Madam President, page 17
Now, as she made her way back to the conference room on the plane, she wondered if the president had yet grasped how dramatically her presidency was about to change.
After learning of the second D.C. blast, Dale called Marguerite, who was able to quickly confirm that Brian was still on the air from the Women’s Museum, something Dale could have done herself if she’d simply changed the channel to NBC. Dale delivered the news to the group in the PEOC and then excused herself.
She stepped into the bathroom and heaved into the toilet for what felt like forever. There was nothing in her stomach except coffee and, when she was done, not even any of that anymore. She looked at herself in the mirror as she wiped her mouth and swished mouthwash through her teeth. Dale was a hardened former newswoman who thrived on chaos, but something about the scale of the attacks and the sudden loss of so many innocent people had her feeling unhinged.
Pull yourself together, she said to herself. She washed her hands again to make sure she didn’t smell like what she’d just thrown up and then took a deep breath and walked back to the PEOC. The president appraised her with a look Dale recognized as concern. Dale poured herself a Fresca and sat down in one of the chairs in the back row.
She focused on the various briefings from the different agencies and soon fell into a routine. She alternated between taking notes from the briefings; passing the information on to Marguerite in the press office; convening conference calls with her counterparts at DOD, State, and the FBI; and then taking more notes and passing more details about the president’s participation to Marguerite. She was careful to instruct her staff to direct calls about the military to the DOD press office, calls about the investigation to the FBI, and calls about intelligence to the CIA. Dale doled out minuscule nuggets of information to the press and approved the release of three photos taken inside the PEOC.
She looked up at the televisions when she heard a correspondent comment that more than four hours had gone by since the first attacks. She’d lost all sense of time.
“Dale, how quickly could we assemble a press pool?” the president asked from across the room.
“I need to check with Marguerite, but I imagine we can do that in as little as twenty minutes.”
“We need to tell the public that we’re responding, and I don’t see my address to the nation coming together in time for a six P.M. delivery. I can do it, or Maureen can, but we need to get in front of the American people with some reassuring facts. All they are seeing is horror; all they feel is fear. We need to draft a short statement about all of the agencies that are collaborating to respond to the crisis, and then we’ll touch on a few points that preview the address tonight.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll call the speechwriters now.”
Dale stepped into the small conference room and called Marguerite again to inform her of the president’s desire for someone to make a statement to the press.
She let the phone ring twenty times, but no one answered. Dale put the phone back in its cradle and sat for a few seconds. She was about to head up to the press office to assemble the press pool herself when Craig walked in.
“Come sit in for the next briefing. We’re not going to put the president out until after this, anyway.”
“I told the president I’d assemble a pool so that she or the veep could make a statement about the government’s response. I need to at least pass the order on to Marguerite.”
“Leave it for now. You can call Marguerite after this update, and I’ll help you wrangle the press if I have to.”
Dale hated to ignore a direct order from the president, but she didn’t want to miss the update on the recovery effort. She followed Craig back into the conference room and grabbed another can of Fresca.
Madam President, we’re about four and a half hours out from the first attacks at Times Square. We’re proceeding with the rescue-and-recovery effort under the theory that the attackers have carried out their mission for the day. We don’t have reason to believe that there are any further attacks under way. Regardless, our law-enforcement agencies will remain in a posture of preparedness for ongoing attacks for at least another seventy-two hours. The rescue-and-recovery missions are under way at all five locations, with Miami being the biggest question mark at this point. The explosion started a fire on the ship, and we understand that the ship is now sinking. The ship was full at the moment of impact, so the fire has complicated the evacuation and rescue missions,” the FBI director reported.
“People who survived the terror attack may now die in a fire or drown because they are trapped on a sinking ship?” the president asked.
“Madam President, we have offered the first responders every asset available to the federal government to assist in the rescue operation.”
Charlotte felt her chest tighten. The horror of what was happening in Miami was overtaking the situations at the other sites. “What about the attacks on the Mall?”
“We have investigators on the scene now. They should be reporting back before our next briefing.”
“How many dead?”
“I don’t know yet. I’d say close to twenty from the first and probably more than that from the second, but I wouldn’t use those numbers publicly. There are twenty-six confirmed dead in New York, with about two hundred and fifty taken to area hospitals. The numbers out of L.A. and Chicago fluctuate, but we know there are twenty-one dead in Chicago, with about a hundred taken to area hospitals. In Los Angeles, we have eighteen dead and about seventy-five taken to area hospitals.”
“Any information about the bombers?”
“They’ve recovered the bodies of the suspected bombers at LAX and O’Hare. We should have some preliminary reports by our next briefing. There’s some evidence that the bomber at LAX was wearing a vest, but at O’Hare, they think the bomber may have been trying to board a plane with an implanted device. One of the early investigative theories is that the bomber was running late, so he detonated it in front of the counter. It was probably his second-choice target. The ship in Miami was clearly the target. There are some eyewitnesses who saw a boat speeding away from the scene. We are interviewing eyewitnesses.”
“It wasn’t a suicide attack like the one launched against the U.S.S. Cole?”
“We don’t know yet, but we’re pursuing the eyewitness lead about a boat fleeing the scene.”
“What sort of explosive device could they have launched from a speedboat onto a cruise ship?” Charlotte asked.
“We’re working on that now, Madam President. As soon as we develop any useful information, we’ll brief it.”
Charlotte thought that the FBI director had a decent amount of information for so early in the investigation. She felt reassured that they’d be able to catch those responsible. Her mind raced to the next step.
“Was there any intelligence at all that something big was coming? Anything that maybe a low-level analyst dismissed as too far-fetched or too unrealistic?”
Charlotte could see the CIA director unmute his line and move to the speakerphone in his office at CIA Headquarters.
“We’re still running that down, ma’am. Nothing that a cursory look has revealed as of yet, but as you know, things have a way of getting out, so we’re going to run this down for you.”
“Not for me—I don’t care about recriminations directed at me at this point. I’m wondering if perhaps there’s a lead about who did this, and how they did this, that might be buried in some low-level report or recorded call at an NSA facility or something, somewhere, that would point toward today’s attacks.”
“Yes, ma’am. We’re checking.”
Charlotte turned to her secretary of transportation, who was in the PEOC.
“Madam President, as you know, the airspace is closed. Amtrak will remain shut down. All public transportation has been suspended in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and everywhe
“People will be terrified and stranded,” Charlotte remarked.
“ABC just reported that a suspect has been apprehended in Miami,” Dale interjected.
“Turn that up,” Charlotte ordered.
The network’s chief investigative reporter was sitting at the anchor desk in New York. “ABC has learned that the Coast Guard has apprehended two suspects hiding in a thick clump of mangroves on a small island off the coast of Miami. They’ve been taken into police custody, and they will be turned over to the FBI for questioning. Something to keep in mind here is that the president of the United States will have to make a very quick and difficult decision about enhanced interrogation measures if these suspects aren’t talking, because it’s clear that the attacks against America are very much ongoing.”
“Dale, is there anything in the news about how the Coast Guard found them?” the attorney general asked.
“According to the Miami Herald Web site, these suspects were the same ones seen by eyewitnesses speeding away from the scene in a speedboat this morning.”
“Mr. Attorney General, do we have a current legal opinion on the use of enhanced interrogation methods?” Craig asked.
“I’ll get that for you,” the attorney general replied.
“And anything on the extraordinary powers of the executive branch during a time of war,” Craig added.
“I’ll have the deputy attorney general brief the guidelines himself at the next briefing.”
“We may not have that long,” the vice president said. “My predecessor had contemplated the shoot-down of passenger jets by this point on September eleventh,” she added.
“The vice president makes a good point. Let’s get some information about where the suspects are at this moment. And why are we hearing about this from the media and not through our own people?” the national security advisor complained.
“Tim, the Coast Guard probably tipped off the media before they reported it through the chain of command,” the FBI director explained.
“Who is going to interrogate them?” the president asked.
“Madam President, it will be the FBI antiterror task force. They are trained in these sorts of interrogations.”
“Madam President, we’d like to break for about forty-five minutes to give the interrogators clear direction legally and operationally. Additionally, we’re working to organize the first briefing on the intelligence. The CIA director, the director of national intelligence, and the head of the NSA will all be here.”
“Fine. That’s fine. I’ll go upstairs,” Charlotte said.
“Madam President, the White House is completely evacuated except for the essential personnel and the folks in the Situation Room,” Craig noted.
Charlotte was starting to feel exasperated. If the White House were actually to be attacked, the only people who would be killed were the staffers deemed essential and those manning the Situation Room. It was completely illogical. Her exasperation quickly shifted to anger as she pushed herself away from the table. The staccato pace of the briefing was distorting the reality of what had happened. This wasn’t simply a matter of connecting the dots from five disparate attacks on distinct targets in five different cities. The entire nation had been terrorized. Every citizen had been victimized. She took a deep breath and turned back to the group.
“Melanie, are you still there?”
“Yes, Madam President.”
“I’d like for you to convene a group tonight when you get back to discuss how we get this country back on a war footing.”
“Thank you, Melanie. Folks, whatever war footing this country was once on has slipped. These guys didn’t find us to be on war footing at all, and they took full advantage of it,” Charlotte said.
She looked around at the faces in the room and felt like firing everyone, but she was just as much to blame as they were—more so. They had all been plodding along, not challenging any of the conventional thinking on preventing something like this. For as long as she’d been president, they’d been walking on eggshells around Congress when it came to the country’s domestic surveillance programs. Screw civil liberties. She wasn’t to blame for doing away with any semblance of privacy. The terrorists were. God damn it.
“How did we let this happen, team? When did we stop listening? Stop watching? What did we miss? Five goddamned attacks? I want to know what we missed and why we missed it.”
“Madam President, it’s probably not a good idea to head upstairs right now. The Secret Service called about an hour ago to say that they’d like to move you and Mr. Kramer to a more secure location.”
“Where would they like me to go?”
“Either Central Command in Tampa or Offutt in Nebraska,” Craig said.
“Send the director down here so I can tell him for the last time today that I’m not leaving the White House. The last time they sent the president hopscotching around the country, he had one hell of a time getting back here. He was up in the sky chasing information all day while his vice president called the shots. With all due respect to my eminently qualified vice president, I have no intention of leaving the White House. There must be some occasions when my word is the last word,” she fumed.
“Charlotte, maybe we should hear them out,” Peter gently remarked.
She gave him a look that clearly said, Stay out of this.
Everyone in the room looked away from the two of them.
Charlotte was so frustrated with everyone that she wanted to throw the entire plate of sandwiches against the wall. Instead, she turned and walked out of the PEOC. A single Secret Service agent followed her silently as she walked up the stairs and headed straight to the West Wing. The sight of Samantha sitting quietly at her desk and Monty waiting in the office across from Sam soothed her. She walked into the Oval Office and sat behind her desk. She figured that Craig and the others would give her about five minutes to cool off before they demanded that she return to the safety of the PEOC.
Sam came in with a glass of ice and a bottle of water.
“Can I order you something for lunch, Madam President?”
“No, thanks, Sam. Did you call your parents?”
“Tell them not to be worried.”
Sam returned to her desk, and Charlotte moved into her private dining room. She turned on the flat-screen TV on the wall and watched a CNN reporter interview a woman who was in such a state of shock that the responsible thing to do would have been to end the interview. The woman became hysterical describing how she had dropped off her parents and her children at the Port of Miami early that morning. Her parents were taking their grandchildren, her son and daughter, on their first cruise. They were all unaccounted for. Charlotte shuddered and fought the urge to punch a wall. On September 11, it was easy enough to say that they could never have imagined attacks so brazen, so coordinated, so far-reaching, and so lethal. But what was her excuse? She knew exactly what Al Qaeda and their more monstrous offshoots like ISIS and ISIL were capable of. And everyone in her administration knew exactly where and how they operated. They had just stopped being audacious enough to do what was necessary to stay a step ahead. Charlotte glanced at her watch and knew she only had another minute or so before Craig or Tim lured her back down to the PEOC.
“Sam, get Melanie on the phone, please.”
Please attribute this to a senior military official. Earlier today, I directed the nation’s armed forces to Defense Condition Three, an increased state of military readiness.”
“Other than September eleventh, when have we been at DEFCON Three before?”
“Sandy, the press office will put all of this into historical context for you after I head back to the front of the plane to resume my briefings.”
“Don’t apologize. I have five minutes before I need to get back up there, and I wanted to speak to what we’ve done on the military side. I’m not going to be able to speak to any of the response or recovery efforts. You’re going to have to get that from your colleagues who cover the FBI.”
“Madam Secretary, you have a call,” Melanie’s military aide announced from the front of the press cabin.
“Can I return it in two minutes?”
“I believe it’s urgent.”
Melanie left the press cabin and traveled to the front of the plane.
“It’s the president,” her aide said once they were out of earshot of the press.
“Melanie. You’re not on speaker. I’m in the Oval Office.”
“I sincerely hope that isn’t the case, Madam President.” Melanie panted. She was out of breath from the walk to her cabin. The baby was already robbing her of some of her lung capacity.
“Calm down. I’ll get back down to the PEOC in a minute,” Charlotte said.
“Madam President, you need to get back down there immediately. If it gets out that you violated the continuity-of-government protocols, there will be hell to pay.”
“Jesus, Melanie, you sound like the rest of them. I am the continuity of government.”
“Not if something happens to you. Please call me back from downstairs. I’m more concerned about the press reaction than I am about anything actually happening to you.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“I didn’t mean it that way. But you know that they’ll hammer you for losing your cool in the middle of the crisis and for making emotional decisions—all of the crap they’ve been waiting to pin on you for being a woman, all of the criticism that you’ve worked tirelessly to avoid for six years, will come raining down on you if it gets out that you simply walked out of the PEOC in the middle of the attacks.”