- Published: 2 July 2018
- ISBN: 9780143799511
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 464
- RRP: $32.99
The Russian Affair
White House Situation Room
The members of the National Security Council and their advisors all rose as President Bedford Travers entered the White House Situation Room located beneath the Oval Office. The Vice-President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Advisor were some of the most powerful men in the country. The President took his leather seat at the head of the long polished mahogany table and glared around the room. The Director of the National Clandestine Service, Tom McNamara – the CIA’s chief spy – exchanged glances with his old colleague Dwight D. Corbett, the grey-haired Secretary of Defense. Both men had served various administrations, Republican and Democrat, but neither had ever encountered anything like the irascible, unpredictable Travers.
The Situation Room was far more cramped than the media images portrayed, but the old mahogany walls had been replaced by high-tech ‘whisper walls’ and the six embedded flat screens ensured the president and his advisors could access encrypted video communications with other leaders and generals around the world. A CCTV camera, located in amongst the dome lighting in the roof, enabled the president’s Secret Service detachment to monitor proceedings from outside the room.
‘Mr President, if I can direct your attention to the screen on the far wall, we have a recording of an address Caliph Abu Muhammad al-Rahman made just minutes ago.’ Lester Metcalf, the burly four-star Air Force General and Director of National Intelligence nodded to his aide and the screen came to life, showing a bearded al-Rahman wearing a black turban. The Caliph was speaking from behind a stone balustrade, the top of which was covered in snow.
Travers’s eyes narrowed and he glared at the self-styled leader of the Sunni jihadist Islamic State.
‘I have a message for you Infidels,’ the Caliph began in an ominous tone. ‘It’s a message that comes directly from Allah and the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him. We will shortly be in possession of nuclear warheads, and if you do not immediately cease your operations against us in Iraq and Syria and other parts of the world, your cities will be reduced to smoking, radioactive rubble. The President of the United States is weak and unpopular. Your western civilisations have sunk into the depths of depravity. Your politicians are corrupt. Your banks are corrupt. Your entire society is corrupt. But, Insha’Allah, now you have an opportunity to reform.’ And with that, the screen went blank.
McNamara observed the president with a growing sense of unease. Travers’s face had reddened alarmingly.
‘Who the hell does he think he is?’ President Travers exploded in fury. ‘Where was that broadcast made?’
The Secretary of Defense raised an eyebrow toward the Secretary of State. This was not the first tirade they had witnessed and an uncomfortable silence descended on the Security Council. Tom McNamara thought hard before he broke it. In the past, the CIA and other agencies had learned to their cost that this president had little understanding of the workings of the intelligence community and scant regard for endangering the sources of top-secret information. At the very time this meeting had got underway, McNamara knew that his leading field agent, Curtis O’Connor, and elements of SEAL Team Six were preparing to launch an airborne assault on an ancient castle in the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, not far from that country’s northern border with Chechnya, a republic of Russia. But he also knew that O’Connor and his men were after something far more critical than Caliph al-Rahman. The capture or assassination of the Caliph was only a secondary target, but because this president and his staff could not be trusted to keep the operation on a strict need-to-know basis, McNamara had put it into a ‘black’ compartment. The only other person in the room who was aware of Operation Caucasus was General Reid, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
‘We believe that video was made in the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia,’ said McNamara, finally breaking the silence with the barest information. ‘But we have yet to confirm that from another source.’
‘What do you mean another source?’ Travers rasped.
‘Mr President, we have a tried and tested system for grading intelligence, and it’s one that has served us well for many decades,’ McNamara responded evenly. ‘We rate our sources from A – meaning a history of complete reliability – down to F – meaning we can’t judge it. Those ratings are further refined with ratings for the reliability of the information itself. One means confirmed, through to six where again, we can’t make a judgment. The current report on the ISIS Caliph has been graded B2, meaning it’s from a usually reliable source and it’s probably true, but until we can confirm the information from a second source, we need to tread carefully.’
‘That’s the problem with you intelligence bureaucrats. You always tread carefully,’ Travers fumed, ‘but I’m here to tell you the American people have had it up to here with your pussyfooting delays!’ The president slammed his fist onto the mahogany table. ‘I’m here to tell you that President Bedford Travers is a man of action and it’s action I’m going to take. Now where in the Pankisi Gorge exactly is this so-called Caliph?’
‘Again, we’re not sure, Mr President,’ said McNamara, maintaining his calm disposition, ‘but we think the location is not far from a little village called Jokolo in the upper reaches of the Alazani river.’
‘Then we bomb them,’ said the president.
McNamara immediately regretted speaking up. To describe the president’s current demeanour as erratic and impulsive would, McNamara thought, be at the kind end of the spectrum.
‘Mr President, with respect,’ the grey-haired Secretary of Defense Corbett intervened, ‘bomb whom?’
‘ISIS! I promised the American people I would destroy these barbarians and I will, and I’m starting with their leader.’
The Defense Secretary took a deep breath. ‘Mr President, we can’t just order our aircraft to bomb another country. Georgia is not Syria or Iraq. And even if such a grave step were taken, without more exact intelligence on the precise location of a target, conventional weapons are not going to have much effect, other than on the civilian population of Jokolo.’
‘Then we nuke them.’
A collective gasp echoed off the walnut walls.
‘Mr President, you can’t be serious.’ This time it was the turn of the Secretary of State to reason with the increasingly irritable and fitful Travers.
President Travers glared at the veteran diplomat. ‘I’ve never been more serious in my life. ISIS is messing with Bedford Travers, and I’m going to teach them a lesson. As of right now,’ the president said, turning to General Elbert T. Reid, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, ‘I’m authorising you to use one or two of those low-power battlefield nukes you’ve briefed me on. That way, the damage will be confined, but make no mistake – I’m going to wipe these barbarians off the face of the earth!’
‘Mr President, you have the authority vested in you as President of the United States to order a nuclear attack, but you need to be aware that in a nuclear attack, the damage is never confined.’ General Reid ran his hand through his short-cropped hair, but like McNamara, he remained calm and measured. ‘We are all advising you not to take such an extreme step. It must have occurred to you that if we launch small nuclear bombs – even conventional bombs – into Georgia, not only will innocent Georgians get killed but the Russian President will see that as an attack on his interests and he may retaliate. President Petrov’s Sarmat ICBMs are the fastest in the world. They travel at over 15 000 miles an hour and they would reach us with multiple warheads in under 12 minutes. Our Minuteman missiles were designed in the 1950s and the system is now over 50 years old. Quite frankly, Mr President, I’m not convinced we could react in time.’
‘Petrov would do no such thing,’ President Travers shot back. ‘He hasn’t got my ticker. ISIS have threatened us with nuclear weapons, and that will be all over tonight’s news. I’m going to tell the American people that we will fight the ISIS fire with a bigger fire. Get your battlefield nukes ready, and I want a brief on my desk by tomorrow morning with a plan to wipe this village off the map. The plan is to include putting our missiles and submarines on full alert in case Petrov decides he wants to mix it with me. ISIS is not going to get away with this, because no one – no one – calls me weak and unpopular and gets away with it. This meeting is terminated!’ The President stormed out of the Situation Room toward the stairs that led up to the Oval Office.
The members of the National Security Council immediately broke into small groups. There was only one topic of conversation: the fitness of this president to serve in high office and his seeming inability to comprehend reality. McNamara shook his head, unsure which was the greater threat to the world – ISIS or an unstable President of the United States. His thoughts turned to O’Connor and SEAL Team Six, 6000 miles away. O’Connor would, he knew, be preparing to launch his covert mission into Georgia from the Turkish Air Base at Incirlik near the Turkish Mediterranean coast.
Max looked at his watch, and a sinking realisation that he was late plunged through him.
As Marie prepared to break into her father’s bedroom, she felt a little pool of guilt well up inside her for betraying him.
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.
‘I don’t remember.’ Or rather, she didn’t want to remember, which was not the same thing.
It is nearly dawn, and the semi-darkness casts strange shadows along the footpath.
I am searching your face for remnants of the young man, the one who wrote of the cries of the holy Lammergeier as it feeds on the bones of the dead.