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Richard Clarke Turns to Fiction: 'Scorpion's Gate'

As a former counterterrorism official in the Clinton and Bush administrations, Richard A. Clarke often had to imagine worst-case scenarios.

His first novel -- a thriller -- does just that. Set five years in the future, The Scorpion's Gate envisions the United States on the verge of another war in the Middle East.

Read an excerpt of The Scorpion's Gate:

The Diplomat Hotel
Manama, Bahrain

The waiter flew through the lobby café.

Behind him came a blizzard of glass shards, embedding ragged-edge daggers of shattered windows in arms, eyeballs, legs, brains. The concussion wave bounced off the marble walls with a mule-kick punch he felt in his stomach. Then there was the deafening sound of the explosion, so loud it surrounded him with a physical force, shaking every bone and organ in his body. Brian Douglas dove for the floor, behind a tipped table. His response was automatic, as if muscle memory had told him what to do, innate reflexes from those terrible years in Baghdad when this had happened so many times. As he flattened his body on the plush carpet, he felt the floor of the Diplomat Hotel shake. He feared the fourteen-story building would collapse on top of him. He thought of New York.

Now there were long seconds of silence before the screams began, cries to Allah and God's other names, in Arabic and English. Once again there were the shrieking voices of women, painfully highpitched and piercingly loud. Once again there were men moaning in pain and crying out as glass continued to shatter onto the floor around them. An alarm rang needlessly above it all. Just a few feet away from Brian, an old man wailed as the blood streamed down from his forehead and spilled across the front of his white robes, "Help, please! Help me, please! Oh God, please, over here, help . . ."

Although Brian had been through bombings, it chilled his bones, knotted his stomach, made his head throb, blurred his vision, and caused him to choke, gasping for air. His eardrums were ringing and he had a sense that he was somehow disconnected from the reality around him. As he tried to focus, he sensed something was moving inches to the left of his head. With a chill shudder, he realized it was the twitching fingers of a hand severed from a body. Rivulets of blood ran down the upended tabletop to his right, as though someone had thrown a bottle of red wine against it.

Sofas, chairs, carpets, the palm plants in giant ceramic pots were burning in the rubble of what had been elegant, the soaring lobby of a five-star hotel. Then Brian focused on the overpowering scent, a smell that made him gag again as he struggled to roll over. He coughed and spit as he inhaled the vile, heavy stench of ammonia, nitrate, and blood. It was a retching smell he hated but knew all too well. It was the stench of senseless death that brought back painful days of friends lost in Iraq.

Through the shattered glass that opened onto the driveway in front of the hotel came another sound he recognized as automatic gunfire. "Brrrrt, brrrrt . . ." Seconds later a cacophony of sirens blared, the European-made ones going up and down in singsong, the Americanmade sirens wailing their imitation of space aliens landing. Suddenly, Alec, one of Brian Douglas's bodyguards, was over him. He wondered how long he had been down. Had he been out?

"Does it hurt anywhere, sir?" Alec asked.

Brian now noticed that blood was dripping down from his scalp, matting his sandy hair. "No, Alec, somehow my luck has held once again," he said, getting up on one knee, grabbing the overturned table for support. Brian's head spun like a carnival ride. He tried to wipe away some of the blood and dust and rubble from his face.

"Where's Ian?" For the three years that Brian Douglas had been Bahrain station chief of SIS, British intelligence, the staff at the station had insisted that he take two bodyguards with him wherever he went, driving to and from his house on Manama's northern beach, going on trips elsewhere in the little country, or visiting the subordinate posts in the other Gulf states. For the last year it had almost always been Alec and Ian, two former Scots Guards sergeants. They had watched over him with a mix of professional polish and personal attention, as if he were a favorite nephew.

"Ian was standing watch by the door, sir," the big man replied, helping Brian as he managed finally to stand up. "Ian is no longer with us." Alec said it with a slow sadness, in his soft Aberdeen lilt, accepting what he could not change, that their friend had been murdered. "There'll be time for that later, sir, but right now we have to get you the hell out of here."

"But there are people here who need help," Brian stammered as

Alec grabbed him firmly by the arm and moved him expertly through the mounds of wreckage and out the door to the pool deck. "Aye, and there are experts coming to help them, sir, and besides, you're in no shape to be helpin' anyone." Alec had found the service stairwell next to the pool and was steering Brian toward it. "Hear all of that shootin' out front? This is not yet over."

The two men moved through the smoldering debris, trying not to step into the pools of blood or onto the pieces of pink and white and gray that had so recently been living flesh and bone and brain. Glass crunched under their weight as they moved to the stair and down to the exit door. An emergency lighting box provided a pale beam as the men headed down the darkened stairs. At the bottom, Alec tried the door.

"She would be locked tight, of course," said Alec as he motioned Brian to stand back. Pulling his Browning Hi-Power .40-caliber gun out of the holster beneath his left arm, Alec blasted three shots at the doorknob and lock. The roar of the shooting in the concrete stairwell brought the throbbing in Brian's head to a peak of pain. Kicking the door open, Alec smiled as he turned back to Brian. "Don't worry," he said as he reholstered the pistol, "there are nine more in that clip."

Brian followed Alec through a long service tunnel. At its end, he saw two other station men, standing by a door to the alley behind the hotel. "The station has had this route on the list for four years, since that foreign ministers' conference here," he heard Alec say through the ringing. The two big men by the door, folding Belgian machine guns slung under their windbreakers, rushed Brian to an unmarked white Bedford van blocking the alley. In seconds, the van was moving quickly down the streets of Manama, away from the burning tower of devastation that had been the Diplomat Hotel, from the fires, from the dead, and from those who wished through their pain that they were dead.

The van barreled past the Hilton and Sheraton hotels, where porichard lice officers and security guards scurried about the entrances erecting barricades in case they were the next to be hit. The van sped past Number 21 Government Avenue, site of the Kutty, the British diplomatic compound in Bahrain since 1902.

Alec and Brian nodded with appreciation as they saw the Gurkha guards, with their foot-long kukri knives and the Belgian folding automatic weapons, ready for action, lining the street in front of the embassy. They were members of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, headquartered in Brunei. These short soldiers were some of the few Nepalese left who still served as part of the British army, a tradition that dated back almost two centuries. Alec had helped train the 2nd Battalion when Whitehall had decided the Gurkhas would protect British embassies in the Gulf. "Silent, ruthless, dangerous little men," said Alec as the van continued down Government Avenue past the embassy. "They'd give their lives if they had to, to protect the Kutty."

As soon as they heard the bomb blast, the Station began implementing the response plan for a terrorist action, bypassing the British Embassy, a possible target for a follow-on attack, and moving senior station staff to a clandestine facility off-site.

The Bedford slowed as it turned left onto Isa al Kabeer Avenue, just past the embassy, and headed to a compound two blocks down on the right. As it made the turn, Brian looked out the slit in the backdoor window and saw three Bahraini army Warrior armored vehicles lumbering, black smoke snorting up from their exhaust pipes.

The Warriors moved to the front of the Foreign Ministry building across Government Avenue. At the precise second that the Bedford reached the gray metal gate of the Al Mudynah Machine Works compound, the covert home of the backup station, a 15-foot-high gate moved aside. The van dashed forward into the courtyard and then braked hard. Armed men rushed around the vehicle. Seconds behind them, a British army medic in civilian clothes slid open the side door of the van and scrambled inside. He tended to Brian Douglas's head wound before the station chief got out.

Brian's number two, Nancy Weldon-Jones, was standing next to the van as he emerged. She flinched as she saw the bandage on his head. "No need to worry, Nance. I'm going to live." He paused and looked at the asphalt. "Unfortunately, Ian isn't." Then he looked up again. "Now, then, what's the report?"

"I got on to Admiral Adams over at the Navy base," Nancy said. "There's dead Brits and Americans, maybe a dozen each. Three times that many in local staff and guest workers. We think it was a truck bomb, probably an RDX mix over ammonium perchlorate." She offered her arm to Douglas, but he shook his head and stepped forward. She continued her report: "A drive-by shooting followed, just as the rescue workers showed up. Word is that the drive-by shooter was in a Red Crescent wagon. An American Under Secretary for something-or-other was on an upper floor. Of course, the lucky bastard was unharmed. He wasn't in the lobby café because he had them open up the al Fanar Club on the roof for a private little breakfast with somebody."

With Alec urging them forward, gun in hand, the station chief and his deputy crossed the yard and went inside the white concreteblock building. "Okay, Nance, but we know first reports are usually wrong. Any claims of responsibility?"

"Not yet. No need, really. There's no question it's Bahraini Hezbollah, otherwise known as your friendly Iranian Rev Guards and their lovely Qods Force boys." Qods Force, or Jerusalem Force, was the covert action arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. "Is London up on secure vid yet?" Douglas asked as he forced himself slowly up the stairs to the station's backup communications center.

"Up and waiting. You should have the Big Four: the director, her deputy, chief of staff, and . . ." She smiled. "The ME division chief." "Ah, good, what could we do without the ME division chief ?" Douglas asked sarcastically. Roddy Touraine, nominally his immediate supervisor, seemed to delight in making Brian's professional life miserable.

Brian and Nancy made their way through two vault doors to a room within a room, its walls, floor, and ceiling made of heavy seethrough plastic. Exhaust fans buzzed loudly in the walls. The "boy in a bubble" room was just large enough for the plastic conference table that filled it. Attached to the far wall was a 42-inch flat screen showing the crisp image of a far more elegant conference room, complete with wood paneling and a china tea service. Just sitting down in her pale blue chair at the head of that table in Vauxhall Cross was Barbara Currier, director of the British Secret Intelligence Service.

As soon as she sat down, the director began the meeting. "Douglas, you look an awful mess. My deepest sympathies about Ian Martin. I will ring up his wife as soon as we are done here. We will, of course, take care of her." Currier took a cup of tea being offered to her by ME Division Chief Touraine. "Do we understand, Brian, that this is the beginning of an overt destabilization effort directed against Bahrain by the new rulers in Riyadh?"

"I agree it's unlikely a one-off, Director," the station chief said as he looked into the camera above the monitor, "unless they had it out for someone specific, perhaps that visiting American dig. No, I would advise Whitehall that this is the start of something, but not in our view inspired by Riyadh. More likely Iranian-inspired and intended to get the little king here to kick out the Americans from their Navy base."

"Will King Hamad fall for that, Brian?" asked Currier's chief of staff, Pamela Braithwaite, who had been chief of staff for three directors of SIS.

"Not bloody likely, Pam. They're a savvy group here. They may be close to the Americans, but they can and do think for themselves." Douglas leaned back, running his fingers through his unkempt hair and adjusting the bandage. "I think what we have here is the opening of a new terror wave in Bahrain, controlled by Tehran. And remember," Douglas continued as he glanced at some papers that his deputy slid in front of him, "the Shi'a are in the majority here, even though the king's government is largely Sunni. Iran has seen that as a potential weakness here for years. Failed every time they tried to exploit it, but haven't given up."

Douglas saw his nemesis, SIS Middle East Division Chief Roddy Touraine, lean into the camera's frame of view. "With all deference to our heroic and, I see, bloodied station chief, I think in the thick of it, as it were, Director, that he overlooks the obvious. This is not an Iranian attack. It comes across the causeway from Saudi. The Riyadh crowd wants to make sure King Hamad doesn't let the Yanks use this little island as a base for operations against their fledgling little caliphate." "Whoever it is, Director," Douglas responded, his face reddening, "we will give all assistance to the king here, but we shall not be alone in that. The Americans won't abandon this place. The little Gulf states are all that they have left after the fall of the House of Saud and the creation of Islamyah, coming right after their pullout from Iraq. The Yanks are like sandwich meat spread thin onto the Gulfies between two very big hunks of hostile bread, Iran and Islamyah."

In London, Barbara Currier shook her head in sadness. "Kicked out of Iran in '79, politely pushed out of Saudi in '03, invited to leave Iraq by their Frankenstein in '06. Then the fall of the al Sauds last year. Now they are just hanging on in the region, with only the little guys to help them: Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the Emirates, Oman. And how long can they hang on there? Sic transit gloria imperi. Just ask us." She paused at a noise coming from the Bahrain end of the conference call. "What was that?"

A long, low rumble shook the bubble room in Bahrain. The exhaust fans seemed to cough. From London, Currier could see on her flat screen that someone who had just entered the room in Bahrain was bending over Brian Douglas, whispering something. Douglas had his hand over the microphone. He spoke briefly to those around him, and then he looked back up at the camera. "The attack on the Diplomat was not a one-off, Director. The noise that you just heard was the sound of the Crowne Plaza, down the street from the Diplomat, pancaking."

Near the As Sulayyil Oasis
South of Riyadh Islamyah (formerly Saudi Arabia)

That white smudge on the black of the night is the backbone of our galaxy," Abdullah said softly. The two men lay back on the pile of pillows and pondered the infinite sky. The galaxy was bright above the desert, far from the lights of the city and the flares of the refineries. Abdullah sat up on the carpet and smoked the apple- flavored tobacco of the hubbly-bubbly. Except for the gentle gurgling of the water pipe, no sounds broke the stillness that covered the rolling sand.

Ahmed rose and walked toward the embers of their fire. "You are such a poet, brother, but you try to change the subject." He stirred the charred wood. "The Chinese are no different from the Americans when their troops were here," he said as he spat into the dying fire. "They too are infidels."

"Yes, they are infidels, Ahmed, but without the Chinese weapons, we will lie naked before our enemies. Many of our American weapons do not work anymore, without the American contractors and spare parts. My brothers in the Shura aren't always right, but they may be right about this. We may need those weapons, and the Chinese must be here to make them work until we can."

Ahmed shook his head in disagreement, prompting his brother to continue. "We must have weapons to deter our enemies. The al Sauds have bought important Americans to help get themselves back on the throne. The Persians stir up trouble among our Shi'a and those in Bahrain. And the Persians now have nuclear weapons on their new mobile missiles." Abdullah stood up and walked slowly toward his younger brother. "We will keep these few Chinese inside the walls, deep in the desert." He stared down at the remaining hot coals.

"They will not stain our new society. The Chinese need the oil; they will stay in line. Besides, it is done. The missiles are here now." The two men walked away from the fire pit, with its semicircle of carpets and pillows, heading up to the crest of the dune. Below them the desert was bathed in the dim blue light of the stars and the halfmoon. "You know, Ahmed, the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him, camped very near here, just at that oasis. And our grandfather used to come here as well. Both of them loved the beauty of this place."

He grabbed his brother's arm, turning him to look into his eyes. "I did not come all this way just to be bound in chains again. While you were in Canada learning to cure people, Ahmed, I was learning to kill them. I personally slew al Sauds last year, and before that, in Iraq, I attacked their American masters. I am not going to hand our nation back to those swine, or anyone else. Allah, the merciful and compassionate, has given us the mission to create Islamyah from the fetid carcass that was Saudi Arabia.

"Those so-called Saud princes sit in their unclean mansions in California, drinking and dancing as they count the money they have stolen from our people. They buy whores in the American Congress to deny us the parts to make our American weapons work. They bribe the Jewish reporters to whip up support for invading us. They connive with the greedy British diplomats to spy on our embassies and steal our papers.

"They will stop at nothing until they have regained control of this land. Even now, the al Sauds, and those criminals in Houston who help them, are hiring assassins to kill all of us on the Shura. The Persians, too, infiltrate agents into Dhahran and the rest of the Eastern Province, pretending to champion the Shi'a."

Abdullah released his grip on Ahmed. He loved Ahmed, younger, taller, with the deep brown eyes of their late father. He wanted to persuade him. "But what we have done now may not be enough. What do both the Americans and the Persians have that lets them think they can intimidate our infant nation? You know the answer. It is the bomb of Hiroshima—the killer that turns the sand into glass and poisons the land for generations. If we resist, they will char our cities and incinerate our people, so they can again steal the oil beneath our sands. That is why, Ahmed, my so-called friends on the Shura Council think we need our own bomb."

Ahmed did not back down. "What about the Pakistanis? The al Sauds gave them the money for a bomb. You found the records yourself. The Pakistanis will defend us."

Abdullah turned and began walking slowly back down the hill to the camp. "Yes, perhaps, Ahmed, but the only thing that concerns the Pakistanis is India. They say the right things about Islam, but they will keep their few weapons to scare the Hindus. The Pakistanis cannot be relied on. Besides, their missiles are primitive. We need more than a few little Pakistani arrows."

A low cough and then a high-pitched whine stirred beyond the next dune. A wisp of sand flew above it into the desert night. The helicopters were starting. It was time to return to the city. "So why did we come here tonight, Abdullah? I doubt that it was just to stare at the heavens and reminisce about Grandfather." Ahmed was seven years younger and four inches taller than his brother. He had marked his twenty-ninth birthday only two weeks ago, when he had returned home after eight years in Canada, ending his residency early, because Abdullah had become a member of the new ruling Shura Council. And Ahmed wanted to be part of his big brother's team now, just as he had wanted to play football with Abdullah and his friends twenty years ago. Since his return, Ahmed had pressed his brother on how he could help him with the new government of their country. But each time the answers were vague.

"No, not just to remember Grandfather." Abdullah looked down at the sand and placed both hands inside his robe. "It has been very hard for me to gain agreement from the Shura for you to work in my ministry. Many members distrust you because of your years away." "But there are no decent medical schools here," Ahmed shot back. "Not yet. Someday we will again lead. And you must stay in medicine, Ahmed," he said, looking back up the dune.

"But Abdullah, I want to work with you. I want to help our country, help bring back the pride of our people!" Abdullah smiled. Ahmed sounded just like a little boy again. "And you will. You will start at a hospital next week." Seeing the disappointment on Ahmed's face, he ended the teasing game. "But you will actually be working for me, directly. The hospital job will be only a blanket thrown over your real work. You will be my eyes and ears in the nest of vipers across the causeway." Abdullah smiled broadly, as if he had just handed an expensive present to his brother. "Bahrain?" Ahmed asked in confusion.

"Yes. It may be only sixteen miles away on the causeway, but that place is home to thousands of infidel sailors and their boats. The Persians are there, too, smiling and pretending to be merchant traders as they go back and forth in their dhows, but actually plotting against our new nation.

"You will go there, publicly estranged from me and supposedly upset with our new government. You will do your work at the Medical Center in Manama, but what you will also do is collect special information, just for me. You are going back into the belly of the enemy again, little brother." As he said that, Abdullah playfully punched hard against Ahmed's soft abdomen. Ahmed did not flinch. A white Land Rover appeared from over the far dune, to drive them to the improvised heliport on the sand. As they came upon the Black Hawks, Ahmed turned and poked back at his brother, punching him in the arm. "Abdullah, you're really sure these American helicopters are still safe without the spare parts?"

"For that the Pakistanis are useful. They can find parts for us, at least for now." With that, Abdullah bin Rashid, Vice Chairman of the Shura Council of the Islamic Republic of Islamyah and Minister of Security, jumped into his personal Black Hawk. Beneath the tancolored coating of the helicopter, the outline of the green seal of the Saudi Arabian air force could still be seen through the new paint.

As the Black Hawk rose, kicking up a dust storm, Ahmed placed the helmet on his head. He did not plug in the long cord that connected to the intercom system. He wanted to think, not to listen again to the incomprehensible babble of the crew. They flew low over the dunes, the Black Hawk's rotors beating through the thin air, speeding toward a light that spread across the horizon.

The aircraft's side door was open and Ahmed could see camels below, standing like statues, unfrightened by the aircraft's noisy appearance. Off beyond the camels, Ahmed saw the towers of the re- finery, shooting giant orange flares that danced in the night sky. They are the problem, he thought, the towers and the corrupting blackness that oozes from below our sands. It gives prosperity for our people, he thought, but it is also like the blood of a wounded camel on the sand. It draws deadly scorpions. And, Ahmed thought, Islamyah is now like a wounded camel. The Americans, the Iranians, the Chinese smell the blood of this land, oozing out from below its sandy skin.

As the Black Hawk rose to match its flight with the contour of the giant dune below, Ahmed thought, these nations are like the scorpions. And the scorpions are coming again.

Intelligence Analysis Center

Foggy Bottom -- Washington, D.C.

It's sixty-eight degrees on January 28th and the White House still claims that global warming isn't a problem? The Arctic ice cap is melting, the polar bears are dying, the Eskimos are drowning, the trees and flowers are blooming three months ahead of schedule, and they still say that there isn't enough evidence?" Russell MacIntyre flicked his wrist to see his watch. It was a cheap digital model that displayed the time in military style. It read 19:28, almost 7:30 P.M. He was going to be late meeting his wife at the Silversteins' in McLean, again. "Anything left, Deb?" he said, looking over at his attractive assistant, asking her a question that was actually intended to evoke an answer, unlike so many that he posed about politics and weather.

"Ms. Connor is still waiting down there," she answered, in a voice that suggested that the waiting young staffer had been sitting in the reception room for a long time.

"S***," he replied and instantly regretted it. Connor was one of the best of the crop of newly minted analysts that he had recruited from the nation's top graduate schools. He had promised them an exciting job. He had promised them that they could make a difference. He had promised them access. MacIntyre sighed. "Okay, Debbie, please go get her and send her in."

Russell MacIntyre was, at thirty-eight, the Deputy Director of the new Intelligence Analysis Center, or IAC. Although it was sixteen years since he'd been on the Brown swim team, he still tried to work out in "the pool at the Watergate twice a week. There were only slight flecks of gray in his auburn hair, but his wife Sarah wanted to "touch them up." The IAC, where MacIntyre was the number two, had been created as the final piece of the intelligence reorganization started by the report of the 9/11 Commission and the fiasco over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The combined failure of both the CIA and the new Director of National Intelligence to foresee the coup, or "revolution," in Saudi Arabia had finally convinced Congress to do something about analytical capability. The IAC was that something. It was empowered to see everything gathered by all the branches of the U.S. government and to order those agencies to try to get whatever information IAC wanted.

At the insistence of Senate Intelligence Chairman Paul Robinson, the analytical function was separated from the intelligence collectors, so the analysts would be unbiased, uncommitted to their agency's sources. Robinson also dictated that the new IAC have the resources to utilize open sources—press, blogs, academic papers, television from around the world. "I am determined that I will never again have to chair one of those ‘oh my God' hearings after something critical happens that we should have seen coming, but didn't," Robinson had fumed on the Senate floor.

With an elite staff of two hundred handpicked specialists, the new IAC was bureaucratically independent from the intelligence collectors in the other so-called three-letter agencies: CIA, NSA, NGA, FBI, and NRO. The analysts were a mixture of old and young, top career specialists taken from longtime niches and new whiz kids who had just parachuted into their first government job. When Robinson and a group of key Senators and Representatives from both parties had essentially forced the President to name Ambassador Sol Rubenstein to head the new agency, the sixty-eight-yearold government veteran had almost turned them down. It was only after he'd gotten every possible operational and budget issue resolved in his favor that he'd turned to the issue of the location for his new agency.

When he had cocktails on the roof of what was then the new Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, over thirty years ago, Rubenstein had been fascinated by the complex of old buildings he had seen nearby on the hill above the Potomac. They sat across the street from the State Department in the Foggy Bottom section of the city. Called Navy Hill, it had been the first home of the Naval Observatory. After the Observatory had moved in the nineteenth century, the Navy's Bureau of Medical Affairs had taken the Hill. In theory, they were still there, but at the outset of World War II some of the Navy buildings had been emptied out so that America's first real intelligence agency, the Office of Special Services, the OSS, could move in.

Ambassador Rubenstein had insisted on the ten-acre site for his new agency. He took as his own office the suite on the ground floor that had been home in 1942 to Wild Bill Donovan, the first OSS director. Rusty MacIntyre, the first Deputy of the Intelligence Analysis Center, had the office next to his new boss. Both men loved their river views, but the two spent as much time as they could wandering through the three buildings they called "our little campus."

MacIntyre had been Rubenstein's first hire for the new agency. The silver-haired retired ambassador picked him out of the executive suite of a defense contractor because, as Rubenstein had said, "You have a reputation for getting s*** done and not worrying about who you run over while you do it." MacIntyre worked hard to live up to that reputation. Rubenstein had also been very clearly told by Senator Robinson that MacIntyre would be a good pick.

"I'm sorry that I pushed Debbie so hard to see you tonight, Mr. MacIntyre. I know you are busy with the Bahrain bombings, but you said that whenever we really needed . . ." Susan Connor was clearly nervous as she walked into the big room and sat on the edge of the couch, sweat showing on her high forehead.

"It's Rusty. Mr. MacIntyre was my late father," the Deputy Director reassured the attractive twenty-three-year-old African American. He then fell into his beaten-up leather chair by the window. "I said that whenever you really needed to see me, anytime, day or night, you could see me. So what's up?"

"Well, sir, you told us at the off-site that intelligence analysis was ‘literally looking for needles in haystacks. The trick is looking in the right haystack, the one where they don't expect you to look.' Right?" Connor seemed to be reciting the lines from memory.

"That does sounds like something I might have said." MacIntyre smiled, amused to hear his own words bounced back at him and pleased at the impact they had clearly made on at least one listener. "So, have you found an interesting haystack, Susan?" What the hell was Connor's assignment anyway, Saudi—he corrected himself— Islamyah military?

"Maybe, sir. Maybe an interesting needle." Connor began to relax, warming to the story she was about to tell. "I found this 505 report this morning." A 505 report was a type of dissemination from the National Security Agency, the electronic listening headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland. It was a routine, low-priority report without special restricrichard tions on its distribution. The NSA issued thousands of these reports every day, jamming the e-mail in-boxes of intelligence analysts connected to the highly secure interdepartmental Intelwire network.

"Okay. Well . . . ?" MacIntyre wanted to cut to the chase. He stared out at the river, which was now being pelted by a January rain. He pushed the intercom button for his assistant. "Deb, call my wife on her cell and tell her I can't make dinner with the Silversteins. Tell her I'll call her in a bit, but they shouldn't wait dinner on me." MacIntyre's friends were well used to his frequent no-shows, and had long ago learned not to ask why. He motioned for his eager staffer to continue.

"Well, sir, it was a frequency not used by the Saudi military, but it was coming from the middle of the Empty Quarter, the open Saudi desert. Burst transmissions, heavily encrypted, narrow beam straight up to the Thuraya." The Thuraya was a commercial satellite over the Indian Ocean. Connor was now unfolding a map of Saudi Arabia on top of the coffee table.

"Yeah, so . . ." Oh s***, he thought, this kid is talking about some standard 505 report, just the usual low-level crap . . . Maybe I should have gone to the Silverstein dinner . . . Sarah will be pissed at me again.

"So I called NSA, like you said we should when we needed more information than they gave us in the reports. I got the runaround almost the whole day, but finally, just after five o'clock, the assistant chief of D-3 called me back." The young analyst started taking coffee mugs from MacIntyre's collection of agency cups on the nearby stand, placing them on the corners of the map to keep it from coiling back up. Connor carefully secured the northwest corner with an NSC mug, the southwest with a NORAD cup, the northeast corner with one from CinCPAC, and the southeast one with a chipped blue cup with a gold SIS on it.

"D-3?" The Deputy Director sat up in his leather chair, which had been with him since his first job on Capitol Hill. "That's NSA's branch for Chinese military, not the office that handles Saudi." "I know, sir." Susan smiled for the first time since she had entered the room. "The freq in the report is used only by Chinese Strategic Rocket Forces. It's their nuclear command link."

"Huh? What did the guy from D-3 say, what's his explanation?" MacIntyre was looking at the map. The red X that Connor had marked on it was certainly in the middle of nowhere. "That site makes no sense. Chinese? It's right in the heart of the d***ed Rub al-Khali. Why the hell would that transmission be coming from the center of the Empty Quarter? There's nothing there but a quarter million square miles of sand dunes."

Susan rearranged the mugs. "He said that it was unexplained, but he didn't seem too worked up about it. Sounded like he wanted to go home. He said that his car pool was waiting and . . ." MacIntyre popped out of the chair and moved quickly toward his desk.

Connor began to mumble, "Maybe I shouldn't have bothered you, sir, since NSA didn't . . ."

The Deputy Director grabbed a gray phone. "This is MacIntyre at IAC. Let me speak to the SOO." There was only one place in the government where there really was "a boy named Sue"—namely, NSA's Senior Operations Officer, who ran the spy agency's command center. "Hi. I need a confirmation on the freq reported in your serial 505- 37129-09. We were told that it was PRC strategic c-cubed."

Connor listened nervously, envisioning her career ending before it had even begun, especially if the answer was that it was really nothing more than Panamanian shipping comms. "Okay, and the lat-long places it where?" Another pause seemed to take forever. MacIntyre had turned his back to Connor and was fumbling through a directory. "Okay. Little odd, no? Okay, thanks."

The Deputy Director switched from a gray to a red phone. He looked again at his watch and then punched a speed dial. "I have a priority-two late insertion for the Placeset bird; my code is IACzero- two-zulu-papa-romeo-niner."

Connor was trying to remember what Placeset was: maybe the high-resolution electro-optical satellite.

"Coordinates, lat five zero degrees, three zero minutes east; long two three degrees, two seven minutes north," MacIntyre said as he stretched the phone cord while reading the location off the map on the coffee table. "I want a ten-mile radius at Focal Level 7. What time will you have it?"

The Focal Level System was like a lens opening, or stop, on a camera, only the camera was 200 miles up in space. Connor remembered that seven was a real close-up, the kind that almost let you read the words on street signs. She realized that MacIntyre had taken her seriously enough to play a special chit, an after-hours personal request to divert a satellite from the targets that had been agreed upon just that morning by an interdepartmental committee from CIA, DOD, NSA, and the IAC.

MacIntyre put the red phone back in the cradle with his right hand and simultaneously picked up the intercom handset with his left. "Deb, order us the usual pizza, then go home, thanks." The Deputy Director plunked down heavily in the chair again and smiled at his young analyst. "Now we wait. I hope you like anchovies." At moments like this, Rusty MacIntyre felt like a one-armed paperhanger. He and Rubenstein had tried and succeeded in keeping the IAC small; that way they avoided the bloat that had made the CIA so ineffective. But small also meant that Rusty usually ended up doing everything from editing reports to arguing with OMB and the Congress for more money, to hanging out and eating pizza late at night with young analysts.

It also meant he hardly ever got to see his wife. After ten years they still hadn't gotten around to having a kid and now—with Sarah at thirty-eight—it was almost too late for them to start a family. She never complained about it. "Not to decide is to decide," Sarah would say to him, "and I'm fine with that." Maybe she actually was fine being childless, since she enjoyed her work at Refugees International so much, but Rusty wasn't fine with it.

"Oh, I forgot: here's your change from the pizza," Susan said, placing four quarters on the small tabletop.

Rusty MacIntyre smiled at his young analyst. Then he took his empty glass and placed it under the table. Susan gave him a double take but said nothing. Silently, MacIntyre palmed the quarters, placed one in the middle of the table, and pressed his thumb on it. Clink. The coin had disappeared. And then another. Clink. Susan Connor looked under the table, where two quarters sat in the glass. Then MacIntyre did it two more times, apparently pushing the coins through the table.

Susan Connor ran her hand across the tabletop. "How did you . . . ?" she asked, picking up the glass.

"Amateur magic, a hobby of mine. But it's also a lesson. Not everything is as it appears," Rusty said, sitting back in his chair. "Here's how . . ."

"Blttt . . . Blttt . . ." It was the secure phone. It was almost eleven o'clock and the satellite's ground site manager was calling. The image MacIntyre had requested could now be called up on the Intelwire. As Deputy Director of IAC, Rusty had few perks, but one he did have was a 72-inch flat screen connected to Intelwire. On it popped an amazingly high-resolution image of the Arabian Desert, in the middle of which a red crosshair cursor was blinking.

Using a handheld control, MacIntyre zoomed in and out and moved the cursor, quickly scanning the circle he had asked for, with its 10-mile radius. Connor could not keep up with her boss's search and was getting vertigo from the image on the screen as it zoomed and swerved in front of her. It was as though she were looking down on the Arabian Desert from a blimp just yards above the sands. Suddenly MacIntyre stopped and sat back down behind his desk.

"Helluva haystack, Susan," the Deputy Director said, shaking his head at the perplexed analyst. "Helluva needle." "I'm not sure I understand, sir. What was that on the image?" Connor was perched again on the edge of the couch, a plate on her lap filled with pizza crust ends and tomato-stained anchovies.

"That, Ms. Connor, was twelve underground missile silos and a central support base for mobile missiles. Judging from the one missile that was on a truck at the base, I would say it is the Chinese CSS-27, Beijing's latest medium-range ballistic missile. Except they're not in China, they're in Saudi Arabia—ah, Islamyah."

Susan Connor stood up, whistled, and then, slowly, said, "Ho-lee s***." The anchovies were now on the carpet.

Aboard the USS Ronald Reagan
in the Persian Gulf, also known as the Arabian Gulf

Although the carrier was moving at 25 knots, preparing to recover a squadron of F-35 Enforcers, there was only the slightest sense of motion in the admiral's suite, buried just under the flight deck of the 77,000-ton floating air base.

"Would you like a cigar, Admiral? It's a Cohiba," the new flag ensign offered. The three-star vice admiral, Bradley Otis Adams, grinned as he reached into the open mahogany cigar box. "First of all, Ensign, smoking a cigar in here is prohibited. Second, a Cuban Cohiba is contraband. And third, your predecessor briefed you very well."

Leaning forward from his seat at the end of the table in the admiral's dining room, one-star rear admiral Frank Haggerty took the beat-up Zippo lighter his boss offered. It was engraved with the words "HVT Bar, Baghdad." Haggerty smiled, remembering Adams had a role in going after the high-value targets, the leaders of Saddam's Iraq. Frank Haggerty lit up his Cohiba. "Ruck, you get these in Jebel Ali?" Andrew Rucker was captain of the USS Ronald Reagan, a 1,040- foot behemoth with two nuclear reactors and a crew of 5,900. He looked across the table at his boss. "You can buy anything in Dubai," he answered as he, like Adams and Haggerty, lit a cigar. Smoking indoors on a U.S. Navy ship had been banned for years, but no one was going to tell that to the commander, Fifth Fleet, or his subordinate, the admiral in command of the Reagan battle group.

So for the captain in charge of the Reagan, there was one slight benefit to having the brass dine in. "I think, sirs, that once Castro finally goes we are going to switch from being enemies of Cuba to its greatest friends. Real fast."

Admiral Adams drew a long puff from his cigar and savored the aroma as it filled the room. The roly-poly fifty-year-old flag officer was young to be a three-star. Although his blond hair was thinning, he looked even younger than his age. He had been young to be in every position he had ever been assigned to for over twenty-five years. He joked that salt water ran in his veins, since two Otises and three Adamses had been U.S. Navy admirals over the past two hundred years. He had been in the Bahrain job for one month, acting as both commander of U.S. Naval Forces (Central Command) and commander, Fifth Fleet. Already he was getting cabin fever in the little island nation of Bahrain. He had choppered out from Bahrain to join his friends Haggerty and Rucker for dinner under way aboard the carrier. He also just wanted to be on a moving ship again, not tied to a shore desk.

Tonight he also needed to deliver a message, one that was for their ears only. He made a slight gesture toward the two aides standing nearby, and Rucker instantly caught his meaning. "Lopez, Anderson. That will be all, thank you." The ensign and the seaman left the dining room and quietly closed the door behind them. Adams stood up and took another long drag on his cigar. "Although he was a little shaken up by the lobby of his hotel turning into a charnel house, Mr. Kashigian did eventually emerge and come by the base for his briefing. Only, turns out he was actually here to brief me." Adams handed Haggerty a sheet of paper, with the engraved seal of the Secretary of Defense on the top and the looping signature of Under Secretary Ronald Kashigian at the bottom. "Take a look."

As the two read the documents, Brad Adams walked over to the wall and looked at the aerial view of the Gulf and the countries surrounding it. From space it seems as if nothing had changed at all, he thought, but now the al Sauds are gone and Iran had nukes, and we are in the middle of it all with not much more leverage than this fleet gives us.

"Does SECDEF really expect us to carry out all this while revealing nothing to anyone?" asked Haggerty. "I'm not sure that we can get the force prepped to do everything that he wants that fast without someone getting wise."

Rucker shook his head as he looked at the document in front of him. "Admiral, I don't mean to be out of place, but isn't it SOP for orders like this to be transmitted over ARNET, not delivered by hand?"

Adams turned back to the two men. Rucker, now forty-two, had been a little iconoclastic since his Annapolis days. He thought independently, didn't just accept the company line. It was amazing he had made captain. "They're worried about leaks. Of course, they're always worried about leaks. But this time they seem to be almost paranoid about it. It's almost as if they are certain that if CIA or NSA or IAC gets word of what we are up to, then somehow it is going to get out." Adams sat back down at the table as Rucker placed the orders on the table.

"Well, given the size of what they are planning, how do they expect it not to leak?" asked Haggerty. "They must realize that someone is quickly going to see not only what we are doing here, but all the movement in CONUS and the Med, too. You can't move this many men and ships and position that many people for action without someone getting wind of it."

"You're right, Frank, and I tried to explain that to Kashigian," Adams replied. "But SECDEF is locked into this thing with a religious fervor that makes the Shura look like a Unitarian Sundayschool class. I don't understand it exactly, but they are moving ahead with this at a pace like I've never seen before. The only thing I can figure is that they've gotten some bit of intel that they haven't shared with us or anyone else, or else—"

"Or else what, Admiral? This just doesn't make sense. The Iranians are a threat to blow up the whole d*** region, Iraq is still a mess, sending terrorists after us wherever we turn. Why the hell would we pick right now to stage a major amphibious exercise with Egypt in the Red Sea and pull most of the Fifth Fleet out of the Gulf for ten days?" Haggerty got up from the table and walked over to the aerial photo of the Gulf that Adams had been studying. "I really am not sure that I can do everything that they want in that time frame, Admiral," Haggerty said as he looked at the picture. "There is a lot going on here, and we should not be denuding the Gulf of American forces for some silly exercise. What do you want us to do?"

"I expect you to follow orders, Frank. Remember, civilian control of the military? Even if sometimes the civilians don't make sense. You and Ruck do what you have to so that you can get us ready to do these missions while keeping them quiet. The largest amphibious exercise in memory, two carrier battle groups, most of our assets from the Gulf -- all for a landing on the Red Sea coast of Egypt? It might be meant as a message to Islamyah. When does that say the date is of the amphibious landing?"

Captain Rucker looked down again at the Planning Order. "Marines will assault Green Beach on 15 March." "The Ides of March. Guess somebody has a sense of humor, or history. That gives us some time to get ready . . . and to find out what's really going on. Not much time, but some," Adams said, smiling at Admiral Haggerty and Captain Rucker.

Vice Admiral Brad Adams drew a last puff. As he snubbed out his cigar in the big brass ashtray, an F-35 Enforcer executed a perfect nightime carrier landing. It hit the flight deck immediately above the Admiral's Suite with a noise that the inexperienced would have thought was a crash. All three men's eyes went to the video monitor hanging from the ceiling, to make sure that the jolt they had just felt was only an F-35 landing.

Excerpted from The Scorpion's Gate by Richard A. Clarke. Copyright 2005 by Richard A. Clarke. Excerpted by permission of Putnam, a division of Penguin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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