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The White House, Washington, DC
Friday, 21 May 17:18:59 GMT -0500
The two Marine guards snapped open the side-by-side doors, allowing Tucker to enter the West Wing without breaking stride. It was one of those little perks he would miss, all the bowing and scraping to his position. Tucker Stark, Director of Central Intelligence, he would miss that too. The job, the title -- everything.
Christ Almighty, how did it come to this? What if the President hadn't made that one slip of the tongue -- his acute interest in oil leases off the coast of Alaska -- and what if Tucker hadn't started to investigate? What if he hadn't found the offshore corporations, the hidden accounts, the bearer bonds, and the foreign depositories the President used to hide his ownership and illegal profiteering? Accounts buried so deep, hidden behind so many shell corporations and false names that no official investigation -- one that would need to abide by international regulations of confidentiality -- would ever uncover.
The young woman behind the reception desk, a uniformed Secret Service agent, grinned with chirpy enthusiasm. "Good afternoon, Mr. Director."
Tucker forced his thoughts back to the here and now and somehow managed to conjure up a smile. "Good afternoon." If only it was.
"You're looking very good today."
He knew better. Beneath his easy-fitting, summer-weight Armani suit, his six-foot, four-inch athletic body had started to go soft, a consequence of too many take-out meals since the death of his wife and children. For the first time since puberty, he looked older than his age -- fifty-six -- his hair having gone from black to steel gray in less than two years. "Thank you."
He scratched his name into the logbook and started down the hall, still questioning what he was about to do. But how could he not? Like it or not, he knew too much. And now that he understood the pattern, he could see how the President made financial decisions based on legislation he would either sign or veto. And worse, how he pushed for legislation simply to benefit his portfolio, even when it hurt the country. That was too much. Way too much! The man was a menace and had to be stopped.
Bette Ann Collins flashed an irritated scowl, just enough to let Tucker know this unscheduled late-afternoon visit was not appreciated. Though her title -- Personal Secretary to the President of the United States -- came with no special powers, Bette Ann was guard dog to the most powerful man in the world and wasn't shy about expressing her feelings, not even to the Director of Central Intelligence. "He's waiting."
Tucker didn't bother to respond -- if he had his way the old bitch would be working for an ex-President soon enough -- and pushed open the door to the Oval Office. John Paul Estes, the President's Chief of Staff, an unattractive man with more nervous tics and twitches than a hyperactive two-year-old, was pacing impatiently back and forth in front of the desk. The President was slumped in his chair, looking bored and anxious to escape his gilded cage. Tucker purposely ignored Estes -- it was a game they played, one of mutual disrespect -- and focused on the President. "Mr. President, thank you for seeing me on such short notice."
The President -- tall and urbane in a perfectly tailored bluish-gray worsted suit -- stood and extended his hand across the desk, a rosewood showpiece containing a stylish array of mementoes and photographs, and not a single file or scrap of paper. Just like the man, Tucker thought, all flash and facade. "No problem," the President said, showing his perfect and freshly whitened teeth. "No problem at all. The people's work must be done."
"I hope this is important," Estes said, "I've got a shit pile of reports I need to get through."
That Tucker believed. For all practical purposes, John Paul Estes ran the Executive branch of the government while the President campaigned, something he did sixteen hours a day, 365 days a year, election year or not. "When I call, Mr. Estes, you should pray it isn't important."
Estes smiled without humor and motioned toward one of the chairs facing the President's desk. "What's so critical it couldn't wait until morning?"
Tucker ignored the question and kept his eyes focused on the President. "I'm afraid it's a Red Issue, sir. Your ears only."
The President nodded with great solemnity -- the perfect visage of Presidential concern and attention -- and turned to his Chief of Staff. "I'm sorry, JP, you'll have to excuse us."
Estes expelled a long breath, letting Tucker know exactly how he felt about private conversations with the President. No one understood the man's intellectual limitations better than John Paul Estes, a secret he had diligently tried to protect for more than twenty-five years. "Is this really necessary?"
"I don't make the rules," Tucker answered. "If the President wants to share the information, that's up to him."
Estes recognized the trap immediately. If the President made such a decision before hearing the information he would look stupid, and if Estes insisted on sitting in, it would make the President look weak. "I'll be in my office." He gave the President a look, a secret exchange only the two of them understood. "Please call me when you're done." Despite the "please," it sounded more like an order than a request.
Tucker waited until the door closed before speaking. "I think we should move to your private office, sir."
"Oh?" A momentary look of confusion spread across the President's face, the time it took for him to grasp the implication, that this was not an Oval Office discussion, where conversations were routinely recorded. "Of course." For the first time he looked half interested, as if he expected Tucker to expose some juicy bit of political scandal. "Excellent idea."
That the President would assume it was "an excellent idea" only confirmed what Tucker now knew to be true: in addition to being an avaricious profiteer, the man had a room-temperature IQ -- and the sooner he was gone, the safer the country would be.
Though Tucker had been Director for nearly two years, it was his first visit to the small room where Clinton had his infamous tryst with Monica Lewinsky. That history and the voyeuristic image it conjured up was more interesting than the room itself, which was rather plain and unimpressive, the walls decorated with photographs of the President and world dignitaries.
The President circled around behind his desk -- a mahogany Chippendale style partners desk with drawers on both sides -- and settled into his chair, a tufted leather wingback. "Okay, Tuck, what's up?"
"It's bad news, Mr. President." Tucker opened his laptop, wanting to check his countersurveillance scanner before saying too much. "Very bad."
The President frowned, apparently realizing that when the Director of Central Intelligence said "very bad" he wasn't referring to some innocuous bit of political scandal. "I'm listening."
Satisfied there were no active listening devices, Tucker activated the recorder and positioned the laptop on the edge of the desk, where the microphone could easily pick up their conversation. "It's North Korea."
"Again! I thought we settled all that."
"Yessir, but I'm afraid we dramatically misjudged the situation."
The furrow between the President's perfectly plucked eyebrows deepened significantly. "We?"
Exactly the response Tucker expected -- the political response -- the only language the President understood. Not how or why, but an immediate attempt to distance himself from the epicenter of any problem. "The Agency, Mr. President. Contrary to all the assurances we've received, and what we believed -- " Tucker paused and took a deep breath. "We've now confirmed their nuclear program is not only active, but is much further along than we ever anticipated."
The wrinkles tightened around the President's eyes. "Define 'further along.'"
"Their efforts at miniaturization have been successful."
It was obvious from the President's expression he understood the ramifications. Without miniaturization America was relatively safe; a nuclear weapon was useless to any country without the missiles to deliver it, but once a bomb was miniaturized, it could be hidden and moved without limitation. "You're absolutely sure about this?"
"Yessir, we should have caught it earlier." Tucker tried his best to look appropriately contrite. "Much earlier."
"This is very bad news, Director. Very bad."
Tucker noted the shift from Tuck to Director, but that too was expected. "It gets worse."
The President rolled his hand impatiently. "Continue."
"It's on the street."
"On the street? You mean they're actually trying to sell the damn thing?"
"To anyone with money. And I mean anyone. Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah -- "
"They wouldn't dare."
They both knew that wasn't true; North Korea was one of the biggest arms dealers in the world, and they didn't get that way by judging the moral standards or intentions of their clients. "Yessir, I'm afraid they would."
The President shook his head angrily. "Christ Almighty, I guess we all knew it would come to this eventually."
"You're absolutely sure?" he asked again, clearly hoping for a different answer.
"Yessir. One hundred percent."
"That's what you said about Iraq and WMD."
"That wasn't on my watch, sir."
"A distinction I doubt the UN will find convincing."
"The UN, sir?"
"Of course the UN," the President answered without any hesitation or doubt. "They're the ones who will have to handle this thing."
Tucker nodded, being careful to show only the slightest disapproval. "Yessir."
The President opened his mouth, then hesitated, a look of uncertainty creeping into his eyes. "You don't agree?"
"You said it yourself," Tucker answered, trying to make his disagreement sound like agreement. "Our track record is not so great. I doubt the UN would act on our information unless we can verify its credibility."
"You said it was solid."
"Yessir, absolute bedrock, but disclosing the information would mean exposing our most valuable intelligence-gathering asset."
"For God's sake, Director, we develop intelligence to protect ourselves from exactly this type of thing. Now you're suggesting we sit on our hands because it might compromise an asset? Don't you think that's just a bit ass backwards?"
"That's not -- "
"And don't think for a minute that damn bomb wouldn't end up here in DC. You know better. Ever since Iraq we've been number one on everyone's hit list. No siree, I'm not letting some crazy-ass extremist group get their hands on a nuclear weapon just so you spy boys can protect an asset." The way he said asset, he might as well have said dog shit. "Not on my watch."
"This is no ordinary asset, sir. It's offensive as well as defensive."
"Are you saying it's a weapon?"
"No, sir, not exactly, not in the traditional sense, but it's certainly as dangerous as the bomb."
"As dangerous as the bomb," the President repeated, a look of confusion spreading across his face. "You're talking in riddles, Mr. Director."
Now it was Mr. Director. "Yessir, I guess I am. Sorry, it's just that . . . it's just that you're not going to like this."
"Meaning I should have been told about this asset earlier?"
Tucker nodded, trying again to look appropriately contrite. "It's the very latest in surveillance technology. Code name Live Wire."
The President nodded slowly, thinking. "So this is some kind of . . . what? Listening device?"
"Yessir," Tucker answered, surprised the man had connected the dots so quickly. "A satellite-deployed, wireless electronic ear combining the latest in laser, digital, and audio engineering, capable of isolating sound to an area as small as six square meters. Once we have a lock, we can follow that sound anywhere on the surface of the earth."
"When you say sound, are you talking about human conversation?"
"Yessir, that's exactly what I'm talking about. And with a voice print, which of course we have for virtually every public figure in the world -- " To emphasize his point, he purposely let his gaze wander toward the photographic array of world leaders. " -- we now have the ability to identify and track their movements."
"And listen to every word they say?"
"Yessir, every grunt, grumble, and fart."
"Jesus H. Christ!" The President slumped back in his chair. "Big brother is truly here."
"And it's us."
Despite all his preparation and cerebral role-playing, Tucker could barely maintain his somber expression. "Yessir."
The President expelled a deep breath, a sigh of resignation. "So if I understand this correctly, if you've got a bird sitting over Washington with this technology you can hear every word that's spoken?"
"Not quite. Not yet anyway. At this point it's target specific."
"And if the Oval Office were that target?"
"Yessir, we could hear any conversation and identify any speaker."
"In other words -- " The President turned and stared pointedly toward his wall of dignitaries. "I can forget about ever having a private conversation."
Tucker scowled, just a little, as if he found the idea offensive. "Believe me, sir, we would never target the White House."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Director, but this is Washington, where people trade secrets for power. I don't have a lot of confidence in never."
"I understand your concern, Mr. President, but think of the possibilities. Once we have someone in the crosshairs of Live Wire, they're ours. If we had this technology in 2003 we could have gotten Saddam without ever planting a boot in Iraq."
"That sounds great, and I'm sure many people would see it exactly that way."
"But you don't?"
"I've read 1984. It's not an appealing picture."
Tucker could barely contain his skepticism; the President was a legendary nonreader and was rumored to ignore even his PDBs -- the Presidential Daily Briefing memos -- that summarized the important issues of the day. "I understand your concern, Mr. President. At least we're the only ones who have the capability."
"At this point," the President said, throwing Tucker's words back at him. "Technology has a way of advancing and spreading without regard to political borders or ideology."
"Yessir, I'm afraid you're right, there's no way to contain the evolution. Our only defense is a good offense, to stay ahead of the pack."
"And if we go to the UN with this bomb thing, it would open the doors to the pack?"
"All we have are recorded conversations," Tucker answered. "The words are conclusive, but unless we could prove their legitimacy, which we can't do without exposing Live Wire, the Security Council would never accept or act on the information."
The President slumped lower in his chair. "I'm afraid you're right. So if we don't go to the UN, how do we handle this thing? What's your recommendation?"
Tucker smiled to himself -- they both knew it wasn't his job to recommend, it was his job to lay out the options -- but he had the hook set and could now yank the President in exactly the right direction. "We have a number of choices, sir. The decision, of course, is yours." Tucker knew that was the last thing the President wanted to hear. The man didn't like choices. Didn't like making decisions. He wanted consensus and the denial of responsibility. Tucker raised a hand, one finger extended. "We could send in the Army." Something he knew would never happen, not after the military quagmire in Iraq.
The President took a deep breath, visibly trying to reenergize. "No, we'd end up fighting the Chinese. Besides, the American public would never buy it. I even whisper WMD and they'd be storming the gates."
Tucker nodded and extended a second finger. "Full economic sanctions."
The President shook his head. "Too slow. We have to stop this thing before it happens."
Third finger. "Naval blockade."
"A lot of good that would do," the President snapped back. "If I remember correctly, they share a border with China. How do we close that?"
Tucker ignored the question -- it wasn't meant to be answered -- and extended a fourth finger. "We could buy the bomb ourselves. Through a surrogate, of course."
"And what exactly would that accomplish?"
"It would give us time to work on the problem."
The President hesitated, thinking about it. "That's assuming they only have one of the damn things to sell. Do we know that?"
Tucker shook his head, admitting the weakness of such a plan. It wasn't, of course, a serious proposal -- none of them were -- he was simply working the President toward the deep water.
"After that -- " Tucker hesitated, trying to appear reluctant. " -- after that the ideas get a little weird, sir."
"Like a terrible nuclear accident. The bomb exploding on their soil."
"We could do that?" the President asked, his tone a mixture of interest and indignation.
"No, but we could lay down one of our own and claim that's what happened."
"And we could sell that?"
"To the American public," Tucker answered, "no problem. They believe anything their President repeats often enough." He smiled, acknowledging the President's power to tell and sell, the mantra of his political career. "To the Russians and Chinese -- no. They would know immediately what we did. As would the Brits, but we could control that."
The President shook his head. "Too risky, we could end up in a nuclear war. What else?"
The hook was set, time to start reeling the man in. "We could overthrow the government."
The President stared back across the desk, his expression fixed and rigid, the polite half-smile of someone not quite sure what was being suggested. "I assume that's the government of Kim Jong-il you're talking about, Director."
Tucker barked a laugh, as if that was the funniest damn thing. "Yessir, of course."
The President nodded, then rocked back in his chair and stared at the ceiling, the image of a man struggling with a great moral dilemma. Tucker knew better. A politician struggling with morality was like a professional wrestler contemplating his next move: how to make the phoniness look real. This display of ethical contemplation continued for a good three minutes before the President finally rocked forward and asked the question Tucker had been waiting to hear. "Could that be accomplished?"
"Yessir, I believe it could."
"Lay it out."
"As you know -- " Tucker seriously doubted if the President could find North Korea on a map. " -- there's widespread opposition within the country to Kim's government. Most of this resistance is disorganized and ineffective, a bunch of hungry wolves howling at the moon, but there is one anti-Kim faction, the KUP, who could pull it off -- given the proper financial and logistical support."
"The KUP?" A bewildered frown slowly creased the President's forehead. "I don't recall hearing that name."
"They're a small group, but well organized."
"What's their agenda?"
"Reunification with the South. That's what KUP stands for, the Korean Unification Party."
"Unify as what? What's their political ideology?"
"As a democracy," Tucker answered without hesitation, knowing that's what it would take to get the President's support. "They've seen it work in the South. They want to be part of it."
"But you said they were small. Who would do the fighting? And don't tell me mercenaries, Director. The last thing we need is another Bay of Pigs."
"No, sir, absolutely not. The group has good leadership. If we gave them the plan and the money, they could do it themselves."
"It doesn't sound like there's enough time to get something like that organized. We can't let that bomb slip through our fingers . . ."
"It could be done, sir. It's not like they need to take over the country. They get rid of Kim and the government will collapse."
"But how can you be sure this group ends up in control?" the President asked, his tone doubtful.
"That shouldn't be hard," Tucker answered, trying to make it sound simple. "The media is owned and controlled by the government. Whoever controls the media controls the people. We'll make sure our boys -- " He used the words our boys purposefully, trying to give the proposal a proprietary feel. " -- have the only voice."
"Even so, with all the planning and -- "
"Already done, sir. The operational plan was one of a dozen what-if contingency plans we developed with the military last year. And now that we have Live Wire, we'll know exactly where Kim is -- " He paused, just long enough to make the point. " -- and how to deal with him." A euphemism for assassinate, which was illegal under current law.
The President nodded slowly, the wheels turning as he tried to anticipate every possible outcome and how he could spin it to the press and sell it to the public. "We couldn't afford another debacle like Iraq," he warned, "where we lost control after the battle was over."
"No, sir, we can't have that," Tucker answered, as if the decision had already been made. "And we won't."
"You sound very sure about this, Tuck. That's not like you."
Good, back to Tuck. "Yessir, I'm sure it's the right thing. That doesn't mean I don't have concerns."
"Containment," Tucker answered. "If word gets out, we're dead."
The President rolled his eyes heavenward. "Literally, if we don't get that bomb."
Tucker nodded, showing a bit of reluctance, as if he were the one who needed convincing.
"Who knows about all this?"
"Only one analyst," Tucker answered. "I'm trying to keep the lid on Live Wire. All the reports come to me."
"That's good," the President said, assuming the tone of command. "And how many people would it take to pull off this operation?"
"If you give me the go-ahead I could do everything outside The Company. All contact with the KUP could be handled through independent contractors. They wouldn't even know who they were working for. I'm sure I can handle containment on my end -- " He paused, trying to ascertain whether the President had picked up the challenge, couldn't be sure, and hammered it home. "It's the White House I'm worried about."
"I don't see the problem," the President responded. "I'd prefer not to involve anyone at this end."
"Of course." But it wasn't the White House in general that Tucker worried about; it was one man, John Paul Estes, who never let the President do anything before the idea was vetted and tested before a focus group to be sure the President could sell it, whatever it was. "What about Mr. Estes? I suppose you'll need to run it by him." Tucker purposely used the word need, subtly implying the President couldn't make the decision on his own.
The President hesitated a moment, then shook his head. "JP's got enough on his plate. We'll keep this between us."
Tucker tried to hide his relief behind another question. "What about the National Intelligence Director?"
"Does he know about Live Wire?"
"Let's keep it that way. It's hard enough to keep a secret in this town." The President leaned forward, an expression of deep concern, one he usually reserved for victims of natural disasters. "Tuck, you understand, if something goes wrong I won't be able to cover your back?"
"Yessir, I do understand. That's the way it should be."
"We're talking about the presidency here, not me, you understand, the institution." He made it sound like the pearly gates to heaven. "This country doesn't need another Watergate."
"I understand, sir."
"This is not a political thing," the President continued, his tone shifting from concern to cheerleader. "We're not nation-building here."
"No, sir, absolutely not."
The President began counting off the objectives, as if he needed to justify his position. "We're overthrowing a dictatorial regime more interested in selling bombs than feeding their citizens. We're clearing the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons. We're reunifying North and South Korea as a democracy."
"Those are all righteous causes, sir."
"The people deserve it, Tuck."
Tucker wasn't sure what people the President meant -- the people starving in North Korea, the people who might be incinerated by a nuclear explosion, or just the people of the world -- but he wasn't about to start questioning Presidential grandiosity. "Yessir, they do. And if we pull this off -- " Tucker nodded his head deliberately, as if he actually believed the words coming out of his mouth. "This, sir, will be your legacy."
The President smiled, clueless as to the legacy Tucker had in mind. Copyright ©2006 by Jay MacLarty