'The Quantum Supremacy,' Part III of the Serial
Part three of Spengler’s spy thriller, The Quantum Supremacy, 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. Each week, I will publish further installments (if you don't want to wait for weekly installments, buy the Kindle edition). Read Part One here Read Part Two here.
Chapter II: Codenamed Rosebud
Thirty hours later, Richetti drove his rental into a wooded driveway in Falls Church, Virginia, at the end of which stood a gray clapboard house. He had checked into the Sheraton on Leesburg Pike in Tyson, showered and changed into a black Versace blazer over a blue shirt made by his Hong Kong tailor, and gray slacks. Two men sat in a black Chevrolet Suburban in front of the house, and one stood outside the entrance. He spoke into his face mike as Paul approached, checked his credentials and opened the door. Half a dozen middle-aged men straightened in their chairs as he entered. The room had a wraparound sofa facing two armchairs with a wooden coffee-table in between.
“Director, I’m Paul Richetti, and I was told to give you this by hand,” Paul said. The Director of the National Clandestine Service bore the title of Deputy Director for Operations until 2005 when the George W. Bush Administration elevated the position. D/NCS was a trim bald man in his 60s, a devotee of organic grains and elliptical steppers. He wore a gray Patagonia fleece vest over a checked shirt and chinos and looked less like a covert operator than a vice-president of an insurance company. Reading glasses balanced at the end of his nose. He studied the slip of paper that Richetti had retrieved from the ATM receptacle in Hong Kong, now in a plastic envelope. He took his glasses off, put them back on again, took them off again, stood up, and sat down. He said nothing. The man next to him took the plastic envelope from his hand and read it quickly, and passed it to another Agency official. It made the rounds and came back to D/NCS, who asked: “How deep is the shit that we’re in?”
“Rosebud,” offered a gaunt man with black-rimmed glasses, “is the code name of an Agency asset in Beijing. The message quoted in part on this piece of paper was transmitted with full encryption to the CIA station at the American embassy from Langley. A Chinese source is quoting from our own encrypted traffic.”
“Could Rosebud be a double?”
“She could be anything, but that doesn’t explain this message. Rosebud never got it.”
“What else could explain it?”
“There are only two things it could be. One is, the Chinese can decipher our encrypted communications. The other is that the Chinese have a mole at CIA or NSA who passed on the clear text of the message. You tell me which pile of shit is deeper.”
“No way the Chinese decrypted this,” the man in the black spectacles protested. “They would have to be able to factor prime numbers with a thousand digits. If they got all their supercomputers in an array they might crack it in about 800 years. It’s got to be a leak.”
“F*** you, Arnold,” said a fat man in the corner of the room. He wore a two-day beard and a white shirt with a food stain below the third button. “This is a meeting that never happened, so I never said it, but f*** you, anyway.” He turned to the newcomer. “Young man, you’re being read into an operation about ten cuts above your pay grade. We can’t trust anyone who has been dealing with the Chinese for any length of time, long enough to have been bought. We need a Mandarin-speaker straight out of the shrink-wrapping, and you’re handy. Before this is over someone is going to ask you to put your head in a noose while jumping into the Grand Canyon. If you have any sense, leave now. Better yet, quit the Agency and teach Chinese to bored college students.”
“You might as well get it all off your chest,” said D/NCS to the fat man. “Paul Richetti, meet Prof. Jerzy Nowak, who knows more about the practicalities of code-cracking than anyone in our business. Jerzy, meet Paul Richetti, and f*** you, too.”
“How’s your Mandarin?,” asked D/NCS. “Native, sir,” Paul replied. “My dad was a rep for American companies in Shanghai, and he sent me to a Chinese school. I learned the characters with brush and inkpot with the local kids.” D/NCS paused for effect, looked Paul in the eye, and offered: “Consider yourself read into the most sensitive matter in the history of this agency. I do this with some misgivings given your lack of experience, but you’re already in the middle of this and we need a fluent Mandarin speaker.”
“What do you know, Mr. Richetti, about our less than satisfactory record in the People’s Republic of China?” Nowak asked. The younger man looked at D/NCS and again at the professor, and said cautiously, “Just what I read in the papers.”
“And what would that be?”
“We lost maybe 30 agents in China between 2010 and 2012 – a dozen shot, about 20 in jail.”
“And how did we manage to do that?”
“There were reports in the news media that the Iranians cracked a covert system that we used to communicate with our agents in country, maybe because of the defector from US Air Force Intelligence. We got Iranians to answer employment ads on corporate websites for jobs in Dubai or Istanbul and tried to recruit them as covert sources. What I read is that the Iranians figured out what we were doing and sent in double agents, and the doubles compromised the communications system. The Iranians told the Chinese how we did it, and they began rolling up our networks,” said Richetti.
“Do you remember how they did it?” the fat man asked.
“They used Google searches. Once the Iranian double agent showed her handlers the site he was supposed to use to communicate with the CIA, they searched for websites that had similar characteristics to the one they had blown.”
“You’re damn f***ing right they did,” said the fat man. “I warned them that this would happen, and the morons in the Sci-Tech Secretariat insisted it was foolproof. We ruined a couple of dozen careers hunting for moles – not that there weren’t moles, and not that we didn’t find any. It was all completely avoidable. A lot of Chinese who believed in us and wanted to help us are dead or rotting in some hellhole because a few assholes followed the Golden Rule of bureaucratic promotion, which is never to admit that you’re wrong. Most of them left with their pensions.”
“Jerry, you’ll work yourself up into another heart attack,” said D/NCS. “That was FUBAR and we should have listened to you. That was then, this is now. What do we have here?”
Nowak settled into his chair and said: “Person or persons unknown have sent us an internal message transmitted in code from headquarters to Hong Kong station. When I say code, I mean that it is scrambled so deeply that all the supercomputers in the world operating in unison would take longer to crack it than the time that has elapsed since the Big Bang. This is an entirely different case. The weak point in communications isn’t the encryption, but the decryption. Some poor son of a bitch has to retrieve a message behind the Great Firewall of China, where all Internet traffic is monitored and dissected for patterns that might indicate something that doesn’t belong, for example, an encrypted transmission. You can’t retrieve a message except by leaving a record of some kind. Then you need a key to decode the message. Where do you get the key? If it’s transmitted, it’s inherently insecure. You have to bring it with you, or someone has to bring it to you. We tripped over our own greasy tails with the stupid of idea of using public websites to exchange secret information. But in this case, the message never got inside the Great Firewall. Somebody must’ve got hold of it before it was encrypted. I spent years telling you to stop looking for a mole – the problem was your lousy communications system. Now I’m telling you, you’ve got a mole. And I hope you believe me this time.”
The fat man repeated his diatribe several times with minor variations, just to make sure that the lower orders of human life surrounding him understood him.
“This can’t be happening,” Havisham Beckwith thought to himself as the Polish computer scientist ranted about CIA stupidity. He was probably the oldest GS-15 at the Agency, acting head of counterintelligence rather than permanent chief. Why didn’t his superiors just push him into retirement, at which point his younger second wife would divorce him and walk off with half his pension? He knew the answer: He was a prefabricated fall guy, a relic of the old Andover-and-Yale recruitment channel by a tap on the shoulder, with a career that began at the peak of the Cold War and had produced no accomplishments of note. He was old Agency, with no natural base of support. He had never understood how the amiable alcoholic Aldrich Ames had turned traitor, and couldn’t believe it until a defector fingered him for a mole. His career was suspended by a thread. The defection to Iran of the Air Force intelligence officer Monica Elfreide Witt, was an ill wind that blew good to Beckwith. That one was on the Pentagon counterintel types and the FBI, not him, and his masters wouldn’t fire him during the subsequent damage control exercise. That gave him another year, maybe two, before the discovery of another CIA mole would give the Agency occasion to ceremoniously present Beckwith’s head on a pike to the Congressional overseers. But that gave him the tenacity of fatalism. If he was going to be the fall guy, he would give them a fight.
“I take as much responsibility as anyone for the mole hunts of 2011,” Beckwith said quietly, “but we have a rather different set of circumstances today. By my rough tally, no more than 17 individuals had access to the text of the purloined message we have in front of us. Eight of those are senior administrators with long careers, and the other nine are systems people whom we subject to continuous scrutiny. Not an electric blip enters or leaves a device in their possession that we do not intercept, not a human contact takes place that we do not record, not a purchase is made that we do not compare to their spending power. The US government has exerted enormous efforts and spent outlandish sums to secure our computer transmissions, and we shall require something more Nero Wolfe’s powers of deduction.”
Paul thought he was speaking to himself, but said aloud, “If it’s a mole, why send the message to us?”
“Just so,” Beckwith chimed in happily. “The Chinese want us to spend the next ten years chasing imaginary moles, distracting us and ruining morale.”
“Could the text have been decoded?,” asked D/NCS of Operations.
“Not in a hundred years with every supercomputer in China,” declared the fat man.
The NSA head of counterintelligence had said nothing. He took a sip of coffee, sat back and folded his hands in his lap. “Let’s say we have a mole with access to the clear text of highly encrypted communications. That mole steals a sample and sends it to someone in Hong Kong, and whoever it is in Hong Kong tips us off to it. Why? Greed? They could get paid in the US as easily as Hong Kong.”
“Not so easily. It’s hard to make $10 million in currency vanish in the US. How do you get it out of the country? In Hong Kong, you can put it into diamonds and take it anywhere. And there’s more. Hong Kong is the Ministry of State Security’s property. We can’t do electronic surveillance there. If they did it in Bulgaria or Brazil we would have had a dozen mini-drones watching the mule who made the drop at the ATM. That’s an ix-nay in Hong Kong.”
“Let’s say there’s a mole. We know exactly how many people have access to the clear text – there’s D/NCS of operations, the control team that arranges the drops, and the geeks at NSA who encrypt the text and transmit. That’s 17 people in total. Give us a week. We’ll do polygraphs, aperture searches, chemical interrogation if we have to. We record every electronic signal that chirps out of their cell phone and pacemaker. We’ll do brainwave scans. We know every nickel they spent at every newsstand, every film they watched on Netflix, every Internet search they’ve made since 2003, and everything about anyone they’re related to, dated, or bumped into on the Metro. And we dump all of this data into a machine learning program designed to look for communication patterns.”
“Not unless China has achieved quantum supremacy,” said a thin man at the back of the living room. He got up and stood next to Jerzy Nowak. The image of Laurel and Hardy tickled at the back of Paul’s mind and he suppressed a chuckle. The thin man wore baggy rappers’ shorts, a Redskins sweatshirt, and Gucci loafers; the ageless, elfin face could have belonged either to a man of thirty or fifty.
“That’s science fiction,” shouted Prof. Kowak. “You’re out of your mind, Klapowicz.”
Diderot Klapowicz looked at the fat man with disgust. “And you’re a dinosaur. We are in the middle of a revolution that will change our lives and everybody’s lives forever. We are this close to reproducing brain functions with neural networks. We’ve got Artificial Intelligence and machine learning that beats the human brain in some applications. And when we have robust quantum computation an evolutionary leap will take place like nothing in natural history.”
“You sound like a Palantir salesman,” Kowak muttered disgustedly.
“Look at the facts,” said Klapowicz. “We know that the Chinese government is spending $10 billion on a single quantum computer center. We don’t know how much they’re spending in total but the house guess is maybe $25 billion in the next five years. And that’s US dollars. Translate that into local spending power and that’s the equivalent of $50 billion in the US.”
“IBM and Google spend a lot of quantum computing as well,” Kowak interrupted.
“They’re short by a zero, Jerry,” said Diderot. “The Chinese want to achieve quantum supremacy first and they’re going after it the way we went after the A-bomb – no budget, no constraints, top priority on all resources.”
“What exactly do you mean by quantum supremacy?,” asked D/NCS.
“That simply means a quantum computer that can perform certain tasks better than a conventional computer. You mentioned IBM? IBM said publicly in the middle of 2018 that quantum computers will be able to break codes instantaneously, and that they might be able to do this in five years. We know the guys at IBM. Put a couple of Bourbons into them, and they’ll admit that it might be sooner than five years, and they don’t know whether the Chinese are ahead of us, and how far. This could be the biggest revolution in military tech in our lifetimes – in history. The Russians couldn’t believe it when the Israelis shot down a hundred of their planes in Syria in 1982. They had no clue how far we had advanced in avionics, and when they found out, they knew they were losing the Cold War. The Japanese Empire thought it could hold out for years and break the morale of American invaders until we lit up Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then it was game over. If the Chinese reach quantum supremacy before we do, it’s game over. Cryptography will be the least of our problems. The winner in this race will be able to design new classes of weapons that we can’t even imagine. It will be able to use artificial intelligence in ways we haven’t even considered.”
Chapter 3: Quantum Surprise
Klapowicz pulled a sheaf of papers from his briefcase and said, “Let me read you something that Elsa Kania wrote last year in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:
“Once operational, quantum computers will provide almost unimaginable power. They could be capable of cracking many forms of modern cryptography, in which security relies upon the difficulty of factoring large numbers. That is, quantum computing will mark the start of a new stage in the battle between code-makers and code-breakers. Considerable changes in current cryptographic practices could be required, and such a transition could prove costly and complex, potentially requiring more than a decade to complete.
“Future quantum computers could be employed in any context where such power would provide an advantage, likely including complex military simulations and weapons systems. Notably, quantum computing might also be harnessed to accelerate advances in AI. China’s New Generation AI Development Plan includes quantum-accelerated machine learning as a priority. In January, a team of Chinese researchers published a proof-of-principle demonstration of an efficient quantum algorithm to extract useful information from noisy, unstructured data through the use of a six-photon quantum processor. This key breakthrough is characterized as providing “new insights into data analysis in the era of quantum computing.”
“This is all over my head, “said D/NCS. “But let’s say just for the sake of argument that you’re right. The Chinese have made this McGuffin work and we haven’t, and that’s why they can read our encrypted messages. How do we get from there to this scrap of paper that young Mr. Richetti has brought to us from Hong Kong? Why should the Chinese tip us off?”
“Not the Chinese,” Paul said. “A Chinese.”
“Explain,” D/NCS demanded.
“Logically, it doesn’t make sense for the Ministry of State Security to let us know that they can crack our encryption. They would be in the position of the British with MK-Ultra during World War II. Bletchley Park could read every encoded message the Germans sent after 1941, but they took extreme measures – even sacrificed lives—to make sure that the Germans didn’t know. China has no interest in tipping us off. But a rogue operator in Chinese signals intelligence might have an interest. This is purely hypothetical, but the logical explanation that best fits the facts is that an individual or individuals with knowledge of Chinese code-breaking capability are letting us know that they know.”
Diderot nodded a bit too vigorously. “He’s right. This could be a signal from a prospective defector in possession of the biggest secret in the history of intelligence. What was your name – Richetti, thanks – you’re right. We have an indication of interest from someone with access to the world’s most closely guarded secret. Maybe they want money, maybe they have a grudge against the Communist Party. Whatever they want, we should give it to them.”
“We’re getting ahead of ourselves,” said D/NCS. He crouched in thought and seemed to shrink into his armchair. CIA had been in the doghouse for years. The loss of its China network during the first Obama Administration was one of the biggest humiliations in the agency’s six decades of service, less public than the Bay of Pigs invasion or the Church Committee hearings in 1975, but even more devastating for those in the know. Aldrich Ames at CIA and Robert Hanssen at the FBI had betrayed their countries and condemned scores of CIA agents over the years, but their damage was spread out over many years. Their Russian handlers did their best to avoid alerting the Americans to a leak, but China wanted to make a horrible example out of the traitors it exposed. Then came the miserable days of the Syrian civil war, when CIA poured weapons and money into Sunni rebels fighting the Assad government. The CIA’s smaller rival agency at Pentagon, the Defense Intelligence Agency, warned that the recipients of CIA largesse were creating a new Islamist movement with American money. The DIA’s chief Gen. Mike Flynn managed to get himself fired by Obama as well as Trump—that’s what you get for taking on the Central Intelligence Agency—but the damage was done, D/NCS mused. He was past sixty and looking at real estate in Winchester Country. If he pulled this off, not only would he get the director’s chair, but he would outshine the legendary intelligence chiefs of the past. But he knew that the most dangerous thing in this business was to look eager. He affected a Harold Pinter pause and said:
“Richetti, assuming that your conjecture has merit, what course of action would you recommend?”
The younger man said, “If there is someone on the Chinese side who wants to talk to us, and this note is an expression of interest, we’ll hear from whomever it is before long.”
“What the f*** is ‘whomever?’” asked the fat man. “You don’t talk like an American.”
“I’m American, for what it’s worth to whomever the f*** wants to know,” said Richetti. “My dad was fourth generation American. His grandfather came from Sicily as a kid in 1903 and fought in France with the Second Marine Division at Belleau Wood. His son ran a construction business in Bensonhurst. My dad got an MBA from Kellogg. My mother was Hungarian. Her folks were freedom fighters and they got out in 1956, when she was small.”
“You speak Hungarian?”
“Nyald ki a seggem,” Paul said.
“What’s that mean?”
“It means I speak enough Hungarian to pick up girls in Budapest.”
“Give it a rest, Jerry,” D/NCS said. “We go to war with the army we’ve got. There’s a reason why all of you are meeting offsite, instead of some other guys sitting in a conference room at Langley. I’m reasonably confident that I can trust each of you. Beckwith, for example, has maxed out his credit cards and is trying to get a second mortgage, and he’s got tracking software on his wife’s phone so he’ll know if she’s sleeping with her personal trainer. He hasn’t eaten out at a place better than Denny’s in a year. I know he’s not taking money from anyone else. Klapowicz has no access to the cookie jar. Jerry has done things for the Agency you don’t want to know about, and won’t. And young Richetti hasn’t been around long enough to be corrupted, not unless the ChiComs recruited him in grade school. No-one but the people in this room and the station chief in Hong Kong are going know about this. Nothing is discussed on the phone. We meet here, or where I tell you to meet.”
“Arnold, I need a few minutes with Richetti,” the gaunt man in black glasses said. He walked the younger man into the adjacent den and said, “Why did you volunteer for Clandestine Services?”
“I joined Clandestine Services because f*** you, that’s why.”
“Do you use drugs?”
“Not even pot?
“Do you drink alcohol?”
“Only when I can get it.”
“You have Hungarian dual nationality.”
“You can never be too rich or too thin, or have too many passports.”
“Have you ever been arrested?”
“Assault, but you already knew that. I plead down to harassment and got a 30-day suspended sentence.”
“The only misunderstanding is one that you have with yourself, Richetti. You’re a head case.”
“Then I’m in the right line of work.”
“This isn’t the Fight Club. You can get operations blown and get other people killed working out your f***ed-up fantasies.”
“Tell who you want me to fight, boss,” Paul said. “Where are they? I’ll fight ’em.”
You’ll have to do, the gaunt man thought. If you weren’t crazy you couldn’t do clandestine work. And if you didn’t have a death wish, you wouldn’t do it in China.
D/NCS and Jerzy Nowak walked into the den and the gaunt man left. “If you’re right, we can expect another message, which means that we need you back in Hong Kong,” said the DDI. “The first problem is that we have no secure channel of communication. If MSS read our message to Rosebud, they can read anything. The diplomatic pouch is too slow. Any suggestions?”
Kowak asked Richetti, “Your Hungarian still fluent?” and got an affirmative nod back.
“We find a Hungarian speaker here and use an old-fashioned word code. The Chinese might crack it with some effort, but Hungarians are at the bottom of their priority list. We’ll give you a burner phone with a contact list and call history in Hungary – if they download the contents they won’t see anything unusual. You make your calls brief and make them on the bus or the subway. Take the battery out of the burner any time you have your company phone with you. The Chinese track the location of the phone of every mobile phone in Hong Kong and check whether other phones are moving with them. That’s not perfect, but it ought to hold us long enough to figure out what we’re going to do next.”
“Get some sleep, Richetti. We’ll have the phone and codebook to you by the end of the day and you can get on the next plane back to Hong Kong.”
“Get out of here,” said D/NCS. Paul did so.
Kowak opened a bag of raisins and fed himself with a will. “This is the most f***ed up thing I’ve seen in 40 years in the business, Arnold. The greatest McGuffin of them all! The Holy Grail of Intelligence! You’ve got a leak. Otherwise, you have to believe crazy shit. First, the Chinese have a quantum supercomputer that IBM says is ten years away, best case. Second, there’s somebody with access to its product who wants to defect. Third, this person, who lives under a microscope because he knows the ultimate state secrets, somehow manages to beat the mobile phone intercepts, the facial recognition cameras, the polygraphs and chemical interrogation, and gets the information out of a secure facility. Fourth, whoever this combination of Alan Turing and James Bond might be also has a network that can deliver messages to us in Hong Kong. Each of those elements is individually improbable, and the combination of them is preposterous. Either that, or you’ve got a mole, either at Langley or at NSA. You’ve had plenty of those. You don’t need a superannuated geek like me. You need the f***ing FBI.”
“Game this one for me, Jerry,” said D/NCS. “If I dismiss the idea of a Chinese offer of service and dump the mess into the lap of Counterintelligence, Beckwith will screw me good. He may be a turd with a suit wrapped around it, but one of his Skull and Bones buddies is on the House Intelligence Committee, and I’ll get hauled in front of it and asked why I walked away from the most valuable intelligence product in history. The operation is even more preposterous than you think. Let’s say there really is a prospective defector at a super-secret facility in China, and we can talk to him unobserved. How do you exfiltrate a Mainlander? That would have been next to impossible when we still had a network inside China. Whatever we have left, we have to assume is compromised – with one exception, and I don’t like the idea of risking that. “That leaves us with Richetti. In these situations, it comes down to luck, and a newbie can get as lucky as a veteran. It comes down to it, better to lose a newbie.”
Copyright: Spengler, David P. Goldman, The Quantum Supremacy
Catch-up link: Read Part One here
Next week: Chapter IV: The Savant
About the Author: David P. Goldman has written the “Spengler” column at Asia Times since 2001. His previous books include How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too) and It’s Not the End of the World, It’s Just the End of You. He has published extensively in major media including The Wall Street Journal, The Journal of American Affairs, The American Interest, First Things, Tablet Magazine and PJ Media. He has directed major research groups at Bank of America, Credit Suisse and Cantor Fitzgerald, and received Institutional Investor Magazine’s award for research excellence. He consulted for the National Security Council during the first Reagan Administration and for the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment during 2011-2013. From 2013 to 2016, he was a managing director at Reorient Group, a Hong Kong investment bank, and has published and lectured extensively about China. This is his first work of fiction.
“Ask anyone in the intelligence business to name the world’s most brilliant intelligence service and we’ll all give the same answer: Oswald Spengler. David P. Goldman’s ‘Spengler’ columns provide more insight than the CIA, MI6, and the Mossad combined.” – Herbert E. Meyer, special assistant to the director of Central Intelligence and vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council in the Reagan administration.