How do you sort of separate out the reporting and gathering for your two very different streams of writing? If you say this is not for use in any of your journalism, I will respect that. There are things that we stumble across in our writing that are more sensitive than we initially realized. I do accept the argument there are things that we might learn as journalists, or as novelists, that are so sensitive that they could get people killed, that they could have significant consequences.
But this is much more fanciful than people imagine. I may have made some lucky guesses that were closer to real life than I had any reason to imagine at the time, but they really were lucky guesses. DI: I do do a lot of reporting. My first novel, Agents of Innocence , started there. I took two years to talk to people, pull all of the strands, and listen, wait for the next piece.
I finally published an article on the front page of the paper in February that told that story. That story had begun with the slightest tip almost three years before. Then in a strange series of actions, the man who had run that operation was killed when the American Embassy was blown up.
His Arab agents were grieving, they had nowhere to turn.
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They told me so much more. What was I going to do with all this stuff people were telling me? The only thing I could see was to write a novel. I set out to make it as accurate as I could. They were appalled. How on earth did this come out? These were some of the biggest secrets that they were running.
I think over time they decided that it was a story that actually showed American intelligence at its best.
To get back to your basic question, fiction—like anything creative—comes out of your preconscious. This part of me is a journalist, this part of me is a novelist. GG: A big part of Quantum Spy gets at this philosophical question about the intersection of government and new technology and the funding for that. How did that become a topic of interest to you, and where do you fall on this question of what role should government be playing? That clear national security application would in a sense hijack the technology. I heard that argument—and I heard that argument even from a lot of people in the government.
We want the dynamism and entrepreneurial power that comes from an open system. What do you do then? They go off the radar—and then there are all sorts of controls that begin to apply on what people can say and do and who they can have in their labs. GG: You at this point know more than probably almost any other outside non-researcher involved in quantum computing. How close do you think we are to a holy smokes moment?
What I concluded is that the D-wave quantum annealing technology is powerful and has intelligence applications. When I talk to people who know more than I, they see a time horizon of the next decade which will move much more quickly, where things that people thought were just really blue-sky will come closer. Interestingly, there are quantum applications for encryption for various subsidiary technologies that are already seen to be coming into focus. People who follow technology should realize that this next decade, the pace will accelerate.
Some of the problems that have been hardest I think are being solved—the problem of decoherence, of adding enough qubits to do real computing. But what I do know is the chase is on. Is there a large black universe out there that is hidden to us? The classified research into quantum computing by the NSA, by other parts of the intelligence community, has been going on for such a long time.
This has a long tail. Before the first stealth fighter was launched there was a whole universe of work that had been done. Every piece of this today is very high-end intelligence IT technology. Even now I think there are probably things the intelligence community does that have stayed secret.
The technology we use in space, the technology we use for surveillance, for communications. GG: Asking an even more opaque question: How much of a threat do you think China is in this area?
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Do you have any reason from your conversations to believe that they are close to—or ahead of—where we are in quantum computing? They see this as one of the potential breakthrough, world-changing, dominant technologies in the future. The Russians already were deeply penetrated into our research. They had recruited the scientists and spies. They made progress that really shocked us. If quantum computing happens, there will be enough people and knowledge dispersed around the world that I would think it will happen for other people, other countries too.
There may be building blocks. GG: Switching topics a little bit but sticking with the areas where the real world intersects with your novel, one of the things that stood out to me is your CIA director is a former member of Congress. You grew up around the intelligence community in Washington—your father was Secretary of the Navy—how do you see the role of the CIA director today? Is the role of the CIA director is too politicized—or appropriately politicized?
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They love to be noticed—and they like to have political power. The worrying question for people at the CIA—but even more for the country—is whether politicization of the CIA will fundamentally weaken its mission. If the CIA director becomes a cheerleader for the president and his policies, the qualities of independent judgment—the very reason we want a strong professional intelligence agency—begin to go out the window.
That is the last job where you want a cheerleader. That scarred a generation of people at the agency. But I wish people remembered his tradition. A politicized CIA is the opposite of what the country needs.
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