored piece of empty floor.

The Central Intelligence Agency behaves in some ways like a prep school. Senior staff members made up nicknames for Weber behind his back that first week, as if he were a new teacher, such as Webfoot, Web-head and, for good measure, Moneybags. Men and women joined in the hazing; it was an equal-opportunity workplace when it came to malcontents. The director didn’t appear to care. His actual childhood nickname had been Rocky, but nobody had called him that in years. He thought about bringing it back. The more the old boys and girls tried to rough him up, the more confident he became about his mission to fix what he had called, at that first meeting with his staff, the most disoriented agency in the government. Nobody disagreed with that, by the way. How could they? It was true.

Weber was described in newspaper profiles as a “change agent,” which was what thoughtful people (meaning a half dozen leading newspaper columnists) thought the agency needed. The CIA was battered and bruised. It needed new blood, and Weber seemed like a man who might be able to turn things around. He had made his name in business by buying a mediocre communications company and leveraging it to purchase broadband spectrum that nobody else wanted. He had gotten rich, like so many thousands of others, but what made him different was that he had stood up to the government when it mattered. People in the intelligence community had trusted him, so when he said no about surveillance policy, it changed people’s minds.

He looked too healthy to be CIA director: He had that sandy blond hair, prominent chin and cheekbones and those ice-blue eyes. It was a boyish face, with strands of hair that flopped across the forehead, and cheeks that colored easily when he blushed or had too much to drink, but he didn’t do either very often. You might have taken him for a Scandinavian, maybe a Swede, who grew up in North Dakota: He had that solid, contained look of the northern plains that doesn’t give anything away. He was actually German-Irish, from the suburbs of Pittsburgh, originally. He had migrated from there into the borderless land of ambition and money and had lived mostly on airplanes. And now he worked in Langley, Virginia, though some of the corridor gossips predicted he wouldn’t last very long.

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