For most of my childhood, I didn't know my father was a spy. He and I traveled the world for a quarter-century as he worked in Yugoslavia, India, Pakistan, Spain, and several other countries. To my knowledge, he was a diplomat, which I understood to mean cocktail parties, foreign languages, and embassies.
He cut a dashing figure -- tall, handsome, charming -- and I wanted to be just like him. His shelves were crowded with books about espionage, and he encouraged me in my obsession with James Bond movies. Sometimes my dad would disappear for long stretches and out-of-town trips. "Gotta see a man about a horse," he'd say with a wink, and I knew I wasn't meant to indulge my curiosity further. In Yugoslavia, he would take our dog, Duke, out for long walks alone at night. It was only much later that I learned he was slipping away to deliver "dead drops" in the parks near our house. In Pakistan he took me on trips to the North-West Frontier Province, where we stood on hills and watched as Afghan refugees fled the 1980s war against the Soviets. My childhood was filled with adventures like this. My father seemed uniquely capable of living life with such panache.
Only when I was 14 did he finally tell me the truth. We were sitting in a car in a parking lot on Detroit's outskirts. Above us was his office, three small rooms with a sign that said "Apex Insurance." "Do you know what I do?" my father asked me. After a brief hesitation he told me the answer: He had been an undercover CIA officer since the late 1960s, and all his embassy jobs had been designed as cover assignments for his real task, spying. He instructed me that from then on I was to be the keeper of his secrets. There was a greater good, he explained. I was old enough to understand it and old enough to be a part of it. His secret became mine.
When I became a foreign correspondent many years later, I had a vague notion that journalism was about as far as one could get from spying. One was about disseminating information as widely as possible; the other was about keeping it a closely guarded secret. As I traveled, however, I found far more similarities in our professions than I had been comfortable admitting. When, as a CIA contractor, my father traveled to Afghanistan after I had worked there in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, he often talked to the same people, asked the same questions, and traveled the same roads I had as a reporter. In Khost he lived in a Special Forces camp just down the road from where I had stayed and spent his days talking to provincial governors and grizzled Pashtun elders about their problems, just as I had.
A few years later we both found ourselves in Jordan. He was stationed there, and I was on my way into Iraq. Once again we were both confronted with the parallel tracks our lives and careers were taking. In Baghdad I struggled to stay on top of the daily drumbeat of attacks in an attempt to document Iraq's growing civil war, while my father, in Amman, focused more closely on identifying who was behind the spiraling violence. Although our tasks were different, the larger story of the war's effect on the Middle East had caught both of us in its grasp. It was unnerving to be so close to him physically, in a dangerous part of the world, yet in the dark about what exactly he was doing. Journalism was about telling stories, but it seemed the one story I could not tell was the story of my father.
IT WAS IN Mexico City, of all places, that I finally became determined to get that story -- the real story, that is. I had been assigned there as Newsweek's Latin America bureau chief -- 34 years after my father had moved there, as an adventurous student and then teacher, and found himself on the way to becoming a Cold War spy. It's often forgotten today, but Mexico in the 1960s and 1970s had become an important proxy battlefield between the United States and the Soviet Union, teeming with spies for both sides as they sought advantage in the tumultuous political protests racking Mexico City in 1968. There were excesses on both sides, and the year I arrived in Mexico, President Vicente Fox had begun pressing his government to open up its files about "the dirty war" -- the period in the '60s and '70s when the Mexican government had waged a brutal campaign to suppress and ultimately destroy nascent leftist rebel groups and communist guerrilla movements. For the first time, government officials were beginning to talk openly about the country's darkest secrets. Mexico had established a freedom of information law by then, and reporters, myself included, were poring through old documents, trying to piece together what had happened more than 30 years before.