Origin of a Character: The Directorate

Wait. The Directorate is a setting, a location. More than that, it’s not even real. How can it be a character?

Much like the Pentagon in any military story or the CIA in a lot of spy stories or the White House in a political story, a setting or locale can take on the aspects of a character. It can further a story, provide a backdrop, and even “witness” some of the action. What would Miami Vice or CSI: Miami be without Miami? What would the Hunchback of Notre Dame be without Paris? You get it.

But the United Nations Intelligence Directorate isn’t a city or a building. It’s an organization, but let’s take a look at how it’s very much a secondary character in my work.

Is it Real?

No. The Directorate is total fiction, a product of my overactive imagination. As far as I know, the United Nations does not have an intelligence-gathering organization. I suspect that’s the case because I’ve received no “cease and desist” notice from anyone at One U.N. Plaza in New York.

Of course, the U.N. main building’s iconic profile was a regular “character” in the 1960s television series, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. When the two key agents, Solo and Kuryakin, entered their secret headquarters via a dry cleaner’s shop, there was the inevitable shot of the New York skyline around the U.N. building. The implication was that somehow Del Floria’s was connected to the U.N., but the producers always that–but look at that U.N.C.L.E. logo and tell me they didn’t want that implication.

Like U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, The Directorate is fictional. (By the way, the irony is that any intelligence organization’s headquarters is referred to as “uncle,” as in, “I need to get back to my uncle. Can you help?”)

Who is The Directorate?

In the canon of my writing, and only in that, The Directorate was created shortly after the United Nations itself was created. In my imagination, the first Secretary-General, Trygve Lie of Norway, convinced the signatories to the U.N. charter that a neutral intelligence organization based in the U.N. would benefit all members. However, he wanted its existence to remain as secret as possible because even back when the U.N. was formed, there were people who feared it and saw it as a loss of sovereignty and a harbinger of a world government. Consequently, knowledge of The Directorate has always been highly compartmentalized or “need to know.”

To organize the United Nations Intelligence Directorate, Lie called on a veteran of British Intelligence, Sir Nigel Hume. We don’t see much of Hume in my works because he died in the early 1980s and my character Nelson became the head of The Directorate. However, there are references to Hume’s traditional values and old-fashioned ways that made The Directorate somewhat of a laughing stock in the early Cold War.

When Nelson took over, he modernized the organization and brought it squarely into the 20th and 21st Centuries. He pioneered the early use of drones, something that his successor continued and expanded.

The Directorate is “made up” of bits and pieces of the more well-known, real spy organizations: CIA, NSA, MI-6, even the KGB. Add in a dash of Interpol and its own U.N. Special Forces units, and you have a unique global espionage organization.

Associating it with the U.N. also provides a plethora of cover stories for its operatives. Mai Fisher and Alexei Bukharin often pose as being in refugee relief or as weapons inspectors. A new character I’m working on is a “curriculum consultant” for UNESCO.

Why The Directorate?

Why make up an organization when I had so many to pick from? Tropes. The CIA at Langley, MI-6 on the Thames, the KGB in the Lubyanka are all so well known from the spy writers ahead of me that I wanted something unique, with different rules of engagement on a world-wide scale.

Also, I had these two main protagonists from two completely different countries, one an aristocrat, one a former KGB agent. In any western intelligence agency a defecting KGB agent would be debriefed, given a new identity, and would live his life out as anything except a spy. I wanted Alexei Bukharin to continue to be a spy, so I had him defect to The Directorate. I wanted a rich, British socialite to fight for justice and continue her family legacy, so I had her recruited to The Directorate.

The CIA has “stations” throughout the world, usually based out of an embassy or in a cover location. The Directorate has stations, too, but not under the aegis of any embassy. Each Directorate station has a front business that serves as its cover, much like James Bond’s “Universal Exports.”

I’ve often described The Directorate to people as elements of the CIA, NSA, and Interpol–on steroids. It consists of people recruited from all the U.N. signatories, and in that aspect it does resemble U.N.C.L.E., the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. And it also embodies the spirit of the U.N., the bringing together of the world to work for peace and justice.

The Directorate’s unofficial motto is “In Truth, Justice; In Justice, Truth.” Several of my stories involve working with the World Court in trying war criminals from the Balkans, and Mai has explained, “We find the truth so there can be justice.”

Where is The Directorate?

Well, that’s classified, silly!

Just kidding. I’ve placed The Directorate “somewhere near Washington, DC.” That, of course, is where the CIA is, but everyone knows where the CIA is.

The Directorate is underground in Northern Virginia in a large fictional bunker built for use in World War II. After the war and when The Directorate was formed, the U.S. government handed it over to The Directorate–for an appropriate rent, of course.

In reality, I based the concept of hiding an intelligence organization in an urban setting from an urban legend I heard when I first started working in Northern Virginia in the mid-1970s. I worked for an aviation insurance consortium called the Flight Safety Foundation, which was headquartered in one of the new high rises in Rosslyn, Virginia. I walked a few blocks from my apartment near the Iwo Jima Memorial to work every day and passed a squat, square white block of a building with no windows, no signage, no address number.

I asked my coworkers, who’d worked there longer, what that building was. One of the vice presidents, a former SOE agent from World War II (Truth, I swear.), remarked that it was a CIA annex and that I shouldn’t be paying any attention to it.

Was she having one on me or did she know something I didn’t? I don’t know, but it sparked my imagination. When I write about The Directorate, I have that blocky white building in mind.

But How is it a Character?

Any building or organization that encompasses many people working on a common purpose takes on a character of its own, is almost organic. When I retired from the FAA and left that building in downtown D.C. for the last time, it was like leaving a friend. There were tears, and whenever I go to DC, I have to go past it, just to say hi. That building shaped me, brought me some of the best friends I’ll ever have, and the love of my life. That’s a living, breathing character right there.

The Directorate is a character because its operatives, analysts, and support staff are its blood and brains. They function independently and together, like a human body. The characters within make The Directorate a character on its own.