Read an Excerpt
Ronald Reagan, at ease with himself as ever, satisfied himself yet again on summoning the memory of his dealings with Blackford Oakes in October 1986. He had done the right thing. But now, December 1987, Oakes had put in for another meeting with the president.
Their 1986 meeting had had to do with a plot to assassinate Gorbachev. A group of young Russians, weary and demoralized by the brutal Soviet war against Afghanistan, had planned to kill the Communist leader. Oakes, veteran CIA agent, was in secret and unshared touch with a Soviet defector he had long experienced as antagonist, but who was now a hidden ally.
And so Reagan had had to ponder the agonizing question: Is it the business of the United States to get in the way of a plot by native Russians trying to get rid of Mikhail Gorbachev, general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, and dictator?
Reagan had inclined, at first, to do nothing-let the Russians look after their own affairs. Gorbachev was certainly an improvement on his predecessors, true. Yet he was a blooded successor to a line of tyrants that had begun in 1917 with Lenin, followed by Stalin, a thirty-year curse. And then there had been Bulganin and Khrushchev and Brezhnev, another thirty years among them, followed by Andropov and Chernenko ("elderly guys," Reagan mused, "-about my own age"). They didn't serve for very long, but they did carry on the bloody Afghan war launched by Brezhnev. A war that Gorbachev, soon after his selection as general secretary, vowed to fight to the end.
Should President Reagan do nothing? Say nothing-when he got word through Oakes that an assassination had been plotted?
Reagan sat on the intelligence. While weighing the question of intervention, he reminded himself that the young conspirators were perfecting their plot. What finally influenced him had been the summit at Reykjavik. This was his second meeting with Gorbachev, and this time he sensed that Gorbachev was different enough from other Soviet leaders to be worth going to undiplomatic lengths to protect. So he called Oakes in and told him to intervene. To abort the assassination. If necessary, even if it meant exposing the ring of youthful plotters. Yes-if necessary-even if it meant exposing the deeply hidden Soviet asset, the clandestine defector who had tipped off Blackford Oakes.
That was fourteen months ago, but Blackford vividly recalled the day the president gave him the order. Reagan had come right to the point.
He told Oakes-his mouth slightly contracted, as was habitual when Reagan was spitting out instructions-that the plot was to be suppressed. Having made the critical decision, Reagan wanted the whole thing to go away. The very last thing he wished ever to be reminded of was that he had once given orders to betray a band of young Russian patriots. After all, weren't these people to be likened to the July 20th plotters against Adolf Hitler? Likened to, well, the Romans who finally did away with Caligula? He stopped himself from deliberating further along such lines. Sic semper tyrannis! was good stuff, but just not right in dealing with someone who, with the flick of a finger, could dispatch nuclear bombs that would destroy lives by the tens of millions.
Seven weeks after his fateful meeting with Oakes, Reagan received word. "The affair" had been "taken care of." That could only mean that the young Russian plotters had been frustrated, presumably imprisoned, or executed. Gorbachev was safe on his throne. There had been a moment of high anxiety for Reagan, some while later, when he met with Gorbachev. The premier was in Washington on a state visit, and sat now with his host in the Oval Office, alone except for the two interpreters.
Gorbachev suddenly turned in his chair. He looked Reagan straight in the face. Had the president known anything about the plot of last October to kill him? he asked.
Reagan was eternally grateful for his histrionic training. "Mikhail," he said, his face redolent of sincerity, "let me give you my personal and most solemn word that no American official was in any way involved in any attempt on your life." Reagan's answer was formally correct. Reagan had not connived, and on deliberation would not have connived, even passively, in any attempted assassination.
Gorbachev held his gaze on Reagan, waited a moment, and then nodded, moving on to another subject. He had heard from the president's own lips what he wanted, and needed, to hear.
But now, in December 1987, would the subject of assassination come up again? Oakes had invoked the oral code over the phone with the critically situated Kathy. "This is about Freckles." That meant there was extra-institutional urgency in the requested meeting. The president would see again the man in the Central Intelligence Agency whom he had dealt with before, and had trusted for some years.
The code was used sparingly, only three times during the Reagan years so far. It meant that Blackford needed to move outside the ambit of the director of the CIA, even when that had been Bill Casey, Reagan's closest security adviser until his death in May.
Kathy slotted him in for four forty-five that afternoon.
Neither party wanted routine clerical notice paid to their meeting. The usual approach to the Oval Office was therefore avoided. Kathy led Oakes into the Cabinet Room, and from there knocked on the side door of the Oval Office, bringing Oakes in. The president stayed at his desk and nodded with a friendly smile, pointing to the chair alongside.
"Sir, the business of last October, the plot against Premier Gorbachev-"
"Yes, yes. Why do we need to bring that up?"
"Because there's a fresh design on his life-we think. Solid enough to bring to your attention. It comes to us from a survivor of the business of last October. But this time we're not sure, not like last time. This time it's a real complicated business-"
"I don't want to hear about it." Reagan looked down at his desk, arched his eyebrows, and slowed down the tempo of the conversation. "Just do this: Do whatever you can to protect Gorbachev, do it one more time, abort, abort-"
The president winked and leaned back on his chair. "I had a reputation back in California: I was a moderate on the subject of abortion." His creases broke into a smile. "You know the one about the British serial killer who said he was actually astonished by his moderation? My reaction exactly!" He paused and his eyes went to the painting of George Washington. He said deliberately, "There's to be no moderation in anything you have to do to protect Gorbachev. And no reporting to me except as absolutely required."
"I won't report back anything in detail. It could all be just a bag of wind. But I think I ought to go over there and find out."
"What do you need from me? Airplane tickets? Come to think of it, Black, the White House has a pretty good travel agent. I guess it does. My plane is always there when I need it. So, what do you need from me?"
"I do need one thing, Mr. President. Back then, last October, I was still director of covert operations for the agency. Since then, I've had to . . . slow down, so I'm just an agent. But as former operations chief, the rules say I'm not allowed inside enemy territory. You'd have to waive that rule."
The president pulled open his top desk drawer but then slammed it shut again. "I've been sitting here for nearly seven years. The things they want me to write an executive order about! Now this."
"You don't have to write anything, sir. Just tell me it's okay-"
"Viva voce?" Reagan was visibly pleased to use an old term of the trade.
"Yes." Blackford nodded. "Viva voce."
"Why do they have that rule?"
"Because if an operations chief were captured, he'd have a lot of vital information."
"Which the enemy could get hold of through torture?"
"That's the idea."
"How would you keep that from happening in your case?"
"I'd take precautions. Sir."
Reagan paused. And then nodded.
"I'll pass your word on-if I have to," Blackford continued. "I'll book a flight through Zurich and enter the Soviet Union under cover. That will also make it harder for the bureaucrats in the CIA to remind me where I can't go."
"Okay, okay. You have my word on it. But don't get me crossed up with your director. He's a good man." The afternoon sun broke in through the south window. Reagan's arm reached back and he felt for the cord, bringing the shades down enough to neuter the sun's glare.
"I don't know how it's all going to end up with Gorbachev. You saw what he said on the seventieth anniversary of their revolution?" Reagan reached into his desk for the clipping. "What he said was"- Reagan's voice was detached now, at public-speaking level-"that-I'm quoting him-'In October 1917, we parted the old world, rejecting it once and for all. We are moving toward a new world, the world of Communism. We shall never turn off that road.' Maybe he needs a little prodding."
"Well, sir, we've got a defense budget of nearly three hundred billion. That's prodding, right?"
"Yes. That's one way to make our point about road signs. Cap Weinberger would like to hear it put that way. Well, he's secretary of defense, and secretaries of defense have a right to think that hundreds of billions on defense are a means of prodding people to do the right thing." He got up from his chair. "If you need to see me again"- he extended his hand-"call Kathy."
Copyright © 2005 by William F. Buckley Jr.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.