- - Friday, July 18, 2014

THE DIRECTOR
By David Ignatius
Norton, $26.95, 386 pages

About halfway through a first draft of this review, a sobering thought brought me up short: My criticisms of the underworld of online hackers and data thieves were apt to cost me retaliatory computer grief for years to come. So I shall take the coward’s way out. If you are among that band of technological bandits, and do not care for the way you are depicted, go after David Ignatius, who wrote the book, and not the guy reviewing it.

In a sense, “The Director” is even more frightening that the usual intelligence fare of Cold War nuclear sword-rattling or terrorism plots out of the Middle East. Those who are regular readers of Mr. Ignatius‘ commentary realize that he is perhaps the best-informed journalist writing today about intelligence and national security. Thus, when he sounds a klaxon alarm about the dangers of cyberterrorism, he is not making things up. He is describing a clear and present danger.

Mr. Ignatius is a rare columnist who does hard reporting rather sitting in an office and sucking his thumb. He devotes the same energy and skills to his fiction, and several of his nine novels were based on actual events.

To set the stage for “The Director,” in a prologue, Mr. Ignatius walks us through an annual hackers’ convention, DEF CON, held in a Las Vegas casino. This event really exists, and as Mr. Ignatius writes, “It was a school for mischief.” The multipage program lists lectures: “Hacking Bluetooth connections on phone,” “Hacking RFID tags on cargo containers,” “Controlling automobiles remotely through their electronic systems” and so on.

At the center of the chilling novel at hand is an idealistic high-tech businessman named Graham Weber, who is tapped to bring the Central Intelligence Agency out of slothful years of scandal and official misconduct.

However, on his very first day on the job, Weber is confronted with a more immediate problem. A young German man with a shaved head and scruffy clothes, ears adorned with metal studs — “a normal adult’s bad dream” — comes to the U.S. Consulate in Hamburg with a warning: Hackers have broken into CIA’s communications system. “Your messages can be read,” he tells a CIA officer. “They are not secret.” He gives her proof of the intrusion.

Thus, Mr. Ignatius plunges into a high-tech thriller that is essentially a cram course in how to foul up a communications system (although I trust that some of the details are fuzzed enough to deter readers from creating chaos on their own). The crowning moment is the hacking of the Bank of International Settlement in Basel, Switzerland, which serves as a clearinghouse for the world banking system — and which is viewed by many moon-howlers as “a compendium of all the mistakes and conspiracies of the twentieth century,” as one hacker muses.

A fast rule of thriller-reviewing is not to reveal too much of the twists and turns of the plot, much less, heaven forbid, the outcome. Suffice to say that Mr. Ignatius gives us a detailed insider look at how CIA (and other agencies) try to counter electronic intruders, along with a search of villains that takes us all over Europe. Here a chief protagonist is a CIA computer-security expert who proves to be not quite as advertised, but that is part of the story. Two of the main characters are female.

As Weber discovers, in addition to the electronic intrusion, there is a true scandal in the upper levels of the CIA, an account that seems loosely based on actual firing-level misconduct in the agency hierarchy a few years back.

“The Director” is replete with agency asides. Two officers talk about an operation running the risk of being a “CEI” — that is, a career-ending incident. There is informed chatter about how diplomatic officers handles “walk-ins” who wish to speak to an intelligence person. He gives a brutal — and truthful — picture of how agency insiders manhandle outsiders, such as a director with no intelligence experience. (Adm. Stansfield Turner, if he chose, could write a painful book on this subject.) Then there was New Hampshire politico-businessman Max Hugel, tapped by Director of Central Intelligence William Casey to run clandestine services. Veterans in the directorate disposed of poor Mr. Hugel before he had time to learn the fastest route to his office. (As Weber discovers after becoming DCI, “shaking up the agency” involves more than removing the statue of William J. Donovan from the lobby of the old headquarters building.)

Mr. Ignatius walks slightly shaky ground in quoting an old CIA history by longtime agency historian Tom Troy, which deals with the tight World War II cooperation between British intelligence and the U.S. Office of Strategic Services. Indeed, the alliance carried over to Cold War years, with the CIA working closely with the British Secret Intelligence Service to overthrow a Red-leaning premier of Iraq. His suggestion is that the CIA remains the handmaiden of the Brits.

However, the “special relationship” suffered a severing body blow in 1956 with the British-inspired Suez operation. The slow collapse of the British Empire also affected the balance of power. Nonetheless, any number of “old boys” from the CIA’s founding generation have told me, “The Brits taught us everything we know, but by no means not everything that they know.” To be sure, ties remain tight, but by no means does Brit intelligence dictate to Langley.

After reading “The Director,” you likely will be more careful on how much you trust the Internet and your computer, but enjoy — and beware.

Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, “Korea: The Untold Story of the War,” is being published in a Chinese-language edition this summer by Bejiing Xiron Books.