The spy was recruiting for his secret task force. Scattered about the Beltway in grim brick and glass monoliths was a small army of gung-ho companies hoping to turn their patriotic ardor, technological inventiveness and commercial know-how into moneymaking national security contracts.
Starting in 2014 and continuing for over a year, the spy approached dozens of these companies with his recruitment pitch: the chance to join a covert government program, the knowledge of whose existence, he warned, could cost some lives, but it was also a group, he promised, that could save some lives, too. And in return for assisting the C.I.A. by providing him and his security operative — “The Twins,” people cleared for the op would call the pair — with salaries and commercial cover, the grateful agency would ensure that a trove of government contracts would come their way.
The spy called this top-secret enterprise Alpha214. It was approved, he claimed, by the president and by the director of national intelligence. Its clandestine activities were routinely discussed in surveillance-proof Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities, SCIFs for short, with an all-star cast of intelligence officials.
A two-star general who commanded the 25th Air Force in worldwide intelligence and reconnaissance was briefed on the enterprise. It distributed to task force participants letters that appeared to be from the attorney general promising immunity and, on two occasions, $12 million payments. Its commercial backbone ultimately grew to include about a dozen tech companies.
There was, however, one big problem with the program: It was a gigantic construct of inventive multimillion-dollar crookery.