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Authors: Larry Collins,Dominique Lapierre

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BOOK: The Fifth Horseman
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The President glanced at the two dozen people filling the room. The principals, seated at the conference table itself, constituted the inner core of the U.S. government, the same kind of ad-hoc emergency committee that had guided the government debates in the Iranian hostage crisis: the directors of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Secretaries of Defense and Energy and the Deputy Secretary of State, sitting in for the Secretary, who was on a tour of Latin America.
The President turned first to William Webster, the soft-spoken Missouri jurist who led the 8,400 agents of the FBI. Since the Boston incident, his Bureau had had the primary responsibility for handling nuclear extortion threats. “Bill,” he asked, “what have you got on this?”
“We’ve reason to believe, Mr. President, the extortion package was assembled outside the United States,” Webster began. “Our lab has established that the typewriter used for the note was Swiss made. An Olympic. Manufactured between 1965 and 1970 and never sold, as far as we’ve been able to determine, in this country. The blueprint paper is French.
Available only over there. The cassette was a standard thirtyminute West German BASF. The complete lack of background noise would indicate it was made in a studio under at least semiprofessional conditions. Unfortunately, there were no identifiable fingerprints on any of the material.”
The President’s next question was to a lean, bald man in a Harris tweed sports jacket and gray flannels sucking a pipe, on his right. Gardiner “Tap” Bennington, the heir to a Massachusetts textile fortune, had replaced Bill Casey as the head of the CIA six months earlier. The Yankee patrician was one of the last of the Agency’s old boys, a veteran of the OSS days when “Wild Bill” Donovan had plucked the nice young men off the playing field of Yale and Harvard and inspired them with the unseemly vocation of spying for their country.
“Do we have any intelligence to indicate a Palestinian terrorist group might be ready to try something like this, Tap?”
“Not really,ţsir. It’s something they’ve talked about for years. But it’s always sounded more like hashish talk to us than anything else. We did have one report in the intelligence community in 1978 that a bunch of them were being trained by the Libyans to pull an armed raid on a nuclear power plant. Hijack it, so to speak. But we were never able to confirm it.
“We’ve been pulsing all our Palestinian assets since this came in. There are people out there capable of making a nuclear device. And there’s material around. But so far we’ve had no indication that any of the groups we’re watching have married the two up.”
“How about the Israelis?” the President queried. “Have you been onto them?”
“Not yet, sir. It’s our feeling it’s still a bit early for that. For the moment we recommend holding this as tight as possible.”
“And the Libyans?” The President turned to address his question to Bob Fundseth, the Deputy Secretary of State. “Have we had any answer from Tripoli?”
“No, sir. The charge went personally to the army barracks at Bab Azizza where Qaddafi and most of his ministers live, saying he had an urgent communication from the government of the United States. The guards wouldn’t give him the time of day. Told him they had orders not to admit anyone before eight A.M.” Christopher glanced at the clock on the conference room wall. “That’s five hours from now.”
The President drummed the tabletop with his fingertips. That would seem to confirm his suspicion there was little likelihood that Qaddafi was behind this. “fell me, Tap,” he said to his CIA director, “would Qaddafi even have the capacity to do something like this? Where’s his nuclear program at these days?”
Bennington struck a match and noisily lit his pipe, a play he had learned from his second boss, Allan Dulles. “Well, sir, as you know, he’s never made any secret of his intention to get atomic bombs.” Bennington picked up a file stamped “Top Secret” from the table in front of him.
“We’ve been keeping a close eye on him and he’s done a number of things that concern us very much. He’s been literally flooding this country with students taking nuclear courses. Over a fifth of the Libyans who’ve studied here since 1973 have been enrolled in some kind of nuclear program or another.”
The President shook his head. If Qaddafi gave away his oil as cheaply as we give away our knowledge, he reflected, we wouldn’t have an energy crisis on our hands.
“All that, of course is ostensibly for peaceful purposes,” Bennington continued. “What really worries us are the secret initiatives he’s undertaken to get hold of plutonium or uranium for military purposes, the business in Chad, the link with the Paks which you’re aware of.”
The President was growing impatient. “Okay, Tap, but where is he right now?
Can he or can he not make a bomb?”
Bennington leaned back in his chair. “In our judgment, he’s at least five years away from it. He still has only one source of potential fissile material on Libyan soil, and that’s that nine-hundred-megawatt light-water reactor the French have just set up for him.”
The director of intelligence’s words struck a responsive note around the room. Pressed by the staggering deficits left in France’s balance of payments by the oil price rises of 1979, President Giscard d’Estaing had finally agreed to sell Libya a nuclear reactor, ostensibly to be employed to desalinize water.
Bennington leaned toward the President. “The reactor, as you know, is under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. They have inspectors down there regularly from Vienna. We’ve seen their reports and we see no evidence the Libyans have diverted fuel from the reactor.”
A loud honking noise seemed to explode in the room. It was the Secretary of Energy blowing his nose. Delbert Crandell had a face that was stained the roseate hue of the overfed and underexercised. He was a Texan, cross, outspoken, and at the same time a knowledgeable physicist. With a dab of his handkerchief he cleaned up a stray splotch of mucus from the conference table and returned it to his vest pocket.
“If the only thing that stands between us and Qaddafi’s making an atomic bomb from that French reactor of his,” he noted in his rasping voice, “is those UN people over there in Vienna, we’d best head for the bomb shelters right now. They’re like all those UN agencies. They’re so choked up by their Third World politics they couldn’t fart if they spent all night eating red beans and ham hocks.
They’ve got inspectors over there who can’t tell a screwdriver from a monkey wrench. Some South American dictator’s son who got the job because it was Argentina’s turn to fill the slot.”
It appeared for an instant that Crandell was through, but he was not.
Almost angrily, he turned to~ Bennington.
“I’ll tell you something else. Your own CIA, nuclear inspection program isn’t worth a shit, either. You’ve spent five years trying to figure out what the South Africans are up to, and you still don’t know. The Indians blew up a bomb under your nose and you didn’t have a clue they were going to do it. Hell, you people didn’t even know the Israelis had a bomb until Ed Teller came back and told you they’d built one-with our goddamn uranium smuggled out of that plant up there in Pennsylvania.”
The President rapped the table with his knuckles. “Gentlemen, we’re wandering. Could Qaddafi have gotten the plutonium he’d need to make nuclear weapons out of that French reactor if he had cheated on it?”
His glance addressed the question to Harold Brown. The President had asked Brown to return to Washington as his Science Adviser. No one in the room was better qualified to answer it than he was. Brown was a former director of the Livermore, California, weapons laboratory, expresident of Cal Tech and a brilliant nuclear physicist.
“Of course be could,” be answered. “The French and the Germans have been going around the world for years trying to tell people you can’t get nuclear weapons out of a nuclear power plant, so that they can sell more of them. Well, the fact is you can. We blew off a bomb made with plutonium that came from a reactor’s burnedout fuel rods fifteen years ago. They know that. We gave them the results.”
“Well, he’d still have to reprocess the plutonium, wouldn’t he? Find a way to get it out of those fuel rods?”
“Mr. President, there’s a common misconception in the world that reprocessing plutonium is a very complex, costly technique,” Brown replied.
“It isn’t. It’s nothing but straightforward chemistry and it’s all out there in the books. If you want to do it on an amateurish basis, you don’t need any of those complicated choppers or cold rooms. All you need is time, money and people and not all that much of any of them.”
The President’s skeptical regard told Brown that he wasn’t convinced.
“You know how the Russians clear a minefield, don’t you? They march a company of men through it, right? If Qaddafi used the same technique here, got himself twenty Palestinian commandos willing to expose themselves to more radiation than was good for them for the cause, then the whole thing would become almost terrifyingly simple. In six months they could extract enough plutonium from the used fuel rods of a reactor like that to make twenty bombs. In a couple of cow barns where a satellite would never spot them.”
The Science Adviser sighed. “The PLO gets plenty of commandos to volunteer for suicide raids. Why wouldn’t they be able to get twenty of them to volunteer to die of cancer to make a weapon that could destroy Israel?”
* * *
Two thirds of the way across the United States, Harold Agnew, the director of Los Alamos Scientific Laboratories, stared anxiously out of his office window to the blinking lights of the lovely little community nestling at his feet on the Pajarito Plateau, seven thousand feet into the mountains of New Mexico. It was a quintessentially upper-middle-class American town of adobe homes and ranch-style houses, well-watered lawns and neat gardens; with the red-and-yellow-beacon of its McDonald’s, a Holiday Inn and, on the Municipal Building’s lawn, a red-painted thermometer measuring the community’s progress toward its United Way Fund goal.
And yet the sole reason for the existence of Los Alamos was the creation of the means of mass destruction. It was here thirty-six years before that man had designed and produced his first nuclear weapon. The office of Harold Agnew was a museum to that achievement. Oppenheimer, Fermi, Einstein, Bohr, ghosts of geniuses long dead, stared down from portraits on the wall at the man who was now the guardian of their great enterprise. The primitive lab at Berkeley where the first submicroscopic particle of plutonium had been produced, the world’s first atomic pile, the crew of the Enola Gay on the eve of their terrible voyage to Hiroshima-every milestone along that historic route was recorded by a photograph on Agnew’s wall.
Harold Agnew himself was one of the few men still alive of the score of scientists who had been present at the birth of the Atomic Age in a converted squash court under the west stands of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field on a bitter cold November day in 1942. He was a big, burly blond man with sloping shoulders and heavy arms, a man who looked as if he should have been a second-generation Swede running a gas station in northern Minnesota rather than the director of one of the most sophisticated scientific institutions in the world.
When he had marched up the mesa sprawled below him with Oppenheimer and Groves to build the first atomic bomb, all the plutonium on planet Earth could have fit on the head of a pin with room left over for a flight of angels to dance. And now? Agnew thought moodily, contemplating those blinking lights. That was a question which had come naturally during the trials of the last hour while a team of his weapons designers had labored over the blueprint delivered to the White House gate. They had broken the blueprint down into its components, picking it apart, hunting the one fatal flaw, the one violation of the very precise rules of nuclear weaponry which would render the design meaningless. Outside his office, on the huge Los Alamos computer banks, other men had run off the formulas that had come in with the design, checking neutron densities, heating factors, lens curvatures against the figures stored on the computer.
As the minutes had gone by, Agnew’s thoughts had frequently gone back to that exalting morning in Chicago almost forty years ago. He’d been down on the atomic pile with two friends and an ax that day, ready to cut a rope and flood the pile with a cadmium solution if the reaction ran away-and if they were still alive to cut it.
Enrico Fermi, the great Italian physicist, had been up on the balcony calmly giving orders in his rich tenor voice. The counter had started to go wild, running faster and faster like a heart fibrillating. Nothing had shaken the Italian’s composure. Finally he had taken out his slide rule, made a series of quick movements, then nodded his head and said, “It’s self-sustaining.” With those words, mankind had entered the era of the atom.
For Agnew, the exaltation, the exhilaration of that great moment were as alive now as they had been then. They had known at that instant they could beat the Germans to their terrible goal. But, above all, they had shared the conviction that man had mastered at last the elements of his globe, harnessed to his own ends its most primeval force.
The rasp of his buzzer interrupted him just as the last pale light of day was fleeing the mountainscape of New Mexico.
“We have your call to the White House,” his deputy announced. The scientist sighed and picked up the phone.
* * *
The incoming call was switched to the small white squawk box in the center of the oval table so that everyone in the National Security Council conference room could hear and address the scientist at Los Alamos.
“Mr. Agnew,” Jack Eastman declared, “have your people completed their appraisal of the atomic bomb on those blueprints?”
The voice filtering into the room through the white plastic holes in reply seemed strangely hesitant.
BOOK: The Fifth Horseman
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