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June 30, A sunny day in Minot, North Dakota. George Williams, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, U. S. Justice Department, stood beside the cyclone fence, which bore a sign, "Restricted, U. S. Government property." Beyond the fence strange humps of green steel and concrete dotted the government reservation.
In one of these humps the blast-resistant doors were open. The Air Force major with the light blond moustache said to Williams, "A fly couldn't get by that fence. Look at the sensors." He was pointing to metallic objects on three steel poles in a triangle inside the government reservation. Williams knew the sensors could detect any movement at all near this Minute Man III launching area, even outside the fence, and relay the warning electronically to a central command post which would dispatch security teams armed with machine guns. In addition to the sensors around them, each silo was equipped with electronic guards of its own which flashed a warning to headquarters if anyone touched the doors. Absolutely secure, fail-safe, untouchable.
Until last night.
Williams had known it would happen, but had always comforted himself with the fact that the Air Force was just as aware as he. Sooner or later the terrorist groups that had sprouted in the post-Watergate era would realize that hijackings and kidnappings were small, unproductive acts. And across the U. S. and Europe forty thousand nuclear warheads were stored in warehouses, planted in lonely plains, shipped in trains and trucks, in one way or another accessible.
But not just to anyone, Williams thought. The Air Force had taken too many precautions. What you needed was a superb organizer with a brilliant mind. His eyes took in the sensors and the open doors. No way anyone could avoid those sensors. Yet someone had gotten by. Someone had somehow opened the eighty-ton silo doors and stripped three nuclear MIRVs from the missile. And no warning had sounded.
"They had to have inside help," Williams said.
"Even with inside help it's impossible!" the major replied. But Williams wasn't listening. He had turned and looked across the little dirt road that ran parallel to the fence and saw something glitter in the sun. He walked across the road and was immediately disappointed. A piece of clear plastic with a fragment of a map inside. No doubt a road map, left by the occasional tourist who came by.
Still, Williams was thorough, as always. He pried open the plastic and started to pull the map fragment loose, but it crumbled. An old map. That was odd. Very odd. His fingers brushed across the paper, and that was even more puzzling. It wasn't even paper. A thicker material.
Williams stopped trying to pry out the map and looked at it through the clear plastic. It seemed to be an old military campaign map, with notes written in faded ink in the margin that he could just barely make out. The major was at his side now. "What the hell have you found?"
"I don't know," Williams said.
The major took the plastic-enclosed map fragment and held it a few inches from his eyes. Then he turned to Williams with a strange look. He said, "Did you read it?"
The major handed the map back to Williams. "Now let's not get crazy, Mr. Williams. Let's just try to figure out quietly what this means."
"You figure it out," said Williams, who once again was looking at words on an ancient map fragment found next to an ICBM site in the twentieth century. The mind behind the crime had been good enough to leave a clue to his motive.
In faded ink, the words said:
"For revenge of Nancy, beloved of Benedict Arnold."CHAPTER 2
TO: All Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine commanders U. S. and abroad.
FROM: Chairman, U. S. Joint Chiefs of Staff
SUBJECT: Missing nuclear MIRVs in unknown hands.
REF: AEC dated June 30, Ser. No. 73586/1, addressee Joint Chiefs of Staff.
CLASSIFICATION: MAXIMUM SECRET. Commanders only. No staff distribution or clearance.
The Atomic Energy Commission informs all heads of agencies and commands on personal basis only (no staff) that missing MIRVs are equipped with internal electronic safeguards that prevent explosion when not attached to the missile electronic system. These safeguards were installed to thwart accidental or other explosion by terrorist groups who may obtain the nuclear devices.
However, AEC concedes the possibility that the nuclear devices can be disassembled, and the electronic safeguards removed. AEC claims such a feat would be near miraculous and beyond the means and comprehension of all but a few engineers known to them, and those few are employed and accounted for at AEC.
In this regard, AEC states that more than one person penetrated the base. The size and weight of the nose cone and silo doors indicates more than one man was required. And at least one of the thieves had high technical skill necessary to evade the electronic safeguards surrounding the base and penetrate the silo itself.
In this emergency the President has asked the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to personally supervise the investigation. The FBI, CIA, and other investigatory agencies will coordinate under my office.
At the further suggestion of the President, I have appointed Mr. George Williams, on temporary leave from the Justice Department, as my aide in the field. Any information of any kind should be passed at once to my office in the Pentagon, or to Williams, who will maintain his office at the Justice Department.
Destroy this memo after reading.
Robert Maxwell, Gen. USA Chairman U. S. Joint Chiefs of StaffCHAPTER 3
10:30 a.m., June 30, Washington. The President of the United States stood on the lawn of the White House with a twelve-year-old girl in a green dress and a sash that said, "Dayton, Ohio, Girl Scout Troop Ten." The girl had written an essay called, "What's Right about America."
It was a photo opportunity for television and newspaper photographers. The President was usually effective at these affairs, projecting a "down-home" image that went over well with the public.
Today the President was smiling and cordial as ever, but as soon as the session ended he turned to an aide and said, with irritation, "We have to cancel all appointments today. Put out a story that I've developed a cold."
One of his aides pointed out that the President of an African country was supposed to be received at eleven and the Secretary of Agriculture at twelve on an import bill that would be voted that afternoon in Congress. But the President merely muttered, "A cold. That's the story."
The aides understood, although they had been urging the President to carry on business as usual ever since the startling news came from a small North Dakota air base five hours ago that three nuclear weapons were in unknown hands. There was no use inciting the public to panic before a message was received from the thieves.
A soft breeze billowed the blue drapes of the Oval Office as the President entered. Five men sat in chairs awaiting his return from the photo session. Two of them were hunched together over a computer read-out. The President had called in the head of the Secret Service, the Assistant Director of the FBI, the CIA Director, the Atomic Energy Commission Director, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as an impromptu staff to advise him on this unprecedented emergency. Already the Army had set up roadblocks in North Dakota, issued warnings to Canadian border patrols, begun x-raying all baggage at transportation centers throughout America.
The President sat down. "We can't hold the story long, gentlemen."
Gen. Robert Maxwell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was a tall, chesty man. He said, "My MPs are instructed to tell drivers that one ounce of radioactive material is missing from a nuclear power plant. But I agree that cover won't hold up long."
The President turned to John Pierpont, head of the Secret Service, and Fred Jarvis, Assistant Director of the FBI. "What have you found?"
The two men had been examining all terrorist threats that had arrived at the White House or at other agencies of the government in the last few months. The list filled a computer read-out, single space, a foot and a half long. The actual letters and telephone transcripts were in three bulky files. Jarvis said, "There are bombings promised all over the place— and some of them actually occurred. But no nuclear threats."
The President said to General Maxwell, "I want you to turn the Army into one million domestic policemen to search for these criminals, along with the FBI. And I'm authorizing you to take whatever action needed in case these people threaten a particular target. To be blunt, General, shoot first and worry about the law later."
The words—"threaten a particular target"—hung in the room. In that phrase the President echoed the major worry of everyone in the White House since the first moment when the FBI TWX had streaked over wires from Minot, North Dakota. A terrorist gang had finally managed to steal nuclear bombs. The could plant them in New York, Washington, Boston, wherever they wished. Then they could allow the government a few hours to meet an outrageous political demand, or see great cities destroyed. Now General Maxwell reminded the President that the nuclear bombs were MINERVA I's, the newest and most miniaturized generation of MIRVs. "We only have one base equipped with MINERVAs. It's odd that they hit that one base."
Robert Winthrop, the CIA Director, said, "You're implying it was the Soviets? I can't see Russian agents climbing over a fence in the middle of America to steal nuclear weapons. And, besides, the MINERVAs aren't a new weapon. They're just an improvement on existing weaponry. I don't think it would be worth the risk to them."
General Maxwell said he agreed, but he thought it should be borne in mind anyway, considering past Soviet actions. "President Kennedy couldn't believe the Soviets would risk installing ICBMs in Cuba, right under our eyes. But they did."
But the President said, "It can't be the Soviets now. You're suggesting they'd steal nukes just when we're ready to sign the new SALT III agreement limiting nuclear weapons? That doesn't make sense."
None of them spoke for a moment, considering the President's words. His logic was sound. The nuclear arms limitation, sharply lowering the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. and the Soviet Union, had caused bitter division among his advisers. But the President was committed to lessening the "nuclear terror" that hung over the world; to "reversing the arms race." And he had decided to sign SALT III next month.
Finally Winthrop, the CIA Director, asked, "So who else could it be?"
Fred Jarvis, the Assistant FBI Director, was tall, gray-haired, and wore an old tweed coat and unpressed trousers. He smoked a pipe, and, thought the President, had a casual manner that was as unlike the conventional FBI image as you could imagine. But he was said to possess the most astute brain in the agency. Now Jarvis said, "There are at least twelve Middle East and African nations who would love to have three working nukes, aren't there?" The President nodded, and Jarvis continued, "Maybe they were stolen for sale, and no American cities will ever be threatened."
"Like robbing a store?" the President asked. "For money?"
"It's good merchandise," Jarvis said.
The President's buzzer sounded. He said on the intercom, "Send him in." A man in a gray suit, white shirt, and bright red tie, entered the office. "I'm Joe Randall, Mr. President. I have the AEC analysis of the MINERVA I."
The President read the analysis aloud. "If the MINERVA I is detonated in a densely populated urban center, the explosion would kill or injure all residents within an area of twenty square miles.
"But this is not the most dangerous application of the nuclear bombs in the hands of the terrorists. If MINERVA I is exploded underwater offshore, it will create a tidal wave one hundred feet high, filled with radioactive water that would poison hundreds of thousands of square miles, in addition to the deaths and injuries sustained."
Silence as everyone in the President's office visualized a hundred-foot-high tidal wave bearing down on beaches. The President stopped reading and said urgently, "We just have to recover those bombs. We can't allow uncontrolled people to have such power in their hands." He turned to Jarvis, "Has George Williams turned up anything at Minot?" Jarvis asked to see the President alone, and after the advisers filed out, said, "Williams has found a clue that may mean nothing. A piece of what appears to be an authentic two-hundred-year-old map was found near the silo. It has a note, 'For revenge of Nancy, beloved of Benedict Arnold.' Now just in case it's genuine, Williams wants you to keep that clue confidential."
The President stared at Jarvis. "But ... why? It's so ... silly. Surely he doesn't believe—"
"On the off-chance that the map is genuine, it's the kind of clue you want to save in secret, until you get a suspect. It's routine police procedure, Mr. President."
The President was so stunned he could hardly retain his composure. All the way to Minot to find clues to thieves who stole nuclear bombs, and that was Williams' only contribution? An ancient map that could be a page from a discarded Bicentennial program—and meanwhile live terrorists were somewhere in this country with live nuclear bombs!
That was the great George Williams, the President thought. Jarvis and his other advisers had insisted that the President place Williams in charge of the investigation under General Maxwell. The President now regretted it. Williams had had success assisting the FBI on certain Justice Department cases, including a famous one in 1973. But, for God's sake, he wasn't even a trained investigator. He was only a Justice Department lawyer. An amateur.CHAPTER 4
Wind blew across the North Dakota Plains. George Williams climbed down a ladder into silo Baker. The interior of the silo was a shambles. A storm of bolts from the nose cone had smashed into black boxes and the interior silo walls. The major followed Williams, picking his way carefully past the debris. Both men stood on Level One, a circular stage that surrounded the base of the nose cone, which was six feet high. The cone had been tilted on its side against a wall by the thieves while they removed the MIRVs. "Incredible," the major said. "Those were explosive bolts that held the cone to the body. According to our engineers it was impossible to trigger them from outside the missile. But one of the people who came down here knew better."
Williams asked about the alarms and was told that the silo doors, the ladder they had just descended, and the stage they were standing on were all wired. Move the silo door one inch or step on the ladder, and sirens would sound in command central underground.
A man who could calculate how to trigger explosive bolts from outside could also figure ways to bypass those interior alarms, Williams thought. But he would still need keys to open the silo doors. Where had he gotten them? Williams and the major went outside and stood in the sun beside the silo. This break-in had been perfectly planned. Nothing left to chance. FBI agents examining the ground for footprints reported that the terrorists had worn Army boots precisely like those of the military personnel who swarmed over the grounds after the theft was discovered.
And the sensors had been defeated by the thieves' knowledge that they were vulnerable. Rain was motion and the sensors detected motion, so their screens were blurred and made useless in a storm. The thieves had waited patiently until rain struck the base, and made their move.
But they still needed those silo door keys. Williams went to see the Commanding General, a scrawny, cigar-waving man. "Come in, come in, Mr. Williams. I'm a career corpse right now. Sent my resignation to the Air Force as soon as this happened. I guess they've been too busy to accept it."
Williams said, "Anything unusual occur on the base in the last few months?"
"One of your men seen around that silo when he shouldn't have been there?" He paused. "The thieves had to have keys to open the silo doors. Someone could have gotten wax impressions, then made duplicates."
Excerpted from The Benedict Arnold Connection by Joseph DiMona. Copyright © 1977 Joseph DiMona. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted September 14, 2014