Authors: Leslie Wolfe
THE BACKUP ASSET
To my husband, for everything.
He stared at the back of his hands in disbelief. They were shaking so hard it made for a difficult task to get another taste of coffee. Using both hands, he grabbed the mug and took a sip of steaming liquid, warming his frozen hands on contact with the white glazed ceramic. He smiled a little, as his eyes focused in passing on the message written in red lettering on the side of the mug. A gift from his coworkers, it read, “I do math well, what’s your excuse?”
, he thought,
I don’t do
very well, and I need to get better at it. Grow a pair, for Christ’s sake,
he admonished himself, giving his trembling hands another disgusted glance.
He made an effort to set the mug on his desk without spilling any coffee, but that didn’t work as planned. His hands were shaking too much. A few droplets stained the scattered papers on his desk, most of which bore the stamp TOP SECRET.
“Fuck,” he muttered, under his breath, and rushed to get some Kleenex.
He patted the papers dry, cleared his desk of everything else, and spread the top-secret files on the glossy surface, carefully going through every piece of paper. He finished sorting through each piece of documentation; then paced his office anxiously for a couple of minutes, clasping his hands together, trying to steady himself.
Can’t back down now,
and I wouldn’t even if I could.
He looked up at the digital weather station hanging on his office wall. His rank within the organization gave him the privilege of a private office, decorated to his taste. Hanging close to the large window overlooking Norfolk Harbor, the device told the time and the weather. It displayed the forecast, showing the high and low temperatures expected, indoor temperature, humidity, and also showed barometric pressure as a yellow chart. In the middle section of its display, a small graphic depicted the sun peeking from behind some clouds, all drawn in blue. It was going to be a nice day, with partly cloudy skies, barometric pressure steady, and reasonable temperatures for the season. None of that mattered, though. He had less than three hours to make the drop, and he wasn’t ready yet.
He refocused and wiped his sweaty hands nervously against his suit pants.
“Let’s get this done and over with,” he mumbled, removing all papers from his desk except a single pile he had just put together. He spread out the contents of the pile and started organizing the documents in order, placing them facedown in an unmarked manila folder.
The first document was an evaluation memorandum regarding the compatibility and readiness status for laser cannon installation aboard USS
, DDG1005, a Zumwalt-class destroyer. Marked TOP SECRET. It was several pages long, and he made sure he had them all and in the right order.
The second document was a capabilities assessment for Zumwalt-class destroyers, complete with technical specifications, class overview, and general characteristics, including weapons array, sensing technology, and vessel performance. Marked SECRET. Nine pages long.
The third document was a performance and capabilities assessment for the laser cannon itself, the most recent and groundbreaking technology developed for the US Navy, the successful and eagerly awaited result of seven years and $570 million worth of research and development. Marked COMPARTMENTED—ABOVE TOP SECRET.
Satisfied, he turned the carefully constructed pile of documents face up and closed the folder.
He was ready for the drop.
Henrietta Marino came a few minutes early for her 10:30AM appointment with Director Seiden. His assistant, a sharp-looking young man in his thirties, barely made eye contact with her before asking her to take a seat and wait.
She didn’t follow that invitation. She stood, pacing slowly, feeling uneasy and awkward in her professional attire, and checking her image in the pale reflection of the stainless steel door leading to the restricted communications area. She straightened her back, trying to project the confidence expected of an analyst if she wanted anyone to take her seriously. There was no way she could improve her average, almost plain looks, her dark brown hair tied in a ponytail, or her freckled complexion, but at least she could project some confidence.
Henrietta Marino, Henri for short, was a senior analyst with the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence—Russian and European Analysis. Thirty-five years old, she held a master’s degree in political science, and had a twelve-year record of accomplishment as an analyst for the CIA.
For the past eight years, her work had focused on Russia, Russian affairs, and the repositioning of Russia on the world power scale. She understood the Russians really well, or at least she hoped she did.
Her latest report illustrated Russia’s concerted effort to reinvigorate its nuclear stance, unprecedented since START I in 1991. The signing of START I, the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, by the United States and the USSR, had marked a historic moment. The USSR was still a federation back then, but the treaty encompassed all former Soviet republics and remained in effect after the federation dissolved.
START I, and later START II, limited the number of nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, on both sides and mapped the road to arsenal reductions. It marked the beginning of a new era, where peace was becoming a possibility. It marked the end of the Cold War.
Henri had anticipated her report would cause some turmoil, being the first report ever to document and argue the rekindling of the arms race, the first of its kind in fifteen years. Within minutes after she had filed it, her phone had started ringing. Colleagues asked her if she was sure. Her boss followed suit immediately and grilled her for an hour on the report facts. Even the CIA’s general counsel, whom she’d never met, reached out and asked if she knew what that report meant. He also encouraged her to withdraw it if she wasn’t 100 percent sure. Finally, Seiden’s chief of staff asked her for more details and her degree of confidence. Now Seiden wanted to see her.
At first, her confidence had been high, the full 100 percent everyone expected from an analyst of her seniority. However, after so many confidence-eroding phone calls and meetings, she wasn’t that sure anymore. Still, she knew not many people were able to spot patterns as she could. She had the ability to identify patterns from the fifth data point, in some cases even from the third. It didn’t matter what she was analyzing. People’s behavior, global events, communication, actions, legislation, she was able to pinpoint immediately what her data points had in common and project a trend based on her observations. Her ability to predict the evolution of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, infamously known to the world as ISIL, although she had never worked in the Middle East Analysis Group, had brought her the promotion to senior analyst. That, of course, had happened only after everyone stopped thinking she was crazy and started seeing her point. She wondered if the same people were thinking she was crazy this time too. She wondered how long it would last.
“You can go in now.” Seiden’s assistant made eye contact for more than a second, making sure she went straight in.
She took in a deep breath, straightened her back one more time, and walked through the door displaying as much confidence as she could.
Director Seiden sat behind a monumental desk, reading from a report, most likely hers. Heavily built, wearing the frame of a former athlete or weightlifter, Director Seiden looked intimidating in his charcoal suit, white shirt, and loosened silver tie. In his sixties, the director had a receding hairline showing a tall forehead and permanent frown lines. His role, most likely one of the most stressful leadership roles in the US government, must have given him plenty of reasons to frown throughout the years, carving those deep lines in permanent testimony of who knows what crises he had dealt with.
Bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows shaded his eyes. He focused intently on his reading material, while his right hand absently touched his teacup, probably considering another taste of Earl Grey.
Henri hadn’t interacted with Director Seiden that often. Such a visit was an exceptional occurrence, considering there were three levels of leadership between her pay grade and his. She felt anticipation anxiety creep up on her. She wanted to make a good impression, and she only had one shot at it.
“Sir,” she said, after clearing her throat, turned dry and scratchy all of a sudden.
“Take a seat,” Seiden said, not lifting his eyes from the pages.
She sat in one of the large leather chairs in front of Seiden’s desk, careful to not make a sound and break the director’s concentration.
“Interesting theory you have here,” he said, finally looking at her. “How sure are you?”
For some reason, Henri instantly forgot her carefully rehearsed exposé and blurted out unfiltered thoughts.
“I was very sure when I put that report together, but now I don’t know anymore. Everyone doubts me, questions my judgment. I hope I’m right. I thought I was.”
She cringed hearing her own words. She sounded like an insecure child presenting her math homework and still somehow questioning whether two plus two equaled four.
“Are you a leader, or a follower, Ms. Marino?”
“Umm . . . I aim to be a leader, sir.”
“Then you shouldn’t let your self-confidence drop because people are asking questions. It’s their right. But you do have a brain of your own, right?” Seiden’s voice was almost encouraging. He wasn’t smiling or anything, but Henri didn’t sense any disappointment or anger in his voice.
“Yes, sir,” she acknowledged, aware she was blushing.
“Let’s try again. How sure are you, Ms. Marino?”
“It’s Henri, sir.” She blushed a little more. Maybe offering her first name was inappropriate? She had no idea, but she was going to worry about that later. She was clumsy with people, always had been. “Yes, very sure.”
“On what basis?”
“I have profiled President Abramovich. His detailed profile is on page five, I think. That profile, combined with several actions he’s taking, all listed in the summary section of the report, led me to believe he is preparing for war, or for a renewed arms race, at least.”
“I can read, you know,” Seiden said, tapping his fingers on the report cover. “What can you tell me that isn’t in the report?”
“Sorry, sir. Yes, well, Abramovich is a pure sociopath, of the worst kind possible. He’s a malignant narcissistic sociopath, who would kill millions over his bruised ego. I started my report from that evaluation and from analyzing several actions the Russians have recently taken. They correlate really well; they form a pattern that spells arms race to me, possibly even changes in Russia’s form of government.”
“How so?” Seiden took his reading glasses off and massaged the bridge of his nose with the tips of his fingers.
“His entire background speaks to that. He was KGB. No, even worse, he was political KGB. He was a KGB general during Mikhail Gorbachev’s reign at the Kremlin, but Abramovich’s contempt for Gorbachev was common knowledge. He hated Gorbachev for his glasnost and perestroika, for his pro-West attitude and his willingness to end communism in Russia and bring freedom to the Russian people. Abramovich climbed to power under the self-proclaimed mission to restore Russia’s greatness, and he started working on that since his first day as president of Russia, in the typical manner of a sociopath.”
“Meaning his actions are disrespectful of anyone else’s values, human rights, or the law, for that matter. He is the most dangerous kind of sociopath one can imagine. Absolutely no conscience, no scruples whatsoever, combined with holding the supreme power in a powerful country. After all, when did President Abramovich start being on everyone’s mind again?”
Seiden didn’t answer; just continued looking at her, waiting for her to resume her analysis. He’d probably heard these things before and had no interest in dwelling on them, nor cared to play question–and-answer games with her.
“Right,” she continued. “He invaded Crimea, because he needed faster access to the Black Sea, a waterway shortcut. He didn’t care that it was in a different country; he just annexed Crimea, erasing the border that stood in his path. Nothing mattered to him, not even another country’s sovereignty. Then what happened? We applied sanctions. Abramovich, whose ego knows no limit, found the sanctions insulting. He fought back with his own sanctions, but he’s hurting. Along with him, his financial backers are struggling. The Russian oligarchs, who paid him immense bribes in exchange for favorable legislation and the unofficial permission to do whatever they pleased, now are facing bankruptcies and are demanding action. His personal cash flow has almost dried up. That’s why President Abramovich doesn’t want the sanctions lifted anymore. He wants much more than that. He wants revenge; he wants blood. He wants us to pay for his bruised ego and tarnished image.”
“Interesting,” Seiden said, “but not all that new. What else do you see?”
“Several other things that correlate. The Russian people like him a lot. They, too, are sick and tired of poverty and uncertainty. Their support for him has created a unique circumstance that allowed him to start on the road of becoming a dictator, to remain in power until he draws his last breath.”
“How come?” Seiden’s interest was piqued.
“Well, after Russia became so-called ‘free’ from communism,” she said, making quotation marks with her fingers in the air, “one of the first legislative changes was the amending of the Constitution, limiting the number of consecutive presidential terms to two, just like we have here in the States. The first few terms were four years long, until 2012. Then, they amended the Constitution to make them six years long, all during Abramovich’s tenure at the Kremlin. Once his first two terms were consumed, no one thought he would be coming back to lead the country, but he did. He was elected again after a short hiatus, the single-term intermission required to satisfy the Constitution limiting him to two consecutive mandates. Very soon after he returned as reelected president, the Constitution was amended again, extending, as I said, the terms to six years. With these changes in place, he already had twelve years ahead of him, during which time many things could happen. That might include, I am postulating, another amendment to the Constitution, opening the door for more consecutive terms. Because he is well supported by the desperate Russian people in search for stability and sustainability, that amendment will be easy to vote in. This is how I see him paving the road to dictatorship.”
She stopped talking, swallowing with difficulty. She was painfully aware she spoke too much and too fast.
Seiden whistled and leaned back in his chair, interlocking his fingers behind his head.
“You definitely have my attention now, Henri. Why an arms race though?”
“In the past year and a half, several incidents involving the Russian military took place around Europe and even here, in North America. Forty-seven, to be exact. Near misses, some might call them, or provocative, as others have labeled them, nevertheless they are quite a few. Way too many to be slipups, mistakes, or random acts. These data points form clusters. My analysis isn’t finished yet on these specific actions, though.”
“Yet you filed a report?” Seiden frowned, the lines on his forehead becoming more visible.
“My report is focused on Russia’s nuclear stance, and I’ve finalized that part of the analysis. I was just giving you conjuncture.”
“I see. Then let’s talk nuclear threat.”
“Well, going back to the forty-seven incidents I mentioned, and how apparently random they were, well, I am positive they’re not. I will finish the analysis on those events and substantiate my point. But keeping those so-called random incidents in mind, I will now list nuclear-related, apparently random events that took place in the past few months. A cleanup and restoration operation of their ICBM sites, in no particular order, took place during the past few months. Satellite shows it clearly; they’ve dusted off the majority of their ICBM sites, even some we didn’t know existed. Our satellites tracked the cleaning crews once we knew what they were doing.”
“How did you know to look for those? Do you normally track via satellite every convoy they move around?”
“No, but it was what I would have done. I would have cleaned up my existing arsenal, get it ready, train my people, and produce more weapons. Makes sense. So I had satellite surveillance on a few top ICBM sites, and bingo! One day they showed up. Then I followed the convoys.”
“Hmm . . . What else?”
“A few months ago, an exercise drill was conducted, involving 25,000 armed forces in a simulated massive nuclear attack. You’ll find the details in Appendix 2.”