The intersection of quantum computing and espionage may feel like a faraway future. But in his latest novel, David Ignatius, Washington’s own John le Carré, tackles just that. The Quantum Spy, out now, revolves around a central theme of spy literature: the race for a new technology, to discover something new that, even if only for a moment, will provide a geopolitical advantage. In this case, it’s a world of unproven exploratory tech, of super-cold temperatures where particles can be two things at once.
Ignatius himself plays all sides of international intrigue, mixing his day job as a columnist for The Washington Post, for which he writes some of the capital’s most plugged-in observations of foreign affairs and the intelligence community, with writing espionage novels, a side hobby since he was dispatched to the Middle East in the 1980s.
Since then, Ignatius has authored nine more books, leading readers through Iran’s nuclear program (The Increment), the war on terror (Bloodmoney), international money laundering (The Bank of Fear), and hacktivists (The Director). Many share a common, broader theme, exploring how emerging technologies are changing the intelligence landscape.
The Quantum Spy not only offers a provocative look at quantum computing in that context, but is also one of the first English-language spy novels to go deep into the inner-workings of modern Chinese intelligence—including efforts to send assets to US universities, and return home with whatever useful knowledge they've gleaned.
I spoke with Ignatius about China, the CIA, and how close we really are to quantum computing. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.
Garrett Graff: Your novels are historically famous for being outgrowths of things left over in your reporter’s notebooks. Agents of Innocence grew out of your early reporting on the Middle East. The Increment grew out of your trips through Iran. The Director is about an Edward Snowden-type figure. Where did the genesis of the two major themes of this book come from—one, the Chinese intelligence university threat and, two, quantum computing?
David Ignatius: After my last novel, The Director, I was even more convinced than I had been when I started that book that the future of spy novels is the intersection of espionage and technology, of espionage and hacking that I explored in that book. All of the traditional themes of the spy novel—penetration, deception, everything you read about in a John le Carré novel—are going digital. The people who will do the espionage, who will spy on us, the operations we’ll conduct against others to spy on them, are going to be in that space. The future of the spy novel is going to be realistic. I’ve always liked to write realistic novels. I don’t like Aston Martins and martinis in my books, unless believable characters are actually driving or drinking them.
In my new book, I was looking for a next step, a follow on after [my book The Director, which was] an essentially Snowden-like story, a Wikileaks-like story about pushing information and manipulating the information space by subtly penetrating the underground that surrounds groups like that.
The future of spy novels is the intersection of espionage and technology.
So what’s a new thing to think about? I just began reading and talking, and it seemed to me that quantum computing was the closest thing I could find to something that you could liken to the Manhattan Project, where there was a technology that really would alter the basics of intelligence collection, of national security, that was not quite over the horizon—it’s further than that—but the people were beginning to do things about it. What was interesting to me was the principal rivals in this effort to build a real quantum computer were the US and China. That interested me because I’ve written so much about the Middle East, I’ve written some about Russia, but I, in my work, like to keep finding out new things, doing new reporting. The Chinese intelligence service, how it operates—especially in this space—was a new challenge. I thought that would be fun.
Quantum computing is astonishingly complicated, especially for someone like me. I’m a journalist, a novelist. I am not a technologist. I had to teach myself the fundamentals of this. I thank at the end of my book some real leaders in area of quantum computing who were kind enough to talk me through some of the basics.
I got very interested in whether the D-wave quantum annealing technology had borne real fruit that would be useful in an intelligence sense, so I traveled out to Vancouver and I met with Geordie Rose who is kind of the intellectual founder. I talked to some other people about D-wave. I read a lot of the literature assessing whether their technology deserves to be called “quantum.” And I decided yes, it does seem to have quantum effects. Just eyeballing their machines, seeing the cones that super-refrigerate the chips so they can get toward this quantum state, watching something go down to 11 or 15 mili-Kelvins, that was really cool. The payoff for me as a journalist-novelist is to just get to see stuff like this and talk the people who invented them.
GG: Who else helped guide you through quantum computing?
DI: Other conversations, especially with Michael Friedman and other parts of the Microsoft team—Craig Mundy was my guide into the world of what Microsoft is doing with this very exotic and interesting idea of topological quantum computing, topological braiding of the qubits. As I got into this, it became obvious that the real heart of the puzzle here is: How to keep qubits stable so that they don’t go decohere in an instant? You need them stable so you can actually do some computing—and that’s what the science of this book is about. This is why this super cold environment is important—just to take out any kind of heat, noise, interference.
The book ends up I think being accurate in saying that although D-wave quantum technology is not quantum computing—that the annealing effects that it does generate have certain applications as in pattern recognition, other things that are like the optimization that it does so well—that it’s still worth taking seriously. There are some pretty important applications that can come from it. There’s a kind of poo-poo-ing about D-wave in a lot of the literature and it seems to me that that’s been overdone.
GG: What about the China part of the book?
DI: Yes, the second basic pillar of this book is the Chinese intelligence service. That was a challenge just because there’s so little written about it—fiction or nonfiction. It’s an unexplored territory. Thanks to Le Carré’s novels, it’s as if we know everything about how Russian intelligence operates. We can see Karla in our sleep. We can imagine Moscow Center where they hold all the Russian tradecraft we’ve internalized. We’re now obsessing with that in the Mueller investigation of Trump and Trump’s campaign.
The Chinese are just terra incognita—there are very few spy novels about them or even extensive monographs. I just love reporting. I just get a charge out of finding stuff out. I had to look for a while to find people who really knew about this. Obviously I’m not specific as to who those people are in my acknowledgements. But I did, after looking around, find a few people who knew this subject intimately and could explain how the Chinese service operates, its vulnerabilities, how they have sought to penetrate us, how they collect information, what their tradecraft is, what their personalities are like. Then, as a novelist does, I just had fun imagining this character, Carlos Wang, who’s their recruiter, who I imagined as a sort-of Trotsky-ite who spent so much time in Mexico City that he carried himself like a Che. Is there anybody in real life who’s like that? I can’t imagine that there is. But he was a fun character.
In some ways my favorite character in the book is the head of the Chinese service, Li Zian, who is a distinguished, clever player of the deep game. It’s a kind of character that’s fun to conjure up. I did that with the head of the ISI in my novel about Pakistan, General Malik. Again, does anything like Li Zian exist? Probably a stretch. I’d be very curious what the Chinese reaction to this book will be. I think on some details I’d be surprised if the Chinese reaction isn’t “How the hell did you find that out?” There are a few little things that have been dropped in the book that should raise their eyebrows.
A final thing to say about the real-life background: I discovered as I was doing my research that the Chinese intelligence service—the Ministry of State Security—is a principal target of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign.
As Yale was always thought to be to the CIA, so is Fudan University in Shanghai to the Ministry of State Security. It’s a Shanghai-nese culture that has surrounded it from the beginning. And Xi has gone hammer and tongs after anything related to Shanghai and to his rival factions. In real time as I was working on the book, the Ministry of State Security was being taken down. Vice-ministers were being fired. The corruption discipline-inspection commission headed by Wang Qishan—Xi’s kind of enforcer, super-commissar—was going after the Ministry of State Security. You had this fascinating situation of a wounded adversary that also—from some reporting—also has been a very dangerous, much more aggressive adversary than we realized. We now know that the Ministry of State Security, starting in about 2010, took down our major operations in China. There was a lot of speculation that they were running a mole, a penetration agent inside the agency that hasn’t finally been resolved publicly.
GG: Has it resolved privately?
DI: If I knew it, I’d write it. I’d write it as journalism tomorrow. I hear lots of rumors. But I never like to publish stuff in a column unless I know it’s true. Somebody once said, “David, the only time you really tell the truth is in your novels.”
GG: Let’s talk about the truth of covering intelligence. Your novels are famous for the depth of tradecraft that they get into and pretty accurately represent. Your novel Siro is I think actually one of the best spy novels ever written by anyone about any era. How do you think about these dual roles as a journalist and a novelist? How do you sort of separate out the reporting and gathering for your two very different streams of writing?
DI: I’m a journalist, and I always say to people, if they say, “Let’s talk about this off the record,” I will stop and say, “I don’t want to hear anything that I don’t know, where I’m supposed to walk out of here and forget it. If you say this is not for use in any of your journalism, I will respect that. But the idea that you would not know things, I just think it’s not possible.” I’m just a journalist and a writer. People tell me things—I assume they’re not classified. Otherwise they wouldn’t tell me them. 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.
Mrs. [Katharine] Graham, years ago she was our chairman, enunciated a policy that I think the Post still follows: Whenever we get ahold of the piece of information that seems sensitive, that might put people’s lives or our country’s security at risk, we have a responsibility to talk to the affected agency. In journalism all of us try to stick by that—and then we also reserve the right to make a decision about whether we think it’s worth writing. I have often written in my books—and I’ll repeat it here because it’s true—if anybody abroad or at home takes anything that I’ve written as a recipe book, who imagines that this is how it actually happened, that this is how it actually works, is just grossly deceiving themselves. It’s not that I deliberately put in things that are false. It’s just, I make it look real because this is a novel. But this is much more fanciful than people imagine.
Sometimes I’m trying to think, as I did in The Increment, well, how would you solve the problem of intervening in the supply chain for the Iranian nuclear program? 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.
GG: Lucky guesses, maybe, but your books are steeped in your actual reporting.
DI: I do do a lot of reporting. I’m reporting all the time as a journalist. My first novel, Agents of Innocence, started there. When I first began covering the Middle East somebody said to me, “The Israelis just killed our man in the PLO.” This was in the summer of 1980. So I went to Beirut, on assignment, knowing that Ali Hassan Salameh, Arafat’s chief intelligence, in some way was “our man.” I knew that before I ever set foot in Beirut. 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 1983 that told that story. It opened with his death, and Stansfield Turner—then the CIA director—coming into Jimmy Carter’s office and saying, “The Israelis just killed our man in the PLO.”
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. They told me so much more. I was in this strange position where I’d already written a story on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. 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. I always laugh when people say, “Ignatius is fed all this stuff by the CIA.” In that instance, with so many others, the CIA just flipped out when that book came out. 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. It’s all there. You’re not compartmented. This part of me is a journalist, this part of me is a novelist. It’s all there. Synapses are firing when you’re trying to write. It comes from all the reporting and conversations that you’ve ever had.
I don’t really worry about giving away real secrets because I don’t really have any. In terms of what Ben Bradlee called the “wiring diagram details” test—which was that Ben was never comfortable publishing in the paper the specific details of, say, a bomb design—well, I don’t know any wiring diagram details.
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? What role should agencies like IARPA and DARPA be playing in the funding of this cutting-edge technology? Is it inevitable that the world’s best technology ends up militarized—and that the civilian applications for cutting edge technology only ever come later?
DI: As I was learning about quantum computing and talking to people who were in this space, one of the things that I heard was an anxiety that this incredibly rich potential field—a field that could transform how we create drugs, how we simulate environmental change, it goes to the very heart of how we do anything that involves computing because the power of quantum computing is so overwhelming—would get swallowed by the particular application of quantum computing that’s described by Shor’s Law, which says that quantum computer is so incredibly overwhelmingly powerful in factoring and breaking any code that you can imagine. That clear national security application would in a sense hijack the technology.
People who were working on it really don’t want that to happen. They believe that American science and technology are powerful precisely because they are open, because they draw the very smartest people from around the world to work in American labs, because the real science—the pure science and technology—is not classified and the government doesn’t intrude.
I don’t really worry about giving away real secrets because I don’t really have any.
I heard that argument—and I heard that argument even from a lot of people in the government. I heard it from people at In-Q-Tel [the CIA’s venture capital arm], who say, “We like our investments not to be classified. We don’t want to encumber the people who are working with us, who we’re funding with all the government’s rules. We want the dynamism and entrepreneurial power that comes from an open system.”
I heard the same thing from IARPA [which funds research that’s of interest to the US intelligence community, similar to how DARPA funds research useful to the Pentagon]. A lot of IARPA’s grants, its challenges, its ways of encouraging people to think creatively and come up with the real breakthrough ideas, they want that to be open. You can go through the list of open IARPA grants.
There’s a question, though, about what happens when these open, unclassified investments begin to pay off? The sort of holy smokes moment where you say, “We’ve got it,” we’ve found something that has enormous implications for national security. What do you do then? As I looked into this, there are certain programs that IARPA funds that become so successful that they go black. 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?
DI: I think we’re still a ways. 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.
What I think is fascinating and why I hope this novel is well-timed, is I think just now, the moment where people are realizing, “Oh my gosh, this isn’t some blue sky, some time over the next 30 years.” This is something we’re talking about well within the next decade.
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.
The fact that people at Microsoft are already writing programming languages for the quantum computer that still doesn’t exist tells you that the scent is in the air. I would grossly exceed my actual knowledge if I give a real about prediction, I just don’t know. But what I do know is the chase is on.
GG: How much of the research into quantum computing do you think we don’t know is transpiring right now? Is there a large black universe out there that is hidden to us?
DI: Unquestionably, I know enough to know that there is a large black universe that’s hidden from us. You can assume that the essential structures—if you think of this mechanically, in creating this working version of this technology—that are seen as having absolute national security value, I think there is a classified space in which that’s happening.
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. Again, because it’s black, we just don’t know what breakthroughs were made, what are the follow-on technologies. It’s like stealth. Before the first stealth fighter was launched there was a whole universe of work that had been done. It’s like the Polaris submarine, all the technologies that came together suddenly in the late ’50s to produce this astonishing weapon. 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? Do you have any reason from your conversations to believe that they are close to—or ahead of—where we are in quantum computing?
DI: From what I know I would say “close to.” The Chinese have made quantum computing an absolute national priority. They see this as one of the potential breakthrough, world-changing, dominant technologies in the future. They’re doing everything they can to be there first—or to be there simultaneously with us. They’ve enlisted some of their very brightest people.
The book opens with quotes from IARPA and the Chinese, both from this year, basically saying we’re hell for leather to get these technologies. With the Chinese, as with the United States, they’re working hard to conceal what they actually know and have done. So I can’t give good answers. I’m not sure our government is entirely confident.
GG: So should we be worried?
DI: The idea that haunted the Manhattan Project—that you’d have this breakthrough technology that you could keep secret, and others wouldn’t quickly acquire it—the whole of our life since 1945 has been a demonstration that’s not so. The Russians already were deeply penetrated into our research. They had recruited the scientists and spies. They made progress that really shocked us. The idea that you’d have a long-term advantage in quantum computing, where you had one and nobody else did, you could read every communication they had and you could totally dominate the digital landscape in every aspect for a long time, I think that’s unlikely to be true. 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. They’re so hard to build—just the secret sauce is so subtle and special that it’ll take other people a while to figure it out—but it won’t take forever.
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. It’s obviously not the first time in your novels that you’ve explored the question of the politicization of CIA leadership; The Director also featured a political CIA leader. 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?
DI: I wrote a column earlier this year that said that [Mike] Pompeo is the most political CIA director I’ve ever covered. The agency has the advantage of having somebody who’s at the White House regularly. They love to be noticed—and they like to have political power. They liked Leon Panetta’s political clout. It’s not as if Leon Panetta wasn’t a political actor. 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.
I think it’s potentially a very dangerous moment for the [CIA] and its long-term health.
We’re in a period where we have a president who is deeply suspicious of the CIA and its independence, but where he has a CIA director he’s clearly bonded with emotionally. He likes Mike Pompeo—Mike Pompeo’s smart but he’s also a go-getter. He’s Trumpian in his enthusiasm for American power. I think it’s potentially a very dangerous moment for the agency and its long-term health. Forgive me for quoting myself, but I wrote that “If the ghosts who inhabit the walls of the CIA could talk, they would tell Director Mike Pompeo to be careful.” The reason is that the CIA doesn’t do its job when it gets swept up in politics.
One of the most distinguished things you can say about the agency is that its great moments were when it resisted the political flow and said, “Vietnam is not working. What you’re hearing from the generals, just 100,000 more troops, is not going to work, it’s not going to happen.” The CIA distinguished itself I think on the analysts’ side by being skeptical about Iraq from the beginning. It’s really one of the tragedies of our modern history that in the end George Tenet got overwhelmed and embraced bad intelligence and said it was a slam dunk that Iraq had WMD. That scarred a generation of people at the agency.
It’s good that [former CIA Director] Dick Helms’s portrait still is the one that dominates the director’s dining room [at the CIA’s headquarters in Langley]. Because Dick Helms stood for the idea: “If you start talking about policy in the Situation Room, it’s time for me to get up and go, because I don’t do that.” We’ve moved a long way from that. Pompeo’s hardly the first person to violate that. But I wish people remembered his tradition. He’s the person who came the closest to getting the culture and mission right. Dick Helms literally would say, “It’s just not appropriate for me to be here if you’re going to talk about policy.”
A politicized CIA is the opposite of what the country needs. The CIA works for the president like every other part of our government. You don’t want it any other way. They’re not a rogue elephant, they’re not a deep state. They’re not separate from political authority. But when they bend good judgment because of relationships with the White House that are too close, as happened with Tenet and WMD, they get themselves and often the country in terrible trouble.
Garrett M. Graff (garrett.graff@gmail) is a contributing editor for WIRED.