Hackers, fake news and worldwide panic: The plot of ‘The Paladin’ feels eerily real

Chris Bohjalian

THE WASHINGTON POST – In Daniel Defoe’s 1665 account of the plague years, he observed, “the strange temper of the people of London at that time contributed extremely to their own destruction”.

In our pandemic spring of 2020, we have witnessed something similar. It’s called the Internet, and the way so many people cling to fake news – treatments, vaccines, mortality rates – like flotsam from a shipwreck.

David Ignatius’s new thriller, The Paladin, explores, in part, the Armageddon that is possible via precisely that sort of online sound and fury. Imagine a group of brilliant hackers and software designers creating fake news and bogus videos so real that, once spread online, they crash markets and bring down governments.

Okay, it’s not hard to imagine. For all we know, it’s happening right now. That’s the thing about an Ignatius novel: It’s not merely its ripped-from-the-headlines timeliness. Ignatius, an award-winning columnist for The Washington Post, brings his immense skills as a journalist to his fiction, researching the idea and enriching his plot with both the latest spycraft and the arcane workings of, very often, the CIA. (Among my favourite new expressions I learned in his latest novel is the old-school classic, “lemon squeezer:” An agent who specialised in deciphering secret messages written in lemon juice.)

The Paladin is the story of 40-year-old Michael Dunne, a ruined CIA agent who, when the novel opens, has just emerged from a year in prison. His crime? Violating “the constitutional rights of others by running an intelligence operation against American journalists.” In reality, he has been thrown under the bus by his superiors at the agency: He was, quite literally, following their orders to infiltrate and spy on a self-proclaimed free-speech group that is calling itself Fallen Empire and working out of Urbino, Italy. The American journalist in his sights is a young anarchist and “a big Snowden fan” named Jason Howe, who is so appalled at the corruption of Western democracies that he wants to topple the whole system (hence the name, Fallen Empire).

A part of Dunne’s team explains the group’s modus operandi, and it is as chilling as it is familiar: “They’re all about getting people … angry at each other. They start with real stuff and then crank in fake stuff. It’s all stirring the pot.”

The operation falls apart when Dunne, happily married with one daughter and another child on the way, is caught in a classic honey trap – lured by a beautiful woman to a club and then photographed with her in a spectacularly compromising fashion.

It seems Fallen Empire has figured out that Dunne is a CIA agent, not a fellow hacker, and blown his cover. The images are sent to his wife, who is justifiably devastated.

The CIA brings him home and then drops him like he’s radioactive, suggesting he had gone rogue and was not, in fact, running an assignment at the request of his boss.

Now, out of prison and estranged from his wife and daughter, Dunne wants revenge.

He knows he’d shown spectacularly bad judgement and a flawed moral compass when he allowed his libido to trump common sense, but Jason Howe and his team have ruined his life.

He’s divorced, a felon and been cut loose by the CIA. Soon after he opens a small cyber security consulting firm in Pittsburgh, one of his few remaining friends hands him a packet he was asked to pass along when Dunne emerged from what his pal mischievously calls “Club Fed”.

The envelope is from a group calling itself The Paladin, named for the “warriors who banded together in the time of Charlemagne. … They were the people’s bandits, fighting for justice.”

The group claims they’re sorry for what happened to him, and the letter includes some information that may help him find Howe, who disappeared while Dunne was in jail.

And Dunne is off and running. But what begins as an attempt to find and confront Howe morphs into something bigger and much more disturbing: a plot to use fake news to create global economic chaos on a magnitude that may feel eerily familiar right now.

The Paladin moves back and forth between 2016, when Dunne is spying on Fallen Empire, and 2018, when he is seeking vengeance.

The narrative travels among West Virginia fishing holes, the biggest corporations in Taiwan, rundown motels near Niagara Falls and posh yachts off the coast of Sardinia. Like Michael Dunne, we are never sure who his friends are and who are his foes.

Ignatius’s unsettling novel reminds us that we have created a world where facts have “alternatives” and the “news” on the social networks can’t be trusted. It’s a page turner, but it’s also a chilling story of the way the Internet has been weaponised.