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'Washington Post' columnist David Ignatius releases 12th novel: 'Phantom Orbit'


Our next guest is a distinctive figure in the nation's capital. David Ignatius is a columnist for the Washington Post. He's a regular figure on cable TV, giving analysis on the latest news, and he's a novelist whose stories play on some of the same themes as his journalism. They tend to involve CIA agents operating in places like Pakistan or Iran. His latest novel ventures into space. It's called "Phantom Orbit," and it centers on an effort to warn the CIA of a plan to disrupt global communications.

DAVID IGNATIUS: I cover the world of foreign policy. I have contacts all over the world. I've been writing about the Middle East and everything else in foreign policy for more than 40 years, so I know a lot of people. I often write things based on conversations that I've had that I can't quote directly. I hope people who read my column figure, well, if he's writing that, there's probably a reason...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

IGNATIUS: ... And if he says this is true, it probably is true. I try not to let people down on that.

INSKEEP: And do some of those conversations lead directly to the books you write, then?

IGNATIUS: Not directly, but this new book, as an example, I was fascinated by space weapons. It became obvious to me a few years ago, thinking about it, that the future of warfare is in space; the next war will begin in space. When the Ukraine War began, I was working on the beginnings of this book. It's obvious that the Ukraine War is the first space war. Ukraine could not be fighting in this war without access to satellite information about intelligence, where the Russians are moving, about the ability to target Russian forces as they're moving without satellite ability to communicate with their own troops. I don't think people understand a lot of this capability is commercial. It's companies like Starlink, Elon Musk's space company, that are providing the information that's keeping Ukraine alive on the battlefield.

INSKEEP: And has there been, as one facet of that war, efforts to interfere with each side's satellite capabilities?

IGNATIUS: The Russians tried really hard in the first days of the war. It's something I talk about in the book. Parts of this book are very much in the now. People don't realize it, but the Ukraine War in many ways is just a thicket of electromagnetic signals. The front line is drones moving back and forth, but then this barrage of electronics trying to keep the drones from communicating, from seeing, from being able to target. So it is a kind of new moment in warfare. The Russians, I'm sorry to say, are proving to be pretty fast learners. I'm told that they're operating much better now than they did a year ago in these areas of satellite weapons, satellite intelligence.

INSKEEP: So I'm giving away nothing, I think, to note that you begin this novel, as you have begun some other novels, with a person who effectively cold calls the CIA, says, I have some information.

IGNATIUS: So the book opens with a Russian scientist named Ivan Volkov who believes that he has discovered a Russian-Chinese kill switch that could effectively cripple the GPS system on which our cellphones, our airplanes' abilities to fly through the sky, just about everything that we do, depends. And he decides that he needs to share this information with the CIA, and it turns out nobody wants to hear what he has to say. Why? So that's how the book opens. We then pull back to the beginnings of his story with space and space systems when he was a young man, a graduate student in Beijing, where you just were, at Tsinghua University.

INSKEEP: He's a Russian guy who went to China to study.

IGNATIUS: He's a Russian who's been absolutely battered by post-Soviet life that he's from, the kind of Pittsburgh of Russia town that's beat up in the middle of the Urals. He's got no money, he can't pay his tuition at Moscow State University, so he gets a scholarship. That's why he goes to China, because he can get a scholarship to Tsinghua, which is a great technical university. When he's there, he meets a young American woman, graduate student, named Edith Ryan - that's the other principal character of this book - who turns out to be in contact with, working for the CIA. And that's part of the puzzle that takes us to the very ending, with those two characters confronting this plot to destroy our ability to use satellites for communication.

INSKEEP: I read an advanced copy of this book, "Phantom Orbit," and then was reading The New York Times, and suddenly, there was a headline about how vulnerable the American GPS system may be. This is real world.

IGNATIUS: It is real world. The GPS system is so important to American commerce, our ability to do every aspect of travel or communications. Also, recently, in February, Congressman Mike Turner, the head of the House Intelligence Committee, demanded that the White House brief Congress on what he thought was a severe national security threat. Turned out it involved Russia and space weapons. So we now know that the Intelligence Committee has gathered evidence that Russia has considered detonating a nuclear weapon in space so as to cripple all of these satellites, the satellites that are helping Ukraine fight the war, the satellites that allow us to do our business, satellites that allow just about everything in modern life.

Why would they do that? Why would they destroy everybody's satellites, Russian and Chinese, too? And the answer is, according to this intelligence report, that the Russians think we're so much more dependent on satellites than anybody else, there's an asymmetric advantage for them in taking these out. Will this happen? I still think it's far-fetched. I think the Russians are much more likely to think of cleverer ways to disable aspects of satellite communications without blowing the whole thing up and leaving a field of debris that would turn low Earth orbit space into a junk heap for the rest of our lives.

INSKEEP: Is it safe to assume that the United States has come up with its own methods to attack other people's satellites if it comes to that?

IGNATIUS: It is certainly safe to assume that we're looking at ways to - first identify satellites that are threatening. In my novel, I describe things the Chinese have done that appear to be designed to identify, say, a communications satellite or an intelligence satellite and then remove it from orbit. There are other ways, using high-powered microwaves and other laser signals, to inject malware, to inject code into satellites without actually touching them. That's another technology that the U.S. is...

INSKEEP: Long-distance hacking?

IGNATIUS: So you can hack from space. This stuff is very hard to write about as a journalist, certainly as a novelist, because it's so classified, so hard to know exactly what's going on. All I know, Steve, is that this is an area that the U.S., Russia and China are focused on with extraordinary intensity. They know this is the future of warfare.

INSKEEP: The latest novel by David Ignatius is "Phantom Orbit." David, it's always a pleasure to see you. Thank you so much.

IGNATIUS: Thank you, Steve.

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