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David Ignatius from The Washington Post talks his new spy novel, real threats to national security

David Ignatius, foreign affairs columnist and editor for The Washington Post, spoke with KJZZ host Tom Maxedon about his newest book, "Phantom Orbit," and real technology that could threaten national security in the West.

Full interview

TOM MAXEDON: Did you ever imagine doing anything other than writing? You've been doing it for so long.

DAVID IGNATIUS: So that's a great question. I, in truth, wanted to be an economist. And I went to graduate school to study economics. And I had one of those horrible moments where you realize, oh, I could keep doing this, but I won't be very good at it. So I turned course.

The thing I'd done since I was in high school was to write newspaper articles, I used to freelance for every publication around. I'd already written for the Washington Post actually when I was in graduate school. So I took a job.

The first job I had was, you know, I'd gone to a fancy college. I'd just been a graduate student in England. My first job was covering the United Steelworkers Union, the largest industrial union in the country in Pittsburgh. And it was just the best thing that ever happened to me because it taught me how to learn to talk to other people not like me and I just, I loved it. I was hooked, never looked back.

MAXEDON: Well, of course you write in two worlds, fiction and reality. I mean, you're working on a story about Gaza as we're talking right now. Which do you like more? And do you ever get confused between the two? I mean, sometimes it seems like we're living in a fictional world, often not of our own choosing. Like we couldn't write some of the things that happened.

IGNATIUS: Yeah, no kidding. I mean, if I tried to write a plot that had a character like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, go down the list, people wouldn't believe it.

The two worlds are mutually supporting. Everything that I write in my fiction begins with the reporting I've done in the real world. There are things that don't fit into an 800-word column that you want to unpack. You want to let them breathe and be as complicated as they are in real life. So I'm able to do that in my fiction. My wife tells me if I ever stop writing columns, I'd be impossible to live with because I do like that.

As I told you before we started on the air, I just got off the phone with a top official in the State Department talking about  what the heck's going to happen next in Gaza. And that's exciting, it's interesting. I feel like on that subject a few other people read what I have to say carefully, so I'd hate to give that up.

MAXEDON: You've got a new thriller out called "Phantom Orbit" and it centers on a character named Ivan Volkov. Tell me a little bit about who he is and what he's all about.

IGNATIUS: Ivan Volkov is a Russian, as you might imagine. We meet him in a prologue in real time. Right now, the Ukraine war is going on. He's sitting in Moscow and he is an astrophysicist. He spends life working on satellites and he comes to a judgment that Russia and China have developed what he thinks is the kill switch that could cripple the GPS system on which our cellphones, our air transport … just about everything has some link to GPS. And he thinks the capability to take it down exists.

Although he's not a spy, he just feels a responsibility to warn the United States. He contacts the CIA through their website. They've got an invitation to the whole world to send them information. He sends off his message and nobody answers. He didn't get anything back. And through the course of the book in different ways, people don't want to answer him.

So why is that? What's going on? That's part of the puzzle of this novel. But it's a look at a truth about our world.

Space has become a domain of warfare. I hate to say it, but we think of the heavenly skies. They're not so heavenly. There's stuff up there. And the Chinese have put satellites into space that are basically killer satellites. They can go after our satellites, take them out. Same thing with the Russians. And we're getting into that game, too. We didn't just create a U.S. Space Force for nothing. It's a military force.

MAXEDON: Well, that kill switch that you're talking about is reminiscent of something called an EMP or an electromagnetic pulse. The technology certainly exists. Is that akin to what you meant by that?

IGNATIUS: I don't want to go into the details of what this kill switch is, but certainly EMP is a real threat. The ability to fry circuits in space is a very real danger. The development of high-powered microwaves short of a great big EMP pulse, high powered microwaves can do significant damage. They can take drones, maybe aircraft out of the sky.

They can also, and I watched a test of this, they can inject code through a couple brick walls from a distance in space. Let's say as a satellite orbiting nearby without ever touching the other satellite could inject malware that would cripple the satellite, introduce things that would make it dysfunctional when you turn on a switch later. So there's stuff that has been developed that makes space much more uncertain terrain.

What's happening now, simple way to put it, Tom, is preparation of the battlefield for a future conflict in space. That's what's going on now.

MAXEDON: And do you think a lot of people who use the term “deep state” miss real, hard work that folks in our intelligence communities are doing? And they're just dismissive because they buy into conspiracy theories or I don't know, maybe they watch too many movies?

IGNATIUS: You know, in the movies, the CIA, the FBI are always bad guys. So, I think it's important for our country to have a good intelligence service and competent people.

And, you know, if I get upset about the CIA, it's because I don't think they're doing a good enough job, that they're sometimes too big and bureaucratic. I don't worry about them being some kind of maligned deep state that's running everything. I sometimes worry that they're not running the operations closest at hand.

You know, I think we need an FBI that's going to protect us. I just recently wrote a column about the danger that ISIS-K, Islamic State terrorists from Central Asia could slip across our unprotected southern borders. I'm totally with conservatives who think our border is a complete mess. They can slip across our border and cause damage like the ISIS-K operation in Moscow in March that killed 144 Russians.

And I know because I wrote a column about it that Chris Wray, our FBI director, is really worried that people aren't paying attention to this danger. So in the world that I live in, the “deep state” is the least of the dangers that our country faces.

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Tom Maxedon was the host of KJZZ’s Weekend Edition from 2017 to 2024.