Pawns of the Pacific
“What is this place?” David asked.
They had arrived at a high-ceilinged room that reminded David of a NASA command center. Dim lights. High-tech. Lots of people with headsets on, each neatly spaced throughout rows of computer screens. The people in the room were a mix of what David assumed to be CIA and uniformed military.
David had been showing up to Langley every day for the past few weeks. Each day, he was taken to interrogation rooms or conference rooms, where he was asked repeated questions about the Red Cell, China, and Iran.
But they never took him to a setting like this. Chase and the other man stood silent, waiting at the entrance of the room.
An enormous wall of monitors stood at the front of the large room, each screen showing different bits of data. Many of the men and women in the room were gathered around a screen that showed the live feed on one of the monitors.
It showed an aerial view of a small land mass, surrounded by water. The land mass looked familiar to David. It had a large runway that barely fit on the island. A few scattered buildings next to the runway. Beaches that were several shades darker than normal. The rest of the island was covered in green vegetation, right up its mountainous center.
A flash of recognition hit him. David was looking at the Red Cell island.
David looked at his brother, confused. Chase had that same knowing look in his eye.
David said, “What are these people working on in here?”
Chase replied, “What’s it look like?”
David took in the room once more. Some of the screens showed tactical displays of the South China Sea. Others monitors were zoomed out to focus on the entire Western Pacific theater.
Tiny blue and red digital shapes covered each map. David knew that these were the ships, submarines, and aircraft. Blue shapes for allied forces. Red for enemy forces.
David observed a man sitting nearby. He monitored three computer displays. Thick headphones covered his ears. The man typed furiously, and Chase noticed that the text looked to be Chinese characters.
“It looks like they’re taking the Chinese threat seriously after all. They’re monitoring the Red Cell island, at least.”
“You aren’t surprised. You’ve known about this? Why the hell have I been led to believe that we weren’t doing anything about it?”
He leaned in close to David’s ear. “Keep cool and try not to be pissed off. You can yell at me all you want once we get to the car. But the fact that they’ve invited you here means that you’re going to get read in. That’s a good thing. Don’t spoil it.”
David looked at his brother a moment. Part of him was angry that he had been kept in the dark. But he understood that it couldn’t have been a choice. Secrets were the norm for Chase’s line of work.
The automatic doors let out a whoosh as they opened behind them. The room got quiet as about half of the personnel turned to look in David’s direction. There was a brief moment of panic as he mistakenly thought they were looking at him. They weren’t. They were all looking past him.
David turned around and saw two men. One, David recognized right away. He had seen the face on TV. Director Samuel Buckingham — head of the CIA, in the flesh. The other man was military. An Army three-star. Starched uniform and gleaming medals.
A woman with an air of authority said, “Director Buckingham, we’re ready to start whenever you are. We have seats for you over here.”
“Thanks, Susan.” The CIA director checked his watch and frowned. “Alright, ladies and gentlemen. As you all know, business is booming around here right now. I need to brief the president on Iran later this morning, and that conflict is using up the majority of our resources. But I want you all to know that the work you are doing here is vital. Please don’t misinterpret my lack of time for you this morning as an indication of the importance of your mission.”
He looked at the Army general. “I’ve asked General Schwartz to step in and serve as the sponsor for this task force. He’ll be briefing me every day on your progress. Now I’ve got thirty minutes free and I need to use two of them. Susan, I beg your forgiveness. Please give me a moment.”
“Of course, sir,” the woman said,
The director and the general turned to look straight at David. He walked a few steps, closing the distance between them, and stuck out his hand. He lowered his voice. “Gentlemen, I’m Bob Buckingham. This is General Schwartz.” The men all exchanged handshakes and then sat down on couches facing each other.
The general said, “You’re Art Manning’s boys?”
“Yes, sir,” said Chase.
“He’s a good man. We were at the Navy War College together.”
The brothers smiled politely.
Director Buckingham said, “Let’s get a little privacy for a minute before the briefing begins. I’m afraid every goddamn person in this room will be eavesdropping on us. You’d think I was surrounded by spies.” The CIA director had the broad smile and easy manner of an experienced politician.
They climbed a narrow set of metal stairs to an enclosed room that overlooked the larger space. The room reminded David of a box seat at a football game. They were above the worker bees here, and the chatter from below was being piped in by a speaker somewhere.
There were seats in the room, but no one sat. The director said, “Gentlemen, I would first like to thank you for your service to our country. Without the brave acts each of you performed over the past few weeks, we would be completely in the dark on the Chinese Red Cell, and the role that the Chinese played in Iran.”
Chase didn’t say anything.
David, still feeling his way around the situation, said, “I appreciate that.”
“Now, I will ask you both to serve your country once again. General Schwartz and I have been directed by the president to put together this task force in hopes of… well, in hopes of preventing World War Three. If we can’t stop it, then we are to ensure that we are at least prepared for it.”
“David, I’m going to be frank. I always am. I find it saves me time, my most precious commodity these days. There are some members of the government that expressed concerns that you may have compromised your nation.”
David was very familiar with the charge. Over the past few weeks, he’d been through countless classified debriefings and interviews with various agencies, including closed session hearings with congressional intelligence committees.
There were also news stories on him, which he was still getting used to. He wasn’t allowed to comment, of course. But that didn’t stop the damn press from speculating on what had really happened. Some of them came pretty close to the truth. Others — at some of the extreme ends of the journalistic spectrum — thought he was a traitor and should be shot.
Everyone — government and press — wanted to try and get to the bottom of David’s allegations that the Chinese had kidnapped him and tricked twenty Americans into disclosing classified information.
The director said, “These people would have me believe that you gave too much information to the Chinese and were an unwitting agent of a foreign adversary. What say you?”
David clenched his jaw. He could see Chase giving him a look as if he were ready to hold him back from socking the director. It took all the patience David could muster to respond calmly.
“I would say that I did the best I could under the circumstances. I never willingly gave classified information to the Chinese. And as soon as I discovered that the Red Cell was not what it appeared to be, I made every effort to organize an escape.”
The director seemed satisfied with that answer. He looked at the general. “General Schwartz has recently been assigned to us. He is the Associate Director of the CIA for Military Affairs. I’ve asked him here because the four of us need to discuss a part of Operation SILVERSMITH that might become very important. I’ve known General Schwartz here for over two decades. I trust him implicitly. He tells me that he knows your father. He swears to me that you’re from good stock.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I will also note that I think it’s very easy to second-guess someone if you haven’t walked a mile in their shoes,” the director continued. “So — if anyone gives you a hard time David, you just let me know. I, for one, think you’re a fine American. I think what you did showed ingenuity, and tenacity. And I need scrappy, intelligent fighters on my team.”
David looked at his brother, and then back at the director, not sure what to say.
Director Buckingham went on, “I also need someone who’s seen what we’re up against. Your experience will be an invaluable asset. And I’d rather have you helping us here than sending my interrogators to try and tease out bits of information that may or may not be the most relevant. I can’t think of anyone who would be a better contributor to Task Force SILVERSMITH than you. You not only have the knowledge of what these bastards are up to, ...