Authors: Margaret Truman
Early That Afternoon
The White House
Mike McQuaid, special assistant to the president of the United States—on terrorism—prepared to leave the Situation Room on the first floor of the White House. He hadn’t wasted time changing into more formal clothing after receiving the FBI call at his Maryland home. He wore the same khaki pants and red-and-white-striped short-sleeve shirt he’d had on when the call came through. He’d spent the past fifteen minutes calling members of CSG, the Coordinating Security Group on terrorism, setting up a video teleconference between the involved agencies—the State Department, the Joint Chiefs, Secret Service, the Pentagon, and Justice. Because aircraft were involved, the FAA was included on the list.
“Mike, the president wants you,” an aide said after answering a phone.
“Keep things moving,” McQuaid said.
He was ushered into the Oval Office, where Anthony Cammanati paced.
“Everyone in the loop?” Cammanati asked. National Security Advisor Cammanati was a squarely built man with heavy black eyebrows and a permanently creased, broad forehead. His physical appearance, including his navy-blue suit, white shirt, and tie, set him apart from the fair-skinned, redheaded, slender, casually dressed McQuaid.
“In the works,” McQuaid replied.
Both men straightened as Lawrence Ashmead, president of the United States, entered the room. The door was closed behind him and he went directly to his desk. As usual, he was in shirtsleeves, wide, red suspenders, and a nondescript blue tie. Ashmead was known as a hands-on president, less statesmanlike and presidential than his predecessor. To a fault, some on his staff felt: He’d been governor of Missouri before capturing the White House, and ran things too much like a governor, micromanaging rather than viewing the proverbial larger picture. But he was liked and respected by most; those who’d ended up on the receiving end of a sizable temper were the exception.
He looked at McQuaid and Cammanati with probing eyes. “So, tell me,” he said.
McQuaid brought him up to speed on the three aviation accidents, using half-formed sentences, the bulleted approach he knew Ashmead preferred.
“. . . spoken with all the involved agencies, Mr. President. Vice Chairman Poe at NTSB confirms two eyewitness claims—missiles hitting the planes, California and New York—but no tangible evidence. The lead investigator . . .” he consulted his notes “. . . Peter Mullin— they found metal fragments at the New York scene that could have come from a missile—on their way to the Pentagon for analysis. FBI agents on the scene in New York confirm the eyewitness account.”
“Confirm it! It
“No, sir, sorry. They confirm that the New York eyewitness
he saw a missile hit the aircraft.”
“What about Idaho?”
“No eyewitnesses there, sir.”
“What’s the possible link between them?” Ashmead asked, more of himself than the others. “If those three planes were shot down by missiles, there has to be a reason. Who was on them?”
“We don’t have passenger lists yet, sir,” McQuaid said. “They’re being officially withheld until next of kin are notified. We’re working with the airlines.”
“Government officials on the planes? Businessmen from the same industry? Scientists? Mobsters in witness protection? Somebody with a new insurance policy for a couple of million? Christ, people don’t target three planes in three different parts of the country—and on the same day—unless there’s some common denominator.”
“We’ll know more when we have passenger names and backgrounds, Mr. President.”
“How much of the missile theory has gotten out?”
“The press? The FBI and NTSB are keeping a lid on the eyewitnesses, but it’s already been leaked.”
“CNN. They went with the rumor story ten minutes ago.”
“How’d they get it?”
Shrugs from McQuaid and Cammanati.
Ashmead punched a button on his phone: “Send Chris in here.”
A minute later Ashmead’s press secretary, Chris Targa, entered.
“What’s being reported on the aviation accidents?” the president asked.
“It’s the lead story, Mr. President. No surprise, with three commercial planes down the same morning. Got to be a first.”
Cammanati started to ask something of Targa but stopped.
“The missile theory,” Ashmead filled in, not prone to keeping things from his press secretary as were other presidents. “Are they talking about eyewitnesses saying they saw missiles hit the planes?”
“CNN is, sir, but they’re couching it. ‘Unconfirmed reports,’ ‘alleged sightings,’ that sort of thing.”
“What kind of planes were they?” the president asked. “All the same make and model?”
“No, sir,” McQuaid answered, again referring to notes. “Two Canadian-made Dash 8s, one Saab 34, Swedish-made. Three different airlines.”
“So whoever shot missiles at them wasn’t out to cripple a particular aircraft manufacturer or airline.”
“Evidently not, sir,” said McQuaid.
The president asked to be kept abreast of any news reports playing up the missile allegations, and dismissed Targa and McQuaid. Alone now with Cammanati, who’d been a boyhood friend, Ashmead sat back and twisted his mustache—he was the first man with facial hair to sit in the White House since Teddy Roosevelt. “It’s terrorists, isn’t it, Tony? There can’t be any other explanation.”
“I’m afraid you’re right, sir, and if it’s a foreign group, state sponsored, we’ve got a war on our hands.”
“Call a meeting.” Ashmead looked at his watch. “Six this evening. Appropriate Cabinet members, FBI, Justice, our counterterrorism people.”
“Poe from NTSB?” Cammanati asked.
“Sure, but it looks like a criminal act. FBI’s show now.”
“The Bureau and State’s counterterrorist people are meeting as we speak, sir.”
“Good. Coordinate this effort, Tony. Assemble a team. Use anybody you need, pull ’em off whatever they’re doing. That’s from me.”
The State Department
Max Pauling was running late. He entered the huge, square, nondescript, singularly unattractive government-issue gray box known as the State Department from C Street, passed through the Diplomatic Lobby, displayed his credentials to the security guard, and went directly to Walter Barton’s
Walter Barton’s—office in Room 2507.
“They’re meeting in Room 3524,” a Barton aide said immediately.
Pauling bounded up a back stairway and went into the small conference room where his jingoistic boss and a dozen others had gathered.
“Max,” Barton said as Pauling took a folding chair and pulled it up to one of two tables already occupied. “Now that we’re all here, let me brief everyone on what’s known to date. Three commercial aircraft down, the incidents occurring within hours of each other. Locations— Westchester County, New York; San Jose, California; and Boise, Idaho. Passenger fatalities, thirty-six in New York, thirty-one in California, and eleven in Idaho—seventy-eight in all. Plus a crew of three on each aircraft. Cause of accidents unknown. Eyewitnesses claim to have seen missiles hit the planes.”
“In all three incidents?” someone asked.
“No, in California and New York. No eyewitnesses in Idaho, at least that we know of.”
Pauling said, “If there’s any truth to these eyewitness sightings, we’ve got terrorists armed with missiles, an internal enemy nation or rogue group within a friendly nation. I understand all three aircraft were taking off when they came apart.”
Barton turned to an assistant who’d been monitoring preliminary reports from NTSB. “Correct,” she said.
“They knew something about flying,” Pauling said, “positioned themselves upwind, knew planes always take off into the wind.” He sat back and focused on his thoughts while others tossed about theories. These missile-toting terrorists weren’t amateurs, not with what the missiles must have cost. They went for premium prices on the black market, no holiday sales at Kmart.
The meeting was interrupted by a senior advisor to the secretary of state, who drew Barton aside. “Cammanati just called, Colonel. The president’s holding a meeting at six. Secretary Rock will be attending. She wants a briefing at five-thirty before she heads over there.”
“Okay,” Barton said.
Barton’s aide assigned to monitor NTSB returned to the room. “NTSB just got a report from its Denver office on the Boise incident,” she said. “Fragments found at the scene point to the use of a missile. Evidence is being flown in as we speak.”
“What do we know about the missiles?” Pauling asked. “American Stingers, foreign-made?”
Barton shrugged. “I’m meeting with Harris at the Bureau at three. I’ll know more then.” Harris was Barton’s counterpart at the FBI’s counterterrorism division. “In the meantime, we’re on twenty-four-hour alert. Coordinate your movements through Ops. Nothing for the press.
“Does the president or Secretary plan to make a public statement?” Barton was asked.
He ignored the question. “Let’s get cracking.”
Pauling watched the others in the room get up and head for their respective offices. Since coming over to State from the CIA, he’d been impressed with the organizational structure and smooth teamwork within the agency’s departments. There was a more clearly defined chain of command and a smoother interplay between departments than he’d experienced at the Company. He wasn’t quite as sanguine about some of the larger political and diplomatic decisions made at the top, like the gloved-hand approach to nations run by dictators and deemed important, at times, to America’s foreign policy, while a harder line was taken with countries whose loyalty to the American diplomatic agenda was solid.
But lofty decisions weren’t part of Pauling’s job description. Before this new assignment, he’d been an agent, an operative, a “spook,” and loved it. Why wouldn’t he? You were sent on an assignment, handed enough untraceable cash to buy a small country—or at least its leader— and instructed to tell no one where you’d be or how long you’d be there.
“I’m leaving tomorrow on an assignment, Doris.”
“Where are you going? How long will you be gone?”
There was the requisite icy stare as you packed your
bag in the bedroom where you’d made love the night before. The kids asked, too, where Daddy was going, and
you answered with a pat on the head when they were
little. Once they got older, they didn’t bother asking because they knew there wouldn’t be an answer.
Hugs and kisses when you were leaving. A modicum
of guilt, tempered by the excitement of the assignment,
another important one, national security, defending their
way of life, someone has to do it—plenty of rationalizations at the ready. The waves good-bye—“I’ll be in
touch”— when you knew you probably wouldn’t be.
Then, the relief when you were on your way, alone,
pumped up, anxious to do what you’d trained for and
were good at. Of course he loved it, like almost every
Now, since coming to Washington, he spent most of his time behind a desk in the Department of State analyzing information gathered by a variety of sources, including people doing what he’d happily done while in Moscow and elsewhere, and filling in gaps from his personal experience and knowledge. As far as he was concerned, he’d been booted upstairs, and was in the process of giving credence to the Peter Principle.
He wandered down to Room 2109, the nerve center for State’s public affairs and press operations, where a bank of television monitors were tuned round-the-clock to CNN and MSNBC. All personnel there were also on a twenty-four-hour cycle, tearing stories off the wire service machines, taping relevant TV news and other reports, and at the moment fielding calls from the press and the public about the unfolding story of three aircraft crashing that morning.
“Can you believe it?” a young PA employee said, pointing to one of the monitors:
“CNN has learned from a highly placed source that the planes were shot down by missiles launched from the ground near the three airports. The president, we’re told, has scheduled a meeting of Cabinet members and other top administration officials. Meanwhile, the FBI’s antiterrorism unit has issued an alert to state and local law enforcement officials across the country to put into effect contingency plans formulated following the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings, and airports have elevated their security systems to top-readiness status. Stay tuned for further information as CNN receives it.”
Two of the networks had broken into their normal afternoon programming to issue brief reports on the situation, but had gone back to their soap operas. The third network ended its breaking news with soft drink and feminine hygiene commercials.
“Who the hell would do such a thing?” the young woman said, shaking her head. “They killed innocent civilians and kids, people minding their own business— or too young to have any business.”
Pauling’s beeper went off. It was Barton. He left the press area and went back to the office. Barton held up his hand to keep Pauling from entering, wrapped up his meeting, then waved Pauling in.
“Any new information?” Pauling asked.
“Close the door.”
Pauling did as instructed and returned to the visitor’s side of the desk. Barton stood behind it, erect, stomach flat, chin jutting, hair perfectly trimmed to conform to his temples.
“Got your bags packed, Max?”
“Haven’t unpacked yet. I flew up to visit my ex-wife and sons.”
“I’m not talking overnight. I want you in Moscow.”
“Would it be out of order to ask why?”
“The missile fragments from the Westchester incident arrived at the Pentagon, although the FBI’s labs did the testing. Took them a half hour to determine it’s Russian-made, a SAM, probably an older model of the Grail SA-7.”
“Those missiles were introduced, what, more than thirty years ago.”
“I thought you might appreciate things improving with age, Max.”