It was CIA officer Steve Penn who was given the dubious honor of heading the investigation into the hacking of U.S. elections by Russian President Kozlov. (Another excerpt from my novel, “Deep Strike”.)
Early in 2016, after a tour of duty in Afghanistan, Penn, is abruptly recalled to CIA headquarters in Langley. He fears he’s being yanked because his reports on the flailing U.S. efforts in that country had been increasingly shrill, increasingly critical. And increasingly ignored:
Within three days, he was back on the 7th floor at Langley, wearing a dark gray suit and red tie. He’d been ordered to report to Jim Page, head of the new Directorate for Cyber Security. In the past few years, Steve’s and Page’s paths had crossed on several occasions within the agency…This morning, however, Steve was still concerned that his future with the agency was on the line.
The knot in his stomach loosened, however, when Page came around his desk to shake hands warmly and offered a wide, friendly grin. “Thanks for getting back so quickly,” Page said. “Must be pretty jet-lagged.”
“Never get used to it,” said Steve. He took a seat across from Page and gazed at him warily. Always the natty dresser, his boss was wearing a blue Armani blazer, a club tie, and gray flannels.
“Any idea why we brought you back?” Jim smiled tightly.
“I figured someone upstairs finally got pissed off with my reports from Afghanistan, and I’m being pulled.”
“Yeah, well actually, your comments did get under the skin of a few people around here. The stuff about record poppy production and battalions of phantom soldiers was not particularly appreciated at the White House and the Pentagon. Your views hit just as the appropriations committee was meeting. Or perhaps you didn’t know that?” Again, the same thin smile. “But of course, there are a lot of people around here who support you.” Steve wondered what Jim’s own views were on Afghanistan, but Jim had always been reluctant to stake out a position until he knew what his bosses were thinking.
“So then why did I get yanked?” asked Steve.
Page rested his chin on his hands and gazed directly at Steve. “We want you to go back to Moscow on special assignment.”
“We’ve some signs that the Russians under Kozlov are attempting to influence the presidential campaign here.”
“That’s pretty wild. I know they fooled around in the past during other campaigns.”
“But nothing like this,” said the director. He tapped a file on his desk. .”Most of us didn’t really take it too seriously. Never thought Kozlov would dare. But the evidence keeps growing. We’d thought their cyber threat would be, you know, attempting to take down an entire electrical grid, or destroy our ability to respond to a nuclear attack, but now it seems Kozlov may be out to subvert our whole electoral process.”
“Everyone knows they experimented with cyber war in the Ukraine and in Georgia,” said Steve. “But going after the U.S?”
Page slid a file across his desk to Steve. “For starters, you should read this article by one of their top generals. It was in a Russian army journal. Didn’t get much notice, but it should have. He predicts the next world conflict will be largely fought and won on what he calls “the cyber battlefield.”
“I’d say he’s right,” said Steve, “but where do our presidential elections come in?”
“The general spelled it out. He talked about hacking to create mistrust, to provoke domestic strife, to turn the peoples of one country against each other.”
“Hell,” said Steve, “we’ve been doing that kind of stuff for years around the world. As have the Russians. So what else is new?”
Page frowned. “Sounds like a typical Steve Penn comment. Look, Steve, what we’re talking about now is much more sophisticated.” He was up now pacing back and forth across the office. “It’s not just funneling money to opposition parties or playing up to the local generals. The Russians have got entire army units devoted to hacking, to computer espionage, to creating and disseminating fake news stories that look like the real thing. And the point is that – if the early evidence we’ve got bears out – the Russians have decided they can manipulate us like we’re some third-world country.”
“To what end?” asked Steve. “Is there any evidence they control Stokes?”[author’s note: Walter Stokes a brazen real estate mogul, is a surprisingly successful candidate in the U.S. elections]
“Nothing solid, it may be they’re just out to weaken the Democrats. Not that Kozlov likes Stokes, but that he hates the alternative so much.”
“Question,” said Steve. “What if we do find out they really are trying to make Stokes president. And, despite our knowing that, Stokes actually wins. Then what do you do?”
Page tightened his mouth and raised both hands. “That’s above my pay grade,” he said. “But as the director sees it, there is no way we cannot investigate this. There’s going to be a task force set up with us, the FBI, and NSA. Only people who need to know will be informed. Otherwise top-secret.” Page pointed his finger at Steve. “And you, lucky man, are our choice to head the CIA team.”
“Thanks for the honor,” said Steve wryly.
If Afghanistan didn’t torpedo his career, he thought, this new assignment definitely would.