The New York Times
Blackby Christopher Whitcomb
A fifteen-year member of the FBI who received its coveted Medal of Bravery, former agent Christopher Whitcomb electrified readers with his breathtaking memoir, Cold Zero. Now his remarkable past and hard-edged prose illuminate his highly acclaimed first thriller... Selected for the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team, Special Agent Jeremy Waller is about to fight… See more details below
A fifteen-year member of the FBI who received its coveted Medal of Bravery, former agent Christopher Whitcomb electrified readers with his breathtaking memoir, Cold Zero. Now his remarkable past and hard-edged prose illuminate his highly acclaimed first thriller... Selected for the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team, Special Agent Jeremy Waller is about to fight terrorism at its source-by diving headlong into a violent world of trapdoor truths and shifting alliances. And he'll have company: a beautiful executive more adept at murder than marketing who turns his assignment into a cipher...a ruthless tycoon set on selling a revolutionary technology to terrorists...and a female senator and presidential hopeful charged with an unspeakable crime. Here there is no justice-and only one way out of the darkness: Head even deeper into the shadows...
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By Christopher Whitcomb
Little, BrownCopyright © 2004 Christopher Whitcomb
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFour Months Later
"THE COMMITTEE WILL come to order."
United States Senator Elizabeth Beechum, a Democrat from South Carolina, tapped a wooden gavel and stared out over S-407, a Capitol hearing room reserved for top secret briefings. The space felt typically quiet this morning, barren of the reporters, pool cameras, and curious tourists common to other congressional forums.
"Good morning, gentlemen," she said, noting that of the twenty-odd people in the room, she was once again the only woman. Typical, she thought. She'd seen progress during her twenty-three years in Washington, but Congress remained the world's most powerful boys' club. The fact that a Republican Senate had elected her to a third consecutive term as committee chair-the only such cross-party vote in anyone's memory-had little to do with gender. She was a consummate professional in a world that spoke its own language, handed out secrets grudgingly, and demanded uncompromising allegiance to rules. Even the Republicans knew they needed her.
"Before we get started, I want to read into record that this is the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence." The four-term senator spoke loudly and with a refined Southern lilt. "Today's session is a closed hearing on technology matters. All minutes, conversations, and proceedings are classified top secret, in their entirety."
Beechum read in the date, the time, and a list of the witnesses seated in front of her. There were two representatives from CIA and one each from the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security. She called out the names quickly, like a homeroom teacher reciting the roll. This was rote process, an administrative speed bump she'd bounced over a thousand times before.
"I want to thank you all for coming today," Beechum added, slightly distracted. The committee's six other members settled into their seats as she glanced down at the morning's Washington Post, which lay discreetly propped against her knees.
BEECHUM AND VENABLE LOCKED IN DEAD HEAT, the top headline proclaimed. Despite Democratic efforts to pick a presidential nominee by the end of March, the race still looked too close to call. Connecticut governor David Ray Venable held on to a four-delegate lead, but party officials from California to New Hampshire were vowing to vote their conscience and Washington was awash in speculation. With a month to go before the Democratic National Convention, Beechum knew that the slightest turn in momentum-just one decent news cycle-could make her the first woman ever to lead a major party's bid for the White House.
"Let me say that we are particularly honored to have a special guest with us this morning," she said, trying to concentrate on the matters at hand. "Mr. Jordan Mitchell."
She nodded toward an elegantly dressed executive perched at a witness table directly across from her. Mitchell's perfectly groomed shock of white hair, John Dean glasses, and bespoke suit stood out in bold contrast to the lineup of military uniforms and drab, government-grade polyester.
"Welcome, Mr. Mitchell," the senator said. "It's nice of you to join us."
Jordan Mitchell needed no further introduction. As chief executive officer and majority stockholder of Borders Atlantic, the world's largest telecommunications company, he rivaled Bill Gates as the best known of America's billionaires. His How to Succeed in Business books often ranked among the year's bestsellers; his high-profile acquisitions filled financial pages around the world. Magazines often fawned over his triumphs. He'd been profiled by 60 Minutes. Twice.
"Good morning, Madam Chair," he said, smiling. "I want to tell you what an honor it is to testify before your committee. I've long admired your objectivity and foresight in safeguarding this great nation. And I want to add that you look even more ... engaging in person than on TV."
Charmer, Beechum noted in the margins of her agenda. Fortunately, he wasn't her type. Men like Jordan Mitchell condescended to women, rebuffed oversight, and largely ignored any authority greater than their own. He lived for himself in a secular world of bottom lines, balance sheets, and cost-benefit analyses. She'd seen enough of his kind during her two decades in Congress. His money and power singled him out in the business world, but it would serve him poorly in here.
"Thank you, I'm sure," Beechum replied, trying to sound flattered. "This committee certainly appreciates your cooperation. I understand you canceled a trip to Dubai so you could join us."
Mitchell nodded his head. He saw no need to elaborate.
"I want to assure you, as I said before," Beechum continued, "that our discussions are classified in their entirety and will not leave this room. We all understand the sensitivities of this issue and want to make you feel comfortable being completely candid."
Mitchell smiled politely. He felt comfortable in Washington, but only while clinging to two steadfast tenets: (1) never trust a politician and (2) never say anything you don't want to hear on CNN two hours later. Jordan Mitchell had billions of dollars resting on the new initiative they'd invited him in to discuss, and there was no way he was going to tell Beechum or her cronies anything that would place it in jeopardy.
"If I may ...," a voice interrupted.
Oh, hell, here it comes. Beechum winced. She turned toward Marcellus Parsons, the senior Republican from Montana. The tall, lanky cattleman adjusted his bolo tie, cleared his throat, and fired up his Big Sky hubris.
"I want to tell you, sir," Parsons said, "what a distinct honor it is to have a man of your singular accomplishment before this committee. The new Secure Burst Transmission-or SBT-phones that your company has developed will reestablish the United States as the preeminent leader in the worldwide telecommunications industry. We're honored by your presence."
Beechum tried not to choke on Parsons's kowtow. He was right, of course, about the technology. That's why they were here: Mitchell's company had developed a totally secure, low-cost encryption system that would allow virtually any subscriber to communicate without fear of interception. It worked as well on cell phones and landlines as it did in cyberspace and would be a boon to businesspeople, Internet marketers, and personal privacy advocates.
Unfortunately, terrorists, criminals, foreign governments-anyone capable of shelling out $59.99 a month-would enjoy the same protections. Unless Mitchell shared his secrets with U.S. intelligence agencies, Borders Atlantic would set back signals interception efforts by twenty-five years.
"Why don't we get started, then," Beechum suggested. "Mr. Mitchell, I believe you understand our concerns about this new Secure Burst Transmission technology. The United States government spends tens of billions of dollars each year gathering information on offensive foreign powers. As the rest of our witnesses will attest, signals intelligence accounts for almost eighty percent of our overall information-gathering capability. It's a vital part of our national defense."
The committee's witnesses-all government scientists and intelligence program managers-suddenly straightened to bent-leg attention, hoping Beechum would call on them for support. Each of them knew that these hearings carried real consequence. They all wanted to contribute.
"I would like to point out," Parsons fumed, "that not all statements by the chair represent the intentions or opinions of the committee." He cleared his throat again and nodded directly at Mitchell. "I, for one, hold dear the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendment protections guaranteed in our Constitution and want to remind everyone of this country's proud traditions of innovation and enterprise."
Beechum tossed down her pen and shook her head. She poorly tolerated attempts to grandstand, especially when they implied any lack of respect for the Constitution.
"Senator, this is not about the Bill of Rights ...," she replied, but Parsons interrupted.
"Then what is it? How does the United States Senate drag in one of this nation's most prominent businessmen and accuse him of -"
"I accused him of nothing, Senator," Beechum barked. "I simply -"
"Please, Madam Chair ... Senator Parsons." Jordan Mitchell raised his hands like a referee stepping in to break up a clinch. These legislators hadn't even made opening statements yet, and they were already starting to kidney punch and bite.
"I understand both sides of this issue," he said with the same avuncular confidence he used to sell books and cell phones, "but I think it is important to point out that these same objections have been raised with each major communications advance since the telegraph. Every time private industry comes up with something new, the government cries out that it will stymie their efforts to protect the greater good of the people. You cannot expect the technology sector to maintain superiority over foreign competitors then rein us in when our efforts exceed your ability to manage them."
"We are at war, Mr. Mitchell," Beechum chided. "With terrorism. I can't show you the actual intelligence, but the FBI and CIA have credible and specific evidence of plans to strike a major American financial institution within the next few months. These SBT phones you are looking to introduce would give terrorists free lines of communication and make our job much more difficult. It could cost lives."
Parsons bristled at her preaching. Like others on the House and Senate intelligence committees, he had received classified briefings about what was now known informally in Washington as "Matrix 1016"-an SCI, or Secure Compartmented Information, report regarding efforts by a little-known Saudi fundamentalist cell to attack or disrupt the Federal Reserve. Nothing in what Parsons had read pointed to specific dates, times, or methods for this long-lead plot, and nothing in that report gave Elizabeth Beechum the right to give one of America's leading entrepreneurs a civics lesson.
"This committee's primary concern is oversight, not regulation," Parsons argued. "One of our most important functions is to prevent abuses of power, to make sure this government never oversteps its authority. I see no correlation between any classified intelligence reports and Mr. Mitchell's new phone system."
"Senators, if I may," Mitchell interjected. "I fully understand that we are at war with terrorism and that we all have individual responsibilities. The problem is that we can't stop technological advancement in the name of security. Private industry would never have developed the Internet, microwave-based communications, satellites ... hundreds of remarkable inventions, if scientists were held to some government-administered litmus test."
"This is different," Beechum argued. She had worked her entire career in the intelligence community and knew its back alleys and mirrored hallways better than anyone else on the Hill. "Signals intelligence is our most effective weapon against terrorism, and you are rendering it obsolete."
"Please," Mitchell said incredulously. "Intelligence agencies have always found ways to defeat sophisticated encryption. Look at the FBI's Carnivore program and the NSA's Echelon system. Both were created to eavesdrop on otherwise secure communications, and both have been very effective. Yet, people have a reasonable expectation of privacy on their phones and computers, and fortunately for the consumer, my company has come up with a way to restore it. That's not treason ... that's good business."
"We're not trying to infringe on America's right to privacy," Beechum huffed. Two decades on the Hill had given her a rock-steady sense of national security and a keen eye for bull. "We're protecting our responsibility to investigate and gather intelligence."
"I understand that," he said. "But you are an elected public servant, and Borders Atlantic is a private business with shareholders, a board of directors, market analysts, and lawyers-all of whom tell us that we have the legal and ethical right to develop this technology." He paused for effect. "If you feel it necessary to try to dissect our new SBT technology, jump right in line with our competitors, but please don't make Borders Atlantic a campaign slogan for this year's elections. Do not vilify us for political gain."
Beechum rocked back in her chair, stunned at his strident arrogance. She planned to challenge an increasingly vulnerable president in the fall. Mitchell was taking one hell of a chance in goading her.
"You don't really believe that, do you?" she asked. "You don't really think that the right to make a dollar should override the government's right to protect itself."
"I'm a businessman, Senator, not a spy." Mitchell looked Beechum straight in the eye when he said it, and she felt his power. This man had $47 billion in personal wealth and a huge multinational company behind him. He bowed to no one.
"Mr. Mitchell has a valid point," Parsons interjected. "This new encryption technology will mean thousands of new jobs, billions of dollars in revenue, trade parity, market share ..."
"And two new factories in your district!" The words jumped from Beechum's mouth before she could gather them back.
Parsons stared at her, as did the other sixteen members of the committee. Politicians often threw mud, but not over pork. Everyone in politics knew that constituents voted their pocketbooks. There wasn't an elected official alive who wouldn't have welcomed factories like Mitchell's into their district.
"I would think," Parsons growled, "that the esteemed senator from South Carolina might consider her advocacy and protection of the tobacco industry before casting stones about factories in Montana."
What had started as a quiet hearing was fast degenerating into a slugfest.
"Borders Atlantic is proud to bring nearly fifteen hundred new jobs to an economically challenged region of the United States." Mitchell nodded, ever the tactician. "We could have built additional plants in Thailand or Mexico or even China, but we chose to stay with the world's most productive workforce. In fact, we pledge to keep all new high-paying technology jobs inside the United States, where they belong."
Bravo, Beechum thought. He had prepared well.
"It's not the factories I object to, Mr. Mitchell; it's the technology behind them. None of these jobs will matter much if the Americans working there have to live in constant fear of terrorism."
She stopped herself short of proselytizing. "Before we nominate Mr. Mitchell for sainthood," Beechum said, "there are still some questions the committee and I would like to ask."
"I have all morning, Senator," Mitchell answered.
Excerpted from Black by Christopher Whitcomb Copyright © 2004 by Christopher Whitcomb. Excerpted by permission.
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