Why is anyone surprised by the NSA’s data-mining program? I’ve been writing about it for several years now, in my trio of “Devlin” novels: Hostile Intent, Early Warning, and Shock Warning, which have just been picked up for e-book publication in the U.K., I’m pleased to report. The books have found their audience, especially among members of the military and the intelligence community, in part thanks to my main character — a cipher working for the secretive branch of the NSA called the Central Security Service and known only by his code name, “Devlin,” who gets called into action in the most dire of circumstances — and in part because they accurately reflect the strange and lonely wilderness of mirrors in which people like Devlin live and operate.
My goal has been to illustrate and dramatize in fictional form various nightmare scenarios that keep our counter-terrorism officials awake at night. In the first book, Hostile Intent, it was a Beslan-style attack on a school in the midwest, followed by an abortive attempt to launch an EMP device on both coasts; luckily, our man Devlin foiled both plots. Here’s a bit on the CSS and what it does:
“Under the authority of National Security Decision Memorandum 5100.20, signed by President Nixon on 23 December, 1971, and amended by President G. H. W. Bush on June 24, 1991,” said Gen. Seelye, “the Sec Def and I believe that you should provisionally authorize a Central Security Service operation to terminate the ongoing incident in Edwardsville.”
“Terminate, how, General?”
With extreme, exemplary prejudice, sir,” replied Seelye.
President Tyler vaguely remembered the CSS, a special division of the National Security Agency that not one American in a million had even heard of, much less understood its function. The CSS had been created originally under the Nixon Administration as the “fourth branch” of the armed services, to complement the Army, the Air Force and the Navy/Marines in the burgeoning field of electronic intelligence and combat. But the traditional-minded put up the predictable bureaucratic fuss, and the CSS was quietly folded in the NSA, authorized to work with each of the individual service branches in capturing and decoding enemy SIGINT. So when, for example, a Navy submarine tapped an undersea Soviet communications cable, or one of the Air Force’s many electronic surveillance overflights picked up hostile transmissions, they were relayed to the CSS for evaluation and, if necessary, action.
But the CSS chafed at being a bystander and, using the “No Such Agency” cloak of anonymity, quickly moved into the void, coordinating covert strikes on Soviet assets with the utmost plausible deniability — “accidents” were amazingly common — and establishing its own presence as a service to be reckoned with. Still, resistance from the uniformed services, kept it in the shadows of its birth, where it lurked now — the incognito, but highly effective, muscle arm of the NSA.
In the second book, Early Warning, there’s a rip-roaring terrorist assault on Times Square patterned after the real world Bombay attacks of 2008 — and which I wrote well before the actual Times Square bombing attempt; it’s not easy staying ahead of the curve — all part of the triology’s meta-plot involving a shadowy Hungarian-born billionaire named Emanuel Skorzeny with a pronounced animus against the West. (Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.) With the entire island sealed off, Devlin infiltrates Manhattan via a disused Hudson River tunnel, teams up with members of the NYPD’s counter-terrorism unit, and sorts out the bad guys.
Bonus — I also propose a solution to the mystery of the famous “Dorabella Cipher” that has puzzled cryptologists ever since the composer Edward Elgar scribbled it on a note to a young woman with whom he was probably in love before immortalizing her in the “Enigma” Variations:
Morse code: I am. Am I? A phrase and then the reverse. A phrase and then the reverse. A yearning, strange and ineffable. Hesitant, coy and coquettish by turns, masterful and manly by others. Everyone assumed that the work was as Elgar said: portraits of various friends. Program music, the scholars called it.
But what if that, too, was all misdirection? What if the central enigma of the Enigma Variations wasn’t so enigmatic after all, but hiding right there in plain sight. There, hidden away in one of the lesser variations — not the magisterial “Nimrod,” which had come, like the Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, to symbolize the very spirit of Victorian Britain itself, but the one that immediately followed it.
The “Dorabella” variation.
The squiggly “eeees.”
The squiggly, ornamented melodic line of the “Dorabella” Variation, supposedly mean to express the girl’s slight hesitancy in her speech patterns. But listen closer: the variation does not simply depict one person, but two. The strings twitter, but the woodwinds answer.
Dora. Bella. Dora the Beautiful.
And she is having a conversation with the composer.
The most recent installment, Shock Warning, wraps up the Skorzeny plotline, concluding in the Iranian desert where Jimmy Carter’s presidency came to an ignominious end, but with the destruction of the Persian nuclear program via the Stuxnet virus (introduced into their system by a poisoned pawn in the form of an NSA computer) and some timely derring-do from Devlin and his mysterious Iranian girlfriend, Maryam. There’s also a vivid description of a Muslim attack on a Christian church in Cairo and religious riots in Kaduna, Nigeria. And the sudden, holographic apparition of the Virgin Mary. And a suitcase nuke at Mt. Sinai Medical Center. Hey — it could happen. Some of it, anyway.
Back in the real world, I’m inclined to agree with my friends Andy, John Yoo, and Jack Dunphy — data-mining, after all, is what professional data miners do. (You’d be amazed at how much intel is gleaned from open-source material — hello Twitter and Facebook!) The question is not what capabilities outfits like the NSA and CSS have — the Black Widow sees all — but whether we trust the folks at the top with our open secrets.
By the way, the fourth Devlin book is on its way — fast and furiously.