The Camel Club, Page 13David Baldacci
AT THE NIC HELIPAD GRAY boarded a Sikorsky VH-60N chopper. It was the same model the president used as Marine One, although in the coming years it would be replaced by a Lockheed Martin-built version. Gray usually rode the Sikorsky to the White House for his meetings with Brennan, causing some understandably anonymous souls to snidely dub it “Marine One and a Half.” However, there was one distinct difference between how Gray and Brennan were ferried on choppers. When the president rode in from Andrews Air Force Base, Camp David or elsewhere, there were three identical VH-60Ns in the convoy. Two served as decoys, giving any would-be assassin with a surface-to-air missile only a one-in-three shot of hitting his intended target. Carter Gray was on his own in that regard. After all, there were numerous cabinet secretaries, but just one president.
Traditionally, it was only Marine One that was allowed to land on the White House grounds. It was Brennan who’d authorized Gray to travel this way, over the very heated protests of the Secret Service. It saved Gray what could have been a tortuous daily commute from Loudoun County, and the intelligence czar’s time was very valuable. However, there were still grumblings at the Secret Service. Understandably, they didn’t care to see anything flying at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue unless it had the president on board.
At a speed of 150 knots the ride was quick and uneventful, though Gray was too busy to have noticed. He strode across the White House grounds knowing full well that the countersnipers arrayed on the surrounding rooftops were drawing practice beads on his wide head. Inside the West Wing Gray nodded at people he knew. Until 1902 greenhouses stood on this plot of ground. That’s when Teddy Roosevelt finally decided he needed a private place, away from his numerous children and their large coterie of pets, in order to competently conduct his business as the nation’s leader. His successor, the rotund William Taft, made the West Wing even bigger and the Oval Office a permanent fixture in the lives of all future presidents.
Gray’s daily visit had already been scheduled and approved. No one went into the Oval Office unannounced, not even the First Lady. Brennan always received Gray in the Oval Office and not the adjacent Roosevelt Room, as he often did visitors and other underlings.
Brennan looked up from his thirteen-hundred-pound desk built from the wood of the British ship HMS Resolute, which American whalers discovered after it had been caught in the ice and abandoned by its crew. The ship had been repaired by the U.S. government and sent back to England as a gesture of goodwill. Queen Victoria reciprocated by presenting the desk as a gift to President Rutherford B. Hayes. Thereafter, the Resolute Desk, as it became known, had been used by every president since, except for a period of time when it was at the Smithsonian Institution.
Gray had had his antennae on high since he stepped inside the West Wing. He had seen the Web casts on Patrick Johnson’s death. More of them had trickled out that afternoon. He got the last of them on the chopper ride over. Gray had also received a briefing by the FBI that included the discovery of the drug cache at Johnson’s home. He also knew of Secret Service agents Ford and Simpson’s involvement in the investigation. When he heard Simpson’s name, it allowed him a rare smile. That could be his ace in the hole down the road, should he need one.
As befitted any respectable spymaster, Gray had eyes and ears in the White House and had already been warned that Brennan was concerned about the Johnson matter and its possible negative effects on his reelection campaign. Therefore, he did not let his boss initiate the discussion.
As soon as the two men sat down across from each other, Gray said, “Mr. President, before we go into the daily briefing, I’d like to take up the unfortunate issue of Patrick Johnson’s death on Roosevelt Island.”
“I’m surprised you hadn’t called about it, Carter.” There was an edge to the man’s voice that Gray understood but didn’t particularly like.
“I wanted to have a firm grasp of the facts before I did, sir. The last thing I wanted to do was waste your time.”
“You certainly wouldn’t be the first one to waste it today,” Brennan snapped.
This is the President, and I serve at his pleasure, Gray reminded himself.
Gray gave the president a brief background on the matter, information that doubtless the man already knew. When Gray got to the drug discovery, Brennan put up his hand.
“Are there any others involved?” he asked sharply.
“Good question, Mr. President, and not one that’s been answered to my satisfaction. I will personally conduct an internal investigation of this matter, aided, at my request, by the FBI.” Getting the Bureau involved was loathsome to Gray, but better he suggest it than allow someone else to do it.
“Carter, if the FBI is coming in, you have to give them a free hand. Nothing swept under the rug.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way. However, at this point it does not appear that the case goes any further. That is to say, if Johnson was selling drugs, it was separate from his work at NIC.”
The president was shaking his head. “That’s not an assumption we can make yet. What exactly did he do for you?”
“He oversaw our electronic intelligence files containing background information on terror suspects and other targeted individuals and organizations, both outstanding and those that had been apprehended or killed. Johnson actually helped to design the system.”
“It’s hard to see how. It was basic info. A lot of it is contained on our public Web site. Then there’s the confidential information such as fingerprints, DNA info, if applicable, that sort of thing. However, the files Johnson managed did not contain, for example, any specific intelligence that we’d uncovered to aid us in capturing the targets.”
The president nodded, sat back and rubbed a kink out of his neck. At his desk since seven a.m., he had already crammed fourteen hours’ worth of work into eight, and he had a full afternoon ahead of him with a state dinner to follow. And then it was off the next day to the Midwest to campaign for an election that he had in the bag but was far too paranoid to let his guard down about. “To put it bluntly, Carter, I’m not happy about this at all. The last thing I need right now is some damn scandal.”
“I will do everything in my power to prevent that from happening, sir.”
“Well, vetting your employees a little better would’ve been good,” the president admonished.
“I absolutely agree with that.” Gray paused and then added, “Sir, obviously, we cannot allow this development to interfere with our main work.”
Brennan looked puzzled. “Come again?”
“As you know, the media has a way of creating something out of nothing. It’s a terrific way to sell newspapers, but not necessarily good for national security.”
Brennan shrugged. “That’s First Amendment territory, Carter. That’s sacrosanct.”
Gray leaned forward. “I’m not saying otherwise. But we can do something about leaks, and also the content and timing of the information flow. Right now the media knows about as much as we do. They’ll report it, and NIC will be giving an official statement regarding the matter. I think at this stage all that is fine, but it’s certainly not in our best interests to see NIC’s mission derailed for something like this.”
He paused again and then delivered the lines he had practiced on the chopper ride over. “There are only a few ways you are politically vulnerable, sir. And your opponents are so desperate now they’ll seize on anything to hit you with. In that desperation they may see this as such an opportunity. Historically, such a strategy has a certain precedent of success. To put it bluntly, we cannot let them use this to defeat you in November. Whatever the truth is, it’s not important enough to prevent you from winning a second term.”
Brennan thought about this for some time. Finally, he said, “Okay, together we’ll keep a tight leash on the media. I mean this is national security, after all. And if you run into any flack from the Bureau or others, you let me know about it.” He paused and then said, in his
best politician’s baritone, “You’re right, this nation’s security will not be sidetracked by some guy selling drugs on the side.”
Gray smiled. “Absolutely.” Thank God it’s an election year.
Brennan went to his desk and pressed the intercom button. “Tell Secretary Decker to come in.”
Gray looked surprised at this. “Decker?”
Brennan nodded. “We need to talk about Iraq.”
Decker walked in a minute later. He was in his fifties with close-cropped gray hair, handsome features and lean body from running five miles every day wherever he happened to be in the world. A widower, Decker was deemed one of the city’s most eligible bachelors. Although he’d never served in the military, he’d begun in the defense industry, working his way up and earning a sizable fortune before jumping to the public arena. His rise there had been equally swift and included stints as secretary of the navy and deputy defense secretary. He was the total D.C. package—smart, articulate, ruthless, ambitious and well respected—and Gray loathed him. As defense secretary, Decker headed up the Pentagon, the sector that used the vast bulk of all intelligence dollars, a purse that Gray technically controlled. Thus, while Decker was cooperative with Gray and said all the right things in public, Gray was well aware that behind the scenes Decker tried to circumvent and backstab him at every opportunity. He was also Gray’s major rival for the president’s ear.
Decker opened the conversation in his usual brisk manner. “The Iraqi leadership has made it clear that they want us gone very soon. However, there are enormous problems there, even more than the Kurds forming their own republic. The Iraqi army and the security forces are simply not ready. In some critical ways they may never be ready. But the country is growing weary of our presence. And now the Iraqis have publicly taken the position that Israel must be exterminated, following the hard line of their new ally, Syria. It’s an untenable situation but hard for us to reject since it’s a democratically-elected government saying it.”
“We know all this, Joe,” Gray said impatiently. “And the Baathists are negotiating with the leadership to come back to power in exchange for stopping the violence,” he added, looking directly at the president.
Brennan nodded. “But how can we leave Iraq in that way? The last thing we want is Syria and Iraq teaming up, with Hussein’s cronies in control again. With the Sharia Group and Hezbollah headquartered in Syria, we could soon have their presence in Iraq and beyond,” Brennan added, referring to the two anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. “And France sliced off the coastline of Syria and formed Lebanon in the 1920s. Syria has always wanted it back and may unite with Iraq to do so. And then they might go after the Golan Heights, sparking a war with Israel. That could destabilize the entire region more than it already is.”
Gray said, “Well, if another country came here and lopped off New England and unilaterally formed another country with it, we’d be upset too, wouldn’t we, Mr. President?”
Decker cut in. “Besides the Baathists, there are extremist Islamic factions in the Iraqi legislature that are growing in power. If they take over, they’ll be far more dangerous to the U.S. than Saddam Hussein ever was. But we also promised the Iraqi people that we would leave when they had adequate security forces in place and officially asked us to withdraw. That moment is almost upon us.”
“So get to your point, Joe!” Gray snapped.
Decker glanced at Brennan. “I haven’t discussed this fully with the president yet.” He cleared his throat. “By taking out some of these extremist factions in the legislature, we can tip the power in favor of the government in Iraq that’s best for the U.S. and keep the Baathists from coming back to power. And there is all that oil to consider, sir. Gas is approaching three dollars a gallon now. We need the leverage of the Iraqi reserves.”
“Take out? As in, what, assassination!” Brennan said, scowling. “We don’t do that anymore. It’s illegal.”
“It’s illegal to assassinate a head of state or government, Mr. President,” Gray corrected.
“Exactly,” Decker agreed. “These people are not in that category. To me it’s no different than putting a price on bin Laden’s head.”
“But the targets you’re talking about are duly appointed members of the Iraqi legislature,” Brennan protested.
“The insurgents are murdering moderate legislators with impunity over there right now. This is simply evening the playing field, sir,” Decker rejoined. “If we don’t do something, there won’t be any moderates left.”
“But, Joe,” Gray said, “if we go in and do that, it’ll ignite a civil war.”
“We’ll make it look like the Iraqi moderates did it in retaliation so there’s no heat on us. I’ve been promised full cooperation from them.”
“But the resulting civil war . . . ,” Brennan said.
“Will give us a perfectly legitimate reason to keep our military presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future,” Decker responded quickly, obviously pleased with himself. “However, if we allow the Baathists back in, they’ll crush all opposition, and Iraq will return to a Hussein-style dictatorship. We can’t let that happen. All the money spent and lives lost will have meant nothing. And if that happens in Iraq there’s no reason to think the Taliban can’t reemerge in Afghanistan.”
Brennan looked at Gray. “What do you think?”
Actually, Gray was chagrined he hadn’t thought of it first. Decker had clearly outflanked him on this. The little son of a bitch. “You wouldn’t be the first U.S. president to authorize something like that, sir,” he grudgingly admitted.
Brennan didn’t look convinced. “I need to think it over.”
“Absolutely, Mr. President,” Decker replied. “But it is on a tight time frame. And as you well know should Iraq and Afghanistan fall back under the control of governments hostile to us, the American public will raise holy hell.” He paused and added, “That is not a legacy you want or deserve, sir.”
For all his hatred of the man Gray had to admit, from the concerned expression on Brennan’s face, Decker had played it perfectly.
After Decker had left, Brennan sat back and took off his reading glasses. “Before we start the briefing, I want to run something by you, Carter. I’m heading up to New York on September 11 to give a speech at the memorial site.” Gray knew where this was going but stayed silent. “I wanted to know if you’d like to accompany me. After all, you’ve done more than almost anyone to ensure something like that never happens again.”
It was unheard-of to decline an invitation by a United States president to travel to an event. However, Gray really didn’t care about protocol or tradition with this particular subject.
“That is a kind offer, sir, but I’ll be attending a private service here.”
“I know it’s painful for you, Carter, but I just thought I’d ask. You’re sure?”
“Very sure, Mr. President. Thank you.”
“All right.” Brennan paused. “You know about my hometown renaming itself after me?”
“Yes, sir. Congratulations.”
Brennan smiled. “It’s one of those things that come along that’s both flattering and embarrassing at the same time. My ego’s not so large that I can’t see that the town’s hope in profiting by the change is at least equal to their wanting to pay homage to a local boy made good. I’m going up to give a speech at the dedication and shake some hands. Why don’t you join me?”
If the most important rule was you never declined a president’s invitation, the second most important rule was you never turned the man down twice.
“Thank you, I’d like that very much.”
The president tapped his glasses against his briefing book. “It’s likely that I’ll be here for another four years.”
“I’d say it’s more than likely, sir.”
“I want you to speak frankly, Carter. This will stay between you and me.” Gray nodded. “Despite your successes in protecting this country, do you believe that the world is safer to
day than it was when I took office?”
Gray carefully considered this question, trying to ascertain the answer his chief wanted. However, Brennan remained inscrutable, so Gray decided to tell him the truth. “No, it’s not. In fact, it’s far more volatile.”
“My people tell me that at its present consumption the planet could run out of fossil fuel in fifty years. No more plane travel, a few electric cars, cities shutting down for lack of energy. How we communicate, work, travel, get our food, all radically transformed. And this country won’t have the means to adequately maintain its nuclear weapons and other military resources.”
“That’s all certainly possible.”
“Yes, but without our military, how do we remain safe, Carter?”
Gray hesitated and then said, “I’m afraid I don’t have the answer for you, sir.”
Brennan said quietly, “I believe the difference between a mediocre president and a great one is opportunity.”
“You’ve done a good job, Mr. President. You should be proud.” Actually, in Gray’s opinion, the man hadn’t done anything special, yet he was not about to tell his boss that.
As Gray walked out of the West Wing an hour later, his mind, for once, wasn’t on stopping America’s enemies or pleasing his commander in chief. As he climbed aboard the chopper, Gray was thinking about purple. That was his daughter’s favorite color until she was six. And then orange became her favorite. When he asked her why the change, she informed him with hands on little hips and her stubborn chin angled up that orange was a more grown-up color. Even to this day that memory never failed to make him smile.
Warren Peters finally found the boat where the Camel Club had hidden it. He immediately called Tyler Reinke and the man joined him quickly.
“You’re sure this is it?” Reinke asked as he gazed at the boat.
Peters nodded. “There’s blood on the gunwale. So I was right. I hit one of them.”
“If they took the boat and brought it back, someone might have seen them.”
Peters nodded and then stared out at the water. “But there might be an easier way to track them down. Johnson had ID in his pocket.”
“So what if our witnesses saw where he lived, and get curious?”
“It might save us a lot of legwork,” Reinke agreed. “We’ll go there tonight.”
CHOOSING HIS WORDS WITH CARE and hedging as much as he possibly could without drawing the ire of his superiors, Alex wrote up his report and e-mailed it to Jerry Sykes. He finished up some other paperwork and decided to call it a day before someone grabbed him for post duty. Alex had no desire to spend another evening watching a king or prime minister stuff his face with crab dip.
He passed an agent who was stashing his pistol in a wall locker before going in to interrogate a suspect.
“Hey, Alex, bust any more ATM bandits?” the agent asked. The story