Viking Bay, page 3
Ignoring Mercer’s jab, Callahan said, “Okay. I’m Thomas Callahan and I have the controlling interest in a limited partnership known as the Callahan Group. All my partners are silent; in fact, I don’t really have any partners. If you were to go online, you’d find our website, www.Callahan.Group.com, and it would tell you we specialize in helping U.S. companies do business abroad. The website says we know how to deal with such things as taxes on income earned overseas—meaning we tell companies how to avoid paying Uncle Sugar his fair share. It says we have special relationships with the right people in foreign governments—which means we know who to bribe if you want to operate in Dubai. If you want to set up a factory in Thailand and spew god-awful shit into the river that flows through downtown Bangkok, we know how to bend the environmental rules. And there actually are a few people who work for me who do that sort of stuff, and we always have about a dozen legitimate clients. If you were able to get your hands on the Callahan Group’s tax returns, you’d see that we are an enormously successful company for a business our size.”
“So what do you really do?” Kay asked. “I’m pretty sure you’re not hiring me to be a tax consultant.”
Callahan smiled. “When George W. Bush was president, I worked for his national security advisor and I’m sitting in my office late one night, this shitty little shoe box over in the EOB. I remember I was eating a pizza that was left over from the day before and a guy whose name I can’t tell you comes in, closes the door, and explains to me that the president wants me to set up a special type of organization.
“You see, Bush decided after he invaded Iraq that he wanted an option. He wanted an organization he could turn to for things that needed to be done but that he didn’t necessarily want the federal government doing. And what he really wanted was an organization that, if it fucked up, he could say: Hey, I got nothing to do with those guys. He could have turned to the private sector, but he realized, being a good capitalist himself, that the private sector is profit motivated and what we do is not about making a profit. Plus, W wanted to be able to control this group, and no matter what kind of contract you write, the private sector will do whatever its little black heart desires when it comes to money.
“The president also had other concerns, which I think were totally justified. Government organizations, even ones like the CIA, are run by bureaucrats who are always worried that they’ll end up taking the fall if they get caught doing something illegal on the president’s behalf. So lots of times these bureaucrats balk when the boss gives ’em an order that’s just a little bit in the gray zone. And after Powell stood up in the UN and swore on a stack of Bibles that Saddam had weapons he didn’t actually have, the intelligence community became really risk averse. It was like they became afraid to do anything unless they were a hundred percent positive something couldn’t go wrong, which rarely happens in intelligence work.”
“They were willing to take some risks when they went after bin Laden,” Kay said.
Callahan had the kind of eyes that seemed to literally twinkle, the kind of eyes Santa Claus was supposed to have. They twinkled when Callahan said, “It might surprise you to learn that the night Obama gave the order to invade Pakistan, he had some information other folks in the Situation Room didn’t have. “
Kay had enough sense not to ask: What information?
“Anyway,” Callahan said, “Congress is also a problem when it comes to covert ops. The various oversight committees want to know what’s going on, they want to be involved in decisions even though they’re not qualified to decide anything, and the bastards control the purse strings. I mean, Congress is just a gigantic pain in the ass.”
But Kay was thinking: Covert ops. Now, this was starting to get interesting.
“So that night,” Callahan said, “the president’s guy said the boss wanted me to set up an organization that he could call upon from time to time when he needed something done. In other words, like I already said, he wanted an option, and that’s what the Callahan Group is. It’s not a federal agency and it’s not really a private-sector company; it just looks like one.” Callahan smiled. “You know what I said when he finished talking?”
Kay shook her head.
“I said I want to hear this directly from the president. Well, the president’s pal said there wasn’t any way in hell that was going to happen. So I refused. A couple days pass, and I get called to the Oval Office. That was the first time I was ever in the room by myself, and the president’s not wearing any shoes, putting into one of those office putting cups. He smacks a ball, misses the cup by about ten inches, then he turns to me and says: ‘You had a discussion with a close friend of mine the other night, and my friend tells me that you wanted some assurance that I approved of what he said. Let me just say that I don’t disapprove.’”
Kay said, “What?”
“Exactly,” Callahan said. “Complete gobbledygook. And you know what a lousy speaker Bush was, and I could tell that he’d memorized what he’d just said, but if push ever came to shove, he could testify that he’d never ordered me to do anything. But I was okay with that. I was satisfied that he was personally giving me the go-ahead and that’s the best I was going to get.”
“Why did the president pick you?” Kay asked.
“Because of my background. I’m ex-CIA and I spent time over at the Pentagon and on the National Security Council. Also, I was never in the limelight; nobody in the media knew who I was. So if I quit my White House job and set up a company that looks like a typical K Street operation, there wouldn’t even be a ripple in the news. Anyway, that was the last time I talked to the president, and I’ve never received a direct order from the president, not the last one or the current one.”
“You’re saying Obama’s aware of your existence?”
“Of course. He has to be. I’m guessing that when he moved into the White House, Bush briefed him on the Callahan Group and he decided not to upset the apple cart. All I know is that Bush’s guy was replaced by Obama’s guy. Like I said: I don’t talk to the president and the president can testify to that without committing perjury.
“What happens instead is I’ll bump into the president’s guy in a bar or while he’s taking a stroll around the Mall, and he’ll update me on things that are bothering his boss. Then a suggestion might be made, but an order is never, ever given. Then I’m left to my own devices.
“There is only one link between me and the United States government, that link being money. I have a young guy, you may meet him sometime in the future, and he’s my money guy. He’s ex–Goldman Sachs, ex–Treasury Department, ex-OMB, and he’s bright as a shiny new button.”
Kay didn’t know what the OMB was; she’d look it up later.
“His job is to move money from the U.S. Treasury to the Callahan Group without leaving a trail, and for the last decade or so that hasn’t really been too hard because we’ve spent about four trillion dollars on two wars and nobody knows where all the money ended up. I mean, when we left Iraq we were literally shipping home crates filled with cash, millions of dollars that we didn’t spend on bribes and rewards. Nobody has any idea how much cash was there in the first place and where it all went.”
Callahan winked. “But if my money guy is ever caught, I imagine he and I—and maybe Anna—would find ourselves in a little hot water.”
“Not me,” Mercer said.
“Well, maybe not you,” Callahan admitted to Mercer. “So do you understand?” he asked Kay.
Kay was wondering if by a little hot water Callahan was saying he’d go to jail. Instead of asking that question, she instead said, “Yeah, I understand. But how about giving me a couple examples of the sort of things you’ve done in the past?”
“Sorry, I can’t do that,” Callahan said. “In one respect, we’re very much like a typical intelligence organization and everything’s strictly need to know.”
Kay shook her
“Hey, you’re not gonna go to jail. We’re not criminals. We’re acting in the nation’s best interest as determined by its chief executive.”
“Like I said, I want an example of the kind of things you do so I can decide if I want to work for you.”
Callahan’s lips compressed into a stubborn line. Kay figured he was probably trying to decide if he should fire her before he’d even really hired her.
“Okay, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do,” Callahan said. “I’m going to give you a hypothetical that’s pretty close to something we actually did so you’ll understand.”
“Thomas,” Mercer said, a warning tone in her voice.
Callahan waved a hand at Mercer, a gesture that Kay interpreted as: Don’t worry about it.
“Let me think for a minute,” Callahan said, and as he was thinking, he pulled a cigarette out of his shirt pocket, ignited it, then said to Kay, “I hope smoke doesn’t bother you.”
“Well, actually . . .”
“Tough shit.” He gazed up at the ceiling as he continued to contemplate, puffing on his cigarette, spewing toxins into the air.
“There’s a company,” Callahan said, “in, let’s say Germany, a country which happens to be a U.S. ally. This company makes a gizmo that’s used, peripherally, in the enrichment of plutonium. It’s actually an instrument that measures atomic shit and it has various applications in laboratory testing, commercial power plants, et cetera. Anyway, the German company is allowed to sell the gizmo to other countries, like the British or the French, but not to places like Iran or North Korea, and the number of gizmos sold is carefully tracked.
“But this German company is run by a greedy prick and he starts selling the gizmo to Iran for ten times the market price in a very clever under-the-table way so he doesn’t get caught. How do we know this? Because the CIA has a spy in Iran. But we have a problem. If we tell the Germans to arrest the greedy prick, the Iranians might figure out who our spy is, and we can’t afford to lose this spy. The spy is much more important to us than the Iranians having the gizmo.
“The CIA could, of course, do something like you see in movies and bump off the German, making it look like an accident. But the CIA doesn’t usually, or at least not very often, knock off our allies’ citizens because if they got caught we’d have a real mess on our hands. So the president’s guy met with me and suggested I do something.”
“And you bumped off the German?” Kay said.
“Oh, hell, no. We don’t do things like that.” Callahan said this like he was astounded Kay would make such an accusation—but the twinkle was back in his eyes. “What we did—hypothetically—was put the German out of business. This company was suddenly besieged with problems. Union hassles, material shortages, lawsuits, sabotage, accounting disasters. We destroyed this fucking company. Could the CIA have done the same thing? Sure. But keep in mind that this was a legitimate enterprise that employed three hundred taxpaying, beer-drinking Germans, and if the CIA got caught . . . Well, like I already told you, there would have been hell to pay. On the other hand, an international company like the Callahan Group was just doing what private companies do: annihilating another company. You understand?”
“And do you approve?”
“Yeah. I guess.”
“Whew! What a relief. I’ll be sure to let the president know.”
Ignoring Callahan’s sarcasm, Kay said, “But if that’s the sort of thing you do all the time, I don’t see why you’re hiring me. I don’t know anything about business or taking over companies or anything like that.”
“Well,” Callahan said, “that’s not exactly the kind of thing we do all the time.”
5 | After Hamilton left his office, Callahan lit another cigarette and thought about Hamilton and her reaction to what he’d just told her about how the Callahan Group had been formed—and what he’d just told her was total bullshit.
As for Hamilton . . . He’d seen her photograph before they hired her, but the photo didn’t really do her justice. The woman had a body that could stop traffic and she was incredibly . . . Hell, sexy was the only word he could think of. Not all beautiful women are sexy, and Hamilton wasn’t as beautiful as some women he’d known—but she just oozed sex appeal. A man would have to be either dead or gay for her not to turn his crank. And like he’d been told before he hired her, she came across as bright and cynical and not the type that he or anybody else was likely to intimidate.
Which was pretty much the same conclusion the Group’s psychiatrist had come to. He basically said that Hamilton wasn’t a team player and not really suited for work in a conventional law-enforcement or military unit. She would excel at special ops, undercover, something where she could be out there on her own. She would be loyal to people, not organizations. She’d follow orders, but only if she agreed with the orders. The shrink’s bottom line was basically the same thing Callahan decided two minutes after he met her: She’d be a good operative but tough to control—which made Callahan wonder why they even bothered with the shrink.
Her reaction to the origination of the Callahan Group was no different from the way other employees had reacted when he told them the same story. Hamilton had been surprised, of course, but she appeared to believe him, and he suspected the reason why was that people had so little faith in politicians these days. That is, they were willing to believe that a president really would set up an off-the-books group to do nefarious things and avoid congressional oversight. Anybody old enough to remember the Watergate “plumbers” would have no problem believing this. The other reason people bought the story were the little details: like he’d been eating pizza the night the president’s guy came to see him, or how W had been in his stocking feet playing with his putter.
The story about how the Callahan Group had destroyed a German company selling nuclear hardware to the Iranians was completely true and had actually happened. There had been nothing hypothetical about Callahan’s example.
The part about intelligence agencies being extremely risk averse was also true, and it was true that there were advantages in using a private-sector company to do certain things the U.S. government wanted done. True, too, was the fact that the Callahan Group had provided some information that made Obama’s decision to go after bin Laden in Abbottabad a little less risky, but the information was never provided directly to the president.
It was also true that Callahan had a bright young man who moved money from the U.S. Treasury to Callahan’s accounts, but the money wasn’t in any way pilfered from the government’s coffers. It came instead from funding sources that were classified as secret, difficult to identify, known to very few people, and arguably legal—but which would prove problematic if Congress or the GAO ever asked the right questions. And, as he’d said, the tremendous amounts of cash poorly accounted for during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had greatly increased the amount of money Callahan had to spend.
So Callahan had told Hamilton many things that were true, and one reason for this was some advice his mother had once given him. “Thomas,” his mom had said, “you should tell the truth as often as you can, because that way it’s easier to keep track of all the lies you tell.” His mother had been an interesting woman.
What was completely untrue was that George W. Bush, or anyone on his staff, had authorized the formation of the Callahan Group. Neither Bush nor Obama had any idea the Group existed. The president’s guy, whom Callahan frequently referred to, did not exist. The complete truth about the Callahan Group was known only to Thomas Callahan and three other peo
6 | Following her initial meeting with Callahan, Kay and her sixteen-year-old daughter, Jessica, moved to D.C. They arrived on the first of July, and the weather that entire month was hot, humid, and miserable. Jessica particularly didn’t like the humidity and she missed the beaches of San Diego, but July was good as it gave them time to settle into their new apartment on Connecticut Avenue near the National Zoo and get Jessica enrolled in school.
Kay didn’t really want to live in an apartment, although the place she was renting was nice enough and convenient to Jessica’s school. In Miami and San Diego, she’d bought houses that needed some work, then spent her free time fixing the places up so she could turn a profit when she sold them. She not only enjoyed the money she made, she also enjoyed doing the home-improvement projects; they were like a hobby for her and, thanks to her dad—who’d been a cop and a terrific father—she knew how to use a few tools. The only reason she decided to get an apartment was that she wasn’t certain she’d be staying with the Callahan Group, and until she was sure, she was going to wait before investing in a house.
Kay decided that in many ways she liked what the Callahan Group did. That is, she liked the idea of a covert organization that dealt with national security issues but wasn’t hobbled by the bureaucracy of the federal government. She also liked the salary. What she found particularly enticing was the training they were going to give her, especially the language training. That was something that would look good on a résumé if she had to look for another job. So she’d stick with Callahan at least until she’d completed her training and see, as time passed, if working for him would land her in “hot water.” A little hot water she could tolerate; becoming an inmate in a federal penitentiary was a totally different story.
Regarding the school Jessica chose to attend, it was basically an egghead factory—a Juilliard for math and science wizards, as opposed to musicians and dancers. Jessica had decided that she wanted to be a doctor, and the school would give her a leg up on getting into medical school. And, as Mercer had told her, Kay had no problems getting Jessica admitted. The Callahan Group had some serious clout.