THE BIN LADEN PLOT | RICK CAMPBELL | St. Martin's Publishing Group

THE BIN LADEN PLOT

RICK CAMPBELL

THE BIN LADEN PLOT

EXCERPT – FIRST THREE CHAPTERS

USS STETHEM

In the Strait of Hormuz, the thirty-mile-wide opening to the strategically important Persian Gulf, USS Stethem cruised through the warm water, her navigation lights revealing the presence of the U.S. warship twelve miles off the coast, hugging the edge of Iranian territorial waters. To the south, white masthead lights announced the passage of numerous merchant ships transiting the busy choke point.

Hours earlier, after being battered by a storm as the destroyer passed through the Gulf of Oman, Stethem had entered the Strait, where the narrow waterway turned sharply southwest. The sun had recently set, and an outward calm had returned to the warship. In the darkness, the topside decks were deserted aside from two men on the fantail taking a smoke break, the occasional red glow from the ends of their cigarettes faintly illuminating their faces.

Petty Officer Second Class Richard Wortman, leaning against the hangar bulkhead on the helicopter deck, took another puff of his cigarette while his newfound friend rattled on about his girlfriend back home. Seaman Jay Neal, who happened to be from a town less than an hour from Wortman’s, was a new addition to the crew, having reported aboard just before Stethem’s departure for its Gulf deployment several weeks ago.

Wortman’s gaze shifted from the masthead lights in the distance to the bluish-green trail behind the destroyer, created by bioluminescent algae disturbed by the ship’s passage. It was times like this that reaffirmed his decision to join the Navy. He replayed an old recruiting slogan in his mind—It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure. He reflected on the challenge of learning how to operate and maintain complex weapon systems, the excitement of foreign port visits, and the tranquility of cruising the Gulf aboard a warship as the sun set over the Middle East. Things your average corn-fed midwestern kid would never experience.

Neal pointed to starboard. “Hey, that’s pretty cool. What is it?” Wortman spotted a second bioluminescent trail in the distance, narrow and moving swiftly through the water, curving toward Stethem. It took a few seconds to realize what it was.

“Torpedo in the water!”

No one besides Neal could hear him from the helicopter deck, but he reacted instinctively, calling out the warning. He grabbed Neal by the arm and pulled him toward the nearest watertight door on the starboard side of the ship.

The bridge lookout or sonar technicians on watch must have detected the torpedo at about the same time, because Wortman heard the roar of the ship’s four gas turbine engines spring to life, followed by a surge as the ship’s twin shafts accelerated, churning the water behind them. An announcement came over the ship’s intercom, ordering Stethem’s crew to General Quarters and battle stations.

It was all happening too fast—and too late.

The luminescent trail closed on Stethem while Wortman and Neal were still topside, culminating in a muffled explosion that bucked the destroyer’s deck upward, launching both men several feet in the air. When Wortman landed on the deck, sharp pain sliced through his right leg.

After the upward buckling, the destroyer’s midships sagged into the bubble void created by the explosion, putting additional stress on the ship’s keel. The most devastating effect of the torpedo explosion followed: the water-jet plume, traveling upward as the bubble collapsed, shearing through the already weakened keel, tearing through steel bulkheads and decks.

Seawater from the plume fell onto Wortman like rain. As he pushed himself to his feet, pain shot through his right leg again. He looked down, spotting a six-inch-long gash in his thigh, bleeding profusely. He had landed against a metal stanchion plate, slicing into his thigh. He looked for Neal, but he was nowhere to be found. He must have been launched overboard when the ship lurched upward.

Wortman ripped his shirt off and tied it around his thigh to stem the bleeding. With a hand on the railing, he pulled himself up and resumed his trek toward the watertight door and his battle station. But he stopped after his first step. Not far ahead, a crack had opened in the destroyer, splitting the ship in half, and the deck began slanting down toward the opening. The keel had been broken and water was flooding into the ship. It took only a moment for Wortman to realize what was about to happen.

Stethem was going to the bottom.

He held on to the topside railing as the deck angle steepened. The ship’s engines went dead, then the lighting in the forward half of the ship flickered and extinguished, followed by darkness aft. The ship then sheared completely in half. Both halves remained afloat for the moment, their tilt steadily increasing as the bow and stern rose in the air.

Crew members began streaming topside. In the darkness, with their ship and surrounding water lit only by a half-moon, he could barely see them. But he heard their frantic shouts, followed by splashes as they jumped into the water.

Wortman’s feet started slipping on the deck as the stern pitched upward. He realized he must have stood frozen where he was, a hand on the railing, as he took in the scene and what it portended for his future. He searched for a life preserver or other flotation device nearby, but none could be located in the weak moonlight. The deck angle steepened, forcing Wortman to grab onto the railing with both hands, and the stern began descending into the water. He was running out of time.

He’d have to jump overboard—a twenty-foot drop. He glanced over the side to ensure he wouldn’t land on any flotsam, then lifted his right leg over the railing. Holding his breath, he flipped himself over the side and plunged into the dark water.

After orienting himself, spotting the shimmering moon on the ocean’s surface, he swam toward the light. He finally broke the surface and gasped for air, treading water as he assessed his predicament. The stern continued its descent, accompanied by loud metallic groans as air trapped within its compartments compressed and bulkheads deformed. He knew it was a sound he would never forget; Stethem’s death throes as it descended into the ocean depth.

Wortman suddenly realized his proximity to the ship was a threat to his survival. Once the stern completely slipped into the water, its submergence would supposedly create a swirling vortex, sucking any nearby debris— and sailors—deep beneath the surface. It was occasionally a topic of debate among shipmates, whether the vortex pulling sailors to their doom was fact or fiction, but he figured it was better to not take the chance.

He started swimming away, deciding to keep going until he no lon- ger heard the sounds of Stethem’s demise. While he swam, pain shot through his right leg with each kick, but he slowly pulled away from the stern.

As he kept swimming, his arms and legs began to chill. He was losing too much blood. He felt light-headed and stopped to catch his breath. He scanned the area for other crew members, and more important, a flotation device of some sort—anything to hang onto until a rescue effort arrived. He spotted nothing.

While he treaded water, his arms and legs tired, and he soon had difficulty keeping his head above the waves. He called for help, but his shouts were weak and he received no response.

The metallic groans from the sinking stern faded and a calm returned to the sea, punctured only by the sporadic voices of shipmates in the distance. After discerning which sound was closest, he swam toward it. But his muscles were already fatigued, and he didn’t get far before he stopped. The choppy waves began to pass over his head, and he struggled to keep his face above water.

When the next wave passed, he didn’t resurface. He stroked upward, but his kick and arm stroke didn’t have much power. He spotted the white, wavering moon on the water’s surface, and it seemed to be getting smaller. Panic set in and he redoubled his efforts. The size of the moon stabilized. But it wasn’t getting any bigger, and he was running out of oxygen.

Despite his best efforts, the moon began shrinking again. Terror tore through his mind as he stroked furiously upward, hoping by some miracle he’d make it back to the surface. But then the movement of his arms and legs slowed as his muscles tired even further. As he stared at the surface, a darkness slowly converged on the glittering moon, and a peaceful warmth and calm spread throughout his body.

For some reason, his thoughts drifted to the day he told his parents he was joining the Navy, continuing his family’s proud heritage of naval service, dating all the way back to World War II. As his thoughts faded away, the last image in Wortman’s mind was the proud look on his father’s face as he congratulated his son.

WASHINGTON, D.C.

It was just after 4 p.m. when a black Lincoln Navigator turned onto West Executive Avenue, headed toward the White House. In the back seat, CIA director Christine O’Connor contemplated the information contained in a folder inside the black leather satchel on her lap. She’d been the director for only a few months and was still learning about the myriad programs the CIA was involved in. The agency had tentacles in almost every facet of the U.S. government.

The district’s buildings glided past her window until the SUV stopped in front of black steel bars blocking the entrance to the White House. After the gate guards checked her driver’s identification and completed a security sweep of the vehicle, the gate slid aside and the vehicle pulled forward, grinding to a halt beneath the curved overhang of the West Wing portico.

Standing at the entrance between two Marines in dress blues was Kevin Hardison, the president’s chief of staff, whom Christine had worked with when she was the president’s national security advisor.

He greeted her, then asked, “Are you up to speed on the program?” “I am. But I know only half of the story.”

“That’s fine. SecNav will have the lead during this afternoon’s briefing, considering the situation and its complexities. Everyone’s assembling in the Situation Room. We’ll begin when the SecNav and CNO arrive.” He cast a glance toward the street. Another black SUV was approaching the White House.

Christine left Hardison at the West Wing entrance and entered the White House, proceeding past her former corner office and down toward the Situation Room in the basement. She left her cell phone outside the room and entered to find the expected collection of White House staff and cabinet members seated around the table: Secretary of Defense Tom Glass, Secretary of State Marcy Perini, Captain Glen McGlothin—the president’s senior military advisor—and finally, Christine’s successor in the White House—Thom Parham—the president’s national security advisor.

Secretary of the Navy Brenda Verbeck arrived, followed by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Joe Sites. They took their seats beside Glass, while Christine sat beside Parham, chatting with him while waiting for the meeting to commence. An information specialist approached Verbeck, informing her that her brief was loaded, handing her the remote control as the wide-screen display on the far wall flickered to life. The title slide of her presentation appeared, containing a single, innocuous line: USS Stethem Incident. Hardison and the president entered the Situation Room a moment later.

The president took his seat at the head of the table and cast his gaze toward Verbeck, an attractive and articulate woman in her late forties, a rising star in the administration and one of the leading contenders for secretary of defense if Tom Glass moved on.

“What have you got, Brenda?”

“Good morning, Mr. President.” She pressed the remote control, advancing her brief to the next slide, displaying a map of the Persian Gulf annotated with the location of the incident. “As you’re aware, USS Stethem, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer on deployment in the Persian Gulf, was sunk four hours ago by a torpedo attack. Twenty-four crew members are reported missing and feared dead. Search efforts are continuing, but the odds that there are additional survivors are slim.”

Verbeck advanced the brief to the next slide, showing a satellite view of the Persian Gulf at the time of the attack, then zoomed in until the distinct bioluminescent trail of the torpedo intercepting Stethem could be seen.

“At the time of the attack, Stethem was operating in international waters just outside the twelve-nautical-mile limit from Iran. The most obvious scenario is that Stethem was sunk by an Iranian submarine. Iran has denied the attack, of course.”

“Did we have any indication of pending military engagement by Iran?” the president asked.

“No, sir. Only the standard indignant verbiage regarding the presence of American warships in the Gulf. The lack of ratcheting tensions between our two countries, although that is certainly not the case now, indicates there may be another potential scenario.”

Secretary Verbeck’s brief shifted to the next slide, showing a schematic of an unmanned undersea vehicle.

“We currently have a small fleet of large-diameter UUVs, called Scorpions, operating in the Persian Gulf. Their primary mission is surveillance, operating near the coast to intercept short-range electronic communications, which Iran and other countries have been using to thwart our satellite collection efforts. Due to the sensitive capabilities of these UUVs and the desire to keep their existence secret, they’re managed as a black program in concert with the CIA, which analyzes the information obtained.”

The brief advanced to another slide, which displayed a map of the Persian Gulf, divided into sectors.

“It turns out that the UUV assigned to the area where Stethem was operating has failed to report in. Every attempt to force it to report its location and status has failed.”

“The Iranians may have also destroyed our UUV?” the president asked.

Verbeck shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “No, Mr. President. The situation could be far more serious. Unknown to anyone outside the program, even the CIA”—she glanced briefly at Christine—“these UUVs are weaponized.” She clicked the remote control, advancing her brief to the next slide, showing a front view of the vehicle, which revealed two round portals in the bow. “Each Scorpion carries two torpedoes.”

The president’s gaze shifted slowly from the display to Verbeck. “Are you saying that one of our UUVs went renegade and sank Stethem?”

“It’s a possibility, sir. Nothing is certain, but the data is aligning that way. The UUV failed to report in several hours before the Stethem attack, and there was a previous concern that these UUVs were being rushed into service with insufficient testing.”

The president turned to the Chief of Naval Operations, who cleared his throat before speaking.

“Due to the crucial need for consistent electronic surveillance in the Middle East, Fifth Fleet submitted an Urgent Operational Need request. UONs enable the rapid fielding of new technology with limited testing. What Secretary Verbeck is alluding to is that the testing in this case may not have detected latent defects in the Scorpion’s artificial intelligence and attack protocol. Another possibility is that this UUV was hacked and a virus was inserted. We think that’s unlikely, however, due to the strict secrecy of this program—we doubt Iran or any other country is aware of the existence of these vehicles—which means the problem is most likely internal.”

“How do you recommend we proceed?” the president asked, turning back to Verbeck.

“I propose a dual response: one public and one internal,” she replied. “Publicly, we keep what might have happened regarding our UUV confidential, hinting instead that Iran is the likely culprit. Tell the press we’re evaluating the situation and what our response might be. Internally, we need to locate and destroy this UUV quickly. Assuming it sank Stethem, it still carries another torpedo, and who knows what else it might attack.”

“What assets do we have available?”

Verbeck advanced her brief a few slides, stopping on the U.S. order of battle in the Persian Gulf, then deferred to the CNO, who answered the president.

“We have several surface ships in the Gulf, but no carrier strike group at the moment. As far as submarines go, Michigan is the closest asset. Submarines are the most capable platform for hunting down the UUV, so I recommend we assign Michigan to the task. The BLUE crew is aboard, so Captain Murray Wilson is in command. If you recall, he was the officer we assigned to track down the Russian submarine Kazan.”

“Yes, of course,” the president replied. “Michigan sounds like an excellent choice.”

“One more thing, Mr. President,” Verbeck interjected. “Due to these UUVs being a black program directly under the SecNav’s purview, I’d like to personally oversee the operation to locate and destroy our UUV. I think it’s prudent to minimize the number of personnel who are made aware of the Scorpion program and its potential shortcomings.”

The president looked to the CNO, who announced, “That can be arranged.”

“I concur,” the president replied. “Move quickly on this. We already have two dozen missing and likely dead sailors. If our UUV was truly responsible, we don’t need more blood on our hands.”

ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA

Brenda Verbeck’s SUV rolled to a stop at the base of the Pentagon’s Mall Entrance, where she was escorted up the steps by two protective agents, one on each side, then into the massive military complex covering thirty-four acres, designed in a fashion that would enthrall a cribbage player: five sides, five stories, five rings, with a five-acre courtyard in the middle. As Verbeck stepped into the building, she reflected on the Pentagon’s unusual concentration of power—not at its center but along its perimeter: a mile-long pentagonal corridor labeled the E-Ring, where the main offices of the Department of Defense were located.

Verbeck entered the reception area adjacent to her office, taking no heed this morning of one of the perks of her position: a suite offering splendid views of the Robert E. Lee memorial and surrounding Arlington National Cemetery. She passed her military aide, Captain Andy Hoskins, seated at his desk. Their eyes locked briefly, then he followed her into her office. After closing the door, he took a seat beside Verbeck at her conference table.

“How did the brief go?” he asked. “As well as I had hoped.”

“Did everyone buy the renegade UUV story?”

“Hook, line, and sinker,” Verbeck replied. “The administration is concerned about the potential negative publicity, so they’re reacting quickly, before evidence from the attack is analyzed.”

“Excellent,” Hoskins replied. “Were you put directly in charge of the mission to hunt down the UUV?”

“Exactly as planned. The CNO will make the necessary arrangements, so I’ll have direct authority over the effort, bypassing the combatant commanders.”

“What assets are assigned?”

“A submarine. USS Michigan, already in the Persian Gulf. We’ll need to send orders to her right away.”

“I’ll draft a Commanding Officer’s Eyes Only message, providing the necessary direction.”

“I have a better idea,” Verbeck replied. “I want to minimize the number of individuals who are exposed to the details. If we transmit a message, someone at the communications center has to upload and review it before sending, and then it has to be received by the submarine. Who knows how many people will read it. Instead, I’d like to deliver the orders to Michigan’s captain personally. Can that be arranged?”

“Certainly. Fifth Fleet Command is located in Bahrain, and I can direct the submarine to meet us there. I’ll arrange your transportation—a flight first thing in the morning.” After a short hesitation, he asked, “I assume I’ll be coming with you?”

“Of course.”

Verbeck placed a hand inside his thigh, sliding it upward as she leaned toward Hoskins, engaging him in a passionate kiss.

“I appreciate everything you’ve done so far,” she said after she pulled back, “keeping this issue under wraps. No one can learn the truth. Aside from you, is anyone else aware of the transaction?”

“One other person—the cryptologic technician here in the Pentagon who reviewed the information upon receipt. The data has been deleted from our servers; it never went to the CIA.”

“How do we keep the cryptologic technician from talking?”

“I had him sign a nondisclosure agreement, reminding him he’d lose his security clearance if he revealed the contents of the UUV transmission to anyone.”

“Do you have the agreement?”

Hoskins pulled the NDA from his notepad.

“If I may,” Verbeck said, holding her hand out. “I’d like to keep this close hold.”

“Understandable.” Hoskins handed it to Verbeck. “I’ll send the message directing Michigan to meet us in Bahrain, then make our travel arrangements. Afterward are you available tonight?”

“How about eight o’clock?” she replied as she leaned in for another kiss.

 

After Hoskins departed her office, closing the door behind him, Verbeck moved to her desk, placing the NDA before her. She picked up the phone and dialed.

When her call was answered, she said, “This is Brenda. I need a favor.”

“What kind of favor?” “Your kind.”

“What do you need?”

“I have some loose ends I need tied up.” “I’d rather not get involved.”

“You have some loose ends to tie up yourself. You’ve left them dangling for far too long. Why not take care of them as well?”

There was silence for a moment before Verbeck received a response. “I agree. But there’s a complication. One of my loose ends is assigned to your protective detail. However, it could be considered an opportunity. I could arrange his death while he’s assigned to you for an event, or do you prefer it be done during a quieter, off-duty moment?”

Brenda considered the question, and it didn’t take long for her to decide on the former option.

“Definitely while on duty. Can you make it look like I was the intended victim? The agent will go down a hero, and I’ll get some welcome publicity. SecNav is my stepping stone to SecDef, and the more publicity I can get, the better.”

“I’ll see what I can arrange. How many loose ends do you have?” “Two.”

“Who?”

Verbeck skimmed the NDA agreement, locating the person’s name. “Jason Lee Johnson. He’s a Navy cryptologic technician here at the Pentagon.”

“And the second?”

“Captain Andrew Howard Hoskins, my military aide.”

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