Graham Weber is the new director of the CIA. He was chosen for this job because he has a reputation for being someone who can shake things up and bring a total change to whatever enterprise he is working on. He chooses James Morris, director of the agency's Information Operations Center, to put his vaunted cyber skills to work on the case, but it’s not long before he starts having doubts about Morris, a gifted but elusive young man. Both work well together and understand each other whether speaking in English or "data code." But Weber knows that Morris is not stable and must find a way to keep his eyes on him.
"The characters are finely honed, and the circumstances they face are both fantastic and believable on other levels. Readers are certainly left with a hefty amount of information to ponder."
Across the ocean, a young, dirty, practically starving man walks into the American consulate in Hamburg. He tells the woman in charge, Kitty Sandoval, that he knows the CIA has been hacked, who did it and how to fix it. Kitty goes by strict protocol and doesn't let him stay overnight at the embassy; rather, she tells him to come back after the weekend. But by Monday morning, his body is found floating in a river. She is torn by her decision and whether or not she made the right call. Soon the whole case is taken away from Kitty, and she ends up contacting a lawyer saying she was discriminated against.
Meanwhile, the Director has a discussion with a geeky, brilliant employee about Morris, her boss. He wants her to find out things about Morris and have her report back to him. At first she is reluctant, but soon changes her mind and takes on the job despite her hesitations. After all, the Director is rebuilding the CIA. Despite Weber having no experience in the world of cyber-spying, he still manages to take the reigns and hold on strongly. The acknowledgements tell readers that the book "is ultimately about American intelligence in the age of WikiLeaks, and whether it can adapt to a more open digital world and still do the hard work of espionage."
As it happens, one of the women assigned to watch Morris, Ariel Weiss, becomes aware that he is probably “running a separate network of agents and operations overseas and coordinating these activities through a covert base in Denver that may or may not have something to do with secret joint operations with the National Security Agency." Morris is deeply grounded in the underworld of cyber-hacking and other nefarious operations.
Michiko Kakutani writes in the New York Times, "Mr. Ignatius makes up for [any] shortcomings [in his novel] by giving an intimate sense of American intelligence operations in a post-Sept. 11 world, and puts them in historical perspective with operations from the World War II and Cold War eras. He also provides a detailed, energetically researched account of how hackers inside and outside the government operate: how malware and back doors and worms actually work, how easily security and privacy shields can be breached, how relatively defenseless many financial networks are." Reading this may create a chill in the public's collective consciousness.
Overall, the book is one that those immersed in cyber-life as well as casual Internet users can both appreciate. The characters are finely honed, and the circumstances they face are both fantastic and believable on other levels. Readers are certainly left with a hefty amount of information to ponder.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on June 20, 2014