Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Chapter 5. On the Radar

Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon’s spokesman, had been given the task of monitoring communications from the Pentagon while the crisis meeting progressed. Jim Jones, a retired Marine Corps General, along with a key staff member, whose offices were a mere thirty feet from the President’s, usually handled the Pentagon monitor, but Jones and his top three staff had left the day before for a three-day meeting in New York.

Morrell saw something on the monitor that surprised him, and without tilting his head up his eyes scanned the room for a chance to interrupt. Within a heartbeat, he had decided not to wait.

“Excuse me!”

All eyes were drawn to the middle-aged Morrell in his crisply pressed blue serge suit.

“AFCENT reports ‘interceptors scrambled. Will interdict two squadrons bogeys entering Iraqi airspace via Saudi,’” Morrell removed his glasses with both hands and looked up to get a reaction from the group. There was no immediate response.

The President leaned back in his high-backed, black leather chair and took command. “ Geoff, tell them to escort, but if those are Israeli jets, just let them pass.”

“Yes, sir. Messaging that.” He replaced his glasses and his fingers flew over keys of his computer.

“And, Geoff, Get General McChrystal on a voice line for me. I want to know what they’re...”

“Yes, sir,” replied the aide. The President never finished his sentence, reaching instead into a pocket and withdrawing his iPhone. He thrust his thumb onto the surface and tilted the screen to view a message.

Panetta and Biden were seated next to each other. Biden had been staring at the middle east display on the big screen in front of them. He leaned toward his friend, “Leon, are those red vertical lines on that map time zones?” asked the Vice President.

“Yeah, they are, Joe. The overall shading shows the entire area’s in total darkness right now.” Sun-up is about an hour away in Teheran and you’ll be able to see it move across the map.

“Sir, they’re requesting verbal orders from you,” said Morrell.

“Mike? What’s THAT all about?” The president looked to his Chairman JCS for advice.

“That’s good policy. Let’s get Bill Holland on the phone. He’s in country right now. You have his contact Geoff?”

“Yes, Admiral, I’m sure I’ve got it right here.”

Major General William Holland had held command of the 9th Air Force since August, in charge of combat command. Reporting to Holland are six wings, based in the eastern US, representing 350 aircraft and 24 thousand active duty and civilian personnel. Bill Holland’s academic and professional credentials were remarkable, spanning administration, political science, military strategy, tactical combat operations, national security and command. If there was a hot spot, Bill Holland had served there - probably as CO or DCO. When it came to war, Bill Holland was all kinds of expert.

“Bill? Hey, Mike Mullen. (pause) I’m well, thanks. Bill, I’m in the situation room in the White House. I’m going to put you on speaker.” A deep hollow ambience filled the room. The speaker phone at the White House is powered by a set of ballsy JBL wall-mounted speakers that create an eerie psychology. Visitors have commented more than once that the theatrical quality of the sound enhances the already palpable dramatic quality of events. Reality of sound tears away any sense of detachment the hearer might cling to. Right away, you know, ‘this ain’t no TV show.’

“Bill, we have the President, Vice President, Secretary of State, CIA Director, Chief of White House Staff - just about everybody in the upper echelon. The Commander in Chief has an order for you.”

“General, this is the President. Two squadrons of Israeli jets are entering Iraqi airspace via Saudi Arabia at this moment. I want you to have them identified, followed and allowed to proceed where they want to go without molesting them. If they leave Iraq, you let ‘em go.”

“Yes, Mr. President. Where are they going?”

“You know where they’re going, General.”

“Yes, sir. May I recommend something, sir?

“Of course you can, as soon as you issue my order.” Military in the room were a bit surprised by the hubris.

“Sir, it’s about the order.”

“What is it?”

“Well, sir. If we fly with the intruders, Iranian radar doesn’t know we’re escorting. As far as they know, we’re part of the attack. They’re not going to respect borders if we provoke them. And, if we’re fired upon, we’d have to engage under our present rules. I’d recommend we identify, then get the hell back on the ground and watch where they’re going.”

“O course, you’re right. Please make it happen right now.”

“I will, sir.”

“And, General? Please return to the phone and let us know when you’re back.”

“I will, Mr. President.”

The stress was beginning to take its toll. Obama was way past the ‘I need a cigarette,’ point and all his vital signs were running at about 150%. Rahm Emmanuel could see it. The eyes get narrow, the shoulders slump and the body leans forward in a aggressive posture. Jaw clenching produces rolling lumps of muscle as the molars rock back and forth at a stunning 350 pounds per square inch. Emmanuel knew that he needed to help his friend get focused.

“Mr. President, I think we need a plan,” suggested Obamas Chief of Staff. It was a clever cue. Obama the organizer was dumbfounded by the situation. He would revert to form and recommend a bullet list of quick goals, debate each and assign responsibilities. But before he could speak, his Secretary of State spoke up.

“Mr. President, this reminds me somewhat of the Bosnian situation. I remember my husband’s administration was roundly criticized for not involving the Congress immediately. I would recommend we contact the Speaker and Minority leader, the Senate Majority and Minority leaders. The Supreme Court should be notified as a courtesy as well as our ambassadors and others. We might also want to raise the Terror Threat level given that we will be blamed for any attack regardless of our level of participation. That will put all our embassies and consulates on alert and trigger higher levels of security. I would also recommend DEFCON 4, because...”

Obama despised Mrs. Clinton’s resentment, an attitude that often played out in this kind of one-upmanship. But, he was so tired of it, he had come to ignore it and generally tried to deal with the substance of her comments. Sometimes, often in fact, her comments had some merit. On the other hand, Joe Biden had much less self-control.

“Hillary.” Joe Biden interrupted. “Just, just slow down one second, okay? You’ve been taking notes and you have the benefit of your extensive knowledge and experience, but the rest of us need to take a breath and let this all sink in.” It was typical patronizing Joe Biden, so naive you couldn’t really be upset by it.

“Joe, we don’t have a lot of time,” responded the former First Lady.

Obama spoke up. “She’s right, Joe.”

“I know she’s right, Mr. President. But just rattling off a list doesn’t give us all a chance to collaborate,” explained the Vice President.

Obama took his VP’s suggestions to heart. “ Okay, Hillary, those are all great ideas. I need to get them down, prioritize them and assign them. Can we do that?”

“That would be my recommendation, too, Barack,” said Mrs. Clinton.

Emmanuel interjected, “I have your suggestions, Hillary. I’ll make the calls myself as soon as I can break away. Right now we need to know what we have to do next. For example, can we stop the Israelis?”

Mullen responded, “Sure we can. It would require us to attack and destroy two squadrons of heavily armed and technologically equal F-16 fighters. You really want to do that?”

“No, I don’t want to,” Emmanuel fired back, “but Netanyahu fucked us. He owed us some notice. What if we wanted to help him? He’s a fucking right-wing prick and he doesn’t care what happens to the rest of the world.”

“Rahm.” Obama hoped to put the reins on his volatile Chief of Staff before the chain reaction got out of control.

A couple people jumped as the wall speakers sprang to life, “I’m back,” spoke General Holland. Eyes rolled indicating at least a few people thought there was a pretty good chance Holland got an earful of Rahm Emmanuel before he announced himself.

“Maybe I do want to shoot ‘em all down,” Emmanuel continued. “Maybe then he’d become an honest broker.”

“Hello?” No one had acknowledged Holland.

Mullen interjected, “Stand by Bill.”

“Rahm.” Emmanuel turned away from Mullen and toward the President. “Rahm, we’ll deal with this. We’re holding some good cards. We’ll play them soon enough.”

Obama wanted desperately to tell Emmanuel about the threat Netanyahu had made concerning the alleged mysterious document with the President’s name on it. This was not the time, and chances were very good he wouldn’t have a private moment until the crisis was over. He knew instinctively that he probably would never mention the conversation to Rahm Emmanuel - for a whole host of reasons.

“Should we stop them?” reiterated Emmanuel with a gesture of frustration.

“Ladies? Gentlemen?” queried the President.

Mullen offered his view. “I think we’re too late. Let’s protect our assets. Let’s prepare to defend ourselves in the event of retaliation and let’s get out in front of this with an announcement.

“I don’t want an announcement before the strike.

“Sirs?” It was Geoff Morrell responding again to the computer link to the Pentagon.

“You won’t believe this.” These are surveillance photos taken over the last three minutes or so from a Zodiac in the Persian Gulf and Sat-phoned to CENTCOM. The radome is coming down and in the last one there’s a Huey where the radome used to be. It’s a little grainy because it’s from a night scope...”

The President had no idea what he was hearing. “Put it on the big screen, can you do that?” A staff technician, an Air Force Major sitting at a console above the conference flicked a switch and selected Morrell’s screen. “Done, Sir,” he called out.

“Holy shit! What’s going on?” exclaimed The Vice President.

“Bill, did you get these images?” asked Mullen.

“I’m getting them right now.”

“What does it mean?”

“Looks like a platoon’s about to be delivered to the battlefield,” concluded General Holland. “That’s what Huey’s do best.”

“But there are eight frigates in the Gulf, Bill,” said Mullen.”And each of them has a spare radome, or hangar, or whatever it is.”

“Then maybe 65 men are going to battle 35 hundred Republican Guards,” he replied.

“Probability?” asked the Admiral looking at the loudspeaker across the room from his chair at the massive table.

“Hmm. Nil, I’d say,” responded Holland. “They don’t do suicide missions on their side.”

The President broke in. “I need to have your best guess as to what’s going on. I don’t like this lack of information.”

The CIA Director had already been pinched by both this administration and Congress too often over his short tenure. Panetta took Obama’s comment personally,

“Barack, Israel is about the tightest country we’re in. We think we know something only when they want us to think we know it. They’re uncanny, and it’s not just a myth. They’re very, very good.”

“Leon, it wasn’t a criticism. I really don’t like this lack of information. I don’t. So, tell me, what’s everyone’s best guess?”

Panetta wanted to scream, “Then stop cutting CIA funding, and defend the staff when they’re criticized, and you’ll have good intelligence information! Why is THAT so hard to understand?” But he just looked down and wished, for any number of reasons, that he wasn’t even there.

“Mr. President. They may be an assassination team,” ventured Mrs. Clinton.

Emmanuel didn’t like that answer. “And if they miss, they’ve guaranteed themselves a horrendous attack,” he countered. “I don’t think so.”

“It may be an advance team,” offered the Vice President.

“There are no troops amassed anywhere in Israel, Joe,” stated Panetta. “Besides, they can’t afford to diminish their domestic security. You can bet the rockets are going to fall like rain when this starts.” The military guys delighted in listening to amateurs give military assessments - especially those who had never worn the uniform. Sometimes, though, they were right.

Emmanuel jumped in. “Troops can’t stop rockets, Leon. You don’t WANT troops on the ground where rockets are falling. Besides, you go into the shelter. Have you ever been in Kiryat Sh’mona when it rained rockets? I have. I was enjoying a trout almondine at Dubrovin Ranch - probably the best trout I’ve ever tasted - when the motherfuckers started their fireworks.”

“When you have lunch at the edge of the Beqaa Valley, you invite trouble, Rahm.” countered the CIA Director. “You’re a rocket magnet.”

“Mr. President, there is another possibility,” the disembodied voice of General Holland stirred the room again.

“Tell me.”

“Well, sir, you would not want troops on the battlefield if you were using tactical nukes.”

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