Author Name: Neal O’Farrell
Cuckoo is the true story of a young Irish entrepreneur whose only dream was to become the world’s most famous Irish dressmaker. All he would have to do was bring the world’s most secretive global electronic spying network to a grinding halt. They were the first shots in what became known as the Crypto Wars, and the NSA would go to any lengths to stop this dressmaker turned codemaker.
As a teenager growing up in Ireland in the 1970s, Neal O’Farrell had a near-perfect life already mapped out for him. He would be the third generation to take over a famous family fashion business whose clients included a who’s who of the world’s rich and famous – from Coco Chanel and Yves St. Laurent, to the Duchess of Westminster and the Queen of Siam.
But the Crock of Gold, or simply known as the Crock, was more than just a business. It was a self-contained nation state. Ruled by his surly British Grand Aunt, the Crock was a small 300-year-old family estate that included a house dripping with art and antiques, a sprawling factory that employed generations of locals, a farm and gardens that kept the entire estate fed, and a small but devoted team of servants and staff.
If Neal’s cunning charm worked, it would eventually all be his. He would rule his own kingdom, and the perfect isolation he needed to survive the greyness and misery of the world beyond its walls. And survive his own demons.
But when things didn’t work out as Neal had planned, he found himself drawn deeply into the shadowy world of spies and surveillance, of phone tapping scandals and government eavesdropping, and all culminating in a once-in-a-lifetime offer after a chance meeting at a London hotel with Ireland’s military intelligence.
Convinced that Neal was really an expert in the growing and secretive field of speech encryption and secure telephones, his new intelligence contacts suggested that if Neal could build a secure phone capable of defeating the NSA’s global eavesdropping apparatus, governments across the world would beat a path to his door and he would be rich beyond his wildest dreams. And Neal’s new friends could help him do just that.
What Neal didn’t know was that apart from the enormous complexity of the challenge and the nearly impossible chance that he could pull it off, he would be going up against Echelon, the biggest and most secretive global electronic spying network ever launched by the NSA and its allies and responsible for most of the world’s phone tapping and electronic surveillance. Referred to in official documents only as Five Eyes, the network had cost billions of dollars to build and was so secretive, for years the NSA had denied it even existed.
If Neal was successful in building this highly secure phone, it would likely render this massive global surveillance network almost useless. American electronic surveillance would be silenced.
What the army didn’t know was that Neal was an imposter who knew nothing about advanced encryption and was desperately trying to just build a reputation in the fledgling world of computer security. What the army also didn’t know was that Neal struggled with a trifecta of mental illnesses that clouded his judgement and impaired his impulse control.
Which is why he immediately said yes to their offer.
With the help of a team of real experts from three different Irish universities, within less than 18 months and half a million dollars from the Irish government and local investors, Neal had pulled off the impossible. He and his team, codenamed Intrepid, publicly announced the launch of Milcode, the world’s most secure secure telephone, promising that anyone using the phone for phone calls, faxes, and even data communications would be completely immune to eavesdropping from all the world’s spy agencies. Including the NSA and Echelon.
Word quickly got out. Some of the world’s leading encryption experts came to Ireland to see the phone. Foreign diplomats were begging for prototypes they could test to see if Neal’s audacious claims were true. British defense companies verified Neal’s claims and offered deals worth millions of dollars. And that would be just the start. Pretty soon almost everything in the world would use or depend on encryption, and Neal would be the first and best man for the job.
Neal’s miracle dream had actually come true. He’d done it, in spite of all the odds and sceptics, he’d beaten them. Armed with all this new wealth, he could finally pursue his real dream. To bring his beloved Crock back from the ashes, reclaim his tiny kingdom, and live a life fit for any royalty.
Except there was still the NSA to deal with. When the NSA discovered just how powerful Neal’s new phone was, they launched a coordinated campaign designed to take down Neal, his startup, and his new phone by any means possible.
Two things I’d come to loathe by the time I was thirty years old were cold basements and car bombs. In that sense, I suppose I was no different to anyone else. But perhaps only in that. Although this particular basement was more of a bunker, it was still as cold and damp and dank and stank as all the other basements I’d been hiding in for the last few years.
And even though the granite walls were at least two feet deep in places, two centuries of relentless Irish rain had managed to breach the battlements and turn the ornate plaster into a bulging crumbling moonscape.
But if dampness were the only thing to make it through the walls, we would be glad of it. I assumed that the only reason people dug big damp holes under big old buildings was to hide things they didn’t want around, or to bury things they didn’t want found. Which made them a very fitting place for Intrepid.
The entrance to our secret chamber was as nondescript as the crypt itself. Just a low narrow door under a stairs and appearing to the unfamiliar to be nothing more than a door to a broom closet. It reminded me so much of my beloved Crock, with its network of hidden doors and labyrinthine passageways woven into the walls of the sprawling house centuries earlier. Woven by someone who sincerely believed that the inhabitants would at some point need to make a quick and discreet escape.
But this door was very fitting if only because it was as secretive and underwhelming as Intrepid itself. It was underneath the main stairs and just inside the front door of a peeling Georgian row house and not high enough for anyone taller than 70 inches to pass through gracefully. But if hiding was the goal then the door was the key.
It was certainly in a good location, on a thoughtfully manicured and very respectable tree-lined square right in the heart of Dublin. It was almost exactly half way and walking distance between the government offices we needed to be near and the pedestrian plank across the Grand Canal to my apartment. We were confident that hiding in plain sight amongst the students and architects and advertising agencies that were the main occupants of the rest of the square would be the best way to conduct our research and finish building our secret-keeping machine.
But the real reason we fell in love with this ancient English stone hole above all the other stone holes on the square was because at some point in its life someone had the good sense to build a massive vault inside this crypt. A vault with walls over a foot thick and accessed only through a monstrous steel door just as dense and made in Coventry by the Chubb Company. We would need such a vault to protect our codes if the steel plated door or the crumbling moonscape walls ever failed.
On the busy square above passers-by passed us by oblivious to our steel-encased crypt beneath the street and their feet, where more than a dozen of us toiled like salt miners soldering circuits and conjuring code that would make us the gatekeepers, the secret keepers, of a new world.
Walking sideways down the seven steps was the best way to avoid hitting your head or bumping your shoulders and at the bottom the steps opened into a slightly wider and higher space with just enough room for a worn wicker table, a pair of matching chairs, and a fake ficus bought at the same bankruptcy auction as ever scrap of furniture in the place.
The door’s riveted steel armor proudly boasted the scars of sledgehammer assaults, defiantly earned from the many times intruders had tried but failed to breach it. It could have been the Americans but it could have easily been the Russians or perhaps even the Libyans. But it didn’t really matter now. The poison had been administered and it would only be a matter of time.
I glanced up at video surveillance camera Number 6 mounted a few inches above the door and it just stared back at me, so I initiated the pre-approved and religiously-rehearsed security access protocol. I stuck out my tongue.
The electric lock buzzed angrily but not long enough for me to push the door open with my shoulder. I stepped back and glared up at the camera again and again the lock buzzed, but again fell short. Then once more, but the game was old by now and the lock finally buzzed long enough to grant me safe passage into my crypt.
“Ah sure there he is now,” sneered Sinead, “the Man from Intrepid.” My seventeen-year-old receptionist had greeted me every morning for the last year with the same unfiltered withering sneer. It was getting old and even irritating but it didn’t really matter much any more because soon the sneer would be entirely on her.
“What the fuck is wrong with your pants?” she asked, glancing wide-eyed at my knees. Sinead was well aware of my passion for well-tailored Armani and Hugo Boss business suits (I had exactly one of each) as well as my military zeal for a razor sharp crease, so I thought it best that I should actually look down and find out what she was talking about.
So I did look down and she was right. There was something fucking wrong with my pants. A large round wet patch on each knee was what was obviously wrong and I hadn’t noticed all the way from home.
“Oh that?” I said. “Car bomb. That’s all” And I left her with that because that’s all she needed, and because she knew what that was all about anyway.
What she didn’t know, and what I fought back telling her right there and then was that barring a miracle, this week’s paycheck would be her last and she would have to see if she could get back her old job as a waitress at Dinty Moore’s on O’Connell Street. But I had made many miracles before for her and all the rest and I was confident I could make more, at least one more, one that would count more than all of the rest. Because after all, as Sinead had so recently pointed out, I was the Man from Intrepid.
Our crypt was very deliberately modified to present a very clear message, both to those we invited inside and those we chose to exclude. Like most basements anywhere in Dublin, all the windows on ours had bars on the outside to keep those on the inside safe.
But we felt an entirely different kind of fear and so doubled down by putting newer and even stronger bars on the insides of the windows too. And bars on all the doors too, for good measure, so that no matter how or from where you viewed our crypt, what you saw was a cell.
You’re probably curious about that car bomb. Of course it wasn’t really a car bomb. Otherwise there would be no wet patches and no Armani suit, and no more morning conversations with Sinead. It was just the threat of one, always just the threat, but always never quite enough of a threat for me to take it seriously enough. Which made me worry sometimes that the threat maker would take that response very personally and in the end, end the threats with something that would end this stand-off completely and absolutely permanently.
The calls had started about a month earlier and I have to admit I wasn’t in the least bit polite to the caller the first couple of times. I assumed it was Mark or Chris or maybe even someone from Intrepid – although not Shea because he couldn’t pull off the accent or the joy. But by the third call, and based on some background checking with the suspected pranksters, I concluded the call was real, the caller in earnest, and I finally had rankled someone somewhere.
All the more earnest when my neighbor – a camp art critic who had invited me to view his collections on a number of occasions and was visibly upset when I finally relented and agreed to meet him only to show up with three women – called to let me know that he had just spent the last few minutes watching three suited men park their car next to my Volvo.
And while two stood watch the third disappeared on hands and knees next to the driver’s door. When the watchers realized that the tables had turned and they were now the watched, they alerted the crawler and the three got back in their car and sped off as quickly as they had arrived.
So now, every morning, like a religious ritual I would fall to my hands and knees and closely inspect every inch of the underside of my beloved Volvo. I had no idea what a car bomb looked like but I hoped that I would still recognize one if it was there. That would be a very crucial part of the whole exercise.
And that’s why wet knees in the morning had become something of a routine. The same kind of routine as never switching on a light in my apartment unless all the curtains were closed first. Never taking the same route to work two days in a row, even though there were only three real options if you counted walking. Never going to bed without a loaded shotgun within easy reach. And always, even to this day, flinching just a little every time I turned the ignition on a car.
I couldn’t understand why I was still getting the calls. Surely they already knew they’d beaten us. Although if the caller worked for the government it was very possible that some kind of bureaucratic ball-drop had delayed the delivery of the message and my bomb caller was still committed to completing his assignment. And in some ways I wished that he did. I’d missed the last four payments on the car and the bank was loudly demanding that I either bring my payments back into good order or return it. Perhaps the final execution by the caller of his contract would solve that problem.
Or maybe they’d eavesdropped on the conversations I’d had with Shea, and his crazy idea that instead of just folding up our tents and quietly slipping away, we would instead move the entire operation to the east, where we couldn’t be reached or touched, and where we could complete our mission.
Shea had become consumed with figuring out who had undone us, betrayed us, as though knowing that would have made a whit of a difference anyway. But I encouraged his obsession because it simply meant he would stop blaming me. The most obvious culprits was the gang of acronyms. CIA or NSA, or both, that was a given, said Shea. But they would probably have used someone else. The British, I suggested? Maybe MI5 or MI6, or even GCHQ? They had started out as our friends and we had many mutual interests but maybe even they couldn’t resist the pressure from the Americans.
What about the KGB, asked Shea? They might have just as much to worry about as the Americans if we’d actually made it. The KGB didn’t make any sense but I had to play along, I didn’t have much choice. I needed Shea to keep a firm grip on the shattered shards of his sanity for just a while longer, just in case we could salvage something from Intrepid and so that I could avoid the final humiliation of bankruptcy and exile. Or worse.
What about the IRA, I suggested but almost in a whisper. If they found out we were working with the British, they might not have reacted very well to that news. Perhaps AT&T, I asked, those bastards. Or even RCA. So many big enemies with little names. As ridiculous as that sounded, I knew Shea would pounce on it. I never thought of that, he said. After all, we had just humiliated all of them and threatened not only the millions of dollars they had invested in their own very inferior secret keeper that we had just rendered obsolete, but also the millions they hoped to make from selling their now vastly inferior black box.
When Shea wasn’t obsessing about culprits, he focused on locations. He liked the idea of Estonia or Latvia, near the freezing Baltic Sea, because it reminded him of the freezing Irish Sea he loved so much. I had been humoring him by suggesting Albania would be a much better idea – closer to the warmth and beauty of the Mediterranean, to Greece and Italy too. Shea liked the sound of Albania.
They suffered from the privilege of historical backwardness, he liked to say. Just like Ireland. Which created so many opportunities for the brighter ones, the ones like him. Heck, he said, we could live like kings in Albania. Kings indeed. I was supposed to be one of those anyway, and Intrepid was supposed to help me reclaim my throne. I so badly wanted them to know that I meant no harm, not in any of it, I was just trying to save my kingdom, my birthright. But it didn’t matter now, we had dared to challenge and humiliate them. And no matter where we ran to or how we tried to hide they would find us.
About the Author
Neal O’Farrell was born in Ireland in 1961 and soon realized that in order to live the best possible life, he might have to do absolutely nothing. He expected to be the third generation to take over a famous family weaving business that also came with a 300-year-old self-sustained estate, a functioning farm, a substantial art collection, and a handful of servants.
But when the fine craft of weaving delicate gossamer tweed was extinguished by Americans in polyester, Neal was left with no choice. At the age of seventeen, in the middle of the night, he ran away from home and spent the next six months wandering through Europe and ending up in Morocco in North Africa.
His destination was Casablanca – he was obsessed with Humphry Bogart movies – but he only made it as far as Rabat and had to sneak aboard the Marrakech Express and ride it back to Paris without a ticket.
His family has always had distant and tenuous connections to the movies. His grand uncle, author Michael Farrell, produced Maureen O’Hara’s first movie, Some Say Chance, in 1934. His cousin, Michelle Dockery, played Lady Mary Crowley in Downton Abbey. And a second cousin recently married Natasha Coppola Shalom, grandniece of Francis Ford Coppola and niece of Nicolas Cage.
Less than two years after he returned, Neal found himself accidentally witnessing the birth of a brand new industry that would later be called computer security. Over the next four decades, he rose to become one of the top cybersecurity experts, advising multiple governments and winning multiple awards.
In the early days of his career, with little money yet to be made in computer security, Neal supplemented his income as a bugger, wiretapping phones and helping others who were concerned about wiretaps. That drew him into the seedy world of electronic surveillance and counter-surveillance, culminating in a chance encounter with an Irish military intelligence officer at a hotel in London, and the birth of the Man from Intrepid.
In the tradition of the Irish Immigrant, Neal came to America by boat, helping deliver a brand new yacht in the middle of Winter, across the Atlantic from France, via West Africa, to the Virgin Islands.
For most of his life, Neal was also consumed by a trifecta of mental illnesses that weren’t diagnosed until he was in his late twenties. In his late fifties, after a close call with suicide, he decided to end his cybersecurity career for good and focus instead on a new passion, mental health. His own and others.
He now leads some of the country’s most ambitious mental health initiatives. He’s leading the creation of a mental health action cluster as part of the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) Global City Teams Challenge, to explore how IoT and smart cities can improve the mental health of their residents.
And he leads the nonprofit Mynde Project, to provide free mental health education websites to cities across America.
He’s married to Cathy, has a three-legged, one-eyed dog called Finegas, rescued in Los Angeles, and a four-legged, two-eyed dog called Pogue rescued in Oakland in Northern California.