Had the closed circuit television cameras monitoring the service tunnel beneath the White House been working properly, they would have instantly detected two intruders darting from side to side in the normally secure subbasement corridor.
And all hell would have broken loose.
Four floors above the subbasement at one end of a room that does not appear on any of the publicly available blueprints of the White House, four Secret Service officers hunkered over a table cluttered with stacks of reports, laptops, PDAs, cell phones, desk phones and abandoned coffee cups. The three men and one woman were discussing plans for the President’s upcoming speech at the National Counterterrorism Center.
To their right and behind a sealed door that led to a room accessible only by using a special code, thumbprint, and iris scan, three uniformed officers monitored separate banks of console-mounted video screens. These three security officers controlled eighty-four discrete cameras installed inside, outside, over and under the White House. The cameras were the eyes and ears of an automated analysis software program, Guardian V4, that was backed up by a secret storage facility in a formerly abandoned but now renovated mine in West Virginia.
Inside the monitor center, a security officer tapped a console to pause an image frame for a closer look. The officer’s curiosity was triggered not by any of the cameras installed in the subbasement—none of those four units there had detected or was displaying the on-going intrusion—but by the arrival of a seafood delivery truck at the rear service entrance. The delivery driver produced an ID and waited while the outside security guard ran the card through a handheld Personal Identification Scanner. Within seconds, the driver’s name and photo appeared on the inside screen along with a confirming image from the internal security database. Satisfied, the inside officer tapped the console, restoring control to Guardian V4.
GV4was both a bargain and a triumph of American ingenuity. Its internal algorithms and AI eNeurologic systems could detect intruders from as little as a slight change in lighting or a momentary shadow on a distant wall. Its sensitivity was legendary. During beta testing, a flour moth in the basement pantry had triggered an alarm that locked down the White House for hours.
On this particular day, however, there were no flour moths and the President was away on what was billed as a foreign "farewell tour." While the President was having more going-away tours than a rock star, the White House staff was barely going through the motions. There was no denying that the White House was shutting down.
With Congress in recess and national attention divided between upcoming elections and an economy in the doldrums, many opinion leaders were opining that the lame duck administration was increasingly irrelevant. Even the pre-trip press gaggles in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room had become more pro forma than formative, producing little more than the usual personnel announcements, obligatory statements on the growing financial crisis, and the endless supply of fact sheets notoriously light on facts. When a stand-in for Dana Perino at a news briefing earlier in the month inadvertently read the President’s schedule for Tuesday on Wednesday, no one noticed until Thursday.
Requests for White House press credentials had fallen to the lowest level since Jimmy Carter roamed the White House in a sweater turning down the thermostats. Some photo ops were now covered solely by those staff members who still shared the passion. Many West Wing staffers were either sending out résumés or shopping memoirs to publishers. Even the false alarms at the White House two weeks earlier hadn’t ramped up the alert level, especially when one of the back room operators in the deputy chief of staff’s office figured out that publicizing the false alarms could be interpreted by late night comedians as symbolic of a disintegrating administration.
Still, something had to be done about the alarms and daily disruptions compromising the electronic security system. After crawling over the wiring for three full days, PEPCO and staff engineers blamed it on the hefty energy requirements of the computer and communications equipment supporting the White House. Electrical demands had doubled and then doubled again over the last eight years. Overheated wires, weakened cables, corroded insulators, and heat-fractured connectors overloaded the antiquated White House wiring.
The entire electrical system needed replacing but with renovation budgets ensnared in Congressional bickering, engineers were forced to come up with a scheme to filter the fluctuations. Trouble was, the workaround required a fifteen-second delay. No sweat, the engineers said. Only a handful of people were aware of the fifteen-second gaps in the security system and, anyway, an outage had to last longer than fifteen seconds to trigger an alarm.
Plant security reported the kludge to maintenance. Maintenance advised the political appointee, who dictated a memo for his secretary to send out to staff. However, the secretary left the proof copy in the hotel room where she and the political hack shared a nooner. Since no one suspected the fluctuations were anything more than normal wear and tear on an already outmoded, overworked electrical system overdue for overhaul anyway, the memo, like the affair between the politico who dictated the memo and his secretary who took the dictation, slipped through a crack.
Which was why no one realized that the fifteen-second gaps were more than sufficient for the two intruders in the White House subbasement to activate handheld transponders and send the cameras into ten-second visual loops. The officers on duty in the monitor center several floors above the tunnel might as well have been blind. They could not see the intruders dart from one zone to another and then drop to the floor in a steady zigzag pattern that circumvented the security defenses. Nor did the officers see one of the interlopers slip back the top of his right glove, check his watch and hold up two fingers. His cohort nodded and crouched. The first man hit a button on his transponder, waited a moment for the red light on the next camera to flicker, and the pair dashed into the final sector.
Out of the tracking zone, the men huddled in a cul de sac hard against a section of tunnel wall that concealed an abandoned, Civil War-era dumbwaiter shaft. The dumbwaiter itself was long gone, but the shaft that had originally connected Lincoln’s private family dining room on the north side of the White House to the basement kitchen remained.
One of the men slipped a digital meter from a pouch and slid the device back and forth against the wall. He watched the numbers race up and down and chalked the low points on either side and at the top, marking the exact location of the shaft behind a boarded façade installed when Teddy Roosevelt was president. The shaft had been easier to hide than to remove and since no one had thought to memorialize the location in White House blueprints, its existence soon faded from institutional knowledge. Except for a footnote in a dependably unreadable chronicle of the period written by a sincere but obtuse Harvard historian, the defunct dumbwaiter eventually became one of those obscure relics of history. Although not entirely forgotten.
Using a laser, one of the intruders measured the distance from the far corner of the tunnel and cast a line exactly one foot, two inches from the floor. He marked the spot with chalk. His partner locked a small bit into a handheld drill and bored a hole in the center of the mark. A bit brace and a four-inch, circular hole-cutter quickly slashed through the lath and wire-reinforced plaster panel, releasing a whiff of cold musk.
The driller took half a dozen small packages of composition plastique from a pouch. As he connected each packet to a harness, the second man fed the array through the hole into the shaft. When he reached the end of the yoke, he attached an M118 PETN detonator and inserted a plastic tube filled with mercury fulminate. To this, he connected a small black box, checked the preset date and time, and pressed the ON button. A red LED began blinking in one-second increments. The timer display went from 005:00:00:00 to 004:23:59:59. In exactly 4 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, 59 seconds, an electrical pulse from the timer would detonate a massive explosion directly beneath the White House.
Satisfied, the man set the box in the hole, then peeked in after it to confirm that the timer continued to operate. He drew back and nodded. His partner took a device resembling a small umbrella from his pouch, poked the top through the hole and clicked a button on the handle. A plastic dome unfolded inside the shaft. He pulled the handle toward his chest, drawing the dome flat and tight against the inside of the opening. An adhesive ring on the rim of the dome sealed itself to the inside of the shaft. A quick twist and snap and the handle popped free.
His companion squeezed a tube of tinted sealing compound into the opening, angling the bottom of the tube to fill and smooth the surface. Wielding a fine bristled brush powdered with a few quick dips into the dust on the floor, he blended the patch to match the rest of the wall. Satisfied, he took a moment to admire his handiwork. “Excellent,” the man whispered. “Pars Raze is locked and loaded.”
After retrieving their tools and sanitizing the area, the two men reversed their tracks, surreptitiously retreating back through the tunnel to where a service ladder ran to the basement level just below the main floor. Moments later, carrying tools and wearing security badges pinned to blue maintenance uniforms, they exited the utility elevator on the ground floor and strolled to the White House service entrance where a secret service office scanned their IDs into his handheld PIS. Processed and approved, the pair ambled outside to a maintenance truck, nodding with broad smiles to the two security men checking a crate of lobsters on its way to the kitchen.
Several hours later, they were on the Capitol Beltway in a late model car, two men with their suit coats in the back seat, ties askew and collars undone, joining the thousands of other commuters heading for their Virginia homes after a hard day’s work. The man in the passenger seat suddenly straightened. “Say, Buck,” he asked, “isn’t the President doing a dog and pony show on the war out west somewhere?”
“Nope. He's on some sort of farewell tour. Overseas. Why?”
“The lobsters. In the crate. With the President out of the White House, who do you suppose the lobsters were for?”
The driver glanced over and shook his head. “Haven’t a clue.”