“He was straightforward, blunt,” Johnson recalls in this dreamlike, entrancing memoir. He simply said, “Scotty, I’m a spy.”
Like the espionage pro he was, Keith Johnson had waited until just the right moment to set the hook. It was, in essence, a textbook recruitment of a mark into his world of secrets and lies. “The clues had been there,” recalls his son, who went on to a career as a foreign correspondent for Newsweek: “the moving, living in strange places, the secrecy, the different jobs he told me he had had, the various languages he had learned and now forgotten. But whereas before there had been only suspicion, now there was proof. He had released the truth like a genie from a bottle.”
And some genie it was. Keith Johnson quickly swore his awestruck son to secrecy in the Southfield, Mich., office where, behind a door labeled “Apex Insurance,” the CIA ran operations targeting the area’s large Arab American population. But it didn’t take long for Scotty to realize that the “deal” they’d made required far more than swearing to secrecy: He, too, was in the family business now. He was a made man — in effect, a Soprano kid. “What he didn’t say, but what was understood,” Johnson remembers, “was that he needed me to lie for him from then on, and lie like a professional. I had a license to dissimulate, fabricate, invent, cover-up, and deceive if necessary.”
Bookstores are sprinkled with the memoirs and wink-wink novels of retired CIA operatives. Naturally, they revolve around missions accomplished or not, with little more than passing mention of the spies’ dependents. Rarer still are first-person accounts by spouses and children.
In 2000, Bina Cady Kiyonaga published her worshipful “My Spy: Memoir of a CIA Wife.” Five years later, John H. Richardson, son of an early 1960s CIA station chief in Saigon, South Vietnam, penned a far darker account, “My Father the Spy: An Investigative Memoir.” Then, last year, Carl Colby produced and directed a disturbing film biography of his father, the late CIA director William E. Colby. Its title, “The Man Nobody Knew,” pretty much sums up what the spouses and children of covert operators come to accept, however reluctantly. To ensure their own safety, spies wrap the whole family in a bodyguard of lies. The trick for everybody is finding out where the truth leaves off and the lying begins.
“Every country had people like my father — people who protected the rest, sheltered them, and made tremendous sacrifices for some notion of the greater good,” Johnson writes. “But this work took a toll on these people. And as much as they might try to shelter their families from the lives they secretly lived, it was nearly impossible to keep those worlds apart, to keep one safe from the other.”
The fibs and evasions begin early. Johnson rethinks the long boyhood walks he took with his father in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, during the depths of the Cold War. “He often stopped by one of the park’s giant trees . . . and reached down to examine the ground at its base,” Johnson recalls. He said “he was looking for good chestnuts,” but he was almost certainly using his son as a prop to retrieve microfilmed documents buried by an agent.
But the mundane could potentially turn lethal. One day in New Delhi, when he was a child and his father was portraying himself as a diplomat, his amah prevented an Indian from entering the house and kidnapping him. His mother finally tired of the double life and walked out on the family.
His father’s activities trailed Johnson into his adulthood. While serving as a Newsweek correspondent in Mexico City in 2002, he fell in love with a Mexican woman who told him that her leftist father had been imprisoned in 1968 for his political activities. The arrest occurred while Johnson’s father was advising the Mexican police. When Johnson confided his father’s true life to her, she recoiled in disbelief, then shock and finally disgust. “Every single war, every single conflict that has come here, America has had his bloody hands all over it,” she railed, ticking off U.S. intrigues in Chile, Argentina, Panama and Nicaragua. Suspecting that Johnson might be complicit himself, she left him.
Another relationship failed on similar grounds when the woman came to doubt that she could achieve true intimacy with a man who had harbored such secrets. Johnson has wondered much the same about his relationship with his adoring father.
It all adds up to quite a story. Toggling between his childhood, his father’s comings and goings, his poisonous love affairs and his increasingly risky assignments as a war reporter — including in Baghdad, where he employs CIA techniques to get an Islamic rebel to trust him — Johnson evokes John le Carre’s dark autobiographical thriller “The Perfect Spy.” “I felt like a counterintelligence officer,” he writes, “searching for the mole within my own organization, the lie at the core of myself or my father, the fundamental untruth, the spy within.”
At one point in the book, I felt like shouting, “Get over it!” But of course, that would miss the point: There is no escape. To his credit, Johnson has transformed what might have been just one long, narcissistic howl at the darkness into the kind of psychological police procedural that might have been written by Camus.
Jeff Stein, the former Washington Post SpyTalk blogger, was a military intelligence case officer in Vietnam.
Scott C. Johnson will give a reading at Politics & Prose at 7 p.m. on Friday, May 31.