Team Room: You’ve been reading Mike Perry’s excellent SOF history posts on SOFREP since he wrote about the British SAS and the Iranian Embassy siege. Mike’s first book, Hammer of the Gods, is available now on Amazon. Recently, Mike has been pounding the keys on his next book, A Touch of War, and asked us to present the first chapter here to y’all. So, without further ado…
Blueness flashed and blurred through the silent streaks of rain as the wind curved them into jagged lines down the centuries old windowpane. They pooled and simmered upon the sill, then sprayed off to drown in the flooded greenery. Lightning split the sky again, reaching over the cities expanse, vanishing into a deep bellow, rolling as a wave back through the window to rattle the floor beneath him.
A thought echoed. Someone’s coming…No…It’s alright.
His eye struggled under the weight of its lid trying to follow shadows swooning within the dizzy night.
Another flash shot through the window.
Hands clapped his ears. Thunder roared over the ceiling. The bed stand shook. A shiver raced across his shoulders, then down into his spine. He felt the cool of sweat. Too much, too damn much. He grimaced, pitching over to face the clock telling under the lamp. He watched the pale greenness of numbers change and accepted surrender. He swore something red also blinked, yet its reason escaped. Sleep began its reclaim. Calm embraced him.
He never recalled the creaking hinge of the door.
A shape stepped toward him. A thin sliver of light from the hallway shone through the way, revealing a hand extending downward.
He felt a gentle tap on his shoulder. No…Can’t be. Rest counterattacked, then retreated. Now, fingers shook his arm.
“Mr. President…Please, Mr. President…”
He propped himself up on an elbow, hand reaching for the lamp. “Miles?” A click and a weak light illuminated the man.
Secret Service agent Bobby Miles watched his boss raise up and fight through a needed yawn.
President Paul Anderson rubbed his eyes, winced and looked up at the balding man’s slender face.
“Sir,” he said, “The Secretary of Defense is on the phone. He says it is most urgent.” He pressed the pulsing red button and handed over the receiver.
He took it, propped it on a shoulder and watched Miles exit with a silent close of the door.
Secretary James Mitchell spoke. “Sir, I was halfway across the Atlantic when I heard the news.” The low background whine of a jet engine underscored his sentence.”I’ve been analyzing the information, trying to make sense of it all.” He paused a second, then sighed as if trying to choose the right words. “It looks like we’ll be able to confirm it…Iran has just achieved a nuclear detonation.”
Anderson’s eyes gaped, stomach tightening as he drew in a deep breath. “My God.” He looked down at the floor trying to fit the pieces of his next thought “When?”
“Approximately three hours ago, seismic stations in Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan picked up a magnitude 2.7 earthquake in northern Iran. The footprint it left was brief but consistent with a decoupled explosion, meaning they tried to mask it with a conventional blast. The tail end of the reading is what told us, it matched all the wave activity of a nuclear device.”
Anderson rubbed his forehead slow, worry growing with each stroke. “Damn it. We were told at the briefing last week they were still at least twelve months away.”
“I know, sir.” Mitchell heard the frustration in the voice, sensed he need to offer more than what came out. “I’m sorry. We’ll find out what went wrong.”
“It’s too late for that now. How far out are you?”
“Be landing at Andrews in about twenty. And sir,” he added, “Just after three, I dispatched a detection aircraft to the area. It should be there within twelve hours.”
“Notify our people. I want them in the situation room to give me a run down in two hours.” He rose and pressed at the creases of the black pajamas. “And James, what about the Israeli’s?”
“Elevated activity in the government.”
Anderson deduced it based on his past briefings.“The cabinet is meeting. Any further indication they’ll launch?
“Not yet. No military bases appear to be alerted. Tonight will be a go if it is to happen. Right now there’s just lots of calls being made between the cabinet and senior military officials, but other than that everything seems calm. I suspect we’ll be hearing from them.”
“I need to call them first, try to defuse things before those jets take off. I’ll see you in two.” He pressed the button for the communications room and sat back down. “Connect me to the Israeli Prime Minister’s office.”
“Paul. What is it?” It was Jennifer, arms tucked under her pillow, eyes squinting in the light.
“Some trouble.” Before he could say any more a female with a soft English accent answered the call.
“This is President Anderson. I need to speak with the Prime Minister immediately.”
“I’m sorry, sir. He is at this moment away.”
“Have him call me as soon as possible. This matter requires immediate attention.”
“Yes Mr. President, I’ll contact him now.”
“Thank you.” He hung up the phone and headed for the bathroom. Turning around he looked back at his wife. Lightning reflected off her cheek as she walked past the window toward him.
“Remember when I told you we were on the verge of an historic agreement in the Middle East?” He said, thinking of the tentative ceasefire agreement with Hamas and the release of Palestinian prisoners Israel agreed to two weeks earlier.
“Well, signing pieces of paper, handshakes and everything else we groveled for just got pushed to the bottom of the list.”
“What? Are they at it again?’ She replied, never suspecting the next words.
“I wish it were as simple as that.” He opened the shower door and twisted the faucets, smelling their clean aroma as he adjusted until sufficient steam flowed from the shower to fill the room. He slid the glass door shut and unbuttoned his shirt. Then he turned, locking eyes with hers and revealed the secret. “The Iranians have just exploded an atomic bomb.”
“How? I mean, I thought everyone said-“
“That they were at least a year or so away? That’s what I thought…So did every other person in this administration, Great Britain, the European Union…Even the Russians.” He shook his head. “Everyone seemed so sure.”
“What will you do?”
“Don’t know, yet. I hope to have an answer by sunrise. If the Prime Minister calls, someone knock.”
“I’ll make some coffee.”
“Make mine black.” he said, “and Jennifer, don’t mention this to anyone.” She nodded and he closed the door. Steam lighted on his body and fogged the mirrors as he walked to the shower . Think only blank thoughts…Lose myself from this moment. He slid the glass back and stepped into the drumming spew. Final words left his lips. “God help us,” he muttered, and closed his eyes in the spray.
Tel Aviv, Israel
24 minutes later
The building was a large, stepped multi story complex made of medium brown brick and sat beside busy roads that flowed heavy with traffic. Unlike the majestic parliament building with its squat rectangular shape and Frank Loyd Wright futuristic architecture, it appeared just as ordinary and dull like the multitudes of office buildings springing up around it. Yet, every citizen in the country was under no illusion that the real power of the State Of Israel resided within these walls. Every department, civilian and military all possessed several offices with large windows permitting views of the young city’s expanse, like the eyes of a doting mother, keeping reigns on a favorite son, while on the topmost floor resided her brain whose policies held sway over daily life. The office of the Prime Minister.
A silver elevator door slid open and two men stepped out to begin the walk down the shining white hall. Their reflections stared back from the polished floor revealing one wearing a light blue short sleeve buttoned shirt with black tie and pants. The other wore the standard olive drab uniform of the Israeli Army with the red beret of Special Forces tucked under his left shoulder epaulet where a Colonel’s insignia rode. Unlike most of the world’s countries, the Israeli government played loose with clothing formalities. Such types with were seen everywhere in this building and this day was no different. And, as their footsteps tapped a strange rhythm down the vacant passageway, they turned to the right and stopped in front of a cherry wood door. Just above their eyes read a blue rectangular placard with white Hebrew letters saying ‘Office Of The Prime Minister.’
Michael Philpot, head of the MOSSAD intelligence agency, opened the door and Colonel Jessy Foxmann, head of Depth Corps, the newly formed expeditionary Special Forces unit, followed him through.
“Sit down, please,” Grozner said. “I want you here when I do this.”
Foxmann’s eyes darted round the room. This was his first time here and he was anything but impressed with the layout. Two bullet-proof windows looked in on a pair of table lamps at the furthermost corners with a sitting area of a couch and two chairs. On the opposite wall were sliding glass book cases partially filled with history and autobiographies. Then there were the two seats they took in front of the Prime Minister’s desk.
Ariel Grozner had two phones on either side of him. A black one for domestic and international calls and a red one for national emergencies. He held the black one’s receiver to an ear and pressed a button and said, “The President, please.” The words spoke from the speaker to the two men and he rubbed a finger over the smooth wood wondering about the tone this discussion would take.
“Yes Mr. President. I’m sorry I was unable to be reached when you called. I know you are aware of the situation both our countries face as a result of today’s news.”
“Yes… But I must add, that on our end the results may still be inconclusive.”
The Prime Minister looked across at the two men with a curious expression. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“Our Intelligence assets in Iran have provided no indication there was a successful detonation. What’s more, the most important part right now, the seismic readout, appears to be just a fragment. We’d have a hard time selling it to the world until we have substantial proof.”
“And what is that.”
“We have an aircraft enroute. It will be in the area in half a day. Take air samples, transmit them in real time. In fact, we’ll share them with you . If it shows anything I would ask that you delay any strike for twenty four hours until we determine whether we should join you. We’ll have to share information on routes and what targets to hit. Whatever the results, I’m asking for your postponement while we create a case and take it to the U.N. Even if nothing happened what we have may give us much more leverage for wider sanctions.”
“My country is at risk Mr. President,” he formed his hand into a fist and bumped it on the table.“ This is our Independence Day. They were sending a message aimed directly at us…If we do not attack soon we-“
“I understand,” he interrupted. He thought for a second then added. “I know the pressure you’re under. Believe me, the United States would never let your country be at such a risk that it would be destroyed.” He curled fingers around the phone tighter, fixating on the wall, and proceeded slow with a tinge of warning. “Don’t send those jets, Mr. Grozner. We cannot afford to start a war without absolute proof.” He wanted to scream it like an order.
Grozner realized the tone more as a concern instead of a warning. It came because of the Iraq WMD argument in front the world in 2003, not so much because Anderson was squeamish. Any falsehoods this go around would damage America far more than Israel. For the moment, Grozner seemed affected., and backed off suddenly. “Alright, Mr. President I am willing to live with your request for now. We’ll wait for your aircraft’s readings. Please be assured that Israel reserves the right to defend itself even if these results are inconclusive. Remember what the alternative for my people has been since independence.”
“And what is that?”
“There isn’t one,” he chuckled a bit, breaking the tension. “I will speak with you again when your aircraft retrieves its data. Good day to you.”
He laid the receiver down lightly and again looked over at the Philpot whose furled brow spoke volumes.
“Dear God, you’re not serious are you?” Philpot wondered aloud, nostrils drawing into a sneer. Surely not this man who has an iron will when it came to security.”Everything is ready. We must-“
“Not certain it’s necessary right now. I’m willing to let the President gather more information and play diplomat for a day. If it is not to our satisfaction though, we will still strike.” He clasped his hands to emphasize . “We hold the cards now. And he knows it.”
At once, Philpot understood the reluctance of Grozner and what it meant. “You have doubts too, don’t you?”
Grozner nodded, his lips constricting a bit. “Yes. We have one agent, only one out of the entire network that’s confirmed it. The rest vary between possibly they might have to absolutely not. Then we have the seismic data which is so flimsy that it wouldn’t hold up in an international court. In my gut feeling I’m certain they succeeded. But we need more proof. We’ve had seismic fragments over the years almost matching what we received this morning. And we also have an ally who doesn’t realize how much we’re going to need him if things turn ugly.” He shifted his attention to Foxmann. “That’s why you’re here Colonel.”
He turned into the hallway, holding the grey cup of coffee. Running fingers through moistened, silvery hair, he gave no thought to the hundred year old paintings, statues from dignitaries and their countries, or any other gift staring at him from either side of the storied walls when he strode by. He tugged at the tie, slackening it a bit so he could turn his head without chafing. Its dark blue complimented the black pinstripe suit and polished shoes that reflected the lights in quick points with each step. He still heard the rain pummeling the roof and saw light shining from an open door a few paces down to his right.
Rounding the entrance, he saw the six men. To the left, were Vice President Joseph Mason, Secretary Mitchell, and Central Intelligence Agency Director, Peter Krause. On the right, were National Security Advisor Seth Greene, and Defense Intelligence Agency Director, Collin Williams and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army General Robert Ramsey, whose half-smile appeared more nervous than welcoming.
Anderson was surprised Krause didn’t speak up and start offering apologies for what might be one of the worst intelligence disasters in the nation’s history. The attentive silence told him all seemed at a loss for words, and wanted him to open the conversation, maybe even control it. He decided he would, and withhold questions of failure for later on.
He sat into the high backed chair in front of an open laptop and phone at the head of a long brown rectangular table that ended near a wall. A digital clock reading eastern standard time sat above a large three by five foot monitor that remained dark and partially blocked by the laptop screen before him, as the rest of the group sat themselves down in front of their computers and waited for Mitchell to begin the briefing.
“Before we begin, ” Anderson stated, trying to ease everybody, “Let me say that I spoke with Grozner a short while ago. I sensed that he wants a definitive answer like we do.
“Meaning they’re not sure.” Greene asked, watching Anderson down a healthy gulp of brew.
“I believe so. But, only for twenty four hours if we get bad news. He also reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself whatever the results which for some reason I found a bit hollow. I’m sure he already proposed offering us a delay during his cabinet meeting and I can only imagine he got an quite an earful from some of the true believers who wanted to go right then.
“Would have been nice to have been a fly on the wall.” Williams said, pressing a key to adjust the contrast on his screen.
We have one. Anderson’s eyes left him and looked at the screen. He heard Mitchell’s fingers plod a few keystrokes then begin.
“This briefing will be in three parts. The seismic evidence, then photographic and finally intelligence support .” He cleared his throat.
“At 9:05 Iranian time, seismic stations in Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan detected a small continuous subterranean earthquake whose epicenter was located twenty seven miles south east of the city of Zanjan and approximately twenty two hundred feet below ground” The screens turned into a map of southwest Asia and showed small pulsating orange orbs riding along the borders of the three labeled nations. These marked each seismic station while a larger blue circle blinked just below them within Iran . It joined in tempo sending white concentric circles radiating outward into nothingness except toward the three borders where the pulses swallowed them. It gave little detail until the screen vanished, changing into three black boxes above which displayed the detection countries in alphabetical order along with the time and a number reading zero point zero in the top right hand. In the center of each box streamed a steady green line and the time begin counting down from fifteen seconds.
“These readouts are compilation of each of country’s stations . You’ll see it first at normal speed, then slowed down.”
The clock reached zero and started forward. The readouts came alive, scrawling green in continuous blurry waves that rebounded like a taut spring being stretched and released. Ticking past six seconds the waves steadied into a smaller but sustained form for about a second and a half.
“This last portion is the evidence.” The signal began again slow and he narrated. “Conventional explosions start the first expansion of the scale. After the shockwave rises and starts to fall another detonation occurs. This is a classic use of ripple fired explosives to achieve a sustained detonation. “
Anderson watched the slow etch of lines and discerned when the next blast started. He knew ripple fired explosives found use every day in mines, construction projects and anything else where large amounts of earth needed to be moved fast. Anyone trying to achieve a chain effect was limited only by how much explosives they had. Done right, a long multi -second blast might come off as one big detonation . The kind he watched right now. When it died down into a much less continuous disturbance that final second and half, which he knew left a signature still representing a thousand tons or more and sustaining itself like no conventional blast ever could, that’s when he knew…Only an atom being split spoke that way. His mind shot back to the briefing two months ago with Mitchell and the Air Force officer whose name he forgot. The man wore a Major’s leaves and explained to him better than anyone of much higher rank ever did. The test graphs, the possible disguising methods, and a sustained signature dying slow would be the sign And right now, he watched that pattern shimmer and die into nothingness before his eyes. A scenario he hoped he’d never witness. He looked over at Mitchell as his mind dragged him back to catch the man’s last sentence.
“That I’m afraid is the telltale sign of a nuclear explosion.”
Audible groans sounded in the room when uneasy bodies shifted in chairs and each man realized the moment. They became expressionless and just watched the readouts play over almost like they expected them to change. Krause looked around and focused on Anderson scratching at the absent stubble on his chin. He watched his boss run some fingers through his smooth hair messing its form a bit when he rubbed the scalp. Krause felt the anxiety in the act. The President then rested a palm under his chin and raised his eyes . He picked up the coffee and took a sip, swallowing it slow. That’s when he looked up and noticed the eyes of not only Krause, but everyone else’s upon him like they wanted some certainty before the other evidence presented itself. Instead, he refused the silent goading. “What does this area look like?”
“Right here, sir.” Mitchell tapped the fingerpad on a small icon and produced four small blocks of color satellite images. He selected one and enlarged it. Angles became defined and sharp under the three dimensional stereoscopic view which portrayed the jagged formations of two enormous mountains covered with evergreen trees. Between the ridges of one coursed a disjointed narrow path. It almost looked like a dry river bed until the picture closed in revealing a dirt road which curved and crept up a substantial incline and concluded in a small level plateau about thirty to forty meters in circumference.”As you can see, it’s quite an inhospitable place.” He moved the cursor over a point showing where a section of road washed out in a recent mudslide. Through it ran tracks of vehicles, no doubt heavy, due to the depth of tread patterns which led up and congregated at a spot on the plateau which the cursor traced and stopped in front of a shadow. “This feature has a bit of an overhang. However, we’re certain the mouth of the cave begins here.” He next brought up a photo showing the same position. Three trailer-like structures sited about fifty meters away from the entrance and two small dark pickup trucks stood parked nearby.
“At first it doesn’t look like much,” Mitchell said, “but these photos were taken just three days ago at four hours apart.” He selected the next picture, which seemed to be a duplicate save for absence of the trucks and a large white tractor trailer parked in the same spot. Its path led back to the overhang. “The Iranian’s have become quite good about disguising their facilities. ” He zoomed in on the rear of the truck which showed a small dark plate on the bumper’s left written in white Farsi language with the numerals ’04’. “They forgot about one thing, though,” he placed another smaller photo inset, showing the same plate. “Notice the numbers. He began enlarging the picture showing the vehicle sited in a row among several more in a parking area of a huge facility ringed with fences and several large buildings. All in the room knew it instantly. “This is the truck park at Natanz. This was one of the vehicles used to move centrifuges into the place.
Natanz was the one of the primary locations of Iranian nuclear research. Underground beneath eight foot concrete walls seven thousand centrifuges ran. Of these five thousand were thought to be producing low enriched uranium-the primary element needed for a nuclear device. Mitchell surmised elements here were moved to the target location. He nodded. “Krause, I want to thank you and your boys for giving us this on such short notice.” The man acknowledged him and said,
“The Russian’s sold them intel on our spy satellite tracks over the country. That’s why the next photo of the mountain shows nothing.” Up it came and all that remained was empty space where the three trailers once stood. Even the imprints of tracks in the parking area no longer existed and even the road appeared unused.
“This last picture,” Mitchell added,” is seventy three minutes old. Whatever they were doing they wanted any traces of it gone. They must have dragged something behind the last vehicle to distort any tire patterns from being studied from the sky.” He switched to infra-red. The image became black appearing to be a negative except for the different shades of white that scorched the earth.The brighter the color the hotter or more recent usage of the area. The dullest streaks scribbled about the parking area and rose to a blaring white the further down the road. Mitchell folded his arms on the table, linking fingers. “All in all, this is what we have, sir. The seismic activity, the secretive activity on these photos and a vehicle we’ve tracked hauling equipment to and from Natanz.”
Anderson contemplated the picture a moment, his eyes left the screen and looked at the coffee. Picking it up, he exhaled and downed the liquid letting the warmth fill his throat. Whatever doubts he had when speaking with Grozner left him. “James, I want to thank you for your presentation. You just gave me more than I expected.” He leaned back in the chair hearing it protest a bit under his weight and inspected the counsel before him, holding the cup a few inches from his mouth. He let his eyes dip and feelings rid themselves of uncertainty as he sat silent for a few seconds. Then confident of his next words, lowered the cup. “What we have in and of itself is very convincing. The next question that needs to be asked is once we get the final results from our aircraft and it confirms everything is should we try to get anyone else on board to take action with us. The Israeli’s know I’m going to the U.N., and I didn’t quite tell Grozner what I’d like to do when it comes to a joint action. “
“Build a coalition? ” Mason spoke up pushing his glasses back over his ears. “Get the U.N. to convene an emergency session? Get N.A.T.O to provide aircraft for a strike?”
“You just said everything I already thought about and in the right order, Joe, “Anderson asserted, surprised the man read him so well. He’d already thought about the possibility in the shower. Such a course of action certainly held advantages. A declaration authorizing use of force similar to one issued after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 would give the impression the world believed the evidence presented and would provide the muscle needed to remove the threat. Ideally, it presented the best option. How long would it take? A resolution might come quick, the subsequent haggling and fine details might take weeks, something he knew he could never wrangle from the Israeli’s. “It’s something I want to do. We’ll have to bend some arms twice to get things going. Just a few nations would work, although I don’t know if Grozner will give us more time than I asked for.
“It’s worth trying,” Greene interjected. “If you got Grozner to agree once regarding this matter he might do it again. We’d just have to press him harder. He has his doubts, remember.”
“Yeah, for now, ” Anderson replied. “We also have to consider what he may do if that plane comes up with nothing.” He didn’t want to bring it up.
“Possibly. If so, I’ll make it clear to him and the world that we want no part of this. And any attempts to get us into it will set our relations back decades.” He hoped he was right about that ring of hollowness with Grozner. “Is there anything else?”
“No, sir.” Mitchell closed his laptop. The others followed suit.
“Very well then.” He swallowed the last bit of coffee, rubbed his thigh and rose waiting for the others to stand. He acknowledged Mason. “Joe, coalition it is. Even with so little time it would be foolish not to try it. Crazier things have been accomplished in less time. As soon as we get the findings from this plane, what’s it called again, James? “
“Constant Phoenix, sir.”
“Once the Constant Phoenix sends its report, that will determine our course of action. If it’s positive, I’ll head to the U.N . James, you get in touch with NATO, Peter, contact their intel services and we’ll go from there. If it’s negative, we still have to worry because the Israeli’s might act, and I’ll insist to Grozner they’ll have to go it alone. If I can emphasize that, and its consequences, we might be able to defuse this thing and go the covert route for a final answer.” He placed hands in to his pockets and stretched his back, “Peter, I want to see you at lunch to offer suggestions, and one more thing, ” He said, not letting Krause think he might escape, “bring any information you can get on why our intel failed. This is pointing at a fuck up of major proportions, and I want to know why.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll have some answers for you then “
“I want everybody to work your schedules to fit in being back here at three this afternoon. Any new developments, no matter how insignificant, either from Iran or Israel, I want to know about.” He started away then turned round, the feeling impressing him too much to keep to himself. “You know, I was just thinking.” He shook his head slow, realizing the importance of the moment. “When the crew of that plane reaches its destination…If they’ll know just how much rides on what they find. If it’s nothing then the world might go on as it always has, play diplomacy. If it’s what we fear…Then Hell itself is going to start raining down and I believe it’ll be for much longer than any of us expects.”
“We’ll be ready, Mr. President,” Ramsey spoke up, feeling the need to say something to offset the moment’s concern and pay for his debt of silence.
Anderson turned almost as if he never heard the words and stepped out the door. “Perhaps.” he muttered so no one could hear. Dark thoughts hovered above and within him trying to break through the calm facade he placed in their path. “Perhaps.”
Something else grabbed him. Could Grozner be right? Would they be so bold to send a message to the Jews while trying to hide it at the same time?
He swore he heard a clock ticking.
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