Authors: James Patterson,Bill Clinton
t is 1:30 p.m. in the Situation Room, cool and soundproof and windowless.
“Montejo’s going to declare martial law throughout Honduras tomorrow,” says Brendan Mohan, my national security adviser. “He’s already imprisoned most of his political rivals, but he’ll step that up. There’s a food shortage, so he’ll probably institute price controls to keep the people calm for a few more days until he’s in complete control. By our estimate, the Patriotas have an army two hundred thousand strong next door in Managua, awaiting word. If he doesn’t step down—”
“He won’t,” says Vice President Kathy Brandt.
Mohan, a former general, does not appreciate the interruption but understands the chain of command. He shrugs his thick shoulders and turns in her direction.
“I agree, Madam Vice President, he won’t. But he may not be able to hold the military. If he doesn’t, he’ll be overthrown. If he does, by our estimate, Honduras will be in civil war within a month.”
I turn to Erica Beatty, the CIA director, a bookish, soft-spoken woman with dark, raccoonish eyes and cropped gray hair. She is a spook through and through, a lifer at the CIA. She was recruited out of college by the Agency and became a clandestine officer stationed in West Germany in the 1980s. In 1987, she was abducted by the Stasi—East Germany’s state security service—which claimed that she had been caught on their side of the Berlin Wall with a fake passport and architectural drawings of GDR headquarters. She was interrogated and held for nearly a month before the Stasi released her. Stasi’s records, made public after the fall of the wall and the reunification of Germany, showed that she was brutally tortured but gave up no information.
Her days as a clandestine officer over, she moved up the ranks and became one of our nation’s foremost experts on Russia, advising the Joint Chiefs and heading the CIA’s Central Eurasia Division, which oversaw intelligence operations in the former Soviet satellites and Warsaw Pact countries, and finally serving on the Senior Intelligence Service. She was my campaign’s top adviser on Russia. She rarely speaks unless spoken to, but when you wind her up, she can tell you more about President Dmitry Chernokev than Chernokev himself probably could.
“What do you think, Erica?” I ask.
“Montejo’s playing right into Chernokev’s hands,” she says. “Chernokev has wanted an inroad into Central America since he took office. This is his best chance to date. Montejo’s turning fascist, giving the Patriotas credibility, making them look like freedom fighters and not Russian puppets. He is playing precisely the role that Chernokev scripted for him. Montejo is a coward and a moron.”
cowardly moron,” Kathy says.
Kathy’s right. We can’t let the Russian-backed Patriotas, Chernokev’s puppets, into that region. We could declare any overthrow of President Montejo a coup d’état and cut off all American aid, but how would that help our interests? That would just turn the Honduran government even more strongly against us, and Russia would be happy to gain a foothold in Central America.
“Do I have any good options here?” I ask.
Nobody can think of one.
“Let’s do Saudi Arabia next,” I say. “What the hell happened?”
Erica Beatty handles this one. “The Saudis have arrested several dozen people in what they say was a plot to assassinate King Saad ibn Saud. They apparently recovered weapons and explosives. It never got as far as an attempt on his life, but the Saudis are saying they were in the ‘final stages’ of putting it together when the Mabahith executed its raids and mass arrests.”
Saad ibn Saud is only thirty-five years old, the youngest son of the former king. Only a year ago, his father reshuffled his leadership and surprised a lot of people by naming Saad the crown prince—next in line to the throne. It made a lot of people in the royal family unhappy. And within three months of his elevation, his father died, and Saad ibn Saud became Saudi Arabia’s youngest king.
It’s been a rocky road for him so far. He’s overcompensated by using his internal state police, the Mabahith, to crack down on dissidents, and one night several months ago he executed more than a dozen of them. I didn’t like it, but there wasn’t much I could do. I need him in that region. His country is our closest ally. And without a stable Saudi Arabia, our influence is compromised.
“Who’s behind it, Erica? Iran? Yemen? Was it in-house?”
“They don’t know, sir. We don’t know. The human rights NGOs are claiming there was no assassination plot, that it’s just an excuse to round up more of the king’s political rivals. We do know that some of the wealthy but less influential members of the royal family have been swept up, too. It’s going to be a rough few days there.”
“We’ve offered. So far, they haven’t taken us up on it. It’s a…tense situation.”
Unrest in the most stable part of the Middle East. While I’m dealing with this problem at home. It’s the absolute last thing I need right now.
At 2:30, back in the Oval Office, I say into the phone, “Mrs. Kopecky, your son was a hero. We honor his service to this country. I’m praying for you and your family.”
“He loved…he loved his country, President Duncan,”
she says, her voice trembling.
“He believed in his mission.”
“I’m sure he—”
“I did not,”
“I don’t know why we still have to be in that country. Can’t they figure out how to run their own stupid country?”
Overhead, the lights flicker, a quick blink-blink. What’s with the lights?
“I understand, Mrs. Kopecky,” I say.
“Call me Margaret—everyone else does,”
“Can I call you Jon?”
“Margaret,” I say to a woman who’s just lost her nineteen-year-old son, “you can call me anything you want.”
“I know you’re trying to get out of Iraq, Jon,”
“But do more than try. Get the hell out.”
Ten after three in the Oval Office, with Danny Akers and Jenny Brickman, my political adviser.
Carolyn walks in and makes eye contact with me and gives a curt, preemptive shake of her head—still no news, no change.
It’s hard to concentrate on anything else. But I have no choice. The world isn’t going to stop for this threat.
Carolyn joins us, taking a seat.
“This is from HHS,” says Danny. I wasn’t in the mood for the Heath and Human Services secretary’s presentation today, wanting to minimize time spent on nonessential matters, so I had Danny get into the issue and break it down for me.
“It’s a Medicaid issue,” says Danny, “involving Alabama. You recall that Alabama was one of the states that refused to accept the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act?”
Carolyn pops up from her seat and rushes to the door, which opens just as she reaches it. My secretary, JoAnn, hands her a note.
Danny stops talking, probably seeing the expression on my face.
Carolyn reads the note and looks at me. “You’re needed in the Situation Room, sir,” she says.
If it’s what we’re afraid it is—if this is it—we’re hearing about it together for the first time.
even minutes later, Carolyn and I enter the Situation Room.
We know immediately: it isn’t what we feared. The attack hasn’t commenced. My pulse slows. We’re not here for fun and games, but it’s not the nightmare. Not yet.
In the room as we enter: Vice President Kathy Brandt. My national security adviser, Brendan Mohan. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Rodrigo Sanchez. The defense secretary, Dominick Dayton. Sam Haber, the secretary of homeland security. And the CIA director, Erica Beatty.
“They’re in a town called al-Bayda,” says Admiral Sanchez. “Central Yemen. Not a center of military activity. The Saudi-led coalition is within a hundred kilometers.”
“Why are these two meeting?” I ask.
Erica Beatty, CIA, answers. “We don’t know, Mr. President. But Abu-Dheeq is al-Shabaab’s head of military operations, and al-Fadhli is the military commander of AQAP.” She raises her eyebrows.
The top generals for the Somali terrorists and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, coming together for a meeting.
“Who else is there?”
“Looks like Abu-Dheeq came with just a small entourage,” she says. “But al-Fadhli brought his family. He always does.”
Right. He brings his family along to make himself a harder target. “How many?”
“Seven children,” she says. “Five boys, two girls. Ages two to sixteen. And his wife.”
“Tell me where they are, exactly. Not geographically but in terms of civilians.”
“They’re meeting in an elementary school,” she says. Then she quickly adds, “But there aren’t any kids there right now. Remember, they’re eight hours ahead of us. It’s nighttime.”
“You mean there aren’t any kids,” I say, “besides al-Fadhli’s five boys and two girls.”
“Of course, sir.”
That bastard, using his children as a shield, daring us to kill his entire family to get to him. What kind of coward does that?
“There’s no chance that al-Fadhli will be separated from his children?”
“He appears to be in a different part of the school, for what that’s worth,” says Sanchez. “The meeting is taking place in some interior office. The children are sleeping in a large space that is probably a gymnasium or assembly room.”
“But the missile will demolish the entire school,” I say.
“We have to assume it will, yes, sir.”
“General Burke?” I say into the speakerphone. “Any comment?”
Burke is a four-star general and head of US Central Command, on the phone from Qatar.
“Mr. President, you don’t need me to tell you that these are two high-value targets. They are the best military minds in their respective organizations. Abu-Dheeq is al-Shabaab’s Douglas MacArthur. Al-Fadhli is not only the top military commander but also the top strategist for AQAP. This would be significant, sir. We may never have an opportunity like this again.”
being a relative term. These men will be replaced. And depending how many innocents we kill, we may create more future terrorists in their wake than we kill right now. But this will be a setback to their organizations, no question. And we can’t let terrorists think that they’re safe as long as they hide behind their families, either.
“Mr. President,” says Erica Beatty, “we don’t know how long this meeting will last. It could be breaking up right now. There is obviously something important that these two military commanders want to say to each other, or share with each other, and they’re afraid to do it through intermediaries or electronically. But for all we know, in five minutes they’ll be gone.”
It’s now or never, in other words.
“Rod?” I say to the Joint Chiefs chairman, Admiral Sanchez.
“I recommend we strike,” he says.
“Dom?” I say to the defense secretary.
“Kathy?” I say to the vice president.
The vice president takes a quick moment, lets out air. Tucks a strand of her gray hair behind her ear. “He made the choice, not us, to use his family as a human shield,” she says. “I agree that we should strike.”
I look at the CIA director. “Erica, do you have the children’s names?”
She knows me well enough by now. She hands me a piece of paper with seven names written on it.
I read them, from the sixteen-year-old boy, Yasin, to the two-year-old girl, Salma.
“Salma,” I say aloud. “That means ‘peace,’ doesn’t it?”
She clears her throat. “I believe it does, sir.”
I picture a small child, nestled in her mother’s arms, sleeping quietly, knowing nothing of a world filled with hate. Maybe Salma will grow up to become the woman who changes it all. Maybe she’ll be the one to lead us away from our divisions and toward understanding. We have to believe that can happen someday, don’t we?
“We could wait for the meeting to break up,” I say. “When they go their separate ways, we follow Abu-Dheeq’s convoy and take it out. That’s one dead terrorist leader. It’s not two, but it’s better than zero.”
“And al-Fadhli?” asks Chairman Sanchez.
“We follow his convoy, too, and hope that he separates himself from his family. Then we strike.”
“He won’t, sir. Separate himself from his family, I mean. He’ll return to a populated area and disappear, like he always does. We’ll lose him.”
“Al-Fadhli rarely comes up for air,” says Erica Beatty. “That’s why this is such a tremendous opportunity.”
“Tremendous.” I flip a hand. “Yes. Killing seven children feels…tremendous.”
I stand up and move away from my chair, pace along the wall. My back turned to the team, I hear Kathy Brandt’s voice.
“Mr. President,” she says, “al-Fadhli is no dummy. If we take out Abu-Dheeq within a kilometer or two of where the meeting took place, he’ll know you tracked both of them to that elementary school. He’ll know why you spared him. He’ll spread the word to his brothers in arms. Keep your children close to you, and the Americans won’t strike.”
“They don’t worry about
children,” says Erica Beatty.
“So we’re no different?” I ask. “We’re no better? They don’t care about our children, so we don’t care about theirs?”
Kathy raises a hand. “No, sir, that’s not what I’m saying. They
target civilians. We’re not doing it deliberately. We’re doing it as a last resort. We are conducting a precision military strike against a terrorist leader, not randomly choosing civilians and children as targets.”
That’s the argument, sure. But the terrorists we’re fighting don’t see the difference between a military strike conducted by the United States and what they do. They can’t drop missiles on us from drones. They can’t take on our army, our air force. What they do, blowing up or attacking civilian targets, is their version of a precision military strike.
Aren’t we different? Don’t we draw the line at conducting a military strike that we
will kill innocent children? Unintended consequences are one thing. This time we know the result before we start.
Rod Sanchez checks his watch. “This debate could become moot any minute. I doubt they will stay together for very long be—”
“Yes, that point was made already,” I say. “I heard it the first time.”
I lower my head and close my eyes, shutting out the rest of the room. I have a team of highly competent, well-trained professionals advising me. But I am making this decision alone. There is a reason that the founders of our country put a civilian in charge of the military. Because it is not only about military effectiveness. It’s also about policy, about values, about what we stand for as a nation.
How can I kill seven children?
You’re not. You’re killing two terrorists who are plotting their next slaughter of innocent civilians. Al-Fadhli’s killing his children by hiding behind them.
True, but that’s semantics. It’s my choice. They live or they die based on my choice. How do I meet my Maker one day and justify their deaths?
It’s not semantics. If you pass on this, you’re rewarding them for their cowardly tactics.
But that doesn’t matter. Seven innocent children are what matters. Is that what the United States stands for?
But why are those high-value terrorists meeting in person? That’s never happened before. They must be planning something big. Something that will result in the deaths of more than seven children. Stop this now, you might stop an attack. A net saving of lives.
I open my eyes. I take a deep breath, waiting for the drumming of my heart to slow. It doesn’t. It speeds up.
I know the answer. I always knew the answer. I haven’t been searching for the answer. I’ve been searching for a justification.
I take one more moment and whisper a prayer. I pray for those children. I pray that one day no president will have to make a decision like this.
“God help us,” I say. “You have my authorization to strike.”