The Wolf and the Watchman: Scott Johnson’s CIA Childhood | 2SER 107.3
There was nothing ordinary about Scott Johnson’s childhood – from the years in Serbia, to the near-abduction in India, the teen years in Pakistan and even a strange stint on a military-style heavily-guarded neat property in forested America where men parachuted down from the sky and conducted covert drills.
Because it wasn’t an ordinary childhood. When he was 14, Scott’s father let him in on a secret: that he worked for the CIA. The two of them were already very close but sharing this secret for many years brought them closer in all kinds of complicated ways.
Scott ended up working as a war correspondent in the Middle East but in his mid-twenties began to grapple with questions of identity. Who was he? Who was his father? Could he really believe anything?
He’s written a memoir called The Wolf and the Watchman, and I called him at his home in California to find out how keeping secrets changed his life.
SCOTT JOHNSON: I was 14 when I found out. I was just entering high school, I was trying to make friends, I was living in a new place. And it was really quite thrilling to feel that I was the keeper of a pretty important secret. In a way it sort of gave me an inner strength because I felt like whatever else was happening in my world, at school or on the swim team or with my family, I had this great secret I could cherish and coddle and cultivate. And it made me feel pretty special.
Why did he let you in on that secret? That’s a pretty big gamble to take on a teenager.
This is something that people in my father’s line of work have to grapple with all the time, which is, when do you let your family in on your secret? There’s a term used in the agency called necessary deception. And what that means is it’s acceptable to deceive people close to you to protect them and to protect yourself and to protect, of course, the secret. And so they were given sanction to lie to the people closest to them to protect everybody.
But there always comes a time when people’s suspicions become too great, or when they simply need to know because not knowing would be more suspicious than lying about it. So in my case it just got to that point, where me not having the answers to the questions I was asking would have started to seem more strange than having an actual cover story.
You also write in the book that he might have suspected his hold on you at that age was tenuous and sharing a secret with you at that age might have been a way of preventing any future rebellions and keeping the two of you so close.
Yeah, and that was something I only realised in later years. I think to a certain extent my father inducted me into his secret in a way of creating a sense of complicity between us or a bond that he and I could share that nobody else could. And he told me in later years that he wanted to share so much of his life with me. He was a very affectionate, loving father – he still is – and that was very important to him. He was reluctant to keep large parts of his life entirely sealed off from me. So there was also a fatherly desire to connect with his son.
Do you ever wish he’d never told you he was a spy?
No, I don’t. I’m glad that he told me. There are people whose parents never tell them, or they only tell them when they’re on their deathbed or it’s very late, and I feel for those people. I think I have a very good relationship with my father, and I think that keeping secrets like the ones he and I kept was difficult and challenging, but ultimately him telling me enabled him to have this relationship with me. Whereas people who keep these secrets shut the rest of the world – including their own family – out. They’re very lonely and their families are lonely. I wouldn’t have wanted that.
What exactly was it you were brought into once you knew this? How did it change your life, knowing this huge thing about your dad?
As a kid it gave me this feeling of impunity, or a special feeling that I belonged to a select club. I know maybe that sounds not that appealing or not that flattering, but it’s the truth. I did feel that way, I felt special. And that was important, given a lot of the instability of the rest of my life. It certainly made me feel proud to know that there was something about my life that I could keep for myself, something that was different, something that was kind of special.
I mean, it’s not easy to admit that. But that was something that persisted well into adulthood, this sense that, okay, well, I’m a little bit different, or, my family’s a little bit different. But at the same time, I also really valued a lot of the things that lifestyle afforded. It was wonderful to live in all these different countries, to see things through the eyes of my father, the way he saw them, experiencing things with this eye for adventure, and so on.
So these are the positive things, but the negative things were, as time went on, this nagging sense that I wasn’t getting the full picture of who he was or even who I was and what our relationship was about. And that became much more pronounced in later years, and I think it was partially related to the way I had grown up and the way I had understood what our place was in the world.
I got the impression from the book that you began to feel that if there was this one secret, what other secrets were there? It gave the impression that your life or the things you were doing were somehow a sham because of the secret you were keeping. It seemed like it blurred the edges of reality for you a little.
It did. And especially as I got a bit older and started to really question things more intensely and I became more dubious of certain claims. Even in high school and college and later in my journalism career, I was constantly hearing about the horrors that the CIA had done to these countries – revolutions and assassinations and so on – and I just kept thinking, wow this wealth of public knowledge about what this organisation has been doing for decades is so at odds with the picture of my father that I had in my head.
The gap between those two images really began to irk me. So I started this process of trying to reconcile, how does my life, my father and my relationship with him, how does that square or not square with this huge elephant in the room, which is this agency which has been such a huge part of my life and our lives for so long?
It served to raise a lot of questions about my father, and his work, and who he was, and who I was. How complicit was I in his life and his work? And I started thinking about how he had told me what he did when I was a kid, and what that meant, and what else had I been involved with and not even known about?
In what way did having this knowledge about your dad shoehorn you into your career as a journalist? Because there’s a part of the book where you’re speaking to your future editor and you tell him that your father was a spy, and he draws that parallel that they’re two sides of the same coin, journalism and espionage.
Yeah. They are very similar in lots of ways; I didn’t know that when I started as a journalist.
Rather early on in my career I actually met, and this is in the book, with a CIA officer in France, and she told me over dinner one night that the CIA had done a study in which they’d found that the professions of foreign correspondent, which I was in the process of becoming, and a case officer, which is what my father had done, were very, very similar. That those were the two professions that corresponded most closely to each other.
And I was pretty struck by that – that I’d found myself in this profession that, as it turned out, was a mirror image or a simulacrum of what my father had done. And it was both thrilling and kind of disturbing to think, well, here I am, thinking I’m this independent person but maybe I’m following a more in my father’s footsteps than I thought.
And then as I continued in journalism, I found that there really are remarkable similarities. Journalism is a lot about cultivating sources and developing contacts and getting information from people that they don’t necessarily feel comfortable telling you, and then somehow weaving that information into a narrative that you can pass on to a lot of other people.
There were a number of years when you were working as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East when you seemed really confused, searching and finding these truths kind of layering over each other and trying to understand what was really going on with your dad. Particularly as he came out of retirement after September 11 and returned to the CIA. There were passages where, like most war correspondents, you’re chasing that feeling of invincibility and coming close to death. Writing this memoir after all of that, has that given you any closure at all? Has that effect worn off for you? Have you found any peace?
Yeah, I have. On a number of different levels. From purely the journalistic level I think I am similar to a lot of my colleagues who as young people went into it with a blazing search for excitement and adventure and the adrenaline was a big push. In those early years I would have gone on any assignment, and I did, I took every assignment that was thrown my way, and I pushed the boundaries. In part there was a hazy desire to run away, thinking I might find some sort of clues or answer to some big question in the process of reporting.
And that desire has really waned. I do still enjoy foreign reporting, and I do it occasionally, but the intensity and the need to be at the centre of the action has dissipated with time.
On a parallel track with that, for many years as I was starting to think about my father more intensely, I had this desire to crack him open. I had become convinced that he was this pool of mystery and that I needed to have these answers about him, and that the only way to do that was to break him open from one end to the other.
With time I realised that one, that wasn’t possible, and two, it was also wrong. I mean, we shouldn’t do that to each other as human beings. That process gave me a lot of pace, actually. It helped me understand my father, as a human being, as a complex person, as somebody who had every right in the world to have secrets and have things that were just his and his alone. I think all kids want to understand their parents but I think because of what my father did there was a much more intense desire to know the truth about him, because I thought, well, I didn’t have it.
One of the things I found most moving and which took me by surprise was right towards the end of the book when you tell your dad that you’re proud of him, and he’s surprised by it. Like it’s something he wasn’t expecting you to ever say that to him. And that really touched me somehow. [Our parents] want us to be as proud of them as they are [of us].
Yeah. Absolutely. When we have parents or mentors or teachers and when we’re in the role of student or child or learner, we get seduced by this idea that those people are strong and unbreakable and unshakeable and not as human somehow as we are. But you’re absolutely right; they need us and we need them, and he was touched, and surprised by that. But I want him to know I’m proud of him, because I am. The more I worked on the bok the more I realised just how difficult being who he is, is, and doing what he did, was.
This interview was first broadcast by 2SER FM’s weekly book program, Final Draft.