If I Told You I’d Have To Kill You
Lulu Berton profiles film exec Daniel Mankievitch as he inquires his father's truth.
[Editor’s Note: Some of the names in this piece have been changed for the protection of those involved]
My dad is a spy. It’s the mantra that has been playing in Daniel Mankievitch’s head since he was in his twenties. Before then, Daniel thought he belonged to a completely normal family. The youngest of three siblings, he grew up in Washington D.C., living what seemed to be an ordinary life with his mom Catherine—a special education teacher—and his dad Harold, who Daniel believed was a diplomat for the Department Of State.
At first the spy thing was a family joke because of his dad’s recurring assignments to cold war hotspots— often only shortly before they became hotter. He was in China a few weeks before—and during— Tiananmen Square. He was in Chernobyl—one of the very few Americans that the Russians let in because he had expertise in nuclear issues. “And he’d go to Russia a lot,” Daniel says. It wasn’t until he was in his early 20s that Daniel realized that all was perhaps not as it seemed.
Daniel—now 43 and a Los Angeles film exec— never suspected that his father’s job might be more exciting that it seemed, “I simply never understood his job.” For all Daniel knew, his father “became a geologist at Harvard and then a uranium prospector at the height of the Cold War, so he used to talk about watching the bombs go off in land tests.” They believed he did something with science and nuclear non-proliferation.
Daniel and his brothers used to play with some uranium samples that were kept in the basement: “If you shine a black light on uranium, it glows mysteriously green and yellow, and it was fun.”
After a few years of uranium prospecting in Utah, his dad took the Foreign Service exam and was assigned to Canada, and then to Chile. After Chile, the Mankievitchs moved back to D.C., although Harold kept traveling on assignment, “we would wake up and ask where dad was, and my mom would be like, oh honey don’t you remember? He’s in Yugoslavia.”
Like any respectable spy, Harold Mankievitch always maintained a perfect façade. “You would want a guy like him,” Daniel reflects, “who’s sort of talking science and being friendly, and who’s really charming.” In hindsight, Daniel reflects that whenever his father was jokingly challenged on being a spy, he always gave the same pat answer, “if I told you I’d have to kill you.”
The joke seemed less funny, and far more serious when Daniel started working in media. “At about 21 years old, I got a job for CBS news,” he explains, “and they had a famous investigative reporter named Howard Rosenberg, and when I described my dad’s job in nuclear non-proliferation Howard said—‘well your dad is most likely CIA’—and that was the first serious person suggesting that.
“Rosenberg asked me to describe my dad’s office at the Department Of State, and one of the things was this security lock on his door—it looked like a safe to a bank and I wasn’t sure if every office that was there had these locks, but Howard implied they didn’t. This was a really interesting time in D.C.,” Daniel says, “It was the cold war with a lot of active spying. People would disappear from restaurants and it’d be heavily covered in the news, and we even had neighbors arrested for spying. Rosenberg said that being a diplomat was the most common cover for CIA, because obviously you can’t announce yourself as a spy when you enter a country. You needed to have a good cover job...and you gotta remember, you would still have to do all your duties as a diplomat, because it’s not like everyone on your team could know.”
As time wore on, various facts came to light that added currency to the theory that his father’s job was more exotic than he claimed it to be. “For years my dad worked closely with a man named John Negroponte, who was basically his boss, and who came from this famous American Greek family known for real power.”
Fast forward nine years, and striking proof of Daniel’s suspicions emerged: “I was reading the newspaper and I read that my dad’s boss, John Negroponte was made ambassador to Iraq. This was at the height of the war going sideways, and I knew enough that it most likely had to be an intelligence position, so that was very suspicious because now I knew that Negroponte was at the helm of an embassy with important CIA and military objectives.”
Five months later, Daniel received more confirmation: “The New York Times announced that Negroponte was appointed the first Intelligence Czar for America, which means you’re head of Homeland Security, NSA, CIA, FBI, etcetera. So my dad’s former boss was clearly working for intelligence, because why would you ever appoint a diplomat to the head of every spy agency?”
His father was now almost certainly unmasked, and then came the final proof—“we were cleaning the attic of our house because my mom was put in assisted care and as we’re cleaning out, way in the back we find a coffee mug that was a CIA 25th anniversary coffee mug.”
To this day, Daniel’s father—who’s now 85 and retired—keeps steadfast in his denial. “If I told you I would have to kill you.” All the siblings in the family know it, yet his father—who knows that everyone knows—is still adamant in his denial. You have to spy hard.
It has affected Daniel’s relationship with him. “It was a weird mixture,” he says, “because in other ways I’m very close with my father. I guess there was a little of a disconnect, because if you feel close to someone you want them to at least clearly tell you what they did for a living. I suppose on some level I’m not close to him but I understand that this is a type of job which you can’t tell people, so now I’m not resentful about that.”
And what about mom Mankievitch? Did she know the truth? “No” he says. “Her special skill, which is perfect for a spy, was her capacity for denial. She denied many things. A woman who wasn’t an expert in denial would be like, ‘what the fuck,’ and then confront my father. The way she was brought up and who she was, is that she was going to follow the narrative. Whatever my father said she was going to believe.”
Towards the end of our interview, Daniel grabs his computer and opens the Wikileaks site for fun. In the search area he types in: Harold Mankievitch. Sure enough, his father is mentioned in secret papers— five in total. He was in Iraq, Iran, Poland, and Italy discussing nuclear power issues. He was in and out of hotels, restaurants, and airports. Daniel is so ecstatic that he decides to call his dad in Washington.
“Dad, do you know you have five pages of Wikileaks talking about you?”
“That’s ridiculous,” his dad says.
“You were in Iraq, Iran, Poland, Italy discussing nuclear issues...once and for all, are you a spy?”
“If I told you I’d have to kill you.”
Written by Lulu Berton
Photo Credit: W.H. Shumard Family, circa 1955. Seattle Municipal Archives from Seattle, WA. uploaded by CPTNONO. Item 31160 Ben Evans Recreation Program Collection (Record Series 5801-02), Seattle Municipal Archives.