In the footsteps of spies

I knew I had made a mistake when we rounded the corner and saw a group of armed men running towards us, pointing semi-automatic weapons at our car. “Leave this to me,” I said to my wife, who was driving.

Our three young children had fallen silent in the back. I had announced earlier that we would be taking a short detour to look at the headquarters of the CIA in Langley, Virginia, but I hadn’t expected a welcoming party.

As we stopped in front of a concrete roadblock, I wound down the car window and found myself instinctively raising my hands above my head. It was decision time: Jason Bourne or Johnny English. I opted for the latter and summoned an exaggerated British accent, waving a road map feebly in the air. “Terribly sorry, we’re lost.”

“Get the hell out of here!” one of them shouted, lifting his gun.

“OK, OK,” I said, as my wife spun the car around, which seemed to make the men even more jumpy. “Sorry, everyone,” I whispered, turning to reassure the children.

But one of them, the youngest, was missing. “Where’s Jago?” The other two pointed downwards. Jago, eight, had taken his own evasive measures and was now crouching in the pit of the car, behind my seat.

It was a dramatic end to our holiday, and I still wince at what might have happened. We had taken the detour on our way out to Dulles airport after a two-week stay in Washington DC. The sign on the highway had sounded welcoming: “Next right for the George Bush Center for Intelligence”. But that’s the United States for you. Best not to pry beneath the veneer of openness.

Balancing the demands of a family holiday with researching the world of espionage is not usually so risky. “Espionage tourism” has become the norm in our household ever since I began to write spy thrillers. And the family love it. As they keep reminding me, the more exotic the location the better when it comes to spy thrillers, as the makers of the James Bond and Jason Bourne films know only too well.

Washington is not exactly exotic, but it is the undisputed spy capital of the world. It is also a good place for a family holiday. While I was busy in famous Cold War locations in Georgetown, including the Brickskeller (now called the Bier Baron), the pub where the CIA’s most famous traitor, Aldrich Ames, met Soviet agents, the children took in the Smithsonian museums.

They particularly enjoyed the National Air and Space Museum, where I joined them to look at an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, currently a CIA favourite on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. We also pulled a few barrel rolls in an F-4 Phantom II jet fighter simulator, as I have some high-speed flying sequences in my new book. That was my excuse, anyway.

But it was at the International Spy Museum that our interests as a family really came together. The children adopted “legends”, answering questions about their cover stories as they made their way around the museum, crawled through air-conditioning shafts to eavesdrop on other visitors and got to grips with basic tradecraft, including brush-passes – the clandestine exchange of a package – and dead-letter drops.

Meanwhile, I focused on Ames, whose treason is covered extensively in the museum. The United States can be surprisingly open about some of its most shaming espionage incidents. Ames, who was a counter-intelligence officer with the CIA, betrayed 25 spies working in Russia, 10 of whom were later executed. The museum is more coy about 9/11 in its Ground Truth Theatre, but I learnt a lot in the last room, which is dedicated to cyber-espionage and “weapons of mass disruption”.

My only failure in Washington was the CIA itself and its headquarters in Langley. The CIA guards no doubt assumed we were terrorists, but their overreaction could also be explained by the increased activity of Russia’s intelligence services. Since he became president, Vladimir Putin has invested heavily in the SVR (the KGB’s foreign directorate), which makes the Russians big players again in the world of spy fiction. But where best to see them in action, either as “illegals” or accredited to embassies?

A recent trip to north-east India proved the most fruitful. Kalimpong is a Himalayan hill station in West Bengal, sitting on the old trading route from India to Tibet, in the shadow of Darjeeling. It has fantastic espionage form. According to a reliable source, it has always been popular with Russian intelligence officers seeking a break from the Calcutta heat.

Our first stop was the Himalayan Hotel the bar is apparently where SVR agents relax over vodkas and lime. We didn’t see any Russians, but the hotel would make an atmospheric setting for a fictitious debrief, with its heavily varnished wooden panels and old gramophone player on the bar.

We stayed for a few more days, enjoying views of Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world, and the River Teesta in the valley below. The children loved haggling in the main market, where everything from pigs to fake Chinese iPhones could be bought.

Kalimpong was a great success and not somewhere we might have visited if it hadn’t been for our other agenda. Sometimes, though, it works the other way around. We go on holiday and I realise that it would make a perfect spy location.

That happened most recently in Morocco. I came across Marrakesh’s famous storytellers – halakas – in Djemaa el Fna square and discovered that they were once used to convey coded messages about imminent police raids. A “serpent” sliding through the narrative was a warning that General Oufkir, feared interior minister in the late Sixties, was about to strike. In my latest book, the halakas convey a message to a terrorist on the run – an ancient form of communication that can’t be intercepted by GCHQ’s technology.

I still want to visit the CIA headquarters. Until 9/11, there were official tours – the ultimate in espionage tourism. Now there’s just a virtual one on the agency’s website. I fear that in these nervous times I’ve got as close as I’m going to get.