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Tue June 3, 2014
Author Interviews

'The Director' Offers A Glimpse Into The Digital Underground

Originally published on Tue June 3, 2014 11:09 am

A year ago this week, The Guardian and The Washington Post first published stories that came out of revelations from NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

The leaks brought new focus onto U.S. intelligence agencies themselves — and how they keep their secrets safe. The same themes come up in a new spy thriller from author and veteran Post columnist David Ignatius.

The Director kicks off with what Ignatius calls the worst-case scenario for an intelligence agency. "A new director arrives," he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep, "and in his first week as director, into our consulate in Hamburg walks a young Swiss hacker in a dirty shirt with a tattoo on his neck ... and he says to the CIA person who handles him, 'You've been hacked.' "


Interview Highlights

On a new kind of defector, crossing a new kind of border

He's a defector from the hacker underground, from this loose transnational group of people who share one thing, which is a great suspicion of intelligence services, especially the CIA. And he's coming out of that world with a very hot secret.

On writing in relation to the Snowden revelations

I began this book in early 2012, and I began with the idea that everything in the world of espionage was becoming a matter of zeroes and ones, if you will. It was becoming an electronic art, that deception was about hacking. And so that was the idea when I got started, and then all of a sudden in the middle of last summer, along comes Edward Snowden, and a lot of the themes, the power of the story that I had hoped to capture, was happening in real life.

Don't forget that Snowden, before he worked for the NSA, worked for the CIA. And the CIA, like the NSA, has been in this space for a long time.

On a change that the new director makes

If you walk into the front hallway of the CIA, you will see, on your left, a statue of William "Wild Bill" Donovan. Bill Donovan was the person who created the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, which was America's spy agency during World War II and then kind of morphed into what's now the CIA. So he's seen at the CIA as the founder. And one of the first things that my hero, Graham Weber, does when he becomes the director is to remove the statue from the front hallway of the CIA.

And that's another theme that runs through this book: the extent to which the roots of the CIA are really in another culture, the extent to which the CIA was an offshoot of British intelligence, using its approach, using its techniques, using its kind of class-bound sense that the elite has a right and responsibility to do things.

The first wave of CIA officers might as well have been Brits themselves, in the way they carried themselves. And one of the questions the book asks at the end is, is it time to have an intelligence agency that really is of the fabric of this country? And maybe that kind of intelligence agency would sit a little bit better with the American public than the CIA traditionally has.

On attending DefCon, the hacker convention

You just walk in the doors, and you realize there's this whole other world out there, and I'll give you an example: There's something called the Wall of Sheep. And the Wall of Sheep is a continuous scroll that has the names and email addresses and often passwords of people whose systems are being hacked in real time at the convention. There are lectures on how to hack anything imaginable — how to hack the air traffic control system, how to hack cars, how to hack drones. I mean, you name it, somebody's thinking about how, sitting there with your keyboard, you can get inside it and mess with it.

The NSA — and probably other agencies, but the NSA makes no bones about it — have been at DefCon and other hacker conventions for years. Because they know that this is the place that they need to go to be in touch with the brightest, most aggressive young hackers. And if you, as a journalist, pay a visit to the NSA, you will see a lot of people in uniform ... but you'll also see people, guys with long hair and black T-shirts, and women in sandals who might as well be walking the halls of DefCon, the hacker convention — and that's because the NSA has been smart enough to know it needs people like that.

And one worry I have is that the revelations that Snowden disclosed, that show the NSA going everywhere, just trying to get inside everything, represents a fusion of the secret bureaucracy of intelligence, and the hacker ethos which says, basically, if you can hack it, do it. And when those two come together, it just grows like mushrooms in the dark.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, one year ago this week the Guardian and the Washington Post first published stories that came out of revelations from NSA leaker Edward Snowden. These leaks brought new focus on to U.S. intelligence agencies and how they keep their secrets safe. And those ideas are among the themes in the latest spy thriller from the author and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. It's called "The Director." Ignatius dropped by our Washington studios to talk about this book. And we started by talking about a scene in which Ignatius describes the worst-case scenario for an intelligence agency.

DAVID IGNATIUS: A new director arrives named Graham Weber. And in his first week as director, into our consulate in Homburg walks a young Swiss hacker in a dirty shirt with a tattoo on his neck that says cut here in Russian. And he says to the CI person who handles him you've been hacked, the agency has been penetrated. And so our new director turns to the super geek who he just happen to meet at a hacker convention and assigns him the task of trying to get in the midst of whatever this plot against the agency is.

INSKEEP: There's a delightful use of language early on in this book. When this man walks into the consulate in Germany and the CIA agent assigned to him realizes that what he has to deal with here is a defector like an old time Cold War defector from the Soviet Union. But the guy hasn't actually crossed a border from some other country - he's a defector from cyberspace.

IGNATIUS: He's a defector from the hacker underground, from this loose transnational group of people who share one thing, which is a great suspicion of intelligence services, especially the CIA. And he's coming out of that world with a very hot secret.

INSKEEP: Were you writing this before the Snowden revelations last year?

IGNATIUS: I began this book in early 2012. And I began with the idea that everything in the world of espionage was becoming a matter of zeros and ones, if you will. It was becoming an electronic art that deception was about hacking. And then all the sudden the middle of last summer, along comes Edward Snowden and a lot of the themes that I'd hoped to capture is happening in real life.

INSKEEP: Well, I want to talk about that because the Snowden revelations have focused a lot of attention on the national security agency, the NSA. You write here about the Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA, which I think has not really been touched by these revelations.

IGNATIUS: Don't forget that Snowden, before he worked for the NSA, worked for the CIA. And the CIA, like the NSA, has been in this space for a long time.

INSKEEP: You, early on in this novel, have the new CIA director make a change in the lobby of the Central Intelligence Agency. Describe what you're talking about.

IGNATIUS: If you walk into the front hallway of the CIA, you will see on your left a statue of William Wild Bill Donovan. Bill Donovan was the person who created the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, which was America's spy agency during World War II and then kind of morphed into what's now the CIA. So he's seen, at the CIA, as the founder. One of the first things that my hero, Graham Weber, does when he becomes director is to remove the statue from the front hallway of the CIA. And that's another theme that runs through this book. The extent to which the roots of the CIA are really in another culture, the extent to which the CIA was an offshoot of British intelligence - using its approach, using its techniques, using its kind of class bound sense that the elite has a right and responsibility to things. You know, the first wave of CIA officers might as well have been Brits themselves in the way they carried themselves. And one of the questions that the book asks at the end is is it time to have an agency - an intelligence agency - that really is of the fabric of this country. And maybe that kind of intelligence agency would sit a little bit better with the American public than the CIA traditionally has.

INSKEEP: I want to end, actually, where your novel begins - with a scene at a convention, a hackers convention. Did you attend such a convention?

IGNATIUS: I did. One of the first things that I did when I began working on this book in 2012 was to arrange to DEFCON, the biggest convention, takes place in Las Vegas. You just walk in the doors and you realize there's this whole other world out there. I'll give you an example. There's something called the wall of sheep. The wall of sheep is a continuous scroll, which has the names and email addresses and often passwords of people whose systems are being hacked in real time at the convention. There are lectures on how to hack anything imaginable - how to hack the air traffic control system, how to hack cars, how to hack drones. I mean, you name it and somebody's thinking about how, sitting there with your keyboard, you can get inside and mess with it.

INSKEEP: And it's kind of terrifying to think of U.S. intelligence agencies in that space because you have these parallel worries. The worry that they couldn't possibly be keeping up with what's going on and a fear that maybe they are keeping up with what's going on.

IGNATIUS: Well, the NSA, and probably other agencies, but the NSA makes no bones about it, have been at DEFCON and other hacker conventions for years because they know that this is the place that they need to go to be in touch with the brightest most aggressive young hackers. And if you as a journalist pay a visit to the NSA, you will see a lot of people in uniform - Navy, Army Air Force people -but you'll also see people - guys with long hair and black T-shirts and women in sandals, you know, who might as well be walking the halls of DEFCON, the hacker convention. And that's because the NSA has been smart enough to know it needs people like that. The one worry I have is that the revelations that Snowden disclosed that show the NSA going everywhere trying to get inside everything represents a fusion of the secret bureaucracy of intelligence and the hacker ethos, which says, basically, if you can hack it, do it. And when those two come together it just grows like mushrooms in the dark. It just becomes pervasive. The hacker zeal, that sort of pure pleasure of being mischievous and getting inside something, I think helped produce some of what Snowden showed us they're doing.

INSKEEP: David Ignatius, thanks very much.

IGNATIUS: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: His latest book is called "The Director." It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steven Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.