Graham Weber’s new colleagues thought that he was joking when he said at his first staff meeting that he wanted to remove the statue of William J. Donovan from the lobby. The old-timers, who weren’t really that old but were cynical bastards nonetheless, assumed that he wouldn’t actually do it. Donovan was the company founder, for heaven’s sake. The statue of him, square-legged with one hand resting on his belt, handsome as a bronze god, ready to win World War II all by himself, had been in the lobby since Allen Dulles built the damn building. You couldn’t just get rid of it.
But the new director was serious. He said the agency had to join the twenty-first century, and that change began with symbols. The senior staff who were assembled in the seventh-floor conference room rolled their eyes, but nobody said anything. They figured they would give the new man enough rope to hang himself. Somebody leaked the story to the Washington Post the next day, which seemed to amuse the director and also reinforced his judgment about how messed up the place was. To everyone’s amazement, he went ahead and removed the iconic figure of “Wild Bill” from its place by the left front door. An announcement said the statue was being removed temporarily for cleaning, but the days passed, and the spot where the pedestal had stood remained a discolored piece of empty floor.
The Central Intelligence Agency behaves in some ways like a prep school. Senior staff members made up nicknames for Weber behind his back that first week, as if he were a new teacher, such as Webfoot, Web-head and, for good measure, Moneybags. Men and women joined in the hazing; it was an equal-opportunity workplace when it came to malcontents. The director didn’t appear to care. His actual childhood nickname had been Rocky, but nobody had called him that in years. He thought about bringing it back. The more the old boys and girls tried to rough him up, the more confident he became about his mission to fix what he had called, at that first meeting with his staff, the most disoriented agency in the government. Nobody disagreed with that, by the way. How could they? It was true.
Weber was described in newspaper profiles as a “change agent,” which was what thoughtful people (meaning a half dozen leading newspaper columnists) thought the agency needed. The CIA was battered and bruised. It needed new blood, and Weber seemed like a man who might be able to turn things around. He had made his name in business by buying a mediocre communications company and leveraging it to purchase broadband spectrum that nobody else wanted. He had gotten rich, like so many thousands of others, but what made him different was that he had stood up to the government when it mattered. People in the intelligence community had trusted him, so when he said no about surveillance policy, it changed people’s minds.
He looked too healthy to be CIA director: He had that sandy blond hair, prominent chin and cheekbones and those ice-blue eyes. It was a boyish face, with strands of hair that flopped across the forehead, and cheeks that colored easily when he blushed or had too much to drink, but he didn’t do either very often. You might have taken him for a Scandinavian, maybe a Swede, who grew up in North Dakota: He had that solid, contained look of the northern plains that doesn’t give anything away. He was actually German-Irish, from the suburbs of Pittsburgh, originally. He had migrated from there into the borderless land of ambition and money and had lived mostly on airplanes. And now he worked in Langley, Virginia, though some of the corridor gossips predicted he wouldn’t last very long.
The president had announced that he was appointing Graham Weber because he wanted to rebuild the CIA. The previous director, Ted Jankowski, had been fired because of a scandal that appeared to involve kickbacks from agency contractors and foreign operations. People said “appeared to involve” because the Jankowski case was still before a grand jury then and nobody had been indicted yet. But even by CIA standards, it was a big mess. Congress was screaming for a new director who could root out the corruption, and they wanted an outsider. Over the past year, Weber had been making speeches about intelligence policy and showing up at the White House for briefings. When the president appointed a commission to study surveillance policy, Weber was on it. By the time Jankowski resigned, he had become the front-runner for the position.
The vetting process took a month of annoying forms and questions. Weber agreed to sell all his company stock; it looked like a market top to him, anyway, and he set up a “blind trust” for the proceeds, as dictated by the ethics police. It embarrassed him, to see how rich he was. The only thing that seemed to agitate the vetters was his divorce from his wife, nearly five years before. They wanted a guilty party, a “story” that would explain why a seemingly happy marriage to a beautiful woman had self-destructed. He referred the White House inquisitors to the court papers in Seattle, knowing that they didn’t answer the question, and he left blank their written request for additional information. It wasn’t their business, or anyone’s, to know that his wife left him for another man, whether to pull Weber’s attention away from devotion to his business or because of love, he never knew. The world had assumed that it was his fault; that was the only gift Weber could give his wife at the end of their shared failure, to take the blame. He had tried to date in the five years since, but his heart wasn’t in it. “Isn’t there anything more?” asked the personnel lawyer. He looked disappointed when Weber shook his head and said firmly: “No.”
“That place is like a haunted house,” the president told Weber in their last conversation before the appointment was announced. “Somebody needs to clean out the ghosts. Can you do that? Can you fix it?”
Weber was flushed by the challenge; it was provocation to a man like him to attempt the impossible. His children were grown and his house in Seattle was empty most of the time. He had time on his hands, and like many people who have succeeded in business, he wanted to be famous for something other than making money. So with the impulsive hunger and self-confidence of a businessman who had only known success, he agreed to take the job running what the president, in a final, sorrowful comment, described as the “ghost hotel.”
The old-timers warned Weber that the agency truly was in bad shape. The foreign wars of the previous decade in Iraq and Afghanistan had gone badly, demoralizing even the nominally successful covert-action side of the agency. The CIA had been asked to do things that previous generations of officers had been accused of but had only imagined, like torturing people for information or conducting systematic assassination campaigns. It would have been bad enough if this Murder, Inc., era had been successful; but aside from getting Osama bin Laden, the main accomplishment had been to create hundreds of millions of new enemies for the United States. The world was newly angry at America, and also contemptuous of its power, which was a bad combination. Now, in retreat, the CIA needed permission for everything. That was what surprised Graham Weber most in his first days. He was used to the executive authority that comes with running a big company, the license to take risks that is part of creative management. But he was now in a very different place. The modern CIA worked more for Congress than for the president. Out of curiosity, Weber asked at his first covert-action briefing whether the agency had penetrated the networks of anonymous leakers who were stealing warehouses full of America’s most classified secrets and publishing them to the world. He was told no, it was too risky for the agency. If the CIA tried to penetrate WikiLeaks, that fact might . . . leak.
Defeated countries are sullen beasts, and America had suffered a kind of defeat. It was like after Vietnam—the country wanted to pull up the covers and watch television—but the CIA couldn’t do that, or, at least, it wasn’t supposed to. It had a network of officers around the world who were paid to steal secrets. Even the agency’s young guns knew this was a time to play it safe, find a lily pad where they could watch and wait. And then along came Graham Weber.
It took Graham Weber most of the first week to get settled. He had to learn how to use the classified computer system, meet the staff, pay courtesy calls on members of Congress and generally ingratiate himself to a Washington that knew little about him. At the office that first week, Weber made a practice of not wearing a tie. That was how executives had dressed at his company and at most of the other successful communications and technology businesses he knew, but it shook up the CIA workforce, as Weber had intended. After a few days, other men started going tieless to ingratiate themselves to the boss. On Thursday Weber wore a tie, just to confuse them.
He bought an apartment at the Watergate because he liked the view of the Potomac. He hired an interior decorator, who gave it the lifeless perfection favored by the trade. It was much more space than he needed; he was divorced and didn’t like to entertain. His two children stayed overnight after his swearing-in ceremony, and they told him he had a cool view, but they went back to school in New Hampshire the next day. The Office of Security insisted on renting an apartment down the hall, to install the director’s secure communications and provide a place for his security detail to nap. What Weber liked best was the long balcony that wrapped the living and dining rooms and looked out over the river. But his security chief warned him against sitting there unless he had a guard with him, so he rarely used it. Late at night, he would put a chair by the window and watch the dark flow of the water.
On Friday of his first week, Weber wanted to see his new workplace in Langley at first light, before any of his minions and courtiers were assembled. He arrived at the office at five-thirty a.m. when it was dead empty, to see the sun rise over his new domain. The low-slung concrete of the Old Headquarters Building was a lowering gray in the predawn, a few lights visible on the bottom floors but the top of the building empty and waiting. What would Weber do, now that he was responsible for managing this lumpy pudding of secrecy and bureaucracy? He didn’t know.
Weber was accompanied that morning by the security detail that was an inescapable feature of his new life. The head of the detail was a Filipino-American named Jack Fong, built like a human refrigerator, a lifer from the Office of Security. Fong escorted him that morning to the director’s private elevator entrance in the garage. It was so quiet in the cab that Weber could hear the tick of his watch. He turned to Fong. Like everyone else in those first days, the security chief was solicitous.
“You want anything, sir?” Fong meant coffee, or pastries, or a bottle of water. But Weber, lost in a reverie, answered with what was really on his mind.
“Maybe I should just blow this place up. Turn it into a theme park and start somewhere else. What do you think of that, Chief?”
The security man, thick-necked and credulous, looked startled. Directors didn’t make jokes. There was a bare shadow of a smile on Weber’s face, but all the security man saw were the aqua-blue eyes.
“Theme park. Yes, sir. Definitely.” They rode the rest of the way in silence.
Weber sat down at the big desk on the seventh floor and gazed out the shatterproof windows across the treetops to the east, where the first volt of morning was a trace on the horizon. He switched off the lights. The walls were bare and newly painted, stripped of any mark of Jankowski, who had resigned two months before. Now it was his office. The first light flickered across the wall like the lantern beam of an intruder.
Weber studied the desk. It was a massive pediment of oak that might have been requisitioned from Wild Bill’s law offices at Donovan, Leisure. There were a few stains on the top, where someone had placed mugs of hot coffee or tea. The side drawers were locked but the middle one was loose. With all the commotion of those first days, Weber hadn’t thought to open it. He pulled out the wooden drawer, expecting to find it as empty as the rest of the office.
At the very back of the drawer he found a sealed envelope with his name on the front. He tore open the sealing flap and removed a crisp sheet of paper. It was freshly typed. He read the words carefully:
A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself.
—Marcus Tullius Cicero
Weber turned over the page, feeling a momentary chill, as if a draft of cold wind had just blown through the room. What was he supposed to make of this Roman admonition—and, more to the point, who had surreptitiously placed it in his desk drawer for him to find in his first days at work?
The place was truly haunted, he thought to himself: so many ghosts; so many myths and legends riddling the walls. Not a theme park, but a horror show.
Weber read the message one more time and put it back in the desk. His first wisp of anxiety had given way to curiosity, suffused with anger. Was this a real warning or a general proverb about loyalty? Was Weber meant to be the traitor? Or was it was some sort of practical joke, played on every newly minted director to rattle his nerves?
Weber had thought a good deal about traitors already. He’d had multiple security briefings that first week. This was the post-Snowden era. Finding potential leakers was the first order of business. The workforce was suspect. The decade of war had produced a reaction—an invisible army of whistleblowers and self-appointed do-gooders. The result, as any newspaper reader could see, was that America’s intelligence agencies could no longer keep secrets. Security briefers assured the new director it couldn’t happen again; CIA employees were watched and assessed, under surveillance every time they logged onto a computer or made a phone call or ordered a pizza.
Weber asked if all this internal surveillance was legal, and he was told, of course it was; employees signed away any right to privacy when they joined the agency.
Weber mused about this “Wiki” enemy that fought with the zeroes and ones of computer code. They were (or could be) anywhere. The result inside government was a new Red Scare. Where people in the 1950s had whispered the name “Rosenberg,” now it was “Snowden,” or “Manning.” Somehow the intelligence community would have to learn how to live with fewer secrets; that was the new way of the world. But Weber was careful about expressing such skeptical views to his staff. These people had been traumatized. Their world had been turned upside down.
Weber tried to get to work, but the words echoed in his mind: “The traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys . . . in the very halls of government itself.” Somebody was messing with his head, trying to knock him off balance. It had to be that.
Graham Weber greeted the secretaries, Marie and Diana, when they arrived at 7:55. They looked mildly embarrassed that the boss was already at work. But they had been through multiple directors and they knew that nobody lasts forever in the big office on the seventh floor, no matter how early they get to work. The “girls,” as they had been known until not very long ago, were part of the CIA’s invisible army of support staff who typed the cables and hid the secrets and cleaned up after those more exalted on the organization chart.
Weber was in shirtsleeves, tieless, two buttons unstuck. He shook Marie’s hand, and then Diana’s, still feeling like a visitor a week in.
“Good morning, ladies,” he said. “I let myself in.”
“You can start whenever you like, Mr. Weber,” said Marie, the older of the two, who was now working for her fifth director. “We come in at eight.”
“Marie, a word,” he said, motioning for the senior woman.
Marie was a blonde in her late fifties, smart and tough enough to run the place herself, people imagined, except for the fact that she’d never gone beyond junior college. She was the CIA’s version of a senior non-commissioned officer. She had long ago dumped her first husband, an alcoholic case officer, and had given up on finding a second one. Diana, a much younger African-American woman, retreated to her desk. She was married to a senior officer in Support; they were planning to retire in another year and come back as contractors with green badges.
“In my office,” said Weber, nodding toward the big room.
Marie followed him in, switching on the fluorescent lights as she entered. He closed the door.
“I want to ask you something,” he said. “Privately, please.”
“Everything is private with me, Mr. Weber. I work for one director at a time.”
“Who has access to my office? Besides you and Diana, I mean.”
Marie thought a moment. He wouldn’t be asking if there wasn’t a problem.
“The Office of Security,” she said. “They swept it last week, one last time, to make sure.”
“And who conducted the sweep?”
She looked genuinely embarrassed not to know the answer. “I’m not sure. We have to scoot when they make their rounds.”
“And remind me, Marie, who does the Office of Security report to?” She looked at him quizzically, as if it were a trick question.
“They report to you, of course, as of last Monday.”
“Right. But before this week?”
“Well, technically, the top of the chain would have been the acting director, Mr. Pingray. But as I think you know, he recused himself on most management issues, owing to his close relationship to Mr. Jankowski. He’s trying to do the right thing, Mr. Pingray.”
“Got it. So who did the Office of Security really report to, then, before Monday morning, if not Mr. Pingray?”
Her mouth wrinkled at the edges while she thought about that one. “I suppose they reported to the director of National Intelligence, Mr. Hoffman. He’s your boss, on paper, so he must be everyone’s, ultimately.” Weber thought a moment. Could he ask Cyril Hoffman, the man who was responsible for oversight of sixteen intelligence agencies, whether he had been sending secret messages? No, of course he couldn’t.
He thought of asking the bright young computer maven he had met a year before in Las Vegas, James Morris, but that wasn’t appropriate.
“Thank you, Marie,” he said.
She headed for the door and then stopped and turned back toward him.
“Mr. Director,” she said. “I just want to say, we’re all very glad that you’re here. People want you to succeed. They think you can fix things.”
Weber laughed, not happily.
“That’s what the president said. He also told me this place was like a haunted house. Do you think that’s true, Marie?”
She nodded, with what Weber thought was a look of institutional pride.
Weber went to the window and looked at the cars of the early arrivals beginning to fill the parking spaces in the agency’s Candy Land collection of color-coded lots. It was interesting how many agency officers drove foreign cars. You wouldn’t find that at an Air Force base, or a Navy yard. The CIA didn’t know whether it wanted to be a blue state or a red state. That was part of its problem.
Weber returned to the desk, which was a toasty brown in the spreading light. How was he going to get this place working again, really? Atop his desk was a notepad crowned with the agency seal and its pugnacious eagle. He took out a pen and wrote down phrases that came to him, and then crumpled the sheet: A week at the CIA and he was thinking in PowerPoint. He was about to throw the note in the burn bag when it occurred to him that someone might find it and read it, so he put in his pocket.
Far from Washington, a young man skittered toward the U.S. Consulate in Hamburg like a shorebird blown by the North Sea wind. He was dressed in low-slung jeans and a zip-up gray hoodie, his hands thrust deep in his pockets. His eyes were dark-rimmed with fatigue, and he was shivering in the cold October breeze that raked the inland lake along the Alsterufer. At the gate, the guard stopped the visitor, but he showed his Swiss passport and said he had an urgent appointment.
Inside the guardhouse, the Marine told the youth to lower his hood so that his face was visible. The top of his head was thin stubble, like a layer of soot. In his right ear were three metal studs. Tattooed on his neck were a dotted line and the Russian words, Вырезать здесь. His passport identified him as Rudolf Biel. The guard wanted to send him away, but the young man said slowly and emphatically that he needed to talk to the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
“I have a message for Graham Weber, CIA director, no one else but him.”
He was a mess. His eyes were bulging and red-veined. His pallid skin was dotted with acne scars, as if he had lived his entire life in a cave. He spoke English with a German accent. His passport said he was from Zurich.
“Do you have an appointment with Mr. Weber?” asked the Marine guard behind the glass. It was a dumb question, but the Marine was confused. He had never seen a walk-in, twenty-five years after the Cold War.
“I must see him, the new CIA director. Mr. Clean. He will want to talk to me, sir, believe me.”
The Marine behind the glass shook his head. He thought for a moment and then handed the man a form with an email address and phone number and told him to make an appointment. But this only made the visitor more agitated and insistent.
“Listen to me: This is a big secret. Email is not safe. I want a face-to-face meeting only, with Mr. Weber.” He pointed his finger as he spoke, to emphasize his point. “No Internet. No electronic message. Otherwise, I am finished.” He said these last words in deadly earnest.
The Marine pointed to the Russian words tattooed on the man’s neck. At least he could start with that.
“What does that mean, in English?”
“It says, ‘Cut here.’” The Swiss youth gave a cockeyed grin and then glowered at the guard. “I mean it,” he said. “I am a dead man if you don’t let me in.”
The guard stared at him a moment longer and then nodded. He told the man to wait outside while he called the regional security officer. He didn’t want to be blamed for letting in the scruffy young man or keeping him out.
The Swiss boy stood shuffling outside, hands stuffed into the pockets of his sweatshirt. The visitor glanced every few seconds over his shoulder, down the Alsterufer toward the bridge on Kennedybrücke, a long block away. A passerby glanced at him and made a distasteful face when he saw the shaved head and scruffy clothes. This was Hamburg’s fanciest neighborhood. What was this clod of dirt doing here?
The visitor stuck his hands deeper against the wind. The waters of the Alster were like corrugated tin. The sun had vanished behind thick clouds, shadowing the lakeside walk in the flat gray of late afternoon. To the south were the towers of old Hamburg, to the west the great docks and freight yards along the Elbe River, and, beyond that, the North Sea and escape.
The regional security officer arrived at the guardhouse, carrying the red binder with the code phrases. He looked at the young man’s passport and summoned him back inside the security hut. He’d been working at the State Department for nearly thirty years, long enough to remember what a defector was.
“Mr. Weber doesn’t work here,” said the security officer. “He works in Washington. Why do you want to see him?”
“I have special information. It is too dangerous to tell anyone else. I know a very big secret.” The Swiss boy stared the State Department functionary dead in the eyes. His hands were open before him, as if he were holding an invisible gift that he wanted to present.
The officer nodded. There was something about the young man’s intensity that made him believable. He looked in his red folder and dialed the number of one of the nominal political officers, K. J. Sandoval.
“Mr. Bolt is here. He says he has a package for Mr. Green.”
There was a long pause. The CIA officer inside had forgotten the walk-in procedures, too, and she needed to look at her own cheat sheet. “Is this a joke?” she muttered into the phone while searching. “The Cold War is over.”
“No, ma’am.” His voice was clipped. “No joke.”
“Okay. Sorry.” A few more seconds passed, until she found her script. “Did Mr. Bolt say what was in the package?”
“Nope. Just says it’s important.”
There was another pause, as she looked in the list of code phrases for what she wanted to ask. It wasn’t there.
“Is he a nut?”
The security officer studied the man standing on the other side of the glass barrier. He had unzipped his hoodie, revealing a dirty black T-shirt with the faded inscription def con xx and a skull and crossbones. On his wrist was a bracelet with metal studs. He was a normal adult’s bad dream, yet his eyes—as fearful and strung out as they were— were alive with intelligence.
“It’s hard to say what he is,” answered the security officer. “He looks like a punk, basically. He’s standing here. Check him out yourself on the closed circuit. It’s your call. I can send him packing if you want.”
She studied the grainy camera image. He looked like a loser, but she was a new base chief, and she’d never had a walk-in. And she was bored with the ever-repeating loop of the European economic crisis. It was the only topic on which anyone in Washington ever queried the consulate or Embassy Berlin these days. It would be a pleasure to think about something different.
“What the hell?” she said. “Bring him up. I’ll be in Conference Room A.”
Excerpted from The Director by David Ignatius. Copyright © 2014 by David Ignatius.
First published in 2014 by W.W. Norton & Company Ltd. First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus Editions Ltd, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.