Author Interviews
3:39 am
Sun May 26, 2013

A Spy's Son Grapples With A Lifetime Of Secrets

Originally published on Sun May 26, 2013 5:13 am

When Scott Johnson was a kid, he wasn't really sure what his dad did; he was either a teacher, a diplomat or a foreign service officer.

But one morning, when Johnson was 14, his father decided to tell him his real job: He was a spy for the CIA.

At first it was exciting, but as Johnson grew older, he began to wonder just how much his father was keeping from him. He tells the story of their complicated relationship in a new memoir called The Wolf and the Watchman.

Johnson writes about coming to realize that his own career wasn't entirely unlike his father's. He spent 12 years as a foreign correspondent for Newsweek covering conflicts like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He tells NPR's Rachel Martin that he was drawn to journalism because the idea of telling the truth about the world, getting secrets from people and sharing them with a larger audience was liberating. But, like his father, he was still trafficking in the world of secrets. "I came to understand ... just how similar these two professions are in many ways," he says.

Johnson tells Martin about the day he discovered the truth, how a woman in Mexico inspired doubts and how his father critiqued his manipulation skills.


Interview Highlights

On the morning his father revealed that he was a spy

"My father one day suggested that he take me to, you know, to his office so I could see his work. ... I was 14 at this time. And so we get in the car and, you know, he drives and he pulls in to this sort of a mini-mall, like you might find in any American city. There was a drugstore, I think there was a Baskin-Robbins; just a few very ordinary stores. And he shut off the engine. I remember it was kind of a cold day and the car was sort of steaming. And he turned around in his seat and I was getting ready to get out and he said, you know, 'Scotty, wait a second. There's something I wanna tell you.'

"So I thought, Uh oh, you know, this is gonna be another lecture or something about my school performance. And instead he said, you know, 'I have to tell you something. It's not bad, but it's serious.' And so I said, 'OK.' And then he said — well, he asked me a question, he said, 'Scotty, do you know what I do for a living?' And I said, 'Well, yeah, you're, you know, you're in the foreign service.' And he said, 'No.' And then he kind of got this grin on his face and he said, 'I'm a spy.' And I remember my immediate reaction was, 'You mean like James Bond?' And he started laughing, and he said, 'Yeah. Just like that.' Then we both started just laughing and we burst out into this kind of hysterical laughing fit for a while. And then he took me up to his office."

On why they both found that moment so funny

"It was sort of years, perhaps, of pent-up curiosity, and maybe some tension even, around that issue. It was sort of a nervous laughter the way that, you know, an uncomfortable disclosure is sort of funny."

On when he stopped being thrilled about his father's career as a covert operative

"It really happened when I was in my mid-20s. For most of my life, you know, my father and I were very close, and we actually remain very close today, but for most of my life I trusted his version of events implicitly. And then in my mid-20s I was in Mexico and I met a woman — I was very smitten with her. And she had this incredible story of growing up with a father who had been a sort of a guerilla. He was a Stalinist in the 1960s. And my father had lived in Mexico in the 1960s, too, and it was where he was recruited into the CIA. And so in the course of getting to know this woman I sort of came face to face with my father's past because I started to find out about all kinds of things that were happening in Mexico in the 1960s that really started to trouble me.

"... A lot of people were imprisoned, including this woman's father. And that really bothered me because I started to think, Could my father — is it possible that he could have been involved, more involved than I had thought? And I started investigating it and digging into it like a reporter."

Martin: "In the end, it didn't pan out — the things you suspected him of doing didn't happen."

On how his father once advised him to be more manipulative, a skill he used when creating defectors for the CIA

"My father and I are really quite different in that way. For most of my life I would tend to be a very blunt person. If I wanted to know something I would just ask or I would press him — and not just him, anybody. And I wouldn't sort of hold my curiosity in check. And at one point my father told me, he said, 'You know, you really need to work on your elicitation skills — manipulate the other person into coming to you when they feel comfortable.' "

On whether he's made peace with all the secrets his father still keeps

"Oh, absolutely. He made a vow and an oath to his country, and he didn't disclose anything that he shouldn't have. You know, as I said earlier, I had this desire to sort of crack him open, but that was much more centered around what employment with the agency had done to him as a human being — [compartmentalization] ... and also a certain kind of control, or self-control. And it was the way that those things manifested in our life that I wanted to understand."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Scott Johnson covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a foreign correspondent for Newsweek. And to a certain extent, his wanderlust as an adult made sense. As a kid, his family traveled around and lived in a lot of different countries. Growing up, Scott Johnson wasn't really sure what his dad did for a living. He was a teacher or a diplomat or a foreign service officer. His dad kept it vague on purpose. But as Johnson explains in his new memoir, "The Wolf and the Watchman," one morning when he was 14 years old, his dad decided to tell him the truth.

SCOTT JOHNSON: And he said, I'm a spy. And I remember my immediate reaction was do you mean, like, James Bond? And he started laughing and he said, yeah, you know, just like that. Then we both started just laughing and we burst out into this kind of hysterical laughing fit for a while. And then he took me up to his office.

MARTIN: Why was it so funny, do you think?

JOHNSON: It was sort of years perhaps of pent-up curiosity and maybe some tension even around that issue. It was sort of a nervous laugh, sort of the way that, you know, an uncomfortable disclosure is sometimes funny.

MARTIN: After college - fast forward a few years - you moved to Europe. You started working basically as a cub reporter, an apprentice journalist for Newsweek. What appealed to you about journalism?

JOHNSON: This idea of telling the truth about the world and getting secrets from people and telling them to a larger audience was really sort of liberating.

MARTIN: But still to traffic in the world of secrets, which is what your dad did.

JOHNSON: Yes, very much so. And that was something I came to understand. Also, finding out just how similar these two professions are in many ways.

MARTIN: In the beginning, you write about being thrilled when you found out that your dad was a spy, that he was a covert operative for the CIA. But it did change. What happened to trigger that change?

JOHNSON: Well, it really happened when I was in my mid-20s. For most of my life, you know, my father and I were very close, and we actually remain very close today. But for most of my life I trusted his version of events implicitly. And then in my mid-20s I was in Mexico and I met a woman. I was very smitten with her. And she had this incredible story of growing up with a father who had been a sort of a guerilla. He was a Stalinist in the 1960s. And my father had lived in Mexico in the 1960s, too, and it was where he was recruited into the CIA. And so in the course of getting to know this woman, I sort of came face to face with my father's past because I started to find out about all kinds of things that were happening in Mexico in the 1960s that really started to trouble me. And...

MARTIN: 'Cause you had fears - very clear fears - that you thought maybe he had been involved in the death of some people or the imprisonment of some people.

JOHNSON: Yeah, that's right. A lot of people were imprisoned, including this woman's father. And that really bothered me because I started to think, hmm, you know, could my father - is it possible - that he could have been involved, more involved than I had thought? And I started investigating it and digging into it like a reporter.

MARTIN: In the end, it didn't pan out - the things you suspected him of doing didn't happen. But, I mean, he was responsible for creating defectors, for getting people to switch sides. And he told you that the best strategy was to just develop a close relationship with someone and then step back.

JOHNSON: You know, my father and I are really quite different in that way. For most of my life I would tend to be a very blunt person. If I wanted to know something I would just ask or I would press him or, I, you know, - and not just him, anybody. And I wouldn't sort of hold my curiosity in check. And at one point my father told me, he said, you know, you really need to work on your elicitation skills. You know, one of the things that my father learned back in the '60s was he was told by a former KGB officer that the best thing you can do as an intelligence officer was to become friends with somebody and then just be the kind of person that if that foreign national wanted to defect or wanted to give you information, he would come to you. Manipulate the other person into coming to you when they feel comfortable.

MARTIN: Is that how he parented?

JOHNSON: I think, you know, his parenting, you know, if he disapproved of something I would do, rather than saying, oh, you know, that's a terrible thing or punishing me or hitting me or anything like that, he would ask a question, you know, is that something that you want to do, Scotty? Or, you know, is that really the right way to approach this? Or something, which gets you to think. So, in that sense, yeah, I mean, it was a more maybe subtle style of parenting.

MARTIN: Have you been able to make peace with his career choices and the stuff that you still don't know? Because, presumably, he still hasn't shared all of the secrets.

JOHNSON: Oh, absolutely. He made a vow and an oath to his country, and he didn't disclose anything that he shouldn't have. You know, as I said earlier, I had this desire to sort of crack him open, but that was much more centered around what employment with the agency had done to him as a human being.

MARTIN: Do you mean the kind of extreme compartmentalization of a life?

JOHNSON: Yeah, and also a certain kind of control, or self-control. And it was the way that those things manifested in our life that I wanted to understand. You know, I wanted to just feel like I was dealing with the real man. In the course of writing the book, I really do feel like I came to a much better understanding of that and I abandoned this idea that I was going to somehow, you know, completely unveil my father. And I realized that was a misguided wish in the first place.

MARTIN: Scott Johnson. His new book is called "The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son and the CIA." He joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Scott, thanks so much for talking with us.

JOHNSON: Thanks so much for having me, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.