The Quantum Supremacy
Part four of Spengler’s spy thriller which pits China’s Ministry of State Security against the CIA in a deadly battle of wits
China’s Ministry of State Security and the Central Intelligence Agency are locked in a deadly battle of wits – from Muslim unrest in Xinjiang Province to the high-tech nerve center of US American intelligence at the National Security Agency. At stake is The Quantum Supremacy – America’s most secret messaging system. Each week, Asia Times will publish further installments from Spengler’s riveting tale of deceit (for those who don’t want to wait, a paperback edition is available as well as a Kindle edition). Read Part 1 here. Read Part 2 here.Read Part 3 here.
Chapter 7: The Bid
Paul Richetti took the 2 p.m. Philippines Airways flight from Hong Kong to Manila, early enough to beat the rush hour traffic into town. He bought a burner phone and a local SIM card at the airport, and asked the Yellow Cab driver to take him to the downtown Marriot. He dialed an American number and let it ring. “Yeah,” said someone sleepily at the other end.
“Jó reggelt,” Richetti said in his most cheerful voice.
“Ez az átkozott éjszaka közepe,” his contact complained – it’s the middle of the goddamned night.
“Sorry, I was looking for your wife – I heard you were out of town.”
“Nyald ki a seggem.”
Paul continued in Hungarian, “There’s a Ming vase for sale. Don’t know if it’s authentic. It’s onshore. Down payment is 100,000 Forint, to the seller’s rep. Cost on delivery is Forint 10 million. We have to arrange shipping. Let me know if you care.”
“I’ll get back to you.”
The taxi let Paul off at the City of Dreams resort and found The Tasting Room, the only local restaurant with a Michelin star. Philippine food held no interest for him, but Frederic Thevenet’s kitchen combined French technique and local ingredients with felicitous results. He worked his way leisurely through sea urchin with Champagne sabayon, king crab with gray shrimp, a mussel soup flanked by a ham and fennel tarte, foie gras with mango, and a set of ice creams and sorbets before cleaning his palette with a Père Magloire X.O. Calvados from the Pays d’Auge. He caught the last flight back to Hong Kong.
D/NCS huddled at his Langley office with the gaunt man with black glasses. “How long since we exfil’d a Chinese defector?”
“Not since they rolled up our networks.”
“Can it be done?”
“Not easily, if it’s someone they care about. They’ll track the target’s cell phone in real time and verify the location against facial recognition, and they’ve got cameras in major cities at intervals of 100 meters. If another cell phone is moving next to it, they’ll want to know who it belongs to, and if they don’t get an answer they like, they’ll let the dogs loose in a heartbeat. That’s on the street. Surveillance is much more concentrated at any port of egress. And if it’s a really important player, they won’t rely on electronics and facial recognition. They’ll have physical surveillance on the ground.”
“We used to use yachts in Macao.”
“That’s not an option anymore. In 2018, the Chinese opened the world’s longest bridge, between Zhuhai on the mainland and Macao island, but they buttoned that up right away. They use a combination of fingerprints and facial recognition. It takes a few seconds per passenger and they claim that it’s 99% accurate. Even if you got to Macao, you’d have to go through immigration again at the airport or the Hong Kong ferry. We could use a private plane, but that would attract even more attention.”
“Is there a back door out of China?”
“There’s the west, and there’s the south. There’s plenty of jungle on the border between Yunnan province and Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, but I wouldn’t recommended trying it. Laos and Myanmar are Chinese allies and we couldn’t count on any help on the other side of the border. Vietnam doesn’t get along with the Chinese, but they’re no friends of ours, either, and they aren’t going to piss off the Chinese by doing us a favor. We had some people in Kunming, the provincial capital, but they disappeared into a black hole after the 2017 disaster. Kunming’s almost 600 clicks to the Laotian border in any case, and that’s a lot of exposure over bad roads.
“That leaves the western border in Xinjiang province. Security is tight because the Chinese are cracking down on the Uyghurs – they’re Turkic Muslims who never wanted to be Chinese. The Chinese are paranoid as hell about Uyghur separatists – they have maybe a million of them locked up in what they call re-education camps, out of a total of about 10 million. But Han Chinese go in and out of Xinjiang all the time. Beijing’s trying to resettle the place with Han immigrants for years, though they’re having trouble finding enough ethnic Han who wanted to move out to that godforsaken desert. They have a lot of coal mines, oil wells and petrochemical plants. The Chinese security people don’t pay a lot of attention to the local Han – they don’t get along with the Uyghurs, and the Ministry of State Security thinks they’re the solution, not the problem. Xinjiang is the size of Alaska, and its border runs nearly 6,000 kilometers against seven countries, including Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. The Chinese can’t patrol all of it. A lot of it is high mountains. You can get to Afghanistan through the Wakhjir Pass at 16,000 feet, although I wouldn’t recommend it. There’s no road. The locals use donkey tracks and the Chinese military let herders through, but there’s no civilian access on the Chinese side. The fact we’re in Afghanistan makes the Chinese pretty sensitive to border traffic. If you put a gun to my head, I’d advise you go through Kyrgyzstan, in the south. There are a couple of border crossings where trucks and buses pass regularly.”
“Why do I feel like I’m talking to a waiter who wants me to order the special because that’s the only thing left in the kitchen?” D/NCS asked.
“I was going to get to that, chief. That’s the only part of our network the Chinese didn’t shut down after they cracked our communications system. We have longstanding contact with the Uyghurs. We’ve helped the World Uyghur Congress operate out of Washington since 2004. That drives the Chinese nuts – they claim that the Congress is a front for the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, we deny it. You’ll remember that we had a shouting match with the Chinese at the United Nations in May 2018 when the head of the Uyghur Congress tried to speak and China blackballed him. Fact is, we keep the Uyghur exiles on the back burner and do our best to keep them out of trouble. They’re a strategic option. Not ours to reason why. If things get really nasty with the ChiComs, we will have a capability to make real trouble for them in the West. We bled the Russians in Afghanistan by giving Stingers to the tribesmen. The Russians left Afghanistan left with their tails between their legs and the Berlin Wall came down a year later. Of course, all the Monday morning quarterbacks groused that we created a monster that came back to haunt us, but we did what we had to do. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. It’s not up to us to decide if China requires the same treatment. I don’t know if that day will ever come, but it’s our job to keep the blade sharp.”
“How did our network in Xinjiang escape the roundup in 2015?” D/NCS asked.
“We never used the tainted communications system with the Uyghurs,” said the gaunt man. “We didn’t have to. The border leaks like a sieve. Xinjiang borders on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and India – not to mention Russia and Mongolia – and there are paths through the border that the locals have used for centuries. They use hawala brokers – that’s a book-entry system among extended family members – to move money. It’s an entirely different operation. Our assets in the rest of China were just mercenaries, but the Uyghurs really hate the Han. A lot of them would rather die under torture than implicate others, who probably are family members. And we’ve expanded. We’ve recruited some locals in the trucking business who go back and forth across the border all the time, so we don’t need to use electronic communication – our Uyghur friends don’t use the phone, let alone email. They have friends and family on both sides of the border. We get intel at irregular intervals by word of mouth, so we figure it’s secure.”
“What does the other side of the border fit in – Kazakhstan?”
“Actually, it’s Kyrgyzstan, chief. I know it’s easy to get them confused. It’s one of the shithole-istans that shook loose after the collapse of the Soviet Union, just 6 million people and dirt poor. They’re a Turkic people and Turkey has been the biggest investor in the country – in fact, the only foreign player in the country. The Russian presence is limited there. We had an air base there until 2014 and still have some capability, although we don’t advertise it. It did logistical support for Afghanistan until we gave it back to the Kyrgyz, but we made some friends and still have some assets there. The Turks and the Kyrgyz bicker about a lot of things, but the Kyrgyz need the Turks and give them free rein. And the Turks have a long-term interest in the Uyghurs. During China’s civil wars of the 1930s, the Uyghurs set up an independent republic and called it East Turkestan and the Turks used to give some quiet support to the Uyghur independentistas. They used to bring Uyghurs to fight with the rebels in Syria and figured on sending them home to fight for the Turkic cause against Beijing – until the Turks decided that their bread was buttered in Beijing. They keep a low profile, but they still have networks. The Chinese export their crappiest consumer goods through Kyrgyzstan to the larger Turkic republics to the West and most of that business is handled by Chinese Muslims with family on the far side of the border.”
“The Turks owe us plenty of favors,” D/NCS said. “Could we persuade them to use their networks for an exfil?”
“We can’t trust the Turks on something this important,” the gaunt man answered, “not after they decided to buy Russian air defense systems. They’re a NATO member and we’re committed to intelligence sharing, but this is the family jewels. We’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way. It’s risky, but anything’s risky. The Chinese aren’t worried about what goes out of China through that part of the world. They’re worried about what comes in. They’re happy to let Muslim traders get rich selling their crap to Central Asia, so they don’t give a second glance to fully loaded trucks leaving China. They’re a lot pickier about what might be coming back. They give the returning trucker a going-over to see if they’re bringing religious videos, copies of the Koran, prayer rugs or shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.”
“Yes,” said D/NCS, “and fast. The clock is ticking. We’ve got three weeks before the risk assessment is due at NSC. How long do you think we can pretend that we’re doing business as usual when we don’t know whether the Chinese are reading our cable traffic, and maybe passing the translations on to the Russians, or to Iran? We’re supposed to self-report this kind of thing to Congressional oversight, and if someone on Capitol Hill catches wind of this we can kiss all of our jobs goodbye. If we can waltz in with a defector, the Angel of Death might pass over our pensions.”
Chapter 8: Mr. Memory
“Is your name Percival Leong?”
“Are you employed by the National Security Agency?”
“Do you live at 1414 21st Street Northwest?”
“Have you spoken to a representative of any government except the government of the United States?”
“Have you sent any electronic messages to anyone except employees of the U.S. government?”
“Apart from your mother, have you sent any electronic messages to anyone except employees of the U.S. government?”
The interrogator threw hot and cold questions at Percival, and the needle danced in the same placid pattern on the checkered paper. “The guy’s a freakin’ freak,” he thought. “Normal people react to hot questions.”
Percival’s mother sat next to him on the futon in his studio apartment that evening and held his hand. No word was exchanged. Percival didn’t like to talk. When he was three years old and hadn’t said his first word, she took him to a doctor in Quanzhou. The doctor examined the little boy, and asked Leung Yu Yan to wait outside. She waited for a long time, rocking the boy in her arms. The doctor emerged from his office with a scrap of paper. “You are to see Professor Cheung Wang Feng at Quanzhou University.” Yu Yan asked the secretary for directions, took two busses to the drab university campus, and found the department of psychology. Her feet hurt from walking and she was hungry; she had had nothing to eat all day and the meal tickets from her factory wouldn’t buy food at the university cafeteria. Prof. Cheung beamed when she opened his office door, directed her to an old vinyl sofa, and boiled water to make instant noodles. She fed the toddler with chopsticks, pausing to take a bite herself sometimes.
Prof. Wang was in his late sixties and full of energy, taking the boy by the hand and showing him a set of blocks. The blocks had pictures on them. The professor made patterns with them, showed the boy, and then scrambled them. Each time the child put the blocks back into the pattern the professor had made before. He played a melody on a toy xylophone, and gave the mallet to the boy, who played the same melody back. He took the child by the hand and brought him back to his mother, and declared: “Leung Yu Yan, you can be proud, proud as any mother in China. Your son is a miracle child, a special child who can do great things for his country. He has a unique ability to remember patterns that he sees and hears. In the West, he would be called autistic and treated like a mental defective. But I see the butterfly inside the chrysalis.”
Yu Yan looked at Prof. Wang inquiringly for a moment and then sobbed so hard that her body shook. She had known her child was different, and she had thought that she had brought shame upon her family by bringing a stupid child into the world. Her mother-in-law looked at her with contempt when the little boy shut himself off in his own world. She felt as if the doctor’s words had opened her tomb and let in the sunlight. When she regained control of herself, she asked the psychologist, “What must I do?”
“We will teach your son here at the university. You will come and live with him here while we learn his capacities. Then you must do as your country asks.” Anything. Anything at all for Mother China, who raises the pride of a humiliated woman to a position of honor, Yu Yan thought to herself. One thing that she and Percy learned at the Quangzhou clinic was a game something like Morse code, played with long and short hand squeezes. Autism researchers in the West discovered years later that Morse code eased communication for autistic children, Prof. Wang would observe with satisfaction after his retirement, although none of them cited his pioneering article in a little-known Chinese-language scholarly journal. But none of the people he had helped remembered him with as much gratitude as Yu Yan Leung. This sustained her through twelve-hour days at the nail salon in Washington’s Chinatown. She sang in the choir of a Methodist church that offered Chinese-language services, volunteered for the food bank, and made no friends. Her life was hard, but it was a life of honor, and her family would be rewarded with special treatment. When she visited Percy on her day off, they sat together and communicated in their private language.
The interrogator paced around the gaunt man’s office at CIA headquarters in Langley. “We’re dealing with a different kind of brain, Sidney,” the interrogator said. “It’s not that the polygraph results are abnormal. Every response is perfectly normal, and that’s totally abnormal. I’ve never seen anything like this before. Forget me. There’s nothing like it in the database. We know he’s not on tranquilizers because we already tested him for every mind-altering substance known to medical science, including weird Chinese herbal shit.”
“What are you telling me to do about it?,” asked Havisham Beckwith.
“I don’t know. There’s no precedent. To my knowledge, the NSA never hired an autistic before. He seems to be a kind of idiot savant.”
“A what?,” Beckwith interrupted.
“Idiot savant, like Rain Man. He seems mentally deficient but he can do prodigious calculations. There are lots of examples in history. For example, what if this guy is Mr. Memory?”
“That’s the little man with the moustache in the old Hitchcock version of ‘The 39 Steps’ who memorizes the secret plans that the spies need to smuggle out of the country—they can’t risk being caught with blueprints, so they find this guy with a trick memory who does a vaudeville act.”
“Maybe he’s E.T. and he’s communicating with a flying saucer by telepathy.”
“I don’t know anything,” Sidney barked, “but I know that you’ve got a problem. Why take chances? Fire him. If you don’t know what he did wrong, he does. There’s always a good reason to fire somebody.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Apart from the fact that he’s the best programmer the NSA has, and that a half dozen legacy systems written in Basic and Fortran would go kaput if he weren’t there to maintain them, there’s a bigger problem.”
“And that would be…?” asked the interrogator.
“I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you.” Beckwith made the mistake of thinking that he had a sense of humor, and that made him unpopular among subordinates.
An hour later, Beckwith sat across from D/NCS. “I can’t fire NSA’s best programmer for the crime of being Chinese, he said. “I might as well rent the Goodyear blimp and display a banner reading, “We’re looking for a Chinese mole. That would tip off MSS that we know something is wrong, for example, that they can read our encrypted cable traffic because they can make this quantum thingamajig work. If we have a defector, he wouldn’t last ten minutes,” he said.
“How closely can you surveil Percival Leung?,” D/NCS asked.
“He doesn’t fart and we don’t smell it. He works on a terminal that has no physical capacity to record. He has access to the whole system because he programs it, but he doesn’t pull up transmissions before they are encrypted. We know that because we watch what he does in the building in real time. There’s an eight-man team on him every time he goes outside, which is twice a day, when he goes to work and when he comes home. We bug his apartment. We record every keystroke on his computer and run it through pattern recognition programs. Same with his piano, just in case he’s sending secret messages to Johann Sebastian-freaking Bach in the afterlife. He plays a digital piano with earphones, so we can rule out secret messages embedded in the music picked up by somebody with a long-distance directional microphone. There’s no electronic transmission from the piano. We’ve taken it apart and reassembled it twice. We’ve done the same with everything he owns that has a transistor.”
“What about his mother? She brought him from the mainland when he was five.”
“She works twelve-hour days at a nail salon and spends Sundays at her church. We have her station at the salon bugged, we have her apartment bugged, and we have her followed off and on. She got humanitarian residency twenty years ago and she’s been a citizen for a dozen years.”
“You’re sure he’s clean?”
“He’s a retard. He can’t use words of more than one syllable. His tiny mind lives in a world of computer code. He’s not capable of forming intent, much less espionage. Counterintelligence isn’t taking a fall for whatever goofball got a covert message into Chinese hands. The days are long gone when an Aldrich Ames could take bags of cash from Russian controllers and drive sports cars without our looking into it. No-one works within miles of data this sensitive without waiving the right to privacy. This isn’t our problem. Your nerds have a better explanation. The Chinese have a gizmo that can crack our codes. Now you’ve got a chance to grab somebody who knows how it’s done. I’m not going to screw that up for you by setting off bombs back here. Don’t think the Chinese won’t notice. More to the point, you won’t be able to keep it from the House Intelligence Committee.” That was a direct threat; the ranking minority member was Beckwith’s Skull and Bones brother at Yale and longtime squash partner.
“I am aware that Mr. Leung is living with autism,” D/NCS said officiously, tapping a pencil eraser with each syllable. “I don’t mind if you use this kind of language in the confines of my office, Beck, but you must be aware that we are long past the day when derogatory or demeaning language is acceptable to characterize people with disabilities. Now, I don’t know much about autism, but is it possible that autistic people can lie more convincingly than other people?”
“That’s not what the Agency psychologists tell me, and we’ve had the headshrinkers watch the interrogations through one-way glass. Autistics lie as much as anyone else, maybe even a bit more. They will deny they said or did something that embarrasses them, for example. They lie a lot, and they’re bad liars, because they can’t interpret the reactions of the person they’re lying to well enough to lie effectively. That’s the professional advice.”
“What’s your evaluation?”
“My evaluation is that Leong is telling us the truth. He simply doesn’t have the mental resources to spoof the system.”
“I’ll need that in writing.”
Beckwith nodded and walked out of the office.
Shit-for-brains preppy, thought D/NCS. But he wanted Beckwith inside the tent, pissing out. The director was boxed into a corner, and experience taught him that he didn’t get into a corner unless someone put him there. His options had narrowed down to one: Send an inexperienced and volatile field officer into China to exfil the most important Chinese defector whoever had approached the United States, and hope–hope that the defector wasn’t a Chinese dangle, hope that the field officer didn’t lose it and kill someone, hope that the network in Xinjiang could do its part. Forget the odds as they apply to the operation, the DDI mused. Think of the odds as they apply to me. Washington was quantum-crazy. The think tanks were staging events twice a month to promote quantum computing as the ultimate game-changer, and the tech industry lobbyists were loving it. Google alone had $20 million to spend lobbying the federal government. Add in Facebook, Amazon and Apple, and the annual spend swelled to $50 million. All of them had a dog in the fight. Google was touting a chip it dubbed Bristlecone and claimed that it might achieve supremacy this year, except that the high error rate sent the Google team back to the showers. IBM claimed to be close. So did Microsoft, Intel, and Hewlett-Packard. If word got out that he had slow-walked an operation that might pluck China’s quantum secrets out of the maw of the Ministry of State Security, the whole techno-intelligence complex would agree on one proposition for the first time in history, namely that D/NCS of CIA was an imbecile. A dead field officer could be explained, even a Chinese mole, but not an opportunity missed to aggrandize the most influential big spenders in Washington. One branch of the crossroads led to a split-level house in Winchester County and a lifestyle bounded by a government pension, the other to a mid-six-figures job with a Silicon Valley firm.
Chapter 9: Magyar Memories
Paul Richetti listened to Bartok’s Viola Concerto in his shoebox of an apartment in Sheung Wan, a funky neighborhood in Western Hong Kong with trendy restaurants and art galleries clustered on hilly streets, jostling with the older Chinese businesses. He chose the 1951 recording conducted by Otto Klemperer with the solo by William Primrose, the violist who commissioned the work from the composer as he spent his last days ill and alone in a one-bedroom apartment on West 57th Street. Paul’s mother had taught him to play a little Bartok at the piano, the Mikrokosmos exercises that the troubled genius had composed for children. Where she had found the ancient black Bösendorfer with legs carved into animal claws, he only could imagine. It was a relic of the grand days of émigré life in Shanghai before the war when the city’s European quarter boasted a decent opera house. Somehow it had survived the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s when the student Red Guards destroyed every visible artifact of Western culture. The Richetti parlor in Shanghai belonged to another world, of red velvet drapes, overstuffed furniture, marble statuettes, and time-darkened oil paintings, the detritus of a world long since ravaged by the fascists and again by the Communists. Anna Richetti, née Molnár, spent hours at the piano, sometimes playing Chopin and Liszt, occasionally a Schubert or Schumann Lied, but often repeating the same finger exercises until Paul wanted to stuff wax in his ears and hide under his bed; it wasn’t the sound but the ghastly look on his mother’s face that made it so hard to hear, for he knew it meant that she had turned inward, away from the world around her and from him. Paul tried terribly hard to play well because he thought it would make Anna happy, but when he showed her his exercises, she only would shake her head and say, “Pál, that’s not good enough.”
The Viola Concerto was one of Bartok’s last works; its middle movement, inscribed “Adagio Religioso,” seemed to Paul to foreshadow the composer’s coming to terms with death. Leukemia killed him before he completed it. Anna Molnár was born in Budapest in 1950, spirited out of Hungary after the 1956 uprising, and abandoned after her parents’ death to a Swiss orphanage. She had hoped for a career in music, but the orphanage couldn’t give her good teachers or even much practice time at its battered upright piano. Instead, she learned stenography at the Gregg Academy in Bern. There she worked while her spinsterhood extended into early middle age until she came to work for the Zūrich Office of Bunge Corporation as secretary to the Sicilian-American chief of its representative office. Giorgio Richetti was ten years older and three inches shorter, but she accepted his proposal of marriage six weeks after she had typed the first letter for him.
The older Richetti was transferred to Shanghai to open Bunge’s office, one of the first Western corporations to enter China after the Communist Revolution. He brought his Hungarian wife with him. To their surprise, she conceived at the age of 42. They were not happy. Giorgio Richetti liked to entertain clients, to drink and tell jokes, and spent little time at home. Anna had two consolations, her son and her music. She called Paul “My angel,” and by the age of three, Paul came to think of himself as his mother’s guardian. Together they would comb flea markets for remnants of pre-war Europe. Out of them, Anna built a mausoleum for her memories. Paul ran from one seller to another searching for something that would make her happy. One glorious Sunday morning he found the marble statuette of a ballerina, cold and smooth with a kitsch gilt base, and Anna’s smile was like a flash of sun on a winter day. Anna befriended a secretary at the Hungarian Embassy, who sometimes passed her treasures from home: Paprika for goulash, horseradish for sweet-and-sharp sauce, and Csaba sausage for lentil soup. On Friday she would buy two carp from the fishmongers and bone them. She would grind the meat of one to make stuffing for the second, and serve it with a cherry-and-horseradish sauce made with cherries that she canned herself in season. From his cradle, she spoke to Paul in her native language, not because she thought it important for him to know Hungarian, but so that she would have someone to talk to in her mother tongue. His father spoke to him in English. She also taught him rudiments of German, while he learned Mandarin at school. The boy didn’t speak until the age of four when he began to speak Hungarian, Mandarin and English all at once.
Paul was 15 when Anna killed herself. There was no warning. One day he came home from school and she was gone. The Chinese housekeeper had found the body, and the police had already taken her to the morgue, and he never had a chance to say goodbye. After that, Paul was possessed by rage at his father – not just for neglecting his sad, distant mother, but for making him fail in his quest to protect her. Giorgio Richetti couldn’t make sense of his son’s eruptions of anger; the old man could no more have spoken harshly to his own father than fly to the moon. At length, Giorgio sent his son to a boarding school in Switzerland and then to Princeton, where a professor of comparative literature suggested that he might consider serving his country. Lonely and heartbroken over the estrangement of his only son, Giorgio Richetti succumbed to a stroke in Shanghai during Paul’s junior year and left his only son enough money to remove the concern about living on a government salary.
Paul’s languages made the Directorate of Intelligence the obvious choice, but he insisted on Clandestine Services. Happy to accommodate, the CIA recruiters sent him to the Farm – Camp Perry in Virginia. The days when the scions of prominent families left the Ivy League for a stint at the Central Intelligence Agency were long gone, and the Agency personnel people were happy to have a Princeton graduate. Slightly built, he seemed a poor prospect for unarmed combat, but he learned that speed and aggression counted for more than brawn. He attacked the punching bag until his hands bled, and practiced kicks wearing ankle weights. He asked for extra time at the pistol range, where the Farm taught pistol proficiency in the stolid military style, using .40 caliber Sig Sauer semiautomatics gripped with two hands. Paul liked the old Mossad style better, shooting small-caliber weapons one-handed, and learned to do trick shots with a .22 caliber Beretta Bobcat. He liked the fighting and the shooting, which allowed him to direct the rage that sometimes surged inside him at punching bags or paper targets. And he liked being someone who he was not: The exercises in interrogation, deception, surveillance and counter-surveillance seemed rudimentary compared to the adaptations he had made throughout his life: An American raised as an Hungarian, a Hungarian growing up with Chinese, a Chinese passing for Princetonian.
A couple of his classmates came from the Army Rangers and had already served a tour or two in Afghanistan. They laughed at the skinny kid from the Ivy League when he asked to join their workout with free weights. Within a month he could bench-press half again his own weight, and they stopped laughing. One of them, a beefy Puerto Rican from the Bronx, pulled him aside one day and told him, “Killing a man isn’t especially difficult once you know how to do it.” Paul said that he wouldn’t object to learning how to do that. The soldier said, “There are two places you hit somebody to kill them. The most reliable is the Adam’s Apple. You drive the knuckles of your middle and forefinger into the throat and crush the voice box and they choke to death in less than a minute. The old manuals used to recommend using the crook of your hand between thumb and forefinger, which isn’t bad because the voice box is pretty weak and easy to crush, but knuckles are more reliable. The second is you smash your palm upward into their nose and drive a piece of bone into the brain. If you do that, hit them five or six times to make sure the bone goes in. You have to hit hard. Now try to kill me.”
Paul looked noncommittally at the soldier for a moment and then drove his palm at the man’s nose. The soldier blocked the blow and kicked him in the shins. Paul went down with a yelp. The soldier laughed. “Try that with anyone who knows what they’re doing and you’re dead. Killing is all about distraction. You divert attention and open the path to the kill. Blocking a blow to the throat, face or stomach is instinct. The shins are outside the field of vision and easier to get at. It all comes from the hip. You throw your weight forward from your hip and push the side of your foot into the shin or instep. Once you connect you go for the nose or throat. Never fight with your hands unless you have to. It’s easy to break fingers and knuckles. Weapons are everywhere – a ballpoint pen, a key, a water glass. You come see me when you can walk right.” Paul did.
The first thing Paul did after graduating from the Farm was to look for a woman. He was at a sports bar in Crystal City and had just bought a third drink for a girl who said she wanted to model but was working as a file clerk at the Pentagon for the time being. A man twice his size tried to cut in and Paul waved him off. The big man got in his face and informed him that he would stomp him into a grease spot on the floor. “Let me buy you a drink,” Paul grinned. “F*** you and your f***ing drink,” said the big man. “OK,” Paul said. “I’ll tell you a joke,” and faced the man, elbow on the bar, drink in his left hand, his weight on his right foot. “Look at the runt. He’s a comedian,” the big man said.
“Knock-knock,” Said Paul.
“John the Baptist,” said Paul and threw his drink into the big man’s face. At the same time, he lifted his knee and turned it slightly inward, and then snapped the leg out straight, driving his heel into the man’s shin while flinging his cocked hip into the kick. There was a soft crack. The man collapsed, grabbed his broken leg and screamed. It was over so fast that girl from the Pentagon didn’t grasp what had happened. She looked at him blankly. “You’d better go home now,” said Paul. He called for an ambulance and told the operator that he’d been attacked and had defended himself. The cops who came with the medical team arrested him. That hadn’t been his only bar fight, just the only time he got caught.
Two days later he sat in an alcove of the Nassau Club dining room on Mercer Street in Princeton, with the professor who had tapped him for the Agency. The old man ordered a good St. Emilion and kept Paul’s glass full while he sipped at his own. They exchanged college gossip and lamented the state of American politics over veal chops. “What do you think of your new colleagues?” the old man asked. “They’re all right,” Paul replied warily. “The hell they are,” said the professor. “They’re mediocrities. They work for the government and they worry about promotions and pensions. They fight over parking spaces. They avoid risk and spend half their time figuring out ways to blame other people for their mistakes. Their tradecraft is outdated, their language skills are poor, and their cultural acumen is nonexistent. They’re largely ineffective.”
“I thought that we had Marvel Comics superheroes running the global war on terror,” Paul laughed. “What went wrong?”
“What went wrong,” the old man continued, “is an $80 billion intelligence budget. They got more funding than they could spend sensibly and more power than they could manage. If they do anything right which is infrequent – the politicians suppress it. Read the history of intelligence agencies, and you’ll find that the spies almost always got the good intel in plenty of time. Stalin had the details of Operation Barbarossa from Richard Sorge in Tokyo. The French knew about von Manstein’s Sichelschnitt a year before the tanks came through the Ardennes. The Israelis learned about the Egyptian plans to attack on Yom Kippur from Nasser’s son-in-law in 1973. We had plenty of warning about Pearl Harbor. And if the FBI and CIA talked to each other, we would have known about 9/11 before it happened. Most politicians don’t want to hear intelligence that doesn’t fit the story they are telling at the moment. Churchill was an exception; he read the raw intelligence to make sure that it wasn’t filtered. But he was exceptional. No good deed goes unpunished in this business.”
“Then why did you drag me into it?”
“Because you’re the kind of misfit the CIA was invented for. How many native Mandarin speakers do you think we have? We’re too paranoid to hire Chinese born in the mainland. They might have family back home and might be blackmailed. The few Americans who immerse themselves in foreign culture fall in love with them, like a 16-year-old boy. We have a gaggle of superannuated China Hands who think like the Christian missionaries who trained them. They believe that it is our God-given duty to bring the heathen to Jesus, truth, justice and the American Way. The smart kids out there with the language skills, but most of them go into investment banking. You’re a gentleman, in the old sense of the word – I mean that you have independent means and don’t have to live off government pay.”
Paul laughed. “My dad’s heritage was Sicilian, and he instinctively understood what China was about. He used to tell me that Americans don’t understand the first thing about China – I mean, the most important and obvious thing about China. The Chinese don’t like their Emperor. Americans seem to think they’re like the Japanese. They aren’t. The Emperor is the tax collector in Beijing, the capo di tutti capi. He keeps the various families from messing in each other’s territory. The Chinese need him because otherwise, they’d kill each other. Which is exactly what they did when there wasn’t an emperor or the emperor was weak. You can tell that a Westerner is clueless about China if he quotes Sun-Tzu and The Art of War as if it contained some esoteric Chinese wisdom. The reason Sun-Tzu tried to win wars without fighting battles was that no Chinese wants to die for the emperor or the empire. The Chinese are anarchists, like the Sicilians. Any government is a bad government as far as they’re concerned, a necessary evil but nothing to get sentimental about. Sorry for the rant, Professor. What do you want me to do?”
“Stay away from the Intelligence Directorate. The CIA has different tribes. The analysts who work for the Intelligence Directorate are mostly academics who couldn’t get jobs with a track to tenure and preferred the government health plan and pension to the poverty and drudgery of adjunct teaching, second-raters with modest ambitions. They know they’re second rate and defer to the Establishment foreign policy schools at Harvard, Johns Hopkins or Columbia because they’d rather work there than at the Agency.”
“Maybe I should go into academia.”
“Lord knows, you’ve got the ability for it, but you don’t have the temperament. You can’t keep your mouth shut, even to suppress a wisecrack. The people who run universities these days live in terror of the witch-hunters. They’re always looking for someone to burn at the stake for racist-misogynist-colonialist views, and you will be at the top of every list of candidates for incineration. Two kinds of people get tenure in universities today, the ideologues who fit in, or the whores who need the money and aren’t suited for honest work. You can’t compete with them when it comes to sheer venality. Besides, you’re smart, and they’re stupid, and they don’t like that. Clever people can’t pass for stupid. Stupid people know. They can smell them. They’re shrewd, like animals. Clandestine Services is a criminal organization operating with government sanction. I think you would do well at that. Remember that your superior is not your friend. He’s there to take credit for your work if you succeed and blame you if you fail. If you have a problem, come to me. Don’t call. Just turn up.”
The conversation drifted to Mann and Musil over whisky, and the Nassau Club emptied out. The old man had drunk too much and a slur crept into his clipped speech. “People don’t understand what fiction is for,” he said. “They don’t like their own lives so they live vicariously through fictional characters. What is called for is just the opposite: fiction is supposed to make us self-aware. One is meant to look at one’s self as if one was a character in the novel. Reflect on one’s own motivations. Innigkeit isn’t sentimental; it means that our private intimations should be placed on the cold slab of the forensic laboratory and dissected. That is particularly helpful in this wretched business, where everyone lies to everyone. You will never have enough of the facts at your disposal. The body of evidence you always will have before you, though, is your own responses if you know how to read them. Learn to reflect on them, and you will learn things that you cannot see with your eyes.”
As they left the old man gave him a slip of paper. “In case of need, I have an old friend in Hong Kong. Memorize this name and number and burn this; if you need to call him, tell him that Felix Krull sent you.”
Copyright: Spengler, David P. Goldman, The Quantum Supremacy
Next week: Chapter 10 – D’Aguilar Street