Thursday, February 27, 2014

"7 Grams of Lead"

Keith Thomson is the author of Once a Spy. He is a former semi-pro baseball player in France, a filmmaker with a short film shown at Sundance, a cartoon artist for the Newsday editorial section, and a screenwriter who currently lives in Alabama. He writes on intelligence and other matters for The Huffington Post.

Thomson applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, 7 Grams of Lead, and reported the following:
On page 69 of 7 Grams of Lead, a spy is at the office at night, eating bad delivery Pad Thai, listening to audio broadcast by a bug he implanted in a government scientist's head. He's been at this for weeks, waiting for her to discuss a secret weapon she invented. As it happens, the story turns on this spy's eavesdropping operation, in which he places subminiature electronic eavesdropping devices in targets' scalps, behind an ear, so that he can hear everything that they say and hear. It's based on my own true experience at the CIA.

I was there on December 13, 2008, interviewing then director General Michael Hayden for The Huffington Post. Hayden told me that, in his experience, journalists too often lacked discretion and were a liability. Of note, in his previous gig, director of the NSA, he ran the controversial warrantless surveillance program.

A few days later, I was walking out of a movie theater when it felt like lightning struck my left arm. Nearly floored me. In the fleshy gulley beneath the pisiform bone, the knob on the outside of the wrist, I discovered a small lump. I figured it was a sebaceous cyst, a pea-size accumulation of keratin beneath the skin; I’d had two or three before. They’re harmless. Go away in a couple of months. This one was unusually smooth, though. Oddly symmetrical too, like a Tic Tac.

I wondered: Could the lump be an eavesdropping device? For several years, I knew, CIA drones had been dropping undetectable “smart dust” particles that adhered to intelligence targets, enabling an officer halfway around the world to track them. Given ultra-miniaturization trends, was a particle that also transmitted audio all that far-fetched? And if you’re going to implant someone with such a particle—say, while he’s asleep in his hotel room following a cocktail reception at the CIA—the gulley beneath the pisiform bone would be a great place because people hardly ever have reason to poke around that area, much less look at it.

I knew an electrophysicist with experience in subminiature eavesdropping devices, but if I called him, Hayden’s people would have known I was onto their secret, and you know what that would have meant. I ended up going to an orthopedic surgeon. A few months earlier, I’d made the mistake of trying to push a squash court wall out of the way while running full speed after a ball and tore the cartilage in my left wrist. The lump in my left wrist now, the surgeon said, was an absorbable suture from the operation that hadn’t dissolved properly. Which fit the facts. Or the CIA had gotten to the surgeon.

The experience gave me the idea for a story: A national security reporter discovers that a subminiature electronic device is implanted in his head. He investigates, propelling him into a life-or-death struggle with the spy who’d bugged him. That idea became my new book, 7 Grams of Lead. I worked with my intelligence community sources and the electrophysicist to make everything as realistic as possible. Still 7 Grams of Lead is only fiction. I hope.
Learn more about the book and author at Keith Thomson's website.

The Page 69 Test: Once A Spy.

--Marshal Zeringue