Authors: Connor Black
of rain against the window conspired with the wheezing tick of the yellowed institutional clock to give this dreary room all the appeal of a funeral parlor. Thin gray carpet covered the floor, threadbare and stained. The centerpiece was a laminate table, its faux wood veneer worn through to the base by decades of notebooks and elbows. Eight arthritic chairs, none of them matching, surrounded the table like a circle of retired soldiers.
Seated in one, looking like she’d rather be in a funeral parlor herself, was Lieutenant Commander Haley Chen. Hands clasped and nails digging into her knuckles, the Naval Intelligence officer stared at the clock like a nervous student waiting outside the principal’s office.
By contrast, Chief Petty Officer Joe Sterba appeared to be asleep. His size twelve boots were crossed on the table and his chair was tipped back. For a moment I wondered if only two legs of the chair were sufficient to support the big SEAL. I don’t want to say that I was hoping my friend would fall to the floor, but we’d been waiting in this dismal room for more than an hour, and a little metal fatigue and gravity would at least provide some entertainment.
But the government-issue chair was apparently up for the task, so I turned back to the window and looked again across the charcoal gray alley. Oil from years of trucks shuffling papers in and out of the building had surfaced, creating shiny purple amoebas peppered by raindrops.
I wondered how much longer I could bear waiting—waiting to find out if we were in for more tedious debriefing, or if we were finally to be freed from the capitol’s bureaucratic clutches.
everal months ago
, Sterba and I were part of a mission to rescue a captured CIA officer in Afghanistan. As an aviator in the U.S. Navy, I was slated to fly the insertion helo. But due to some prior knowledge I had of the location thanks to my former career as a New Zealand SAS trooper, the big SEAL and his commanding officer had put me on the ground assault team.
I’ll never forgive him for that, since I was shot in the process. I really don’t like being shot. In the movies, when you’re shot a gauze wrap instantly heals you. In real life, it’s a long, painful, and frustrating process.
Our mission went well until a rogue CIA officer decided to set up above our extraction point and kill the hostage we’d just rescued and three SEALs on our team. It had been a setup from the start, a chance for the rogue agent to silence the hostage.
Several months after the mission, Lieutenant Commander Chen was able to track the operative to Bangkok. The good news was that I sent him to meet his maker. The bad news was that he had been involved in a terrifying plot with the Taliban.
The Taliban, as we know, are terrible losers. But they are also resilient and resourceful, and had devised a plan to eliminate their primary competition, the young government of Afghanistan. Not just President Karzai, but the entire National Assembly. Their plan involved firing rockets from an old Soviet BM-21 Grad on the Darul Aman Palace during its grand opening as the country’s new seat of government. Hundreds of leaders would have been killed, but Chen, Sterba, a CIA officer named Clark, and I were able to stop the single devastating attack just as the first rocket left the launcher.
So, a gold-plated AK and an option on a thousand acres of poppy fields for us, right?
Well, OK, the Afghans were actually happy. And even quite sincere in their thanks, which was nice given the tension of late. But the CIA and the ISAF—which is short for International Security Assistance Force, but for the most part meant the U.S. military at the time—weren’t as happy as one might expect. In their reports, their displeasure came through in passive-aggressive phrases like ‘success despite reckless disregard for the chain of command’.
In reality, the military was embarrassed that it hadn’t acted on our warnings. But the military is a large machine, and it gets past things like that pretty easily. The CIA was a different story. Not only had we stolen their spotlight, we had exposed a traitor in their ranks. That’s something they prefer to handle in house; or, I should say, stifle to ensure not a single peep leaks out of their arthritic grasp.
With egg on their faces, the agency drones extracted some revenge by putting us through several days of debriefing deep in the bowels of Langley. The sessions had been brutal. Beginning with reprimands, they quickly deteriorated into threats of courts martial laced with a subtext that things could get even worse. Sterba and I had the experience to bear through the ordeal, but it had taken a severe toll on Chen.
Then yesterday, for no apparent reason, the sessions simply ended. Not that I wasn’t thankful, but our interrogators had received something on their phones that suddenly caused them to close their notebooks and order us to report here—room B148 in one of many obscure unmarked government buildings within walking distance of the White House—at nine o’clock today.
Chen, her cage seriously rattled, imagined it was a sentencing. We’d all be reassigned to counting barnacles on the mothball fleet after a nice stay in the brig; if we were lucky enough to still be in the Navy, that is. Sterba tried to calm her, but we knew that Sterba, as a SEAL, would be given a bit more latitude and would simply go back to the teams with a good story.
Me? I couldn’t be bothered to think about any form of punishment. No matter who we rubbed the wrong way, we did what was right. What had to be done. It was as simple as that. If there were consequences, whether from breaking arbitrary rules or crossing a line in some institutional turf battle, so be it.
worried about, however, was the fact that the old clock showed it was now quarter-past ten. In the Navy, zero nine hundred means get your ass there at zero eight fifty-nine, because the session will begin at zero nine hundred sharp. Things are clear that way. But in a government building like this, 9:00 apparently meant ‘sometime between my morning coffee break and the next delivery of checks from the treasury’ because we’d yet to have a visitor.
Patience is not my strong suit. “How about we give them to 10:30?” I said to Sterba.
“I saw a coffee shop just around the corner,” he replied without opening his eyes. Apparently the big lug wasn’t really sleeping after all.
“What? We can’t just leave,” Chen exclaimed. She’s off the charts intelligent, but in that special computer science way. To her, there were parameters and structure, and one worked within those. The idea of disregarding an order—even one from some CIA wonk outside her chain of command—was completely off her radar.
“Done,” I said to Sterba. I gave Chen a big smile, and was rewarded with an eye roll. I returned to my position in front of the window, happy to have distracted Chen, if only for a minute.
Just as the second hand brought us to 10:30, Sterba popped up. I knew he was peeking. He pushed in his chair and said, “Let’s roll.”
I turned to Chen. Her eyes narrowed.
And then the door opened.
hen leapt to her feet
Good grief. We were in a government office building, not on the parade ground. I looked up to see someone atmospheres above the CIA debriefing weenies we’d been dealing with. Chen had been right to snap-to.
Standing in the doorway was Karl Nichols, the newly-appointed Director of National Intelligence. To put things in perspective, this was the man at the very top of the intelligence food chain, in charge of every agency the country could bring to bear, including, among others, Homeland Security, the CIA, and the NSA. He stood at six feet, give or take a fraction. Stern, sharp features were framed by an Army-issue haircut, and while his hair had gone nearly white with age, he looked fit as a fiddle.
I remembered reading that he had been a Ranger before an injury ended his career as an operator. He spent his rehab at Georgetown earning a law degree, and returned to the Army as a member of the JAG Corps, becoming the go-to attorney for cases involving covert and clandestine operations. His career dancing in and out of the shadows soared, and he retired as a two-star before joining a Washington think tank.
Shortly after being elected, President Sophie Britt had tapped him as the Director of National Intelligence. The office had been a disastrously useless layer of bureaucracy since its formation, and the President needed someone who was fearless and practical enough to make it relevant. She needed a Ranger.
In the months since his appointment, the local press had portrayed him as the grim reaper. Layoffs, restructuring, and more layoffs. He was trimming the fat for the better. And ultimately, he was realigning the way the U.S. handled intelligence collection, analysis, and action.
Chen’s look of terror was spot on. We were about to get our asses handed to us.
Chin up and chest out, the Director of National Intelligence came through the doorway. With his hands on his hips, he ran his eyes around the room.
“Assholes!” he exclaimed.
“Sir?” Chen asked, her worst fears realized.
“Goddam Schmidt put you in a goddamn interrogation room for goddamn foreign national walk-ins.”
Bill Schmidt, we knew, was the Deputy Director of Operations in the CIA. And we also knew from his cameos in our debriefing sessions that he was far from being our biggest fan.
“Sir?” Chen said again.
“Walk-ins. The cooks that come running from the Whatever-stan embassy wanting payouts for information on what the ambassador is eating. We let them stew in here, so to speak.”
“Apparently that’s what Mr. Schmidt wanted us to do,” I said. “Been waiting since zero nine hundred.”
The Director made a huffing noise and looked around the room once more. After a moment, he said, “Any port in a storm. Take a seat.”
Sterba and I looked at one another, shrugged our shoulders, and sat.
“Well, son,” the Director said, fixing me with a stare, “you sure pissed some people around here off.”
Apparently, the Director wasn’t one for small talk. “So I noticed through the course of our debriefing, sir,” I replied.
“Anything to say about it?” he asked.
I thought for a second, stealing a glance at Chen. Her eyes were bulging out of their sockets as if to say ‘now is the time to keep your mouth shut’. Sorry, Chen. This guy was a Ranger. He doesn’t want an ass kissing. He wants it straight.
“Your people at Langley have an attitude problem. We cleaned up their mess. And instead of a thank you, we received a kick in the ass.”
The Director didn’t say anything for a full ten seconds. He simply kept his eyes locked on mine in a look that I am sure had caused many Washington knees to buckle.
I didn’t let my eyes leave his.
The weary ticking of the old clock made the silence a little more dramatic than it needed to be. Chen was fidgeting, doing her best not to pass out during this little standoff.
“Landon said you weren’t afraid to speak your mind,” he finally said, allowing the hint of a smirk.
The mention of Landon caught me off guard. Landon Clark, the Bangkok station chief who helped us chase down the CIA traitor, had been surprisingly absent during our debriefing sessions.
Turning to Chen, the Director said, “You can relax, Commander. I happen to agree with the Lieutenant here. The Agency was a little rougher on you than they should have been. That will be rectified. For now, accept my apologies.”
Not giving in immediately, I kept my eyes on the Director and tilted my head towards Sterba. He had been put through the ringer as much as Chen.
The Director took my cue and turned to Sterba. “Chief, please accept my apologies, my thanks for your decisive action in Afghanistan, and my condolences for the loss of your men.”
His condolences were sincere, as only those of a warrior who has lost mates on the battlefield can be. Sterba simply nodded. It was interesting that both Sterba and Chen were so quiet. Seems they wanted to see how this was going to play out as much as I did.
The Director returned his eyes to mine, raising his eyebrows slightly as if to say, ‘Are we good now?’
I nodded, knowing that was about as good an apology as we’d ever get in this city. I opened my hands and said, “Thank you, sir. Are we cleared to return to duty now?”
That’s what I had been afraid of.