Every year the summer doldrums hit D.C. after the Fourth of July festivities end and the humidity takes hold for days on end. The doldrums can drive people to drink too much, goof off at work and generally screw up their lives. But, this year, Russian spies were found in our midst and a former State Department employee turned spy for Cuba got sentenced to life in prison. An old topic—did you know them, and do you think so-and-so actually works for the CIA—became new again and the Post published a “Top Secret America” series we all read. The Spy Museum even hosted a scavenger hunt. Forget about wondering who’s really paying which spies and if we know anyone who’s threatening U.S. interests. Talk of spies, as if they’re D.C.’s very own rock stars, is saving us from the worst of the summer slump.
The Men Who Would Be James Bond
“Do you mind?” The man, just north of 40, points to the chair by mine. The hotel bar is crowded and my friend late. I nod and turn back to an e-mail I’m checking on my iPhone.
“I’ve got to get myself one of those before they send me back over,” he says.
“They’re great, for sure,” I murmur as I type a reply to the note.
“Once I’m back over, I can’t buy a secure one.” He waits. I type. It’s not that he’s unattractive. But men going “back over” are everywhere in DC, and nowhere when you want them around. “I bet my secretary can help while I’m here. Even though she’s got her hands full with the conference.”
“Just some USAID folks. And our partners.”
“What do you do at USAID?”
“Development in North Africa.” He signals the waitress. “Among other things.”
He tilts his head. The edge of his mouth curves up. “Things.”
The delicate dodge is common in DC. Sometimes because the information’s confidential and they’ve screwed up in letting the conversation even reach this juncture. Other times, they don’t really know anything, but want you to think they do for one reason or another.
The wannabe spy’s best tool: the delicate dodge.
“Where in Africa are you based?”
“Accra.” He pronounces the capital of Ghana like “Acura.”
“I don’t think that’s how you pronounce it.”
His smile slips a notch. “Depends on who you ask.”
“My friend, when she gets here, will probably tell me I was confused. She’s worked there off and on for five years.” I watch his smile slip further. “I want to visit. Which towns have you been in?”
“Afraid I can’t tell you.”
“Just one.” Nothing. “Where would you recommend I go?”
A long silence follows. His eye twitches and that, along with the mispronounced city name, leaves me fairly sure he’s a wannabe, a person on the periphery. He may well work at USAID. But he wishes he was closer to the action. I could worry that, perhaps, he’s involved in activities that might actually hurt US interests, given his bit of knowledge and his USAID access. But I don’t. The town’s got more would-be intelligence officers than actuals.
He excuses himself to find the restroom. When I next see him, he’s talking with another woman. Hopefully he’s worked out the kinks in his story.
At J. Gilberts, near CIA headquarters, a man offers to buy me a drink. We talk about favorite bars and he mentions visiting L2 in Georgetown with two friends from the CIA. I ask if he works there and he chuckles. “What do you think?”
Ten minutes later, a couple walks up. They love the house he’s just finished near Dulles Airport. Turns out, he’s a home builder. One who understands the art of the delicate dodge.
No one likes a wannabe, but it’s hard to hate these men. The District is a power hub and 9/11 impacted everyone here on a very personal level. If these men had a different background or look, perhaps they could be intelligence operatives. Perhaps they could go undercover into countries where jihadists gather and bring back tales they can’t share. Instead, they watch Angelina Jolie running through the Archives Metro station for Salt, and know the closest they’ll come to the spy life is the delicate dodge.
The Retired Spy
Former intelligence operatives rarely leave. It began for them in D.C. and, from our coffee shops, they still feel like they’re part of the action. Organizations often pay them as consultants. The retired spy may not offer much consulting, but he knows enough to be of value to an anti-American group. Better to pay him and keep him comfortable. A man I’ll call Joseph lives in my favorite coffee shop, poring over a notebook stuffed with article print-outs. He tracks everyone and approaches me the second week I go there to write. He asks what I’m working on.
“It’s a spy novel, set in Pakistan,” I tell him. This is true.
He glances around and leans in. “I knew that already.”
“You overheard me talking yesterday,” I tell him.
I point to the notebook filled with neat, tiny letters. “You’re a writer?”
He laughs a long time and looks around to see who’s listening. No one is. “A security consultant, and retired military intelligence. I’ve worked with four administrations. But I can’t tell you which ones.”
“I’m guessing it’s the last four,” I say. “Any further back in time and you’d have to be over sixty.”
He wags his Blackberry at me. “Clever. I like you. I can help with this book.” The next night, he brings an article about a border skirmish. Names have been underlined. A big star has been etched into the paper beside an agency name. “You need these for your book,” he tells me.
“It’s from 2009. Afghanistan and Pakistan have stopped fighting over this.”
“It’s good information.”
“It’s out of date.”
“You also need to be asking yourself what’s going down at the Pentagon Ritz tonight, and why it matters.”
Joseph could be talking about a brokered meeting between the Taliban and an unhinged, angry American ready to help but not one of the dozen people around us is listening. One looks up. He’s just reaching for a fan and his bottle of water.
Joseph holds up his Blackberry. “Want me to call [a famous writer of spy novels] so he can set you straight? Don’t you think I can?”
“If it’s as hot at his house as it is here, he won’t have energy to answer.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“Do you have any articles from 2010?” I ask.
“At home. I’ll bring them tomorrow.”
He never does. I am not surprised.
A retired intelligence officer carrying around a jammed notepad and rattling off stories with no punch line is like the off-kilter great-uncle at your holiday dinner, but sadder. He’s likely seen things that’d keep us up nights, but he can’t talk about them. Going to a therapist would jeopardize his security clearance. Confide in a friend and he’d lose more than security clearance. So they drink, they chain-smoke and many, like Joseph, turn squirrelly after a certain point.
“You know why Obama headed to Afghanistan today?” Joseph asks.
“He didn’t. I saw him on the news, filmed at the White House.”
“Ha! That’s what they want you to think!”
The Real Deal
In a city where people love talking about their jobs, an operational intelligence officer doesn’t. Fortunately, most Washington residents are happy to talking about themselves. But many sense the conversational gaps, but don’t pry.
My friends and I meet a young man who crunches numbers for the federal government. His expression changes when I mention the novel, set in Pakistan, I’m writing. I ask if he knows much about Pakistan and, after a slight pause, he says he traveled there on business. I share a story from my trip there. He offers none of his own. He can’t explain exactly what he went there to count or what sights he saw, either. My friends and I exchange glances and let it go. If he keeps taking trips he can’t discuss, he’d better at steering conversations to avoid these moments.
Another friend dated an Army officer for a year. He could never say where he was traveling or why people trailed them down M Street. She assumed his work involved national security. She assumed the army job was cover for CIA work. She still talks about having dated someone in the intelligence community, and never questions her assumptions, his allegiance to the U.S. or his having been overseas the last two years with zero contact. It’s our version of rock star dating, and every groupie knows the quickest way to end the dream is to peek under the surface.
Locals rarely consider the possibility that their always-traveling friends might actually be helping an enemy outside or within. Many assume someone is monitoring the situation. Usually, someone is, summertime doldrums and nightmares be damned. Look for him, camping out in your neighborhood coffee shop, a few years from now.
The next time I see Joseph, his Blackberry’s been stolen.
“You know who did it?” I ask.
He glances from side to side. “This place is filled with thugs.”
“Maybe. But I bet you’ll have another by tomorrow.”
Joseph sits back. The chair squeaks under his weight. He throws up his hands and a girl nearby looks over and back at her laptop. “Of course. But how am I going to start the next world war in the meantime?”
His laugh swells until it fills the space. Heads bent over computers lift slowly, like the heat’s weighing them down. Eyes cut in our direction. Then everyone returns to what they were doing. You’d think people talk of starting wars in our backyard every day.