The account of an eccentric would-be traitor who executed a large-scale heist of American military secrets.
In his debut book, Science staff writer Bhattacharjee focuses on cryptographic science and the doggedness of investigators involved in the improbable story of Brian Regan, an embittered Air Force security specialist who decided to pad his retirement by offering classified intelligence to Libya. Although an informant contacted the FBI, Regan had constructed a complex scheme using encrypted ciphers to hide his identity. As the author notes, “Lifting that veil of anonymity was going to be a daunting task.” Bhattacharjee reconstructs Regan’s suburban childhood to discern the roots for his moral lapse; he notes Regan, suffering from dyslexia, was mocked by peers for appearing simultaneously dense and clever, a lifelong pattern persisting through his one-man conspiracy. The author offers a compellingly seedy portrait of Regan, motivated to contemplate treason due to debt, career stagnation, and marital malaise. “As long as he could get away with it, espionage was a legitimate answer to his troubles,” the author concludes. Relying on extensive research and interviews, Bhattacharjee re-creates Regan’s brazen acquisition of bulk intelligence and cinematically documents his pursuit by Steven Carr, a driven FBI agent, with exciting tradecraft set pieces of surveillance and covert entries. But the narrative’s pace slackens halfway through, when Carr apprehends Regan in 2001 prior to an overseas trip to solicit Iraqi or Chinese spy agencies. The author focuses on the details of the government’s aggressive prosecution as well as Regan’s use of cryptography in his audacious fail-safe: he’d buried classified documents in various state parks. However, this negotiating tactic only hardened the government’s resolve, in keeping with the post–9/11 national mood; ultimately, Regan was convicted of attempted espionage and received a life sentence. In exchange for consideration for his family, Regan helped retrieve his caches, resulting in dark comedy when he was initially unable to decipher his own cryptographic clues.
A well-written, mostly engrossing tale of thwarted amateur treason underscoring the disturbing vulnerability of today’s intelligence systems.