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Op-Center Headquarters, Fort Belvoir North, Springfield, Virginia
July 22, 9:26 a.m.
Every device owned by Chase Williams came active at once—personal cell, office cell, tablet, and all three landlines. He had been reviewing intelligence reports from Asia when the symphony of tones and beeps told him that something terrible had gone down. The only question the director of Op-Center—formally, the National Crisis Management Center—had was who he wanted to hear it from.
Williams chose the secure landline on his desk. The caller ID was Matt Berry, deputy chief of staff to President Wyatt Midkiff. The team of intelligence advisors who worked or visited the White House regularly was known around town as the “party planners”; among those, Berry was a bit of an outlier, a mystery. He did not have the respect of the heavy hitters but the president trusted him. Berry was a close friend of Op-Center’s Brian Dawson and he had become the team’s unofficial inside man at the White House. If Williams had to get bad news, the former Navy four-star combatant commander wanted it immediately contextualized. But he simultaneously flipped his desktop to CNN to see what he had missed. The crawl and live images gave him a quick, sickening synopsis. Nor was Berry’s information as comprehensive as Williams had hoped.
“Matt?” Williams said. “What—”
“Conference call with the president, in the Tank, now,” Berry said.
Berry hung up the phone just as Deputy Director Anne Sullivan swung through the door. The sixty-year-old Op-Center director rose, answered her concerned look with a shrug, and told her what Berry had said.
“You know anything?” Williams asked as he grabbed his sports jacket from the hook behind the door.
“I think we’re in shit,” she replied, nodding toward his desk.
He looked back at the tablet. There was a security camera photograph from the computer of Kathleen Hays, Op-Center’s visual analysis specialist. Beneath it was a name in black type.
Williams swore. Anne was correct, as always. He jabbed the name with a finger, waited a moment. The only data that came up was a tab for the file they had closed on July 3.
“Find out why we did not know this,” Williams said vaguely as he hurried past Sullivan toward the electronic and scientific brain center of Op-Center.
Williams’s voice seldom reflected what he was feeling. Decades of service at Pacific Command and Central Command had taught him, as Kipling had written, that he had to keep his head while all around him were losing theirs. But his quiet order to Anne concealed rage that burned at an uncommon level. Captain Ahmed Salehi had been their target. His defeat had been their doing. Even though he had disappeared into the shrouded corridors of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, they should have seen him emerge.
Not just emerge, Williams thought. Emerge quickly and with a plan of counterattack. His team had underestimated the man and civilians had died, another black day marked on the American calendar.
It was a short walk, and Williams did not consciously avoid the looks of the employees he passed. But his thoughts were scattered, partly on what to do next and partly on what the president would do next. He could not even allow himself to dwell on the horror of what he had glimpsed a minute ago. That would come at night, when he tried to sleep.
The Geek Tank was Op-Center’s technological heart, the locus for all raw, incoming data. Williams looked out across the ring of fourteen young tech wizards, all bent toward their multiple screens. Most would be continuing to look for threats. Others would already be investigating his directive to Anne.
“Find out why we did not know this…”
His own words played over and over like a dirge. But he could not allow himself to mourn. Most of the twenty- and thirtysomething Op-Center team had never experienced a national disaster. They would have to be motivated, bootstrapped, made more vigilant, not allowed to wallow. Senior management would have to revisit every active individual, cell, warlord, anti-American movement both domestic and global, foreign radical—search for more than just threat analysis algorithms but use intuition and experience to identify potential threats.
Why did we not know about Salehi? Williams asked himself with anger that was now tinged with shame. The team had failed but, worse, the leader had failed the team. And people died as the world watched.
Williams’s index finger was scanned and the Tank door popped open. He pushed the sound-absorbing panel shut behind him, sat at the small conference table, and spoke his name plus a code word—“Nedla,” his father’s name backwards. That activated the wall-mounted audiovisual system that only a handful of voices could turn on. Not only was that photonic band line secure, the room itself was sheathed in an electronic web that prevented any other signals from getting out. Anne had once described the Tank as a grand jury room where the fate of civilization was on trial. Williams felt that now, though when he saw the face of the president and the others he knew it was not the future of the world being decided. Also present on the split-screen view were National Security Advisor Trevor Harward, who was in the Oval Office with President Midkiff; January Dow, who headed the INR, the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research; and FBI Deputy Director Allen Kim. The vice president was in China, planning for a post–Kim Jung-un unification of North and South Korea, and the president saw no reason to terminate that critical mission. The man who had told Williams about the meeting, Matt Berry, was not present. That told the director all he needed to know. Without an ally, and with Dow having actively and openly campaigned against the autonomy Op-Center had enjoyed, this wasn’t a meeting. It was an execution.
The African-American woman was speaking as Williams plugged-in.
“… movements were not known until he wanted them to be known,” she was saying. “As far as we can determine, someone matching Salehi’s general physical description arrived at the embassy on July 7 just before midnight. If he moved in and out he did so in Pakistani state vehicles.”
“The man who seems to have been traveling with him today?” Midkiff asked, consulting his own tablet.
“We do not yet know that,” she said. “He was wearing a baseball cap and seemed to take care not to appear on camera.”
“Any competent New York mugger knows how to avoid our goddam security cameras,” Harward complained.
The president finally looked at the screen. “You have anything to contribute, Director Williams?”
It was “Director Williams,” not “Chase.” That was the first salvo.
“No, Mr. President,” Williams replied.
“Nothing after July 3?” January asked Williams pointedly, referring to the file Op-Center had distributed among its fellow intelligence services. “No red flags?”
“No, Ms. Dow.”
Confirming nearly three weeks of inactivity. That was the second salvo.
Williams was watching the president carefully. Midkiff’s eyes shifted to the clock on the screen. The president’s mind was not, at the moment, on forensics. It was not on the past but on the future. That was the third salvo.
“Director Williams, effective fourteen minutes from now, at ten a.m., the charter for Op-Center will be revoked. The personnel has just been informed that they are to remain on-premises until notified, though all security access has already been terminated and research locked in place. The reassignment of said personnel will be turned over to Mr. Harward. In recognition of your service, Mr. Williams, the delictum organizational status will not require your resignation. You will, I trust, have no difficulty vacating by ten?”
“None whatsoever, Mr. President,” Williams replied.
The screen went black. The silence in the Tank was overwhelming. The weight of his negligence, of his failure, of how he let his team—his friends—down was greater still. Every shred of vitality seemed to leave him; like Dorian Gray’s portrait, he felt as though he had aged countless years in a moment.
Williams could not lift his big frame from the chair. He looked around the Tank, at the pitchers of water, at the glasses—Anne had written her name on hers—at the ghosts of countless meetings, of crises successfully resolved.
All but one, he thought bitterly. And that is how a career, how a life, is to be defined—like George S. Patton slapping a frightened soldier, not helping to win the Second World War. Like George Armstrong Custer massacred at Little Big Horn, not courageously leading attacks at Gettysburg, commandeering a horse when his own was shot from under him. Williams briefly chided himself for not accepting this defeat like a man, but an officer was more than a man: he was an ideal. And this exemplar of leadership had collapsed into ash.
Copyright © 2019 Jack Ryan Limited Partnership and S&R Literary, Inc.