Stories’ Backstories

An English professor once told me never to ask writers where they get their ideas. I heard one author said that he considers the question an occupational hazard that’s analogous to requests for free medical advice doctors get. Still I’ve always liked to hear the story behind the story. So please post yours. For now, here’s mine. My new book, 7 Grams of Lead, is about a reporter who learns that a subminiature electronic eavesdropping device—i.e., a bug—has been implanted in his head. It’s based on my own true reporting experience.1795569_10152087694236773_316874884_n

On December 13, 2008, at CIA headquarters, I interviewed then 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 gig, director of the NSA, he ran the controversial warrantless surveillance program.

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.

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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 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.


3 thoughts on “Stories’ Backstories

  • Norb Vonnegut

    Keith, I can hardly wait for my copy of 7 Grams of Lead to show up. The Gardner Museum heist is what inspired the book I’m writing now, Goddesses and Doormats. I’ve been mesmerized by art theft, in general, for years.

  • Thomas B. Sawyer

    Keith:
    Cool post! I steal most of my stories, though occasionally I’m inspired by stuff that’s happened to me. Yours reminded me of another dimension: from that kickoff idea, each of us then brings his own attitudes and baggage to the party. Had I been in your shoes, my take would have been somewhat different, since I regard the CIA as one of the World’s biggest jokes. Ergo, I’d have figured the chip had to have been planted by someone else. But — why…?

  • Thomas Kaufman

    Keith, I’ve been authorized to tell you that, quite by accident, a micro-bug was in fact inserted into your wrist. I’ve also been tasked to request you have more interesting (read that actionable) conversations with your reporter friends. Please.

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