Joe Dibs reported for work feeling ill at ease. Something said to him on the way into the Director's office had his hackles up.
“They want an honest assessment,” the assistant had informed him.
Oh Christ, no, thought Dibs.
An honest assessment was the last thing he wanted to be asked for. Having written the damned report, he'd hoped he had buried his findings in the most boring and technical language he possessed. Now he was going to be pressed for honesty? What had he done to deserve such unkind treatment?
It was just a month since the new administration came in, and suddenly working at the NSA was like navigating the Sicilian mob. Only the Godfather wore tacky suits and got his ideas from cable news and third-rate online rags. Expert opinions were a thing of the past. Only one opinion mattered, and that opinion swung with the holder's mood.
Entering the office of the Director of the National Security Agency, Dibs saw with dread that the presentation he was meant to give had an audience other than his boss. None other than the National Security Advisor himself. Oh shit.
Introductions were made, and his boss said, “Mr. Dibs has been tasked into looking at these reports of Russian interference in the last election.”
“Alleged interference,” said Dibs at once.
“Let’s get down to it,” said the National Security Advisor brusquely. “I really don’t have much time.”
He was quite right, he didn’t. He was being pilloried in the press for his ties to Russian interests. The fact that he had lied about his conversations with those interests prior to being sworn in meant that neither Congress nor the White House was willing to have his back. He was seen as weak, and therefore his desperation to cling to his new office rose like a stench from his armpits.
The Director raised an eyebrow. “You requested this meeting yourself, Mike.”
That was further unwelcome information. Dibs felt himself begin to sweat inside his suit.
“True, true,” admitted the National Security Advisor. “Okay, Mr…Tibbs?”
“Dibs. Like, I’ve got dibs on that parking space.”
The National Security Advisor frowned. “You’re not from Chicago, are you?”
“I lived there in college. I’m from Ohio.”
“Good. Red state. Okay, Mr. Dibs,” said the NSA, emphasizing the D, “let me hear your report.”
Wondering if he was about to end his career, Joe began:
“With the hack of the DNC last summer, I was tasked with looking to see if there had been any hacking done of the RNC, and the candidate himself. At the RNC, I did find some small hacking of email lists, but nothing on the scale of the DNC. And as I looked at the Republican candidate’s private servers, I found no trace of hacking.”
It was true. That he had found something was buried in his report, which he hoped to God the National Security Advisor hadn’t read.
Turns out he had. “But you did find something unusual.”
“I would not say unusual,” hedged Dibs at once, feeling the trapdoor creaking under his feet even as the noose looped around his throat. “Uncommon, maybe.”
The NSA waffled his hand. “Same diff. What was it you found?”
Shit. “I found some low-level communications between a private firm and the candidate’s tower in Manhattan.” He was careful to speak no names, in case he was being recorded.
“Uh-huh. What kind of firm was it?”
“A bank, sir.”
“And where is this bank located?”
Dibs paused, but there was no way around a direct question. “...In Russia, sir.”
“The bank’s name?”
“I see, I see,” mused the NSA, distracted. “When you say ‘low-level’, what does that mean?”
“It was far from a constant stream of information,” Dibs said hastily. “But every day or so, late at night, some information tracked back and forth.”
“Is it random?”
“It does not appear random, sir, but random for a computer may seem calculated to us.” Dibs was proud of that equivocation.
The NSA flipped open to a page in Joe's report. “But these communications ceased.”
“They did,” Dibs confirmed. “A story broke in the press about it just before the election, and all signals between Omega Bank and the Tower ceased.”
Dibs paused, hoping that would be the definitive end. Of course, it wasn’t.
“But they began again,” said the NSA coldly. “From a different source.”
“Ah, yes,” said Dibs uncomfortably. “From, ah, another bank, though with the same umbrella company that owned Omega. Two days after the signals from Omega ended, these started up.”
“Same time? Same duration?”
“I see, I see,” mused the NSA. “Now, who owns the two banks?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” said Dibs. “That’s outside my brief. I was just told to look into possible hacking. And it does not appear that there has been any. There would have to be sustained activity for a hack.”
“So these communications between servers are not long enough to be a hack?”
“No, sir,” said Dibs definitely, feeling a sense of relief. On the other side of his desk, Dibs’ boss looked pleased.
“Were they long enough to be messages?”
The executioner gripped the handle for the trapdoor. “Messages?”
“Emails, you know. Instructions.”
Dibs spread his feet wide, hoping to avoid the drop. “Instructions?”
“Yes, were these communications long enough to convey messages?”
“Yes,” allowed Dibs slowly.
The NSA looked uncannily interested. “Now we’re getting somewhere. Tell me about these servers in the Tower.”
“The servers in the Tower?” It was a trick from his time in uniform. When confronted with an unhappy superior, do not play stupid, do not play toady. Play parrot.
“Yes, the servers in the Tower. What are they there for?”
“Well, I have no information about that, sir. I don’t have access to them.”
“Are they for business?”
“Possibly, sir,” replied Dibs. “Though the Tower has another set of servers for its business.”
Dibs cursed himself the moment he said it, and his boss raised his eyebrows. He’d volunteered information, and that was as good as bouncing on the rope around his neck.
“So they’re not for business. Are they used for video games?” asked the NSA derisively.
“I don’t know, sir,” said Dibs. “It’s possible.”
“You have no idea what these servers are used for.”
“Sir, I did not have the authorization to hack into the candidate’s servers. I could only study the traffic flow of information.”
The NSA stood and began to pace, something no one but Dibs’ boss was allowed to do. But the Director said nothing.
“So, the Tower has these extra servers, and we don’t know what they’re for. These servers have been communicating in the middle of the night with a Russian bank. When they’re found out, a different bank takes up the signal instead.” He rounded on Dibs. “Those are the facts?”
“That’s what it says in the report,” replied Dibs, as if he had not written it.
“Right. But we don’t know what these computers were doing.”
“No, sir,” repeated Dibbs.
The National Security Advisor looked to Dibs’ boss. “The Agency has no idea what these computers were communicating, do they?”
The Director said, “No, Mike. Without access to those computers, we have no idea what they were saying.”
To Dibs’ surprise, the National Security Advisor cracked a slight smile. “Then I think we ought to have a look. Don’t you?”
The trapdoor opened and the noose went taught.
Dibs was glad to see his boss at a loss, too. He left it for his boss to speak. “Mike – you want the Agency to hack the President’s New York home?”
“No no,” said the National Security Advisor, very swiftly. “No. I am absolutely not saying that. In no way.” Clearly he, too, was concerned about being recorded. Dibs found this reassuring.
“What I am saying,” continued the presidential advisor, “is that this is clearly a matter of national security. I mean, isn’t it in the national interest to know that the servers in the Tower are secure? I’m sure the nation will sleep better knowing that the First Lady and her son are not going to be compromised by some rogue computer trouble.”
This was patently ridiculous. Unless the servers in question came to life and began assimilating everyone in the Tower a la Warlock’s dad in the New Mutants, there was no direct threat to the first lady. Hell, it was costing over a million dollars a day to keep her and the little boy safe. Dibs wondered what he could do with a million dollars a day. Then the National Security Advisor spoke, and Dibs stopped wondering anything.
“Director, I’d like to second Mr. Dibs here to the Secret Service for the next week to look at cyber security in the Tower.”
“They have their own people,” objected Dibs’ boss.
“I’m sure they won’t mind the extra set of hands. We’re all Homeland Security, aren’t we?”
That he said it with a straight face showed how short a time he had spent in his post. It was a common enough phrase to be sure. But whenever it was said, it was with a knowing sneer, or an eye-roll. The combining of all the different branches of national security in the previous decade had done nothing to aid the dissemination of information, which had been the stated goal. Instead inter-departmental rivalry was at its peak. Dibs was certain some of his colleagues were tasked to monitoring their neighbors down the hall.
“Look, I’ve got to run. A meeting on the Hill. Set it up, will you? Mr. Dibs, good report. I leave it in your hands.” And he left without signing an order, thus keeping his hands off of Dibs’ transfer as neatly as if he’d never been in the room.
The door shut, and the Director and Dibs stared at each other.
“Coffee?” asked the Director.
“Sure, Admiral,” said Dibs.
Together they left the room. But instead of heading to the break room, they went down to the kiosk in the front lobby of the huge building. It was ironic that the least secure place in terms of safety was where one was least likely to be overheard.
Stirring creamer into his drink, the Director said, “How are you feeling, Dibs?”
“You look a little run down. Might need a few days. There’s a nasty stomach bug going around.”
“Yes,” said Dibs slowly. “I’ve been a little queasy the last month.”
“I thought so. Hell, I’ve been living on Pepto since the inauguration.” He frowned, worried that he’d spoken too loudly. “I miss ships. So hard for anyone to hear you over the ocean. You know what’s going on.”
“No idea,” said Dibs. It wasn’t true. But, much as he liked the Director, he was damned if he was going out on a limb. It was his neck that was about to be stretched, and friendship didn’t mean a thing these days.
The Director made a show of stirring his coffee, as if the creamer was refusing to mix. “It’s pretty clear,” he said softly. “Mike’s going to be out in a few days. This is him trying to find dirt on the President in a last-ditch attempt to keep his job. He sends us in to poke around, and if we find anything, he leverages that with the President, who at this moment is not supporting him.”
“I see,” said Dibs slowly.
“I know you do,” said the Director sternly. “And I can’t tell you how bad this would be for us. One whiff that were poking around the President’s private servers and we’re all out, and on trial in front of Congress. Watergate and Benghazi all in one. We’d be sunk.”
It was kind of the Director to say ‘we’ and ‘us’. Dibs knew perfectly well whose name would be on the indictment. “So I’ve got stomach flu. Till the end of the week?”
“Maybe a little longer. You know how these things can drag out.” Throwing away his over-creamed coffee, undrunk, the Director put an arm around Dibs’ shoulders. “Don’t you worry. All we have to do is delay and he’ll be gone. I can tell you – there’s no problem here a little bureaucracy can’t solve.”
Dibs was foolish enough to believe him.