How Mount Airy’s Malcolm Nance Became a Hero of the Resistance

Malcolm Nance holding court at Mount Airy’s High Point Cafe: “We like to think of ourselves as the Grown-Ups of the Resistance.” Photograph by Neal Santos

As predicted, the Revolution was not televised. But fear not. On MSNBC, the Resistance — which is sort of the Revolution’s less-stoned cousin — is not only ready for prime time; it is prime time, not to mention ratings gold. In 2017, the year MSNBC abruptly switched from prim lib-positive programming to wall-to-wall Trump truth-squadding and trauma center, the upstart cable news network increased its prime-time audience by an astonishing 51 percent, drawing nearly twice as many viewers in Weekday Prime as CNN. Let’s peek behind the curtain.

It’s 11:31 a.m. on the second Saturday of February in the third-floor studio of New York’s storied 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where MSNBC’s AM Joy — hosted by the lovely, smart-as-Maddow and deservedly ascendant Joy Reid — is being broadcast live to one million Americans across the fruited plain. Like most cable TV news sets these days, it looks like the bridge of a Federation starship. Reid’s guests are Rob Reiner and Mount Airy’s Malcolm Nance. Reiner is, of course, the renowned actor/director and, in the Age of Trump, the deeply worried face of Hollywood liberalism.

Nance is a former Navy senior chief petty officer/cryptologist/covert-ops man turned author and resident national security talking head for MSNBC’s sleek fleet of prime-time breaking-news chat fests: Hardball With Chris Matthews, All In With Chris Hayes, The Rachel Maddow Show and The 11th Hour with Brian Williams. But it’s with Reid, a rising star at MSNBC — and the subject of a glowing profile in the New York Times that dubbed her “a Heroine of the Resistance” — that Nance has the best chemistry. Together, when their Wonder Twin powers activate, they are Resistance rock stars.

Reiner has come today to sound the alarm and rally the troops: The Russians are coming. In fact, they’re already here, monkey-wrenching American democracy, and nobody is doing a thing about it. Even worse, they appear to be getting help from people on the inside, possibly even the President himself. Like a modern-day Paul Revere, Reiner is so alarmed that he’s formed a nonprofit, the Committee to Investigate Russia, to “help Americans recognize and understand the gravity of Russia’s continuing attacks on our democracy.” He’s brought a clip — a recent on-camera interview he conducted with former CIA director John Brennan and former director of national intelligence James Clapper, who both issue the same slightly vague but grave warning: The curious unwillingness of the current administration to do anything about Russia’s efforts to sabotage our electoral process represents an existential threat to American democracy.

By the end of the clips, Reid looks suitably alarmed. She throws it over to Nance, who seconds Reiner’s motion. “To have the top two intelligence officers of the United States come out and say publicly that we are under attack and remain under attack, that there is a crime in progress and that there are Americans who they believe are complicit with it,” he tells her, “and that our entire infrastructure of government has decided they will do nothing shows that [members of the Trump administration] have not lived up to their oath to protect and defend the Constitution.”

Nance was onto the Kremlin’s stateside “active measures” before pretty much everyone in America who wasn’t privy to the FBI’s Carter Page phone intercepts or Paul Manafort’s bank statements. “Malcolm was predicting all of the events we’re seeing now in the summer of 2016,” says Reid. “I remember having Malcolm on in July when we were doing the show [from Independence Mall during the Democratic National Convention] and him laying out what Russia did. We are all now catching up and telling the same exact story.” Four weeks before the 2016 election, Nance published the practically clairvoyant The Plot to Hack America, which has since sold nearly 100,000 copies. His next book, due in June, The Plot to Destroy Democracy, will pick up the thread. “The first sentence of the book is, ‘On November 8, 2016, Vladimir Putin became the first Russian president of the United States,’” he says with an impish grin.

Nance has said that not only are we living in a Tom Clancy thriller; the land of the free and the home of the brave is in the midst of “a Benedict Arnold moment.” And he should know. Forget Idris Elba; Nance is the IRL version of the Black James Bond that the Internet has been buzzing about for months. Mark Hamill — Luke fucking Skywalker — calls him a Jedi Master. “A cross between Batman and Fight Club” is how Brian Williams describes him to me: “Malcolm is the real deal — he is fresh from the field and has spent decades in the intelligence business serving our country.” Unsurprisingly, much of what Nance did over two decades of active-duty military service remains classified. The vast majority of his 56-page service record — recently FOIA’d by MuckRock.com and then misinterpreted by Trump trolls in a fruitless campaign to slime him with a bogus “stolen valor” accusation — has been redacted by the Navy.

On TV, though, he’s more the Neil deGrasse Tyson of American spydom, a gifted explainer of the murky known-unknowns of international intrigue. His bleak utterances and onscreen presence — the ramrod posture, the Pentagonal syntax, the glint in his eye that says, “Don’t worry, we got this” — are at once fundamentally terrifying and inherently reassuring.

“Malcolm is probably the most frequent guest that we’ve had on AM Joy, but he’s also somebody who I have literally texted at odd hours thinking the country is falling apart,” Reid tells me. “He’s very rational, even though the things that he’s telling you will completely freak you out. He’s super-knowledgeable, but he’s also that calming friend.”

Not everybody is pleased with the Joy and Malcolm show. Last April, in the run-up to their joint appearance at Politicon in Pasadena — a sort of Star Trek convention for poli-sci nerds — a Twitter user going by the name “Igor Rasputin” started shit-talking Reid and Nance with alarming frequency and increasingly dark intent. Rasputin’s methods were straight out of the alt-right troll playbook — crudely Photoshopping a Nazi uniform onto Reid and a sniper’s crosshairs over Nance’s face — and escalated to threats to “come after” both of them at Politicon. Nance called in a favor from some buddies at the NSA’s TAO — Tailored Access Operations, a.k.a. white-hat hackers — who he says traced the account to St. Petersburg, Russia, even though the tweets were geotagged to Denver. This was more than just bot harassment; Reid and Nance apparently had Russian eyes on them in real time. “I called up Joy and said, ‘You should be flattered; they’ve actually tasked human beings to watch us,’” says Nance. The Pasadena police were alerted, but the threat proved empty. Still, the message was received: Malcolm Nance and Joy Reid were pissing off the right people.

On a quasi-Siberian mid-January morning — a few weeks prior to double-teaming the Russkies with Meathead at 30 Rock — Nance is ensconced in his usual spot near the window of the High Point Cafe in the People’s Republic of Mount Airy. He is holding court, as he does most mornings, surrounded by a ragtag army of embittered Hillarycrats, Bernie primary voters, and assorted leftists from all walks of life, genders and ethnicities, plotting semi-seriously to return the good guys to power. Everyone is, proudly, over 50. “We like to think of ourselves as the Grown-Ups of the Resistance,” Nance says with a mischievous grin. Nance is a registered Democrat and has been since the impeachment of Bill Clinton, when he switched over from the GOP. “Look, I’m a sailor, and it was like, BJs are bad now?” he says, his eyes rolling skyward. “When you go in the military, the recruiters make sure you are registered to vote. They asked my party and I just shrugged. ‘Okay, you’re a Republican.’ Fine, whatever. You know they play Rush Limbaugh on Armed Forces Radio all the time, so people are pretty brainwashed. But when I started listening and paying attention, I was like ‘Whoa, I don’t agree with any of that!’”

He comes from a long line of warriors and is quick to point out that a Nance has fought in every major American conflict stretching back to the Civil War, when his great-great-grandfather Green Nance and Green’s brother William fled the Alabama plantation where they’d been enslaved and enlisted in an improvised black regiment of the Union Army called the Third Alabama Infantry Volunteers. They manned riverine craft in the Tennessee River Valley. His father was a master chief petty officer, and all five of Malcolm’s brothers served in the Navy. Fighting on water for your country is the family business. Malcolm Wrightson Nance was born into it, literally, in 1961, at the long-since-demolished Naval Hospital in South Philly, the ninth of 11 siblings.

The Nance homestead was situated in the Wynnefield section of Philadelphia, which at the time was a largely Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Nance first became interested in cracking codes when he was 12. He was intrigued by the occasional stray Yiddish newspaper that would escape the racks of the Jewish deli and blow past him on his way to school, so one day he grabbed a copy and took it to the public library. “I thought, ‘I want to know what that shit says,’” he remembers. “So I asked the librarian for a book about the Hebrew alphabet. What I discovered was that Hebrew is like Morse code. All languages are.”

In the late 1970s, South Philadelphia High School was offering free foreign language classes on Saturdays. The program was open to children of all ages and covered a wide range of languages. Every Saturday, Nance boarded the first of several SEPTA buses to make the hour-long trek to South Philadelphia High, where he studied Russian and Cantonese. “Russian’s hard, especially when you’re trying to do the Cyrillic alphabet by hand,” he says, wincing while laughing. “I don’t know why I thought Chinese would be easier. It wasn’t.”

Following a stint in the Sea Cadets — sort of like the Cub Scouts of the deep — Nance formally joined the family business, enlisting in the Navy. He told the recruiter he wanted to fly in helicopters, but when they found out he’d studied Russian and Chinese, they steered him toward Cryptologic Technician Interpretive (CTI) — i.e., foreign language code breaker. After scoring high on the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) test, Nance buckled down for 46 weeks of intensive study at the Defense Language Institute, focused on Arabic, followed by another 19 weeks of advanced linguistic training. Upon completion of his studies and after rigorous vetting, Nance says, he was granted a top-secret security clearance.

Once at sea, he discovered another hidden ability: attracting enemy fire. “I was a bullet magnet in my crazy little world,” he says. In 1983 he was aboard the destroyer USS John Rogers off the coast of Lebanon, dodging artillery fire in the midst of a brutal civil war, when a suicide bomber detonated a massive truck bomb that pancaked the four-story building at Beirut International Airport that was housing a Marine peacekeeping force. Two hundred and forty-one American troops lost their lives in the deadliest day in Marine history since the Battle of Iwo Jima. For Nance, shit got real in the blink of an eye. As would become apparent in the fullness of time, it was the opening salvo in the Global War on Terror.

Nance would be there for the many salvos that followed: the sinking of an Iranian missile boat in the Persian Gulf during Operation Praying Mantis; the raining-down hellfire on Bosnian Serb military assets during Operation Deliberate Force a month after the massacre of 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica. During Desert Storm, Nance says, he discovered the secret location of the Iraqi Silkworm missile battery in Kuwait City that had been bombarding American ships. During his two decades of active duty, Nance earned 33 medals and ribbons for various and covert operations.

But it wasn’t all “bombs, guns, helicopter rides, fun stuff,” as he likes to call it. On 9/11, he carried the dead and dying on stretchers moments after American Airlines Flight 77 torpedoed the western facade of the Pentagon. Friends were blown to pieces in Afghanistan. In Iraq, where he worked as a private military contractor on and off from 2003 to 2013, a dear friend was “vaporized” by a massive car bomb, along with a six-man security team Nance had assembled. “It took three weeks to separate all the pieces,” he says grimly. “I was inconsolable.” Then there was the time a car bomb detonated nearby and the largest chunk of the driver — the back of his torso, just the back — landed on the front step of Nance’s safe house.

And that’s just the stuff he can talk about. In between and after all that, Nance claims to have participated in numerous special-ops missions around the globe that remain classified. “It could be on boat, or a submarine or a car or a hotel room, could be in Southeast Asia or sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East,” he says cryptically. “But I can’t talk about any of that.” When you ask him — twice in a row, to see if he’ll slip up — what exactly he was doing on a mountainside in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, just weeks after Bin Laden was spotted there before disappearing into the ether, he does what he always does when the conversation veers into the unspeakable: He smiles blankly and intones the following like he’s giving his name, rank and serial number: “Stuff … Navy stuff.” It’s the kinder, gentler version of “I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you.”

Nance is skilled at answering questions much tougher than mine. And that expertise led, ultimately, to his current position as MSNBC’s national security go-to guy. In 1995, he became a SERE instructor for Navy pilots and SEALs. SERE stands for “Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape,” and if you listened closely and did everything Nance told you, you just might survive being a prisoner of war. For example, the correct answer to the question “How do you withstand torture?” is a Zen riddle: You don’t. “Everyone breaks under torture — everyone,” he says. “You will talk; everyone talks. But there is a right way to talk. Now, if you try to be John Wayne about it, you are going to die. It’s just that simple.” As a SERE instructor, he was required to undergo intensive waterboarding and quickly concluded, contrary to Dick Cheney’s repeated claims, that it was torture. “Waterboarding is not simulated drowning,” says Nance. “It is drowning.”

In 2007, he wrote an impassioned essay for Small Wars Journal called “Waterboarding Is Torture … Period” that caught the attention of Pentagon brass. For the first time in his career, Nance came out of the shadows, going public with his informed opinion that waterboarding is immoral and un-American, triggering a national debate that concluded with President Barack Obama officially ending the practice. Soon, everyone from CNN to the BBC wanted him to come on the air to talk about torture, terror and all things cloak-and-dagger.

“I first met Malcolm back in my radio days,” says Rachel Maddow, the bespectacled host of MSNBC’s prime-time tent-pole program. “Malcolm was one of the only people we could find who was willing to stick his neck out and describe not just the general aims of SERE school, but what it was really like. Before Malcolm spelled it out plainly for a lay audience, I don’t think anyone outside the military really understood that SERE training … was how our CIA came up with some of its torture ideas, post-9/11. That alone was a hell of a public service.”

Back when Malcolm Nance was in high school and it all got to be too much — the intense academic workload he brought on himself, the gnawing anxiety about the uncertainty of the future, the big-ass shoes he had to fill as a Nance — he had a favorite place to go to chill, focus, and get his head on straight: Independence Square. To him, it was hallowed ground. He would sit on a bench in silence for hours, savoring the peace and quiet, staring up at the statue of Commodore John Barry, a.k.a. the Father of the American Navy, pointing the way. He would contemplate the idea of America: that all men were created equal and born free; that every man and woman had a voice at the ballot box. He’d think of all the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice over two and a half centuries to give that idea a chance to grow in the light.

As a grown man, when it all gets to be too much — his wife’s battle with cancer, death threats against his family, the deeply troubling realization that a foreign enemy has seized power in this country under cover of the darkness and chaos it has sown — he still goes to Independence Square to recharge his batteries, to separate what matters from what doesn’t. It’s part of what keeps Nance based here — he does many of his spots from Center City via remote feed — despite his growing cable profile.

“The very fact that I was born and raised in Philadelphia, where I was taught how this nation was born down at 5th and Chestnut, makes me — and all Philadelphians — uniquely qualified to feel aggrieved at the present state the country is in,” says Nance, days before the Super Bowl. “The great struggle in America today is not between the Eagles and the Patriots but the struggle to keep safe the values, ideas and traditions established in the heart of this very city. Across the street in Washington Square, there is a statue of George Washington, father of our country, guarding the graves of dead soldiers, both black and white, with the inscription, ‘Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness.’ That was my life’s work. I worked in darkness to protect that light.”

Published as “Secret Agent Man” in the April 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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