When you agree to serve at the pleasure of the most powerful man in the United States, you enter into a contract of unspecified duration and largely unstated terms. You join an elite team with only fifteen members, chosen for your experience and expertise, although everything you do during your tenure will be seen as a reflection of the man you serve. Many strong-willed and highly talented leaders have become disillusioned by the degree of scrutiny, public criticism and compromise that go with the job.
The trade-off is that, for a short bridge of time, you have the opportunity to help shape your country’s history. What you make of this opportunity depends on myriad factors, some of which you control, many of which control you.
Catherine Blaine understood all of this when she agreed to accept a Cabinet post in the administration of President Aaron Lincoln Hall. It was, to people who knew her, a surprising decision—even more surprising than President Hall offering her the job. Blaine was independent-minded and had been, at times, famously outspoken. Although she’d served nearly five years in Congress, she had a low tolerance for Washington’s political machinery—its blind partisanship and storied inefficiency, in particular. On the other hand, she was a three-star general’s daughter who believed in the principles of service and loyalty. She began the job with the measured enthusiasm that most Cabinet members carried to Washington—a belief that she could bring something new to the post, that she would seize her opportunity and make a difference.
The first seven months of Catherine Blaine’s term as secretary of Homeland Security had been unexceptional, marked by modest achievements and often weighted down by minor disappointments and frustrations.
But on the afternoon of Sunday, October 2, all of that began to change. Logan County, West Virginia
As the rotor blades of the Army CH-47 Chinook stopped spinning, Catherine Blaine hopped down from the right side of the helicopter cabin and loped across the asphalt parking lot of the mountain heliport, two paces behind her press secretary, Lila Hernandez, to a waiting Town Car limousine. The rains had finally stopped and the flood waters were receding, but the steel-gray skies were still thick with moisture, the trees all dripping rain.
Blaine and Hernandez had just taken an aerial tour of a flood-engorged valley with the governor and two state emergency management officials, after a brief press conference at the capitol. They were now being whisked back to the airport, where Blaine would make a quick statement for the cameras and then board a plane to Washington.
Jamie Griffith, Blaine’s chief of staff, was waiting in the limousine, typing on his laptop. Hernandez slid in first, followed by Blaine. Hernandez immediately pulled out her mobile to check messages.
“How was it?” Jamie asked, without looking up.
“Familiar,” Blaine said. The car began to move. “Dozens of homes lost. A couple hundred people will be sleeping on cots in the high school gymnasium tonight.”
“At least we have some positive news.”
“Yes.” At least
. Blaine watched the waterlogged landscape while the Town Car climbed the rough mountain two-lane: wood-frame houses set back in the sparse, shedding woods. Cars on cinderblocks. Old appliances in a clearing. A depressed area before, made much worse by the flooding.
There was a primal beauty to this hill country, though, that Blaine understood. Even after spending years in the belly of Washington politics, after teaching political science and foreign policy at Princeton and Georgetown, Catherine Blaine was still a mountain girl at heart, raised in the foothills of western North Carolina. These long, misty mountain vistas awakened an irresistible emotion in her.
She was here today as the face of the federal government, and as a bearer of good news—the promise that tens of millions of dollars in Federal Emergency Management Administration aid would be distributed to homeowners and renters devastated by the floods.
Homeland Security, which oversaw FEMA, was, by definition, charged with the overall safety of U.S. citizens and soil. It was a broad definition, encompassing everything from airport security to border patrols to natural disasters. DHS was a branch of government that hadn’t existed before March 1, 2003, its creation part of the reaction to the 9/11 attacks. With two hundred thousand employees, Homeland Security was now the third largest Cabinet department, after Defense and Veterans Affairs. Often its duties overlapped those of other Cabinet agencies.
Blaine’s interests ran more to foreign affairs than natural disasters, but she understood that visiting flood sites went with the territory. A week earlier, she had taken a similar tour of flooded regions in rural Kentucky. In between, there had been a border inspection in Arizona, a speech to the International Association of Fire Chiefs in Seattle, and a meeting with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner in Wyoming—which, during an interview with a local reporter, Blaine had mistakenly called Montana.
She gazed up now and saw the name of the town they were entering whoosh by: “Benderville.”
Ahead, the patchy, potholed road flattened out among the wet trees. Travel fatigue was setting in again, and Blaine was anxious to return to Washington.
in Montana, right?” Jamie Griffith deadpanned, still looking at his laptop screen.
Blaine smiled. She had made it clear that humor was welcome in her administration, even when it was at her expense. She was in good company, anyway: in 1982, President Reagan had famously raised his glass at a banquet in Brazil and toasted “the people of Bolivia.”
“Did I tell you Kevin and I are finally getting away this weekend?” she said.
“Mmmm. Not the details,” Jamie said.
Blaine listened to her staffers’ fingers typing on their keypads, the windshield wipers slow-thumping back and forth.
“Just a mother-son bonding thing. Planning to spend a couple days on the Shore. Biking, kayaking. Crab cakes.”
Jamie made a grunting sound but didn’t look up. Blaine decided to just enjoy the scenery for a few minutes, reminding herself that her chief of staff had served her well over these past seven months. In fact, Jamie Griffith and Catherine Blaine had become a surprisingly effective team, even if they struck people as the odd couple: Blaine tall and fit, with dark blonde hair, green eyes and strong classical features; Jamie a couple of inches shorter, pasty skinned, paunchy and perpetually disheveled. But, in fact, they weren’t what they seemed—Blaine, who gave off an air of order and efficiency, could be scattered and impulsive, while Jamie was methodical and meticulous. Griffith was a family man with two young children; Blaine, the mother of a nineteen-year-old, had occasionally struggled with the responsibilities of parenthood.
As the limousine rolled through the gates of the tiny airport, Jamie closed his laptop and surveyed the small crowd in the parking lot—about as many media people and town officials as onlookers.
A beat-up, lopsided lectern had been set up on an edge of the airfield. A half dozen public works crew members were lined up to the left side of the lectern, all wearing their orange municipal rain slickers. Behind the lectern was a C-20F Gulfstream twelve-seat executive transport plane, waiting to ferry them back to Reagan National.
Jamie stepped out first and walked interference, holding out his arms to keep back a female reporter who rushed over shouting “Secretary Blaine! Secretary Blaine!”
Blaine stopped at the lectern, leaning down to speak into the microphone, which seemed to have been set for someone four feet tall. “I’d like to commend all of the local agencies for the first-rate job you’ve done in dealing with this disaster. We’ve had a productive tour of the flooded areas, and I have assured the governor that we are fully committed to providing the necessary federal aid, including individual assistance and housing assistance.”
She then delivered a brief message from the president and took three questions from the local media. Washington had become more diligent about its response to natural disasters ever since the chorus of criticism following Katrina in 2005; Catherine Blaine had been asked by the president to stress the government’s “commitment” to these West Virginia flood victims and she wanted to leave them with a sense of assurance that Washington would be there for them. But Blaine was thinking already about her next day’s appointments. They traveled to Ohio in the morning for a meeting on levee recertification. Then back to D.C. for a luncheon at the State Department and an afternoon briefing with the president.
As she walked out to the plane, Catherine Blaine heard a frantic clacking of heels on the wet pavement behind her.
“Secretary Blaine? Secretary Blaine! Could I get a quick comment from you before you go?”
Her chief of staff quickly stepped between them, but Blaine stopped him. “It’s all right, Jamie,” she said, summoning a smile for the reporter.
It wasn’t one of the locals, though. It was a reporter she recognized—a Washington correspondent named Melanie Cross, who wrote for the Wall Street Review.
The reporter took a moment to catch her breath.
“Do you have any comment, Secretary Blaine, on the reports coming out of Washington this afternoon about the security breaches?”
“The—?” Blaine studied the reporter’s face as she repeated her question, pen poised above her notepad. An intense woman with thick dark hair, smooth, lightly freckled skin, big doe eyes. “Which reports are these now?”
“The AP is quoting intelligence sources. Saying there have been unprecedented security breaches at CIA, Department of Defense, State Department and the White House.” She paused again to catch her breath, watching Blaine. “Do you have any comment?”
Blaine frowned, and glanced at Jamie, who was standing at the base of the steps to the Gulfstream. She had
been briefed on several cyber security breaches in recent days, but they hadn’t been “unprecedented”—and it wasn’t something that should be known by the media.
“Is that the word they’re using—unprecedented?”
“Yes. That’s—” She looked again at her note-pad and what seemed to be a crumpled print-out of a news story. “—and I quote, um, ‘one security source characterized them as potentially the most serious cyber threats the government has ever faced.’”
Blaine shook her head. “No,” she said. “I couldn’t comment on that.”
She gazed at the printout in the reporter’s hand, which fluttered in the wet breeze. “Is that the story? Could I have a look?”
Instead of showing it to her, though, Melanie Cross continued to read, her damp hair falling over her face. “‘Unprecedented cyber breaches at Department of Defense and the State Department.’ Um, let’s see, ‘renewing fears that the country may be vulnerable to an attack that could paralyze power grids across America.’”
Blaine shook her head.
In fact, every day dozens of foreign intelligence services tried to hack into U.S. government websites and computer networks.
“I don’t think our power grids are all that vulnerable,” she said. “I think that’s been overplayed. But, again, I’m not able to comment on your specific question.”
Jamie cleared his throat loudly and Catherine Blaine turned toward the plane, as if noticing it for the first time. It was beginning to drizzle again, chilling the air.
“So are you saying then that you have no know
ledge of these breaches?”
Blaine smiled, feeling a momentary exasperation at this leading question. A brief biography flashed up—Melanie Cross; business and tech reporter, who had helped break a story about illegal pharmaceutical networks in Africa; her boyfriend was, or had been, Jon Mallory, investigative reporter for the Weekly American magazine.
“My immediate concern today,” she said, “is the flooding here and these good people of West Virginia who are suffering.”
“Mmm hmm.” Melanie Cross pretended to scribble something in her notepad. Jamie widened his eyes.
“Walk with me to the plane, if you’d like,” Blaine said.
They moved toward the Gulfstream, the reporter walking sideways, half a step ahead.
“Off the record? I am aware that there have been some breaches in the past couple of weeks,” she said. “But if there is a comment, it would need to come out of the White House. As you know, our cyber command operation is based at Fort Meade and we now have a cyber security coordinator at the White House. A so-called cyber czar.”
“Yes. And how do you feel about that
Cyber command. Appointing a cyber czar.”
“Oh.” Clever reporter.
“Well, that’s another story, isn’t it?”
Melanie Cross stopped walking and tilted her head, pen poised again. For years, there had been a philosophical tug of war between Homeland Security and the military over which should take the lead on cyber security issues. During her tenure in Congress, Blaine had spoken out against what she considered wasteful duplications of efforts.
When she said nothing else, Melanie Cross prompted, “Off the record?”
“Off the record, I think cyber security is still a poorly defined frontier, spread out across all of our intelligence branches. I think we’re doing better than we were but we’re still more vulnerable than we should be. Okay?”
The reporter was writing furiously.
“You said off the record.”
“Then why are you writing it down?”
She lifted her pen. The marks on the page seemed gibberish to Catherine Blaine. Some kind of shorthand.
“I know you pushed for more centralized efforts when you were in Congress,” she said, raising her chin. “And that you’ve talked about so called ‘unanticipated threats.’”
Blaine smiled, surprised that the reporter knew this. She had written an article for Foreign Affairs magazine three years earlier—a freewheeling, somewhat controversial essay about the need to anticipate “unexpected threats.” She had been a government foreign policy professor then, never imagining she’d be out on the front lines again like this. “Well, yes. I think it’s important to look for things that we haven’t imagined before,” she said. “There are many potential threats that we haven’t adequately considered simply because nothing like them has ever occurred before. That’s what happened on 9/11. We hadn’t seriously imagined that possibility. We didn’t think about putting sky marshals on airplanes.”
The drizzle was suddenly becoming rain, misting the trees. Jamie Griffith stood in the doorway of the plane now, waiting. “Look,” Blaine said. “Why don’t we sit down sometime in Washington and talk about it under more proper conditions. When we have a little more time.”
“I’d like to.”
“Call Jamie and he’ll set up something.”
“Thank you. I will.” The reporter stood there, scribbling, as Catherine Blaine began to climb the steps. Blaine couldn’t imagine what she was writing.
She took her seat across the aisle from Jamie, who was immersed in his laptop.
“Would you find out what the hell she’s talking about with those breaches?”
“Already have.” He handed her his computer. “AP and Drudge have it.”
Blaine squinted at the screen. The Drudge Report headlined it Cyber ‘Ground Zero’ in D.C.?
She clicked the link and got the AP story. Scrolled through it quickly. It was cool in the plane and her suit felt damp and clammy. Unconfirmed reports say the breaches may have originated in Beijing.
“Unnamed sources. Unconfirmed reports. ‘Reportedly.’ That’s not news,” Catherine Blaine said, handing it back. “I mean, there are breaches every single day. Can you put in a call to Director DeVries? I’d like to know why I haven’t been briefed on this.”
“Where’s my BlackBerry?”
“I’m not sure. Did you—?”
“Never mind. I’m sitting on it.”
Blaine clicked on her government-issue mobile, typed in her code, and checked the message screen. Although she called it her BlackBerry, it was actually an SME-PED, or Secure Mobile Environment Portable Electronic Device, a custom unit developed by the National Security Agency for communications at the top secret level—verbal and secure encrypted e-mail. Similar devices had been developed for high-level officials at the State Department, Defense and CIA.
Blaine carried a second encrypted mobile device as a back-up, along with her own standard-issue cell phone, which she considered her “lifeline” to the real world.
There were three messages for her on the SME-PED. One was from the assistant to the undersecretary of state, responding to her inquiry about border crossing statistics for Arizona. Another was from White House Chief of Staff Gabriel Herring. The president reminding her about her briefing the next afternoon.
The third was a message from her son, Kevin.
The subject line read, “Hi Mom—jst ud on ES sat”
That was odd.
Catherine Blaine stared at the two and a half inch screen in her left hand, trying to make sense of what she was seeing. Her son Kevin had never sent a message to her on the government mobile device before. In fact, he couldn’t
have sent her one. SME-PED was part of a secure, top-secret-clearance network. Only nineteen people had access.
But there it was—her son’s quirky abbreviations: ud meaning Update.
ES for Eastern Shore.
Jamie’s voice tugged her away: “Cate, here’s the DNI’s office. I’ll transfer.”
She pressed the phone feature on her SME-PED and took the call as the plane moved toward the slick, open runway. “Catherine Blaine.”
“Secretary Blaine? It’s Susan Romero. The director is just coming out of a meeting and would very much like to speak with you. He said he will call you in three minutes. And he asked me to extend his apologies. There’s a lot going on at the moment.”
“I’m sure.” She sighed. “It’s a little disconcerting to have to learn about a national security breach from the media.”
“He’s very sorry. Three minutes.”
“All right, thank you.”
Blaine clicked off, and glanced at her watch.
The call from Harold DeVries, the director of national intelligence, came sixteen minutes later, as the plane was climbing through gray stratus clouds above the West Virginia mountains.
“I’m sorry, Cate,” he said. “I understand you had to hear about this thing from the press?”
“I’ll survive. What’s going on?”
“It isn’t much. We’re more concerned about the way it got out than the breach itself.”
“That’s what I thought.” She waited. DeVries had been a mentor to Blaine when she was first elected to Congress, a shrewd man with a broad knowledge of international politics and an ability to quickly grasp complicated issues. She’d found him her best ally on the Cabinet, even if he was occasionally unreliable. “It must be a high-level source if the media’s taking it this seriously,” she added
“Yes, unfortunately. We’d like you to attend a briefing in the morning before you issue any statement. What’s been leaked to the media is inaccurate, Cate. I can’t go into details right now, but it’s something very specific. And it has nothing to do with the power grid. Gabe Herring will give you details on the briefing.”
“Okay.” Blaine nodded to herself. It meant that they would have to postpone the meeting in Ohio. She’d have to stay in Washington.
“Thank you, Harold. We’re on our way back now.”
“Good. We’ll see you in the a.m., then.”
Jamie came up the aisle with two coffees and bags of peanuts.
“Thanks,” Blaine said, taking one of the coffees. Looking up at her chief of staff, whose tie, per custom, had been loosened three inches, the knot shoved to one side, she said, “Think I could I have a vodka tonic instead?”
“Sorry. Dry flight.”
“Shucks.” Blaine sipped. “Oh,” she said, feigning distress. “We’re going to have to scrap Ohio tomorrow. I’m going to be in on a briefing instead.”
They shared complicit smiles. Then Blaine closed her eyes. She thought about her brief exchange with the reporter, Melanie Cross. She had enjoyed talking off script, even just for a couple of minutes. Talking about real issues, the kinds of things that had first lured her into politics.
Six minutes later, Catherine Blaine opened her eyes. She saw the wisps of sunlight through the gray rainclouds below the plane’s left wing, the drops sliding across the window. She felt the drone of the plane’s engines. Heard the sounds of keyboards clicking.
And remembered the third e-mail message she’d received on her SME-PED.
Excerpted from The Leviathan Effect by James Lilliefors. Copyright © 2013 by James Lilliefors. Excerpted by permission of Soho Crime, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.