Review: Fixing the CIA – a novel approach

December 26, 2014

By Martin Langfield

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Could an outsider best reform the CIA in the wake of torture revelations? In David Ignatius’ novel “The Director,” a pro-privacy tech CEO tries to drag an agency that has lost its way into a new world of tighter rules, leaky secrets and mounting cyberthreats. It’s a good idea, with uneven results for both Ignatius and his hero.

Graham Weber, a tech billionaire, made his money buying up the pipes and spectrum that carry internet data, Ignatius imagines. An unnamed U.S. president asks him to step in as a new broom at the scandal-mired CIA in part because of his reputation for moral courage: Weber once threatened to close down his company rather than obey government demands to hand over customer information.

A principled and resourceful man, Weber is nonetheless bland compared with the vivid cast of rogues Ignatius puts in contention around him, especially his dandified boss, Director of National Intelligence Cyril Hoffman, and überhacker James Morris, aka “Pownzor,” a deeply unconventional spook working in the global hacking underground. Neither man is necessarily his friend.

Weber’s experience resembles that of many who have tried to reform reluctant organizations: lip service, passive-aggressive resistance, some overt support, a secret helper or two and a gathering sense of being hung out to dry.

A walk-in informant in Germany claims the CIA’s own secure communications are compromised. A group of hackers starts to penetrate the computer systems of the Bank of International Settlements, the central banks’ central bank, threatening to upend the global financial system. Weber has to scramble, never quite sure whether his enemy is within or without.

Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist known for his Middle East and intelligence expertise, published his novel in June, before the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA interrogation methods issued on Dec. 9. Many details of CIA brutality following the 9/11 attacks had already been published, though, as had Edward Snowden’s revelations about massive electronic surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies. Those issues form the backdrop of his book.

The hacking and cyberspying passages are most fun. Ignatius waspishly describes the milieu: sartorially challenged geniuses, rail-thin or overweight, with bad skin and no social skills. The CIA, via various legal and interagency gray zones, is active in the international underground. It buys up exotic hacking tools such as “zero-day exploits” that take advantage of software flaws unknown even to the vendor until first used.

This branch of the CIA spies on criminals, rival spooks and idealists who hack out of principle. But the infiltration may go both ways. The BIS attack may come from within the agency.

Ignatius is no stranger to the murk where international finance meets spies and crime. His 1994 novel “The Bank of Fear” wove a nightmarish tale around illicit Iraqi billions hidden behind the gray walls of a London finance house in the time of Saddam Hussein. In that novel, a character hacks into a Swiss bank using a landline, a dialup modem and a then state-of-the-art 486 laptop that “does everything.”

The art has moved on since then, although whatever the technology being used, social engineering – persuading people to volunteer their secrets over the phone or via sophisticated “phishing” attacks online – is still the way to open the door.

As a thriller, “The Director” is patchy. A complicated backstory about nefarious British influence in the post-1945 world via the BIS and the CIA never quite comes together. Weber in the end both prevails and fails. An ambitious but principled insider ends up best placed to take the agency forward. But the thrust of the novel makes for timely reflection.

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