A Spy Novelist's Take on the Justice Department's Investigation of James Rosen

The truth in recent scandals is already too strange for spy novels. Expect that trend to accelerate.

Eric Holder (Reuters)

It is a cruel curse for writers of spy novels: Truth often proves to be stranger than fiction.

Take, for example, the case of the Iranian-American used-car salesman who conspired to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington, while the ambassador dined in an Italian restaurant in Georgetown. Oh, and the plan involved recruiting a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the hit. True story. The defendant, Mansour Arbabsiar, has pleaded guilty; his sentencing is scheduled for May 30. But try pitching a plot along those lines to any respectable New York literary agent, and watch how fast they roll their eyes and hang up on you.

​Another contender in the You-Can't-Make-This-Stuff-Up category is the self-destruction of David Petraeus. You'll recall that Petraeus resigned as CIA Director last fall, after getting caught up in a scandal so mammoth it eventually engulfed not only his biographer-mistress, but a second four-star general, a Kardashian look-alike from Tampa, and a shirtless FBI agent.

This week - less tawdry but still plenty strange - comes word of the Justice Department investigation of Fox News reporter James Rosen. The Washington Post broke the story, detailing how federal investigators believe Rosen conspired to solicit classified information about North Korea.

​Among the intriguing tidbits stuffed in the affidavit: Rosen concocted code names for interactions with his source (Rosen went by "Alex"; his source, allegedly a State Department security adviser, answered to "Leo.") Rosen is also said to have devised a secret code for their emails: "One asterisk means to contact them, or that previously suggested plans for communication are to proceed as agreed; two asterisks means the opposite."

​Did he plant a red flag in the flowerpot on his balcony, too?

"The means of communication seem a little cheesy," Bill Harlow, a former CIA chief of public affairs, told me. Harlow, also the author of a political thriller, Circle William, adds: "The whole thing is like a bad spy novel."

Rosen's reportorial tradecraft may leave something to be desired, but I'm not without sympathy for his plight. I joined the collective howl of indignation from the Washington press corps when the story broke. It takes an unusually egregious misstep by an administration to unite journalists from Fox News and Mother Jones in outrage. But that's what the Rosen affair has accomplished, along with another recent development involving seizure of Associated Press phone records. The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza summed up the mood of the media in this tweet: "If James Rosen's "clandestine communications plan" were illegal, every journalist in Washington would be locked up. Unreal."

Partly due to my forthcoming novel dealing with an investigative journalist, and partly due to my own prior life as an intelligence reporter, I've been thinking a great deal lately about the relationship between reporters and the people from whom they get their information. My book includes one scene in particular that cuts to the heart of the current uproar over leaks. It comes as the protagonist is attempting to squeeze information from a key source in the CIA's clandestine service.

"You know," the source finally says, "It's difficult sometimes to remember what's classified and not. Isn't that funny? So many not even remotely interesting things are top secret. Important ones lie right there in plain view."
I stepped down as NPR's intelligence correspondent three years ago, and I'm surprised now when I think back on how many people risked their jobs to speak to me. I wasn't cavalier, but I was perhaps naive. I routinely called people on a landline from my desk at NPR, and they answered on their office phones at Langley, at Foggy Bottom, at the Pentagon. (We were savvy enough, even back in the halcyon days before Twitter, to respect what James Rosen apparently forgot: Never write anything in an email that you wouldn't want to come back to haunt you.)

I doubt this latest round of leak investigations will cause reporters to back off tough stories. But it may cause us to sharpen our tactics. My former colleague, NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro, told me: "I might be more fastidious about doing things reporters should have been doing all along."

Like what, I asked?​

"Like not relying on technology," he replied. "Not counting on my phone records or emails to remain secret. It's not like it's impossible to meet somebody face-to-face, for coffee or for lunch."

You read it here first: expect an uptick in expense-account lunches at Cafe Milano. By the way, that's believed to be the restaurant where the Iranian plot to blow up the Saudi ambassador was supposed to unfold. No word yet on whether reporters meeting sources for power lunches there will start using code names, or mysterious punctuation. But it's a safe bet that we fiction writers will have a tough time matching whatever antics do unfold. ​As usual, Mark Twain said it best: "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn't."