I have a dilemma and I'm hoping readers can help me out.
See, I've been approached by the U.S. government for a special assignment. I've been asked to visit China on a fact-finding mission in an attempt to discover if the Chinese government is using the Internet to spy on Americans. These are sensitive issues since the U.S. is contemplating serious actions against the Chinese, in part based on concerns that they are using the Internet to spy on America.
The assignment will require my visiting China. It will require my talking to various folks in and out of governmental bureaucracies, people in relevant industries, asking lots of uncomfortable questions of people who probably would rather not give up information.
Indeed, my being there will make life difficult for the people I'm talking to. So much so that it's reasonable to assume that some of the folks I'll be talking to and asking about might wonder who I am to be there snooping around in the first place. It would be natural for them to want to hamper my efforts, to make my life uncomfortable for posing these difficult questions and seeking to get to the bottom of some sensitive matters. They may even want to find out information about me and my life, provided that would prove useful to them.
There's no guarantee that this would happen, of course. But it's certainly reasonable, given human nature, to think some folks in the Chinese government, intelligence, and technology sectors would be eager to find out more information about me in efforts to know what, exactly, they are dealing with. Heck, I'll be practically asking for it by going there.
Anyway, I am certainly qualified for the job. That's not the dilemma. And the work would be interesting. It's the intersection of lots of my lifelong interests and I have skills in terms of knowledge and diplomacy that I enjoy exercising.
No, the problem is something else.
Don't tell anyone this, O.K.? Promise? You have to promise. O.K., good.
See, my wife works for the CIA. She's an undercover agent. Not only that, she works on espionage issues -- Chinese espionage issues. In fact, as dumb luck would have it, her specific area of focus is Chinese efforts to use the internet to spy on Americans. Now, don't tell anyone this, O.K., because if anyone found this out, it would jeopardize national security. What's more, outing her would ruin my wife's career that she's worked so hard on her entire life -- and nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important to me than making sure that doesn't happen to her.
Given all of this, am I the best person to carry out the task at hand? Well, like I said, I'm qualified, and obviously I'm interested in the issue. Hell, my bedmate, the love of my life, and partner for all time works on these exact issues!
But that's exactly the problem. Ask yourself: Is the husband of a person who works undercover on Chinese internet espionage really the best person to be rattling cages and shaking information trees in China and agitating lots of hostile and suspicious folks about...Chinese Internet espionage?
I could certainly do a good job, as I've already pointed out, and do what my country is asking me. But then again, there are dozens upon dozens of civil servants and ex-civil servants who could do just as good a job. But many of those folks don't have a potential conflict of interest. They might be married to a doctor or auto mechanic or librarian. Whatever it may be, they aren't married to people whose identity absolutely must be kept secret as a matter of national security. And many -- indeed, probably all the other potential qualified candidates for this assignment -- aren't married to folks who work on the very issues I'll be investigating. If any of these people were to go instead of me, there's absolutely no way my wife's cover -- and America's national security -- could possibly be compromised, right? I mean, how could my wife's cover be blown if someone else does the job?
That being the case, maybe I shouldn't take the assignment. I'm flattered and honored that my country needs me. But discretion suggests a different person might be a wiser choice. Of course, if I didn't care about the jeopardy posed to the country's security or my wife's career by my going -- or her identity weren't actually the top-secret issue I'm making it out to be -- then it would be a no-brainer and I'd pack my bags tonight. But I'm so close to this situation, it really makes it a pickle, doesn't it?
That's why, dear readers, I'm asking you to help me. Should I take the assignment? Help me out here.
A version of this article ran on National Review Online.