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An excerpt from David Ignatius' "The Director"

An excerpt from David Ignatius' "The Director"


James Morris was a loner when it came to operations. Perhaps it was all those years as a young man closeted alone with a computer, spinning his threads of code out into the world. It was a solitary pursuit, and one that led a person to live inside himself. Morris managed the operational details using a tablet computer the techs had rigged for him that synched every sixty seconds with the agency’s system. Because he was so fast with his fingers and could type almost as quickly as he could think, he was constantly sending out tasking orders, directives and updates to his staff at the IOC’s headquarters. He kept his operational traffic overseas in separate compartments to which he had special access, so it was difficult for anyone else to keep up with him.

That was the secret of the power Morris had assembled in the Information Operations Center: He could do things that others simply couldn’t match, or even imagine, and he had pushed operations into areas that previously had been empty space, using broad authorities that were in the shadowy space between the CIA and NSA.

When Morris left the director’s office late that afternoon, he began assembling the team he would need in Hamburg. He didn’t ask for help from Beasley or the EUR Division. The planning went late into Friday night and resumed early Saturday morning. It didn’t occur to him to review his plans with Sandoval, the case officer in Hamburg who had met with Rudolf Biel when he walked in the door of the consulate. She worked for Beasley. She wasn’t his problem.

Morris lived on Cap’n Crunch cereal when he was on the road. He ate it with milk, with water, plain, in preformed wafers like granola bars. Partly it was because he liked the taste, and partly it was in homage to the hacker cult of Cap’n Crunch; in the early days, hackers had used the free whistles inside each box, which sounded at a frequency of 2,600 herz, to spoof telephone switches and make free calls. He knocked back a box of the cereal while flying Saturday night on the director’s G-5, washing it down with a cocktail of bourbon and diet ginger ale.

The escape plan Morris had devised was a conjuring trick. When the Swiss youth arrived at the consulate Monday morning, Morris and his techs would fit him with a disguise that changed his hair color and clothing—and then move him from the consulate to a holding area near the airport, north of the city, where the plane would be waiting. A paramilitary officer on loan to Morris, head shaved and dressed up in a disguise to resemble Biel, would rent a car using his name and driver’s license. On the E22 motorway near the Dutch border, the car would have a fiery flameout that destroyed the vehicle and everything in it. Doctored bits of Biel’s DNA would be left in the vehicle for the police to find: hair, fingernails, skin, just enough to allow identification.

James Morris showed up at the consulate in Hamburg Sunday, as promised. He was gaunt from too little sleep and he had an overcaffeinated glint in his eye. To Sandoval, who was several years older, the wonder boy looked like someone who should be carrying a skateboard. He set up shop in her office, and installed two techs he had brought along from Langley in the communications room next door.

Morris disappeared in the late afternoon Sunday for a meeting outside the consulate. He didn’t inform anyone who he was seeing. But his little team from Langley guessed that he was trying to locate Biel using electronic magic that he couldn’t share with others.

Sandoval protested her displacement to the consul general. He told her to take the empty office of the economic officer, who was home on leave. He’d gotten a call from Washington requesting full cooperation.

Sandoval assented, but demanded permission to be present with Morris when the walk-in returned on Monday. Otherwise, she said, she would file a grievance with the ambassador in Berlin and the CIA inspector general. The consul general assured her that nobody in the “country team” wanted that.

Morris was there waiting early Monday morning. He looked edgy from the moment he walked into the building. He studied the closed-circuit cameras that monitored the sidewalk along the Alsterufer; occasionally he peered out the window, as if he could summon Biel by staring long enough in the right place.

“I’m nervous,” he muttered several times as the ten o’clock scheduled arrival time passed, audibly enough that Sandoval heard him in the communications room next door. “Why is he late?”

At eleven, Morris sent out a team of his people, cut to him from the Global Response Staff, to begin looking for Biel in the Rotherbaum neighborhood surrounding the consulate. By early afternoon, the dragnet was widened to the city as a whole.

Morris pulled Sandoval aside as his concern mounted.

“Do the Russians have a consulate here?” he asked.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “But the Russians are all over everywhere.”

“I know,” said Morris. He walked away shaking his head. Sandoval worried that she had done something new to offend him.

Weber checked in twice Monday on the secure line to ask whether the defector had arrived, and Morris assured the director each time that it was just a hitch, Biel would show up soon. He said he had his watchers monitoring digital and wireless signals from anyone associated with Biel’s underground life.

Morris quizzed Sandoval, pressing for more details about Biel that might hint where he might be. He watched the video of her interview with the Swiss fugitive twice, start to finish, looking for clues. He removed the CD from the surveillance monitor when he was done and told Sandoval he was taking it back to Headquarters for analysis.

“Where is that little fucker?” said Morris loudly, his voice echoing down the hall, just before five when it was time for the consulate to close its gates. He asked the Marine guard to stay on duty for another hour.

When the consulate closed its doors at six, there was still no sign of him.

Morris received a call that night on a cell phone whose number he had given to only one person. The caller was a member of the operations group Morris called his “special access unit.” The unit’s expenses and personnel were not on the CIA budget. Its operations were coordinated by a special NSA base in Denver, which ran interagency signals intelligence at the request of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The unit had access to signals that were not officially collected, such as those involving underground hacking groups. In the case of the young man from Switzerland, Rudolf Biel, the special unit had been receiving and analyzing his messages for more than a month, along with those of a few others in the circle of activists within which he moved. The chatter in the last few days had been about a new source for the network, someone recruited by an American civil liberties group, who had access to everything.

“We can’t find him,” said the caller. His voice was agitated.

“Where the hell is he?” demanded Morris. “He’s going to get smoked.”

“We don’t know. We’ve pulsed everyone we can, but we’re not getting anything back. They’re all dead circuits.”

“Keep trying,” said Morris. “My ass is on the line.”

“I’m hot. People are going to have my coordinates soon.”

“Then don’t call me again on this number. Don’t call me on any number. Do what Denver tells you to do. Everyone gets one chance to screw up. You just used up yours. Don’t do it again.”