Targeting the handlers is a new approach. For years, the Bureau's
been trying to identify the sleepers themselves, but they're so well
assimilated it's next to impossible. The cell is designed so that
sleepers don't have contact with anyone but their handler, and even that
is minimal. And the Agency's been focused on the ringleaders, the guys
who oversee the handlers, the ones in Moscow with direct ties to the
SVR, Russian intelligence.
"Close doesn't count," I say quietly. "You know that better than anyone."
Around the time I started on the account, Omar was a hardcharging new agent. He'd proposed a new initiative, inviting entrenched sleepers to "come in from the cold" and turn themselves in, in exchange for amnesty. His reasoning? There had to be at least a few sleepers who wanted to turn their covers into reality, and we might be able to learn enough from the turned sleepers to penetrate the network as a whole.
The plan was rolled out quietly, and within a week we had a walk-in, a man named Dmitri. Said he was a midlevel handler, told us information about the program that corroborated what we knew—handlers like himself were responsible for five sleepers each; he reported to a ringleader who was responsible for five handlers. A completely self-contained cell. That got our attention, for sure. Then came the outrageous claims, the information that was inconsistent with everything we knew to be true, and then he disappeared. Dmitri the Dangle, we called him after that.
That was the end of the program. The thought of publicly admitting there were sleepers in the U.S., of admitting our inability to find them, was already barely palatable to Bureau seniors. Between that and the potential for Russian manipulation—dangling double agents with false leads—Omar's plan was roundly criticized, then rejected. We'll be inundated with other Dmitris, they said. And with that, Omar's once-promising career trajectory stalled. He fell into obscurity, plugging away, day after day, at a thankless, frustrating, impossible task.
The screen changes, and a little icon with Yury's name appears. I always get a thrill out of this, seeing my targets' names here, knowing we have a window into their digital lives, the information they think is private. As if on cue, Omar stands up. He knows about our efforts to target Yury. He's one of a handful of Bureau agents read into the program—and its biggest cheerleader, the person who believes in the algorithm, and in me, more than anyone else. But still, he can't access it directly.
"Call me tomorrow, okay?" he says.
"You got it," I reply. He turns, and as soon as I see his back, heading away, I focus my attention on the screen. I double-click the icon and a red-bordered inset appears, displaying the contents of Yury's laptop, a mirror image that I can comb through. I only have minutes until I need to leave. But it's long enough for a peek.
The background is dark blue, dotted with bubbles of different sizes,
in different shades of blue. There are icons lined up in four neat rows
on one side, half of them folders. The file names are all in Cyrillic,
characters that I recognize but can't read—at least not well. I took a
beginning Russian class years ago; then Luke arrived and I never went
back. I know some basic phrases, recognize some words, but that's about
it. For the rest I rely on linguists or translation software.
open a few of the folders, then the text documents inside them. Page
after page of dense Cyrillic text. I feel a wave of disappointment, one I
know is nonsensical. It's not like a Russian guy sitting on his
computer in Moscow is going to be typing in English, keeping records in
English, List of Deep-Cover Operatives in the United States. I
know that what I'm looking for is encrypted. I'm just hoping to see some
sort of clue, some sort of protected file, something with obvious
High-level penetrations over the years have told
us that the identities of the sleepers are known only to the handlers,
that the names are stored electronically, locally. Not in Moscow,
because the SVR— Russia's powerful external intelligence service—fears
moles within its own organization. Fears them so much that they'd rather
risk losing sleepers than keep the names in Russia. And we know that if
anything should happen to a handler, the ringleader would access the
electronic files and contact Moscow for a decryption key, one part of a
multilayer encryption protocol. We have the code from Moscow. We've just
never had anything to decrypt.
The program's airtight. We can't break in. We don't even know its true purpose, if there is one. It might just be passive collection, or it might be something more sinister. But since we know the head of the program reports to Putin himself, I tend to think it's the latter—and that's what keeps me up at night.
I keep scanning, my eyes drifting over each file, even though I'm not entirely sure what I'm looking for. And then I see a Cyrillic word I recognize. Friends. The last icon in the last row, a manila folder. I double-click and the folder opens into a list of five JPEG images, nothing more. My heart rate begins to accelerate. Five. There are five sleepers assigned to each handler; we know that from multiple sources. And there's the title. Friends.
I click open the first image. It's a headshot of a nondescript middle-aged man in round eyeglasses. A tingle of excitement runs through me. The sleepers are well assimilated. Invisible members of society, really. This could certainly be one of them.
tells me not to get too excited; all our intelligence says the files on
the sleepers are encrypted. But my gut tells me this is something big.