02/25/2014 10:57 am ET Updated Apr 27, 2014

The Spy Who Bugged Me


Anyone who knows me would laugh at the notion, but readers often ask me if I was in the CIA. It's a fair question. I write spy novels and report on national security. I always answer: "No." To which they say, "But if you were in the CIA, of course you'd say no." So from now on, I'm going to respond with the unvarnished truth. Here it is:

I was in the CIA.

Once. On December 13, 2008. For a conference.

I've been reluctant to talk about it because of what happened afterward, at the cocktail reception where I interviewed then CIA director General Michael Hayden for The Huffington Post. He told me that, in his experience, journalists too often lacked discretion and were a liability. Of note, in his previous post, director of the NSA, he oversaw the controversial surveillance program that included the wiretapping of US citizens.

A few days later, I was walking out of a movie theater when it felt like lightning struck my left arm. Nearly floored me. In the fleshy gulley beneath the pisiform bone, the knob on the outside of the wrist, I discovered a small lump. I figured it was a sebaceous cyst, a pea-size accumulation of keratin beneath the skin; I'd had two or three before. They're harmless. Go away in a couple of months. This one was unusually smooth, though. Oddly symmetrical too, like a Tic Tac.

I wondered: Could the lump be an eavesdropping device? For several years, I knew, CIA drones had been dropping undetectable "smart dust" particles that adhered to intelligence targets, enabling an officer halfway around the world to track them. Given ultra-miniaturization trends, was a particle that also transmitted audio all that far-fetched? And if you're going to implant someone with such a particle -- say, while he's asleep in his D.C. hotel room following a cocktail reception at the CIA -- the gulley beneath the pisiform bone would be a great place because people hardly ever have reason to poke around that area, much less look at it.

I knew an electrophysicist with experience in subminiature eavesdropping devices, but if I called him, Hayden's people would have known I was onto their secret, and you know what that would have meant. I ended up going to an orthopedic surgeon. A few months earlier, I'd made the mistake of trying to push a squash court wall out of the way while running full speed after a ball and tore the cartilage in my left wrist. The lump in my left wrist now, the surgeon said, was an absorbable suture from the operation that hadn't dissolved properly. Which fit the facts. Or the CIA had gotten to the surgeon.

The experience gave me the idea for a story: A national security reporter discovers that a subminiature electronic device is implanted in his head. He investigates, propelling him into a life-or-death struggle with the spy who'd bugged him. That idea became my new book, 7 Grams of Lead. I worked with my intelligence community sources and the electrophysicist to make everything as realistic as possible. Still 7 Grams of Lead is only fiction. I hope.

Note: An excerpt from 7 Grams of Lead follows :

Seven Grams of Lead by Keith Thomson (Excerpt) by VintageAnchor