The Secret

Haunted by his Father’s Secret Life in the CIA

When he was 14, Scott Johnson’s father revealed he was a CIA operative, and so began a life-long journey to figure out his family’s secrets.

Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company

One night in the winter of 2008, Newsweek foreign correspondent Scott C. Johnson was interviewing a source in the dark corner of a hotel in Amman, where he was tracing the origins of the Iraqi insurgency. “Abu Ahmed,” who had helped found a religious militia opposing the U.S. presence in Iraq, revealed how al Qaeda summarily decapitated his father after he, the son, declined to carry out a mission for them. Suddenly, as well as a reporter’s urge to tell the man’s story, Johnson felt “the thrill of what my father’s work had been. I wanted to recruit Abu Ahmed to my side; I wanted us to be allies. I wanted to be the one, as my father had told me so many years before, to whom he would come when the time was right ... I wanted Abu Ahmed because I desired, however briefly, to slip into my father’s skin.”

Johnson’s struggle to define himself in opposition to his father, Keith, a career CIA operative, is the central thread of The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA, and the climax is his epiphany that, despite his best efforts, he’s a chip off the old block. A strange, compelling hybrid of coming-of-age story, travel memoir, and journalistic meditation on America’s dubious relationship with the rest of the world, the book anatomizes the author’s fraught but close bond with his father, looks back on a peripatetic childhood—spent in cities including New Delhi, Belgrade, and Islamabad—and recounts his own perilous career as a globe-trotting war reporter. As Johnson intriguingly portrays, it’s a profession that turns out to be “close cousins” with espionage.

Yet when the 25-year-old Johnson strolled into Newsweek’s Paris offices and asked for a job, he was hell-bent on forging his own path and breaking the pattern that began when he was 14 and his father announced that he wasn’t, in fact, a Foreign Service diplomat. “Scotty,” he said, as they sat in a parked car in a Michigan mini-mall, “I’m a spy.” “Like ... like James Bond?” “Yes.” What he didn’t say, writes Johnson, “but what was understood, was that he needed me to lie for him from then on, and lie like a professional. I had license to dissimulate, fabricate, invent, cover-up, and deceive.” Journalism, on the other hand, gave “sanction to do just the opposite”; seeking the truth for a living would, he hoped, mitigate the acute existential angst that had begun to plague him. Most distressingly, he had a voice in his head—not “of the sort that schizophrenics endure,” but one that nevertheless told him, “over and over again, that the devil was in me.”

The fear, understandably difficult for the younger Johnson to fully contemplate, was that the devil was his father, and that the shadowy furtiveness inherent in spy work hid all manner of ruthless, amoral acts. After all, the CIA’s association with conspiratorial evil is practically ingrained in the culture, and evasiveness was in Johnson senior’s job description—so how, his son wonders as he grows into adulthood, can he feel secure in the knowledge that he actually knows the man himself? Spies, he observes, “had two masters—their families and their epic secret.” And so the aim of his unflinchingly, sometimes harrowingly introspective narrative—whose structure, following the logic of memory, is discontinuous and not quite chronological—is a coming to terms with this dichotomy and its undermining of his father’s trustworthiness.

One key episode occurs in 2002 in Mexico City, where Johnson moved to run Newsweek’s bureau there. His new girlfriend tells him that her father was imprisoned during the country’s so-called dirty war of the 1960s and 1970s, during which left-wing radicals were killed and abducted; she also relays allegations of the CIA’s collusion with the Mexican government’s persecution of student protesters. Aware that his father had been stationed in Mexico at the time, Johnson, with heavy heart, asks him about his whereabouts the night of the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968, when thousands of peacefully demonstrating students and other civilians were besieged by heavy gunfire from soldiers. His father’s vague denial of involvement fails to quell his son’s anxiety: “I felt like a counterintelligence officer,” he muses, “searching for the mole within my own organization, the lie at the core of myself or my father, the fundamental untruth, the spy within.”

A few years later, in 2006, he goes to Ramadi, then “the most violent, chaotic city in Iraq,” partly driven, he says, by a compulsion to compare firsthand knowledge with information from his father, thus establishing or disproving the latter’s reliability as a narrator and solving the principal contention of their lives—a quest that won’t, you sense, ever be satisfactorily concluded. Johnson even psychoanalyses his encounters with extreme danger as unconsciously rooted in the need to claim a separate identity, his own “hold on life, on death.” But his irresistible pull to far-flung regions—after surviving a hail of bullets on the road from Kuwait to Baghdad in February 2003, he is back in Iraq by the spring—is seemingly in his DNA, nature as much as nurture. During Scott's father’s childhood, his own father, George, moved the family from place to place including, for a couple of years in the mid-1950s, Lahore. And after 9/11 Scott's father, having retired from the CIA, couldn’t resist returning to work as a psy-ops contractor in Afghanistan, where he nearly crossed paths with his son—much to Johnson’s chagrin.

Regardless of the self-motivated or deterministic reasons for Johnson to have repeatedly risked life and limb in Iraq—in Ramadi he is lucky to limp away from an IED attack in one piece—those sections of his story are the most thought-provoking. With rare emotional subtlety, and in finely etched prose worthy of Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene, he captures the perspectives of people on various sides of the bloody equation, such as Pete, a “damaged” Iraqi-American who speaks Aramaic, works for an intelligence agency, and is constantly called upon for help “by almost anyone who felt some measure of his alienation.” Yet herein lies the drawback of the author’s unconventional patchwork approach: his rendering of absorbing but brief snippets from his tumultuous past, selected according to the demands of his soul-searching, leaves the reader wanting much longer versions of, say, his years in Baghdad at the height of the American occupation, or his Kipling-esque early life in India. As a candid psychological exploration of a highly charged filial relationship, The Wolf and the Watchman fascinates. But it’s when Scott Johnson turns his focus outward that a truly great writer emerges.