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|1 BLACK JANUARY||1|
|2 Z DIVISION||16|
|3 THE NEW RUSSIA||32|
|4 JESSICA STERN||47|
|5 THE ICEBERG CLUB||67|
|6 MIRAGE GOLD||81|
|7 THE VIENNA CONNECTION||105|
|8 Q CLEARANCE||120|
|10 MIKHAILOV'S SECRET DEAL||162|
|11 THE OVAL OFFICE||182|
|12 THE PHOENIX||197|
|13 ONE POINT SAFE||228|
|14 WILD ATOM||252|
The sabotage team crawled the last few yards through the snow, then rose cautiously to their feet. The first target loomed out of the darkness on top of the hill. As they expected, there were no guards, but before they set the first bomb they had to find the gauge. Risking a small light, one of them peered at the dial. It looked as if the huge tank was almost full. Hoisting the shaped-charge explosive, they carefully fastened it to the ice-cold metal and set the timer. It was designed to punch a hole clean through the skin, releasing tens of thousands of gallons of aviation fuel. Then they took the second bomb and put it on the ground directly beneath the first. There was enough dynamite to explode the JP-4 jet fuel gushing out of the hole and send a torrent of liquid fire down the hill and into the base. That would certainly keep the Americans busy.
Setting the second timer, they slid off down the hill. Now it was up to the others.
Down below, in the old Luftwaffe commandant's house, the telephone rang, at midnight, Central European time--the last breath of January 4, 1977. The colonel, his clothes folded away with habitual neatness, was just reaching to turn back the covers on his side of the bed when the ringing jerked him fully awake. Outside it was bitterly cold, with sheet ice covering most of the huge army base. Low clouds covered the moon and the glare of the lights of Frankfurt, thirty miles to the south.
"Duty officer here, sir. We have an incident. There's been an explosion. The jet-fuel tank up on the perimeter is burning."
The jet-fuel tank. Normally one hundred thousand gallons of JP-4 for the brigade helicopters. That stuff was hard to light. Someone had to have blown it deliberately.
"I'll be right over. Send my car and driver."
Ten years before, Bill Burns, graduate of Princeton and the Army War College, had been in combat in Vietnam. Now he commanded the 42nd Field Artillery Brigade at Giessen in the heart of Germany, and his base, peaceful ever since the last German commandant had surrendered in 1945, was under attack. The command post was a ten-minute drive away, and he still had to dress. Every second was precious. If he put on the ribbon-decked colonel's service uniform he had just hung in the closet, he could save the two minutes it would take to pull on and lace the calf-length combat boots that went with fatigues. But it looked like it was going to be a long night. If he was walking into a firefight on sheet ice, he needed the boots. He snatched his combat fatigues from the hanger.
The phone rang again. Ominous news from the duty officer.
"Sir, we have automatic weapons fire coming from the tactical area."
Burns tore out of the commander's house. His driver was nowhere to be seen. He fumbled for the keys of his own car, leapt into the driver's seat and raced to the headquarters. This was turning into something far more serious than any Vietcong attack. Giessen was not just another U.S. Army base. Burns commanded the Fort Knox of American tactical nuclear weapons.
No one without a need to know was meant to have the critical intelligence that his was the U.S. Army's main forward European depot for its nuclear arsenal. In the "tactical area," over on the far edge of the base, harsh floodlights glared down on unmarked storage bunkers. Behind the smooth steel doors was enough kilotonnage to wipe Germany off the map. Hundreds of eight-inch artillery shells and hundreds more warheads for the short-range Lance missile, each one a mini Hiroshima. Somebody was after them.
Roaring through the wide, empty streets of the sprawling military city, Burns had a good idea of who was doing the shooting. Six months before, he had driven down to Frankfurt to have a look at the bombed-out remains of the officers' club at V Corps headquarters in Frankfurt. Sixteen people were in the hospital. The next day the theater at the U.S. Air Force base at Wiesbaden had blown up--just two more bloody incidents in the vicious war being waged by the terrorist Baader-Meinhof gang. The string of murders, kidnappings and bombings they carried out across Germany had made them criminal celebrities. Ulrike Meinhof herself had recently hanged herself in a jail cell, but her bitter followers were fighting on, claiming credit as the "Ulrike Meinhof Brigade" for the havoc at the U.S. military targets. Their fierce, gaunt portraits stared out from wanted posters in airports and train stations all over Europe. They were fanatical, totally ruthless and very professional.
As he jumped out of the car at the command post, Burns could hear the sharp cracks of U.S. Army M-16s. He hoped they were following the orders he had laid down months before: anyone trying to get into the tactical area was to be shot on sight. That was the only way to guard nuclear weapons. He liked to remind his officers how, back when he was a junior officer in Germany in the 1950s, he literally lived with an arsenal of nuclear artillery shells. His battalion kept them stored in the cellar underneath the headquarters. A machine-gun team posted at the entrance had orders to kill anyone who didn't come up with the proper password very quickly. "The battalion lost more men that way than in combat in all of World War II," he told his officers at Giessen, without apology.
When he talked in this cold-blooded way, his lean frame taut and his narrow jaw set in intense concentration, none of his subordinates doubted that he meant it. Bill Burns was not a big man, but he had the straightedge spine and granite confidence that allows a commander of ordinary stature to fill a room. A keen student of military history and the Old Testament, he admired punctuality and intelligence and had little patience for those who fall short on either.
When this forty-four-year-old intellectual soldier took over Giessen he inherited a nuclear cache far too big to be hidden in a cellar. He was responsible not only for his own unit's warheads and shells but for those of other units in north-central Germany. The storage area lay a thousand yards from the outer fence of the base, isolated from the barracks by a no-man's-land of darkened warehouses. The site was set apart, lit like a Broadway stage and wrapped in a series of forbidding barriers--concertina wire, a chain-link fence and a thicket of barbed wire. A platoon of infantry was on twenty-four-hour guard. A company of armored infantry was on standby at all times, ready to rush to the rescue.
At headquarters the air was tense. The colonel was briefed on the run. The attackers had cut through the outer perimeter wire and were at the chain-link fence. German police had arrived and were blazing away outside the fence. The reserve guard company was racing to the scene in M-113 armored personnel carriers. The young lieutenant leading the platoon on the spot seemed to be keeping his head.
Down at the site, the platoon commander was firing steadily out through the wire and cursing the glare. The tactical area was always a blaze of floodlights, in case anyone sneaked in unobserved. But now he had the feeling he was onstage while out there people were shooting at him from the blackness. His orders were to hold and defend until the reserves arrived, but where were they? It had been nearly ten minutes since the first black-clad figure had appeared at the chain-link fence. He reassured his men that help was on the way and kept firing.
On the other side of the firefight, time was running out. The attackers had been counting on a massive diversion, but the twelve commandos of the Ulrike Meinhof Brigade could see that the plume of flame from their first bomb on the fuel tank was dying down. Why hadn't the second charge on the ground set off the conflagration that would distract the Americans?
Their plan had been ingenious--but with one fatal flaw. An American gauge reads differently from a German model. The diversion team thought the tank was nearly full--a hundred thousand gallons--and carefully placed the shaped charge well below what they thought was the surface level of the kerosene inside. But that night the tank really held only twenty thousand gallons, so the charge blew a hole eighteen inches above the surface of the fuel inside, igniting only fumes. There was no conflagration, no terrifying distraction for Burns and his men. The team assaulting the nuclear storage site were on their own.
The platoon at the site pumped bullets at the enemy struggling to hack their way through the chain-link fence. The minutes ticked by. Still no sign of the reserves, but the other side was taking casualties. Four of them went down, dragged away by their comrades.
Finally, after ten minutes, the reserve guard company arrived. By now the attackers were retreating back into the woods beyond the outer perimeter. That was territory that Bill Burns did not own. The German police arriving in full and noisy strength could take over now, though they seemed unnerved by the ferocity of the firefight they were joining. Back at the command post, Bill Burns slowly relaxed. It had been only twenty minutes since the first call to his bedroom, but in that short time, history had been made. No longer was it a question "if" terrorists wanted to steal a nuclear weapon. Tonight, they had actually tried to do it.
That history stayed secret. V Corps headquarters in Frankfurt knew, of course. But from there the news passed by only the most secure channels to the Pentagon, whence it disappeared into classified files. All that the outside world would learn was contained in a brief item, down-column on page 3, of the International Herald Tribune for January 6, 1977. It noted that "saboteurs" had cut through a fence at the U.S. Army base at Giessen and blown up a "gasoline" storage tank. There was no mention of nuclear weapons. After all, officially the warheads were not even there.
In Washington, President-elect Jimmy Carter was preparing his inaugural address and deploying his new administration. No one privy to the secret bothered to pass it on to the White House. An astonished Zbigniew Brzezinski, who became National Security Adviser just two weeks after the incident, learned of the attack only nineteen years later, when we told him what had happened.
There was only one visible clue that something strange had happened at Giessen. A sharp-eyed observer might have wondered why the officer of the guard and the midnight watch who defended the nuclear bunkers were suddenly sporting bright new medals on their dress uniforms.
Within five years Bill Burns was wearing a general's star, assigned to the powerful J5 Plans and Policy Directorate at the Pentagon. He was now in the upper reaches of nuclear warfighting policy as a representative of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for intermediate-range nuclear weapons--a long way from nighttime firefights at Giessen. This meant he was deeply involved in the intense diplomatic nuclear exchanges with the Soviets over their targeting new SS-20 missiles on Western Europe. With a break for a posting as deputy commandant of the Army War College, Burns served the Joint Chiefs until 1986, when he was lofted to the State Department to run the powerful Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs. He had a front-row seat for the last campaigns of the cold war, a time when generals and their expert advisers still crafted intricate battle plans for the use of nuclear weapons in the heart of Europe.
There were several thousand such weapons in Germany alone. American nuclear land mines that fit in a backpack, artillery shells small enough to fit in a trunk, missiles two men could lift into a pickup. Batteries of longer-range Pershing missiles rumbled through the forests on mobile half-track launchers, their U.S. Army, crews equipped with masks, respirators and protective suits that the war planners calculated regretfully as the fate of the infantry on both sides of the line.
The Russian troops behind the barbed wire, minefields and watchtowers that cut between East and West manned their short-range Frog nuclear missiles and longer-range nuclear Scuds. They tended their Soviet model land mines and cannons in their own version of the Giessen base, guarded by special troops of the General Staff and controlled by a mysterious unit called the Twelfth Department. Around the clock the miserable units dug in in the snow waited for the top secret codes that might arrive through the ether to unleash a nuclear war.
U.S. Army Field Manual 100-5, issued six months before the Baader-Meinhof gang breached the Giessen defenses, taught soldiers that nuclear firepower increased "lethality." A tactical nuclear weapon with a yield of one kiloton, or 2.2 million pounds of TNT, could kill as effectively as seven artillery battalions. A three-kiloton yield would burn troops to a crisp. But with the range of battlefield warheads the army had at its disposal, one to ten kilotons, the main killing agent was radiation. What the army called the "immediate incapacitation level" was estimated at 8,000-18,000 "rads." A soldier in a dugout exposed to 3,000 rads would-collapse within three to five minutes. He might recover within an hour, but with bouts of uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea, he would be "only partially effective" until his death within a week. A soldier exposed to 650 rads would show no symptoms. He would expire within a month,
In conventional nuclear combat, advised the manual, the prudent dose for assured death for the front-line enemy was 3,000-8,000 rads. That guaranteed the radiation would seep into foxholes and revetments and penetrate the already ovenlike armored vehicles. The blast effects would knock out towns as well as tanks and blow down the forests. It would cripple helicopters, sending them to earth in flames. The thermal effects would burn anyone on the ground who was unprotected and would explode supply dumps. Electromagnetic pulses from the burst would sever communications. All telephones, radios, televisions and computers would go dead.
The second stage would be sickness from what the army called fallout, rainout and induced radiation. A nuclear weapon detonated close to the earth's surface would suck dust and debris into the air and deposit it as hot blankets of lethal radiation. If it was raining, the cloud from a nuclear burst would pass though the rain and fall back to earth in the droplets as radioactive particles. Nuclear battlefield planners talked about delivering a "pulse" of nuclear weapons, a package of perhaps ten missiles, twenty artillery shells, five air-dropped bombs, to wipe out enemy troops. Such plans, refined in secret over decades, were the preserve of the high priests of nuclear strategy and at the exclusive disposal of high-ranking generals and heads of state.
Bill Burns spoke the language of the nuclear priesthood, but, as he soared through the ranks, he also carried with him the searing--and unique--memory of what the Baader-Meinhof gang had done. And when, on the crest of his career, the Soviet Union began to buckle and heave, General Burns could see all too clearly that a nightmare was unfolding.
As the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, it exposed a crumbling empire littered with some 45,000 nuclear weapons, up to half of them the kind of battlefield weapons he had grown up with as an artillery officer. He knew just how much assured death and immediate incapacitation could come from just one short-range missile warhead or artillery shell in the hands of a terrorist. Back at Giessen his guards had been well fed, properly paid and highly trained. There had been an efficient police force to back them up on the outside. Even so, the attackers had made it to the fence. In a dissolving Soviet Union, things might be very different.
In windowless offices all over Washington, intelligence officers stared openmouthed at the classified cable that had come in from Moscow overnight. That morning in late January 1990, the world they knew was drawing to an end.
Rebels fighting Moscow's rule in Baku, the capital of the southern republic of Azerbaijan, the message announced, had stormed the perimeter of an army base and tried to steal the nuclear weapons stored there.
The news quickly spread around the huge subterranean network of the Washington intelligence community. "Did you see what happened in Baku?"
"Jesus Christ--do you think they got anything? What do they have down there anyway?"
"Baku, that's Fourth Army Headquarters. There's a bunch of tactical stuff for the southern TVD. Maybe they even have some torpedo warheads for the Caspian torpedo training school."
"Does NSA have any cuts on this?"
Nationalist rebellion had been festering in the outer reaches of the Soviet empire for some time. The Berlin Wall had come crashing down the previous month, and the Eastern European satellites were ready to fall like ripe fruit. The previous April, Russian soldiers had run amok amidst a crowd of nationalist demonstrators in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, hacking at women and children with sharpened shovels. Mikhail Gorbachev had just returned from a fruitless effort to steer the Lithuanians away from demanding independence. Now the rot had spread to Azerbaijan, a Shiite Muslim enclave on the Iranian border, where the Soviet occupation had always had shallow roots.
At roughly eight o'clock in the evening of January 19, with a frozen wind whipping off the Caspian Sea, a bomb blew apart the Baku television station. The sound of the explosion rumbled over the provincial capital, followed by four hours of uneasy silence. At midnight, the sky over the sprawling oil port that for centuries had attracted fire worshippers to the burning Surakhany fountains of natural gas lit up with brilliant arcs of tracer fire. Machine gun bursts ushered in tanks and armored personnel carriers erupting from the Soviet bases in and around the city and lumbering down the broad avenues, laid out at the turn of the century when Baku oil was controlled by great oil barons like Rothschild and Nobel. The Red Army was retaking the city from the rebel's Committees of National Defense.
Among these rebels was a group of "real crazies," as one U.S. intelligence official called them, "very close to the Gray Wolves." That was a sinister affiliation. The Gray Wolves were the right-wing Turkish zealots who had sent an assassin to shoot Pope John Paul II. The fledgling Wolves in Baku also had a covert relationship with Heidar Aliev--"Lizard Eyes"--a former KGB general who had once ruled as the undisputed boss of Azerbaijan: Displaced by Moscow a few years before, he was now intriguing with Machiavellian cunning to regain his power. It was these men who had recently torn down the fortified border fence with Iran, an act hailed by the Ayatollahs as an act of "Islamic zeal." In Baku itself they had commandeered trucks and buses for use as makeshift barricades outside the army and navy bases. Then, in the third week of January 1990, Nimet Panakhov, a fiery intriguer very much associated with the Gray Wolves, declared to a huge nationalist rally overflowing Lenin Square in the heart of the city that his men were ready to storm a Soviet base and seize a nuclear warhead.
Thousands of miles away in a Munich studio, Azerbaijani exile Mirza Michaeli was covering the events for the U.S. government-sponsored Radio Liberty. A fervent nationalist, he was exhorting his countrymen over the airwaves to rise up and "kill the giaour"--the infidels--but in between bloodthirsty broadcasts he stayed on the phone to Baku through an illegal hookup running twenty-four hours a day. He was among the few outsiders who knew of Panakhov's ominous threat. Nuclear storage sites were as big a secret in the U.S.S.R. as the Giessen dump was meant to have been in Germany, but Panakhov knew about the depot at the Bailov base as well as the nuclear torpedoes kept by the Caspian Sea flotilla at Zyh. "Maybe he knew about the sites from Heidar Aliev himself," said Michaeli later but "he definitely announced at a rally that January that he was going to take over the weapons. The whole place was sliding into anarchy."
In Washington, President George Bush pulled the Soviet ambassador aside at a private White House dinner and told him that he understood Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's need to restore order. The Kremlin had a green light to send in the tanks before it was too late.
The barricades of buses, trucks and cars were no match for the massive T-72 tanks and BMP armored fighting vehicles that came crashing out of the military bases just after midnight. Behind them came squads of camouflaged infantry, firing automatic rifles indiscriminately at terrified civilians running through the streets. No one knows for sure how many died--but Baku natives later talked in hushed tones of thousands. Even to this day that time is still known as Black January in Azerbaijan.
The city dissolved in chaos. Anyone venturing out of doors was liable to be shot on sight. The rebel defenders were lightly armed with pistols, hunting rifles and a few machine guns. Some weapons had been smuggled across the border from Iran. But they did manage to put up some resistance and, at the Zyh naval base, someone did try to carry out Panakhov's threat. Fighting continued there for twenty-four hours after the military had crushed resistance elsewhere in the city. In the harbor, Panakhov's men commandeered a tanker and dragged a field gun onto the deck, from which they bombarded the enemy.
The city had been closed to foreigners weeks before the troops went in, but in distant Washington, D.C., intelligence officers and other government officials endowed with the indispensable "need to know" could assess the panic within the Russian nuclear bureaucracy from communications intercepts. The Twelfth Department headquarters in Moscow was getting signals that their men and their precious warheads were under siege. The same signals came via the circuits of the Third Directorate of the KGB, whose duties as secret policemen included monitoring the soldiers of the Twelfth. Faced with the threat to the nukes, the Soviet Fourth Army command in Baku sent urgently for reinforcements.
Ill-armed militias could stand out for only so long against tanks and thousands of heavily armed troops, and the Azerbaijanis never got their nuclear weapon. But a wall had been breached. The Soviet Union was visibly crumbling and now it was apparent that a vast nuclear arsenal could come adrift in the wreckage. The notion sent chills around the world.
It was a possibility that had been slow to dawn on both the White House and the Kremlin. The U.S. government had watched Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to reform the Communist system with a wary and skeptical eye. Even when officials came to believe that the Russian leader really was serious about changing the U.S.S.R., they could barely grasp the incredible thought that this could lead to the breakup of the whole country and the downfall of Communism. Finally, someone at the top thought they'd better pay attention.
On July 18, 1989, Deputy National Security Adviser Robert Gates wrote an "eyes only" memo to President George Bush. Recent reports from the CIA, he noted, indicated that the situation inside the Soviet Union was beginning to deteriorate very quickly. "We must begin to think," he told the President, "about the possibility . . . [of] significant political instability. In terms of the future, we should very quietly begin some contingency planning as to possible U.S. responses, actions and policies in the event of leadership or internal policy changes or widespread ethnic violence."
As a result, Gates was authorized to set up a very small planning group of senior officials from the White House, State Department, Pentagon and CIA to think about the unthinkable--a fracture of the Soviet system. Known only as the "Rice group," because it met in the office of National Security Council Soviet specialist Condoleeza Rice, the team operated in total secrecy. Heading the list of their most urgent priorities was the safety of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. It was the tactical stockpile that concerned Gates most, particularly the fact that no one seemed to know just how big it was. CIA estimates ranged between fifteen and twenty-five thousand warheads. "Any time you have a spread of ten thousand," laughed Gates, "you know you don't have a very good grip."
More distressingly, no one was sure that the Soviets themselves had much of a grip. The books might be in order for newer systems like SS-20 missile warheads, but Gates and his officials had little faith in Soviet accounting on the older weapons, half-forgotten relics of a generation of nuclear build-up. "Land mines, artillery shells, torpedo warheads. The Russians didn't maintain good accounts on anything else, why should we assume they did on warheads?"
Black January in Baku confirmed every suspicion that had caused Gates to set up his team in the first place: ethnic unrest, terrorist connections and old warheads at risk. A volatile cocktail indeed. The CIA's take was stark: armed dissidents had almost captured a nuclear warhead. They were getting near the edge of the precipice.
If it was impossible to count the number of Soviet warheads--how could a satellite look through the roof of a locked building?--then at least the United States needed to find out where they were. As part of the secret planning promoted by Gates, a five-person team in the CIA's Office of Soviet Affairs was detailed on a special assignment. Their job was to follow the Soviet nukes whenever they were taken out of the storage sites and moved.
It was not long before the CIA team began to report something extraordinary going on in the U.S.S.R. The bodies had hardly been buried in Baku when the satellites snapped long trains snaking through the Caucasus Mountains and into the Slavic heartland. To the uninitiated they looked liked ordinary freight trains. But an analyst who devoted his working life to the arcane study of Soviet nuclear transport systems concluded that the ventilation ducts on the roofs of nuclear weapons freight cars were shaped slightly differently from those on ordinary wagons. That meant only one thing: the cargo was warheads.
And the trains were not just coming out of Azerbaijan. Moscow had made the decision to pull all tactical nuclear weapons out of ethnic areas before they erupted. Trains rolled out of the Baltic States, where events were soon to take the same bloody turn as in Baku. Cars stacked with warheads pulled out of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan. So precipitous was the retreat of the Soviet forces from East Germany that the amazed CIA analysts detected weapons being moved in ordinary wagons so decrepit that the rain leaked in. U.S. intelligence received reports that one weapon waiting to be shipped from Armenia had actually been stolen, only to be retrieved three days later.
It was a retreat from empire that the Soviet high command was soon to admit publicly. The chief of the General Staff himself, General Mikhail Moiseyev, declared in September 1990 that because of a "situation that doesn't fully correspond to the concept of national security, the warheads have been put in a more secure place." The following day the Ministry of Defense denied everything. Chaos was creeping into the heart of the beast. Mikhail Gorbachev, desperate to preserve his fraying inheritance, sought. to capitalize the fact that his country was spinning out of control. If the West did not help preserve the Soviet Union, he told President Bush, the alternative would be nuclear anarchy, with the United States facing fifteen nuclear states amidst the ruins of the U.S.S.R. The threat was potent enough for Bush to make a desperate plea in July 1991 for Soviet ethnic minorities to stay away from "suicidal nationalism." But it was all too late. By the end of 1991 the Soviet Union was gone forever.
In Russia, there was little or no room for the weapons so hurriedly evacuated from the former colonies. They overflowed the existing bunkers. The head of the Russian nuclear weapons program loudly complained that they were "sticking out of warehouse windows." The White House had to have a firsthand assessment of just how bad things were on the ground, and the President appointed a Special Envoy to Russia for Nuclear Dismantlement. He turned to the man who had more practical experience than anyone of nuclear weapons at risk.
General Bill Burns took the call from the White House at home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and accepted the President's request. In March 1992 the new President's Special Envoy drove down Route 15 to the 270 spur and onto the Dulles Airport access road. At international departures General Burns flashed his passport with the VIP White House visa in Cyrillic script and boarded his flight to Moscow.
Posted January 2, 2001
This is a fascinating and detailed account of the current state of nucelar materials and weapons in the former Soviet Union. It also details efforts of countries like Iraq and Iran who are attempting to build nuclear weapons. I found the accounts and information fascinating. The book was a real page turner and hard to put down. The details and facts are scary - do not read unless you are prepared to be worried about the current state of affairs!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.