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In 'The Paladin,' Ignatius Navigates The Line Between Truth, Fiction

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: The writer David Ignatius personifies an old idea about novelists that you sometimes must resort to fiction to tell the truth. Ignatius is a columnist for The Washington Post. He writes true stories about global affairs. He also writes novels about the CIA, one of the very agencies he covers in real life. His first novel years ago grew directly out of reporting he'd done.

DAVID IGNATIUS: It described a real operation in great detail. The CIA initially flipped out when it was published. How on Earth did all this get out? But then they decided this tells the story of what we really do. And so I'm told that they have handed out that book to classes of young trainees.

INSKEEP: Actions of the real agency became material for a fictional story now used by the real agency. David Ignatius' latest novel takes place on the line between truth and fiction. It is called "The Paladin."

IGNATIUS: "The Paladin" is about a CIA officer who's asked to do something that he suspects from the beginning may be illegal, which is to infiltrate an American journalism operation overseas. He does it, and he gets hung out to dry. His life is completely shattered. He's indicted, convicted; he goes to prison. His marriage blows up. He loses his family. So the book in part is his quest to figure out who set him up in this operation and why. And then also what mistakes did he make?

INSKEEP: I want to figure out what parts of this are real-life dilemmas the CIA might face. First, they're not supposed to spy on Americans, right? And they're also not supposed to spy on journalists. Is that true?

IGNATIUS: So they're not supposed to spy on either Americans or journalists. There's a specific prohibition against spying on or using American journalists. That's one of the things that our hero Michael Dunne is accused of and convicted for having done. That's a line that he crosses. There are lots of rules that are supposed to prevent the CIA from infiltrating and influencing the American journalistic debate. But, of course, they're active overseas working with foreign journalists, and there's always an issue of whether there's going to be blowback of manipulated information.

INSKEEP: There's also a question about who counts as a journalist, isn't there? Is someone who is trafficking in hacked emails a journalist? Is someone who is making up information, including very sophisticated deepfakes, are they a journalist?

IGNATIUS: Well, so these days, anybody with a computer is a publisher and can do writing, reporting. You can report with your cellphone camera. Are you a journalist? Well, in a sense, you are. That's a world that our intelligence agencies move through all the time. I can remember a CIA official at a conference saying to me once, you know, the selfie is the best thing that ever happened to us because all over the world people are taking pictures of each other, you know, in unusual places. And the CIA is able to collect that information and know a lot. Just imagine...

INSKEEP: They used to have to pay somebody with a long telephoto lens to get those pictures.

IGNATIUS: Exactly. Well, now people will take their little iPhone cameras and they'll go out and do the snooping themselves without realizing it. So the CIA is moving in this world of pervasive information. We're moving now from a world not just of manipulated journalism but manipulated events - the ability to create events that never happened. So in my book - I've read about oil tanker leaks that drive the oil market upside down that never happened but are totally convincing. Representations are created with video and sound. That's the world that we're heading into in intelligence. It's increasingly going to be difficult for our intelligence agencies to know whether events that are up on the news media or photographs or even videos are distributed whether they really happened. And that's the world that the hero of my novel stumbles into.

INSKEEP: When you create these fake bits of information that could possibly move markets, you only have to have a fraud that persists for a few seconds or a few minutes in order to make billions of dollars if you're well-positioned in the stock market because things move so quickly.

IGNATIUS: So that's the world that we're entering that I'm trying to imagine in this novel. It's a world where creating the trading opportunities for minutes or seconds allows you to arbitrage enormous amounts of money. Or think about it in the world of politics and foreign affairs. Creating video imagery, let's say, of Israeli troops assaulting Palestinians and it's fake - it could be created today in a laboratory. But let's say it's set up and circulated, it becomes viral. Suddenly, you have an explosive crisis because of something that was created deliberately in a laboratory. So that's the world that my hero is trying to find his way through where he just - you don't know what you can trust in the world of fact. And it's interesting. At the end of this book, the only source of accountability that he and his friends can find is traditional journalism, the way that journalists curate, vet, test and then validated information.

INSKEEP: Expose the truth.

IGNATIUS: Exactly. That's what we always tell ourselves we're doing. But I think it becomes more valuable every month as we head into this new future where you can create sound and image that are almost impossible to verify.

INSKEEP: If manufactured news becomes some kind of factor in the 2020 election, is the CIA well-positioned to defend against that?

IGNATIUS: So as we head toward election time, I think we need to be really concerned about how the security of our elections will be protected and whether the information about attempts to manipulate the election from overseas will be expressed publicly. One of the things that worried me the most this year, Steve, is that the intelligence community asked that its annual threat assessment briefing it gives every year to Congress in which they lay out how the world looks to them, they asked to give that this year in private. They were afraid to give it in public because a year ago when Dan Coats was then the director of national intelligence gave a briefing, it contradicted some of President Trump's positions. And the president got furious, and they felt burned, and they got nervous.

And so this year, they asked to do it in private. That's a bad sign when people are so worried that they might get second-guessed that they want to keep it out of the public view. And, you know, I understand people don't want to get on Trump's bad side. You can get fired. But that shouldn't be. We need to have a public accounting by our intelligence agencies of how the world looks, what are the threats, irrespective of whatever political spin may come out of the White House.

INSKEEP: The latest novel by David Ignatius is called "The Paladin." David, thanks so much.

IGNATIUS: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.