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David Ignatius Discusses “The Director,” Hacking, Espionage, and More

December 18, 2014  • Institute Contributor

Above, watch the full conversation with David Ignatius.

Washington Post Associate Editor and Columnist David Ignatius’s latest novel “The Director” chronicles the life of technology-entrepreneur-turned-CIA-Director Graham Weber who, during his first week on the job, learns that the CIA has been hacked. Weber turns to the director of the Agency’s Information Operations Center to manage the mole hunt inside both the CIA and the hacker underground. Critics have called the thriller fast-paced, high tech, and benefitting from Ignatius’s years of reporting on intelligence matters.

Ignatius began working on this book in early 2012, curious about the implications of hackers getting involved in espionage. “It was going to be about stealing the other side’s systems, not recruiting the chief of the service, but the systems administrator,” he said during a recent discussion at the Aspen Institute. His curiosity proved prescient: Edward Snowden began disclosing classified US intelligence information just as Ignatius finished his first draft, prompting “desperate attempts to rewrite the book.”

Together with New York Times Chief Washington Correspondent David Sanger, the two Aspen Strategy Group members talked about how espionage is evolving in the WikiLeaks age and how Ignatius’s fiction often overlaps with the reality of his columns.

For decades, the National Security Agency hired employees with a mindset befitting a military installation. But as technology has evolved, the NSA has started to hire people who, as Sanger put it, “ten years ago never would have got past the first 30 minutes of a security clearance.”

The culture clash between classic spies and hackers provided a rich source of conflict for “The Director.” And Ignatius believes the intelligence community is still struggling to find a way to hire new tech-savvy talent while also excluding future Snowdens.

Citing the recent hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment (which optioned the movie rights to “The Director”) and the possible links to foreign governments, Sanger noted that commercial and national security are not as divided as they once were during the Cold War. Ignatius agreed, describing how the merging of economic security and national security issues has resulted in a new kind of electronic arms race: Companies are attacked by foreign governments; companies then employ more robust means of encryption; and this prompts even stronger reactions by intelligence agencies. The challenge, Ignatius said, is to have a strong intelligence community that is prevented from intruding upon “our electronic private lives.”

Sanger and Ignatius also touched upon the other big item recently in the news: the so-called “Torture Report.”

“[The] CIA never should have let itself get into the business of brutal interrogation, waterboarding, torture,” Ignatius said, “CIA officers at the time were desperately frightened that another attack was coming, but sensed these techniques would shock the conscience.”

Coincidentally, as part of his research on another project, Ignatius uncovered anti-Dutch propaganda written by the English in the mid-1600s after English citizens in the South Pacific had been waterboarded by the Dutch. “It was the most inflammatory issue of the time… It shocked the consciences of the English back then.” John Dryden even wrote a play about it.

Despite the innovations in tech-based intelligence gathering, Ignatius said he would like to see the U.S. improve its human intelligence efforts.

“The thing that the United States has never been as good at is recruiting human beings, drawing them, sometimes deceitfully, into relationships — what we call HUMINT,” he said. Ignatius believes the greatest intelligence operations have historically been of this variety, such as the British successes in turning German spies into double agents or feeding them false information during World War II.

He also pointed to the book “The Good Spy” as a rare example of successful American human intelligence efforts in the Middle East in the 1970s and 1980s (and a non-fiction recounting of events described in his first novel, “Agents of Innocence”). “What I see are models of what will help deal with this nightmare adversary that we have now in Syria and Iraq.”

Ignatius remains cautiously hopeful that America can find a balance between hackers and spies. Otherwise, he implied, our best spying days may be behind us.

During the 1970s and 1980s, “The United States had the wind at its back,” he said, “Everybody wanted to be our friend. We’re not living in that world any more. The wind is not at our back. The wind is in our face. We just have to recognize that and know how difficult it will be. I just hope the wind shifts.”