#KillAydaKhoury - Chapter 10
Maryland City, Maryland
The morning of the Congressional hearing I put on a hundred-dollar suit I used to think was expensive and critique myself in the bathroom mirror. I feel underdressed, like they’re going to judge the cut against their tailored designer suits and wonder why I deserved to even be here.
I feel like they’re looking for a reason to find me guilty. Kolda says it’s just a show trial, making it look good for the public, but what if he’s wrong? What if Laurent isn’t the only one who found out about Operation Intifada? What if Kolda was lying and didn’t hear about it from Laurent at all?
At least I know who to try to win over, to run an approach on, like Kolda said. I’ve spent the last couple of days farming Black Desert and using the Greenhouse add-on to see who donates to which congress person and cheap spear-phishing tricks to find out what’s in their stock portfolios. All the while trying to track El-Shafei’s hardware, but it’s long gone: destroyed or with the battery taken out. Pirate Bay has the execution video of Hart’s contact posted. I wish I hadn’t watched it.
Ralph Jameson (R, Utah) is bought and paid for by Halliwell’s private military contractor OAS, the contract spies at North Ridge Consulting, and war criminals Academi, the company formerly known as Blackwater. I would never vote for this guy, but he’s on the House Intelligence Committee, and he may be my last best hope. On top of that, rootcrysis and I will find out if anyone from the #AnonOps IRC group wants to help shut down all the Hezbollah communications we can get our hands on—not Al-Manar; we don’t hit press—right in the middle of the campaign in Syria and hold their operations hostage for Hart. They have sat phones; it would have been a bit more complicated than the typical DDoS, but I think a couple of intelligence agents and an Anonymous army could do it.
My phone is plugged into the charging dock on the nightstand streaming Christian music from the KLOVE app, though it keeps being interrupted by the Twitter notification noise. Zara bint Hussein’s Twitter feed, probably. She’s been posting quotes from Friends of Syria. My mom used to play that radio station all the time when I was a kid. It was my barometer. When Dad wouldn’t turn it down or turn the TV up over it, I knew the violence was over and we could pretend we lived in a house where people loved each other right.
It’s still my comfort music, and the last vestige of deontological influence on my ethics. The scholar-saint Thomas Aquinas claims prayer is a discipline, teaches us what it is right to want. Dear God, please don’t let me go to jail.
Nope, that one fails some obvious moral tests.
I was one of those kids who promised myself I wouldn’t go away to college and lose my faith, lost the battle, and learned to fake it like Omar. I’ve got no teleological meaning, but I’ve got a moral discipline, and good antidepressants, to lie to me.
I look for a necklace that looks appropriately professional. There’s the really gaudy one I bought on a whim in Vegas for DEF CON that I can’t find another place to wear, stuffed in a jewelry box with other things I can’t get rid of. Like this yellow bandana embroidered with the word Counsel, a gift of the Holy Spirit appropriate for someone who took Faith as her dump stat, and kept trying to pursue religion with her Int.
I got it at the last youth retreat I staffed. Somebody had the idea of wearing them as armbands when we returned in pseudo-militaristic triumph to join the rest of the congregation for the concluding Mass. Why couldn’t I have gotten Fortitude, or Piety?
I rummage in the jewelry box and put on the little gold Maronite cross my mom got me for graduation with the money she managed to hide from him. She said she wished she’d devoted half the attention to my spiritual growth as she had my intellectual. I learned to fake it, like Omar.
That chauvinistic song about marriage comes on the radio app, so I dart back to the nightstand, unlock the phone and change the music to the mp3 player.
A bunch of the early tweets are RTs of @Anonops linking to the nsa.gov website. There's nothing there when I click on it, just the usual mission statement, the patriotic eagle, the cheery icon exhorting viewers to “Change the World”, daring smart kids to take the crypto challenge and promising them a way out of the desolation that is central Washington D.C..
The original defacement has been taken down already, then, but people are circulating a screenshot from this morning when it had my name, address, e-mail address at the NSA, credit card number, social security number, and a list of my alleged crimes against the American people against a black background with the headless Anon suit and a caption:
We are Anonymous.
We are the immune system of democracy.
We do not forgive domestic surveillance.
We do not forget the right to privacy.
You have got our attention.
The author is riffing OpTunisia. I was in OpTunisia.
I have to call the credit card company. I have to catch the bus to the hearing. But I feel like I'm frozen here, outside my body, watching myself scroll through a polluted feed without end.
There’s a blogger I used to be a fan of. His blog and his twitter link to photomanipulated pictures of my face on somebody else's naked body on 8chan. Dad's texted me with a link to one of them, telling me he's not surprised; my mother always sent naked pictures to all her boyfriends too.
I'd delete it, but I don't know if I should mention it to the judge in the custody fight. I never would. I'd never let a stranger see anyone say that about our mother. I keep it, though, to help me remember I'm angry when people tell me he never hit me and I should just be a good person and reconcile.
I'm afraid to look at Facebook, but I want to see the damage. My page has been defaced by people I went to middle school with, people from church who tried to make me feel better on September 11 by telling me they knew I wasn’t a terrorist, people I went to high school and college with, practically everyone I met at DEF CON.
Rape threats, racist slurs, accusations of human rights violations like I were the Basiji, from privacy advocates who think information wants to be free except when it's theirs.
You are a despicable whore. I’m goin2 rape you and your whole fucking family. Kill yourself, bitch.
Kill yourself. After all the time I've spent wishing I didn't want to, here is finally permission and encouragement. Bastards. I have to stay angry or I'll convince myself it would satisfy somebody. Fandoms do it to people all the time, I remind myself, and just say they got what they deserved. Or that they shouldn’t have been so sensitive.
Dear God, please don’t let me have that fantasy about walking into traffic. I won’t make someone else a killer, and I probably wouldn’t die anyway. That one passes the moral tests. “Do you not know that we do not belong to ourselves,” and so forth.
I'm going to miss the bus. I peek out the window between the blinds. The apartment complex has failed utterly at keeping the press on the other side of the gate, and the sidewalk is full of reporters and I'm going to have to walk the gauntlet and I don't know what to say, and I've never shoved anyone out of my way and can you do that to the press? Will they prosecute?
My hands are shaking and I can feel my pulse in my throat. I haven’t had a panic attack in over a year, and I refuse, I refuse—
I’m dizzy. I stuff the SNRI medication bottle in my purse in case I don’t get to come back home tonight. My address will be everywhere.
Dad texts me again to say he didn’t teach me to hack so I could spy on him, and he hopes I get what’s coming to me at the hearing for using the NSA for my mom’s conspiracy. It’s not even true.
I should have, but it’s not even true.
Omar offered to hack my Dad so I wouldn’t have to. You’ll see he’s a mortal man who can go to jail, he said. But Anon are supposed to be better than that or else we’re fucking terrorists, and I said no.
I stand frozen at the window, watching the press, imagining what they’ll say when I inevitably have to take the long walk to the bus stop. Kill yourself.
A Jaguar too nice to belong to the press inches its way through the throng. Mark Laurent, the NSA's lawyer, not mine, but apparently still my friend, gets out, flanked by physical security in fatigues from Fort Meade. He stalks up the sidewalk and disappears from view in the stairwell.
I crack open the door and race down the stairs to join him. He brought me a military escort. “I’m sorry I yelled at you,” I say.
“Don’t say anything, don’t smile, don’t stop.” He leads me through the crush of reporters, the guards not pushing but brushing through, keeping space around us until I can scramble into the car awkwardly in my high heels.
“Thank you,” I tell Laurent. “This is illegal, right? This is identity theft at least; my credit card number is all over the place. I have recourse?”
I try to show him the post, but I have to dismiss Samir’s text that calls me a selfish bitch and asks how he’s supposed to go to school like this. I don’t know if Dad gave him his phone back or he’s just spoofing Samir.
“We’ll talk about it afterwards,” says Laurent. His jaw is clenched and he won’t look at anything but his notes.
I look up the number for the bank on my phone and have to try a couple of times to click it with my fingers shaking.
The bank is polite and understanding, like they’re paid to be, syrupy and cheerful, until I try to cancel my card entirely because I can’t deal with changing the number again later today when they find the new one.
Why are you canceling the card? Are you unsatisfied with our service? Is there anything we could have done better? Would you like to take an exit survey? Fine. I give up. My number’s been stolen, just change it. I entertain myself with fantasies of DDoSing them for an hour or two, just long enough to see their stock price flicker. I turn my phone off and stick the battery in my other pocket; I don’t want to see any more tweets or Facebook alerts. Kill yourself.
I wonder if the Agency’s life insurance policy would cover Mom’s legal fees. Am I still covered if I’m suspended?
We roll up to Capitol Hill and face the new press army, shielded by the guards and Laurent’s hard indifference.
We came here on a school tour once. I got to stand on the observation decks and look down into the theatrical floor where laws get made. Being on the bottom on the crowded floor with a panel of the most powerful people in the country looking down at you is not remotely the same.
Kolda’s not here. He gave his prep and flew off to Vienna and I could have been there giving signals assurance. I try to remind myself that I spoke in public at DEF CON, but I had a script and they were my people, at DEF CON. Feds and Anons and kids with hardware lust, men in Hack Naked T-shirts who weren’t much to look at, but God, then they’d talk to you and you’d see all the world’s information laid out for you, because security, like rootcrysis said on the last night, is a meritocracy, and by that measure we were all royalty.
“I do want to reiterate that this is a hearing, not a trial,” says the chairwoman, but her opening remarks accuse us of betraying the trust of the American people. I stare down at the red cloth covering the table and see nothing at all. The world is far away and it’s like being home, like being in D.C. always is. When you’re home you follow along for the ride, you give complicit answers, and you pray that someday you can get off the ride.
No. Run an approach like Kolda said.
“Could you describe the methodology involved in your surveillance of Google traffic for the committee?” asks the chairwoman.
The chair herself is a poor target, but Representative Jameson is over there, quiet and wondering what this is going to do to his security industry holdings.
I’m not funny like Ollie North and I can’t make them believe I’m holding all the cards like Kolda, but I can be humble and Jack Kolda can’t. I'm one of those kids they were giving a hand up with Homeland money because I was going to save the world, right?
“Most of the traffic that flows from Google to its end users and vice versa is encrypted.” Which I’ve long since cracked, but it wasn’t part of the leak, and Laurent’s prep for the hearing said not to admit to it. “But Google’s traffic between its own data centers is clear text.” At least it was, and that’s what they got for bad opsec.
Me too. Privacy is a meritocracy and I lost to Anonymous. I can’t go home.
“The information in the document in front of you was intercepted by wiretapping of this traffic, correct?”
The committee rustles through a thick collection of documents their aides and interns put together for the hearing.
“In a manner of speaking. The program tapped the fiber optic cables the company used to send information between data centers.”
“And this warrantless wiretapping was legal to your knowledge?”
“To my knowledge, yes.”
I wouldn’t have bought that excuse if I were on the panel. I read the transcripts like Kolda told me to. The chairman of the hearing back then told Col. North that as a member of the armed services he had an obligation to disobey unlawful orders. What do you do when it’s legal but wrong?
Say no like Ed Snowden and live in exile. Say no like Valerie Plame Wilson and watch your own government endanger your sources.
“And did you question where the authorization for such wiretapping came from?” asks the chair.
“FISA provides—” I start.
Jameson interrupts. “It’s my understanding that after the details of the program became public, the affected companies changed their information security practices. Miss Khoury, would you—”
“The details of the program that have been made public,” says Laurent, “are still classified, and the mere fact of their publication does not make them public information.”
“I understand that, counsel. Once the companies in question began encrypting data transmitted along the channels you’ve described, were you aware of any legal provision for decrypting such—”
Laurent leaps to my rescue. “That is beyond the scope of this investigation as I’ve been given to understand it.”
“Was the decryption you were able to perform on this intercepted data aided by artificially introduced weaknesses in approved cryptography standards at the insistence of the National Security Agency?”
“You don’t have to answer that,” Laurent snaps.
Jack Kolda would have said “I’m afraid I can’t answer that,” smug like he thought he was still protecting them while they burned his world down, and he would have made them believe it, because he’s a snake like my father.
“I had knowledge of but no involvement in any such practice. That one is bigger than me.” Laurent looks satisfied with this answer, but the NSA was built by some of the greatest cryptographers alive, and the people who recruited me, I thought, were like me, people who wanted to expand cryptography as a science, not cripple it.
“Was this exclusively within the United States?” Jameson asks.
“No. We had FISA authorization for one-end foreign collections too. We had GCHQ collaboration, under the Five Eyes agreement for tapping of cables in the UK that—” Five Eyes is a state unto itself, beautiful on paper, an international intelligence agency barely constrained by borders, reaching back to the Allied Powers trying to envision a world without war. In practice it’s an international get-out-of-jail-free card to jackboot-stomp over domestic agencies’ jurisdiction.
“The program was and remains legal,” Laurent interrupts. “Executive Order 12333 explicitly authorizes the collection and gathering of intelligence on commercial organizations believed to have some relationship with foreign organizations or persons.” Older than the Patriot Act. The ghost of the Cold War.
“Would you say that this program has yielded intelligence of significant value?” Thank God for narrow consequentialist Jameson, giving me a chance to defend myself.
Laurent tries to get him to define what he considers significant, and I want to tell the committee the truth. That we got more use out of the applied knowledge we devised to manage all this tracking, and the methods we invented to deal with mass data. That doing research for the domestic surveillance program is how I figured out the method I used to track Hart, but that isn’t the same thing at all, and whatever the Agency is doing now to try to track Hart is still classified.
“In all honesty, sir, one-end foreign collection is drinking from the fire hose. What we learned from it—and from the need for Five Eyes collaboration to collect information that, I remind you, passes through the United States—was a methodology we applied to new foreign signals interception projects. Angela Merkel may have to pretend to be—” I can’t say pissed off in front of Congress— “righteously angry about us spying on our German allies, but we read each other’s mail so we can address what our friends actually want while pretending to address what they say they want. That’s NSA diplomacy. And Vienna’s not any different, in methodology or intent.”
Kolda gave me that bit of script, almost verbatim. Thank you Jasper.
I want to tell the committee my colleagues are in Istanbul tapping communications at Friends of Syria to spy on our so-called friends the Saudis, the Turks, and the Qataris to find out where the money’s going, but let’s face it, it’s going to Al Qaeda affiliates, and we’re—going to ignore it because we need them or we think we do. Because there’s no one else to hold Iran in check, especially if we let loose the purse strings.
“Jack Kolda may be friends with the Iranian President,” I tell them, “but we’re really going to be negotiating with the unknowable quantity that is the Supreme Leader out there in Vienna. Watching their President and his team call home is where all the real negotiation is.” Jameson and his Halliwell interests ought to love that one. The rest of OPEC has been threatening us with Iran forever.
And have we got information on the Iranians: members of the Islamic Guidance Committee who are publicly against the deal, members of the Ministry of Energy who’ve kept their mouths shut, and a Basiji bigshot or two are waist-deep in new oil exploitation in Kavir. They’re just waiting for the market to open up to them. They’re invested deep in this deal going through.
“May I make an inquiry?” says Jameson. Inexplicably, he asks, “Was that response from a prepared statement?”
“That was from notes I made in preparation—it’s not a verbatim—recitation.” I don’t know how to answer being called out on preparing a longhand script. I feel my cheeks get hot and sweat prickle on my scalp and it’s a stupid thing to be thrown by, but I don’t know how to talk to them or how Kolda could sit down here and pretend he was holding all the cards.
Everything is explicable, so what does he want? It could be a mistake on his part, a fit of what game theorists call trembling hands; people say stupid things all the time. But if it’s not a mistake, what is it? A change of plans; since the doxxing he and everyone else have to get distance, and the best way to get re-elected just might be moral outrage.
A new Representative, Georges, more Halliwell stock, tries to shut us both up. “I’m more interested in your characterization of Iran as a friendly country.”
“Potentially?” My voice squeaks. On speaking terms does not mean friendly. But Kolda and the Iranian President and the Secretary of State are going to Vienna to talk about easing the sanctions on Iran in exchange for nuclear limitations, and my work for the NSA and my work for Anonymous could line up for the first time in—not forever, but a long time.
After Iran voted out Ahmadinejad, who wanted the international nuclear symbol on Iranian money, the first time, we thought we saw the end of a standoff.
The election was overruled and the outcome overturned by the Revolutionary Guard and the Basijis and we, the United States, offered our support to the Green Movement protest and didn’t deliver, and we, Anonymous, shared ways to organize communication under the radar of Iranian state spying.
I was seventeen and had never been part of such a big deal before. We shut down Iranian government websites and internal communications. Pirate Bay got involved and turned itself into a hub for anonymization advice and a guide to the best protest feeds on Twitter and other services more legal in Iran. They called it the Persian Bay.
The American President gave a statement of support on television because he thought Mir Hussein Mousavi would have been softer on the West than Ahmadinejad. I would have given just about anything to hear Barack Hussein Obama say “Ya Hussein, Mir Hussein” on international television, but I think it would have broken the Internet and possibly the country.
The US support never materialized. The Revolutionary Guard declared the protests at Tehran University to be desecration of the graves of the martyrs they’d had buried there. My friend from OpIran, a Green Movement girl who called herself Nazar, was arrested and tortured at Evin Prison. She lived. Ahmadinejad got four more years.
Nazar logged onto IRC one more time to tell us that, when the guards were torturing them at Evin Prison, prisoners would call out for Allah, exalted and sublime is he, for Mohammad, peace be upon him, and for Ali Hussein; that the guards would call them heretics and tell them the Prophet and the martyr Ali would not hear them, that they should call out for Obama. They were accused of being American spies. They were made to sign confessions that we had recruited them to start a rebellion and sow unrest. They were made to swear that they had been coerced.
She told every Anon who would listen to stay the fuck away from Iranian politics.
Ahmadinejad hit a term limit. The current Iranian President, aka the other half of Iran-Contra, got elected and there was rejoicing in Washington. The new President threatens us openly with new reactors and rhetoric of nuclear power as a human right, but on reading his mail we find it’s stylish Cold War brinksmanship. We could be a friendly country, walk away from the nuclear standoff. Except Iran is funding Assad’s army in Syria, and their proxy Hezbollah just kidnapped an American.
The chair tries to wrest back control of her hearing. “Could we keep the discussion to the topic of domestic surveillance?”
“The point Miss Khoury is making,” says Laurent, “is that this effort is aided by monitoring their traffic, wherever their VPNs say they are.” That wasn’t my point at all, but I’ll give the Agency’s lawyer that one. “Under the conception that only with a detailed warrant could domestic traffic be monitored, it would be in their interests, however counterintuitive it may seem, to route their communications through United States exit nodes.”
I keep my mouth shut and let him defend me, but I don’t think they think like that. For one thing, the Iranian President is too savvy; he knew the Reagan government that laid down Twelve Triple Three. This kind of domestic spying has been explicitly legal since then, something I had to learn when I joined. I thought it was all Patriot Act and FISA crap, and I’m going to keep pretending that like the wide-eyed young innocent I’m supposed to be.
“And your contribution to this effort?” the chair asks me.
“The methodology,” Laurent answers for me, “for—pardon the colloquialism—cracking the relevant VPN providers was developed by Ayda Khoury in the process of heading up the team that wiretapped Google and Yahoo.”
That’s not even true. I’ve been field-promoted in front of the firing squad. Laurent told me not to get a lawyer because he was going to throw me under the bus to save his own skin. They’re going to put me on trial. I’m going to go to jail. Is this a federal crime?
“Special Collections was led to believe everything we were asked to do was legal, and then asked to fall on our swords—” I say. No, not all of Special Collections, just me, me because I’ve already been outed by the press and that makes me fair game, a scapegoat for the primaries.
“Miss Khoury, sit down,” snaps the chair.
I’m not going to cry like an idiot in front of a Congressional Committee. If I’m going to go down, I’m going to go down like viralpanacea.
“You asked me earlier if I had been involved in the weakening of national cryptography standards, and I’d been instructed by counsel not to answer, but I think this committee deserves an answer. Weakening cryptography for all comers is bad tradecraft. It’s the difference between security as meritocracy and holding the back door open for all comers.” And security is always going to be meritocracy. The guy with the big stick, the big gun, the big lawyer, is going to win unless you level the playing field so no one is safe. “This agency, charged with protecting Americans and American communications from foreign intelligence agencies, held the back door wide open.”
The chair calls for order. The feverish chatter in the room continues over her and she calls for a recess, and all I can do is lock myself in a bathroom stall before the mascara I foolishly bought for the hearing makes me look like a sick raccoon.
We’re going to have to be back here the next day and the next, and we’ll still be here when I’m supposed to be at Samir’s hearing, and before I can even come back tomorrow I have to go—somewhere to sleep and I can’t go home. Past the press gauntlet on the hill and whatever my former friends want to do to me, with no Mark Laurent to rescue me in his Jaguar this time.
The bathroom door swings open and shut and I try to make less noise. What kind of hysterical nutjob cries in a public bathroom?
I sit on the lid of the toilet and put the battery back in the phone and power it up to text my mom and ask if I can stay there tonight. I don’t want to see her. I don’t want her to ask me why I didn’t know, why I didn’t stop Samir from going.
My screen is full of Twitter notifications, because I didn’t turn them off when I freaked out and turned off my phone.
@viralpanacea I know where your family lives. They are fucking dead.
They’ve posted my mom’s address.
“Hey Ayda?” says Farah’s Upper Midwestern accent outside the stall. I didn’t see her at the hearing.
I fumble with the lock and burst out of the stall and cling to her like she were family.
“I need—” What, witness protection? I can’t articulate, so I show her the phone. “I’ll go to Turkey. I’ll do anything. I’ll tell El-Shafei anything you want.”
She was re-applying her lipgloss in the mirror before putting it down to take the phone and wrap her arms around me.
“Of course,” she says. “No strings. You don’t go because you’re blackmailed alright? Your family are not my hostages.”
I nod, but I’ll say anything.
“They will be safe,” she insists. “Now. What do you want?”
I want to think we can stand against a sovereign state again, like I thought before the Basijis tortured Nazar. Even if the sovereign state is the United States.
“You’ll catch me?” I don’t want to go to jail for a Party primary. I want to be safe. I want to be invincible.
“North Ridge Consulting will catch you. You’ll come back a hero, to contractor money. Invincible like Chalabi. I promise.”
Ahmed Chalabi was an Iraqi defector with an Interpol red notice and a standing CIA burn notice, and he still talked Bush's White House into going to war with Iraq and got them to order Valerie Plame Wilson to fabricate evidence to support the invasion. Then they outed her and her assets when she didn’t bend. I want to be Chalabi invincible, but I don’t want to be Chalabi evil.
“I want to go after Alex Hart.”
She studies me for a moment, scrutinizing. She pulls items from her purse onto the counter, makeup, rolled up flats and a paracord bracelet, protein bars, Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses, and a pink headscarf with fringe, provisions for an army of women, until she finds makeup remover wipes and cleans up my raccoon mascara.
“I’ll give you all the information you need. I need you to be a big desirable target for El-Shafei, alright? Not just the information; I need him to buy the traitor, the collaborator. I believed you when you called the whole National Security Agency traitors. We’re going to run with it. Sell it to the rafters for me. It’s not going to be over today and you’re not going to be here tomorrow.”
“Promise me I’m not going to jail for running out on my own trial?”
She fishes a bottle of Visine Maximum from her massive purse. “It’s a hearing, not a trial. Look up.”
When I refuse to look up like a small child, she gives up and hands it to me. I drip it into my red, swollen eyes and give it back to her.
“They’re going to be told they’ve all been part of a spectacular operation to save Alex Hart, and some of them will be told they’ve been part of a spectacular operation to save Vienna and they can all play I’ve Got A Secret for months. I’ll evoke Tony Mendez-does-Argo heroism and tell them they’ve done a favor for Jasper and me.” She gives me one of those megawatt smiles and I wonder who she was in CIA, how she can be a big deal in Washington and still manage to keep her name out of the papers. She redoes my mascara, touches up my chewed lip gloss, gives me a last head-to-toe once-over. “Keep that cross. You’re a statist, not a convert. You can’t pull off taqiyya and I can’t teach it or I’d be the richest woman in the industry.”
Mark Laurent wanted me to fall on my sword. Farah wants Anon-edition Ayda; she wants viralpanacea. In the second half of the hearing I give them both what they want and commit seppuku.
“I’m supposed to be in Vienna giving operational support to Jasper. When this committee prosecuted him all those years ago” –not this committee of course, but their flag, the people who called themselves the House Intelligence Committee then— “they told him he had a moral obligation not to adopt the methodology of his enemies, and he had failed in that obligation and that was why he was on trial. We’re not Iran or anything. We don’t rely on domestic surveillance for control, hold men and women without charges, commit torture—”
“That’s enough,” snaps Laurent.
The chair calls for order and there is no order anymore. I shut up when I’m threatened with charges of contempt, but until then they’ve got @viralpanacea on trial, and before I know it they’re asking me about her record and talking about espionage charges and Jameson questions whether I’m really a double agent—I swear he uses the words double agent—for the terrorist group Anonymous, who attacked the Israeli government last year during the Gaza offensive, and I give him my best Jack Kolda smile and tell him I’m not permitted to talk about that, it might compromise an ongoing operation.
Laurent is furious, but if he would throw me to the lions, his law school friend was always going to do the same to Mom and Samir. They were just leverage. I tell Farah they’re going to need another lawyer, and she says sure thing honey, anything you need, while she escorts me from the Congressional floor, outside through the press zerg. “Smile,” she says, “Shake hands, talk to them. Tell them—” she grins. “Tell them you’re grateful for their work.”
I want to tell them complete strangers threatened to rape and kill me this morning. They know. They’ve probably already written about it. I stick to the script. I shake their hands aggressively like Kolda and watch them get affronted or thrown. Some subroutine of Ayda, Anon edition, tells them that even though I’m the one who has to go down for this program, somebody has to be the first one to be held accountable, and thanks for being the American press, unafraid to call out the government. I feel like Madonna, with a bodyguard and the media spotlight, and adrenaline makes me agile.
Farah bundles me into a car, a black BMW, not her soccer-mom Rogue, and spirits me away from Capitol Hill. I try again to text my mom, this time to tell her my government friends are coming and they’re the real thing, but I have eleven missed calls, eight of them from her, four of them progressively more distraught voicemails asking why I would send her these things. They’ve spoofed my number already.
I call her while we hurtle down the Memorial highway. “I promise I’m me. None of that was me before; I’ve been hacked.”
“Ayda, Rohi, what happened?” Mom calls me Rohi, “my soul”.
Farah is making a shush motion at me. Everyone I knew at NSA is probably listening to this conversation. “Don’t believe anything you hear about me, okay? If anybody with an Agency badge or North Ridge or, like, the FBI tells you to do something, do it, but don’t believe anything they say about me either, they lie. Laurent sold us out, but I’m going to take care of it and I’m going to pay for it, I promise. Don’t trust this number. I love you.”
“I love you,” she says reflexively, and I hang up before she can say anything else.
My phone buzzes with a text before I can get the battery out. From Mom. I’ll pray for you.
I pull out the battery and the SIM card and scrape and snap the SIM to pieces with my keys while Farah barrels through Virginia toward Dulles. “TSA knows; they’re letting you through,” she informs me when we change cars in Tyson’s Corner, climbing into her own smooth-riding SUV. She instructs me to look in the glovebox, where I find a passport in another name and one I would swear is my real one except that it’s stamped for entrance to Turkey.
“Are these real?” I finger the passports, comparing them to each other and trying to remember if they’re different from the one Dad had issued for me the first time he threatened to leave with us.
“Issued by State via Jasper’s service. They’ll hold up.”
She gives me instructions for surviving a close search. And advice about making people betray themselves. “CIA calls it MICE,” she says. “Money, Ideology, Compromise, Ego. Get any one of the others and you’ll get Compromise, and at that point they’re yours.”
Compromise, like Anonymous’s Sabu. He hated white hats, but the FBI had him dead to rights and he turned and doubled.
“Ego is like your contractor counterpart.”
Ed Snowden, she means.
“Only you can save mankind,” I summarize.
“Exactly. And maltreatment at the hands of your own service.” Sounds familiar. “This is what you’re playing, this is him recruiting you. Let him recruit you, be cagey. Real defectors are high-strung egotists. Make him trade. Ask him for a visa to Lebanon. It shows good faith. It suggests you have real plans to go with him.”
I nod, flipping through the passport and looking at the blank visa pages with images of Mount Rushmore, the plains of the Midwest.
“El-Shafei,” she says, “is all Ideology, which makes your job harder. What you really want is for him to betray his country because he thinks he’s loyal.”
“You want him to think his service is in so much danger that it needs an operation here and now. There was a missile shipment headed from Incirlik to the Free Syrian Army. You’re going to tell him about it. It’s verifiable. It was true until we had to set up an operation.
You have all the details on the computer. The new shipment is a fake, and will be a North Ridge-escorted hardened target in case everything else goes wrong. You will provide the—verifiable—information for the planning of this operation, and you will have proven your credentials. You will be his collaborator. This operation will never happen.
Your collaboration will give you detailed verifiable information to give his Iranian sponsors, that proves El-Shafei has jeopardized their negotiations. He has contacts in the Iranian negotiating party—this will be personal for him. You will pass the information to Jasper at Vienna, and you will be seen to do so. That is your insurance against your death. You will come back to the Pera Palace Hotel where Friends of Syria is being hosted, and inform El-Shafei that our service will reveal this information to the Iranian President and his Revolutionary Guard if Alex Hart is not released.”
“You—want me to tell him I’m an American spy and I set him up.”
“There is nothing scarier in the world than giving the ‘I’ve been lying to you’ speech. I’ve done it many times. It really doesn’t get any easier. I’m sorry.”
If I come back and work for North Ridge I wonder if I’ll end up brave like her. I wonder if I’ll end up cold like her. Or maybe I’ll just end up dead.
“At the airport in Ankara, you’ll meet a girl in a white blouse and a black and white hijab. She’ll pass you luggage with clothes and a computer loaded with your seeded document cache,” says Farah.
It’s a bit of a subversive act to wear a hijab in Turkey. The ban technically only applies to civil servants and certain institutions, but wearing one can be seen as an act of resistance to the Constitutional Court ruling.
“We’ll be with you every second, even if you don’t see us,” she says. “If you see me, if you get invited to the Friends of Syria summit itself, you do not know me. I’m catching a different chain of flights to Istanbul for Friends of Syria. You know who Farida Lujayn is?”
“Iraqi arms dealer of Moroccan extraction. Sunni. Active for a long time, never caught. Survived a close call with Mossad.”
She grins. “Nice to meet you, I’m Farida. Now you can say you survived a close encounter with an arms dealer. But I’d rather you didn’t.”
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