August 25, 1980 12:00 PM

The unseasonably cold December day drew to a close. Mounds of still-fresh snow lined the streets of the nation’s capital. The family residing behind the familiar facade of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue had left the living quarters only once, to walk the eight blocks separating the White House and Washington’s First Baptist Church. There, as he often did, the President had taught Sunday school, offering his fellow worshipers his definition of the Bible: a constant interchange between God and man in which we struggle to justify ourselves. Now the somber strains of Sibelius’ Finlandia filled the White House living quarters, a reminder of the pleasure the President of the United States found in the works of classical composers like Bach, Vivaldi and Wagner. In the dining-room fireplace a birch-log fire crackled, giving the room a cozy, almost snug air. It also served the practical purpose of driving the chill from a room whose thermostat was set at 65°, reflecting the President’s determination to set an example of energy consciousness to his profligate countrymen.

Precisely at 7 p.m., the President and his family sat down to supper. Both he and his wife were wearing well-washed jeans. As always on Sundays she had, to the consternation of her staff, prepared supper—black-bean soup, country ham and collards. The President invited his daughter to offer grace, and the family joined hands around the table while she asked the Lord’s blessing.

The President had just finished his first course when the phone rang in the sitting room. The sound was seldom heard in the living quarters. His staff was trained to restrict his phone calls to only the most urgent. His wife rose to take it. When she came back, she said, “It was Jack Eastman. He says he has to talk to you right away.” Eastman was the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs, a former Air Force major general who had taken the place of Zbigniew Brzezinski.

The President dabbed his lips with his napkin and excused himself. Two minutes later he opened the door of the living quarters. Eastman was a lean, youthful-looking 53, all bone and muscle. The President waved his aide to a seat and settled himself in a comfortable apricot wing chair.

Eastman handed the President a white folder. “Sir, I think you should begin by reading this. It’s the translation of a document that was delivered to the Madison Gate at lunchtime in the form of a tape recording in Arabic.”

The President opened the folder and took out the two typewritten pages it contained.

National Security Council

File Number: 12471-136281

CONTENTS: One envelope, manila, containing one blueprint, 30-minute BASF tape cassette, four pages of mathematical formulas. Package delivered to Sergeant K.R. Mabuchi, Madison Gate, 1531, Sunday, December 13, by a female, blond, estimated age middle 30s, wearing a beige cloth coat, identity unknown. Translation of tape prepared by E.F. Sheehan, Department of State:

16th Safar, 1,402 Year of the Hegira.

To the President of the American Republic, may this message find you, thanks to the Grace of Allah, savoring the blessing of good health. Greetings and Respectful Tidings.

I write to you as a man of compassion concerned with justice and the sufferings of the innocent and oppressed peoples. No people has suffered more from the oppression of the world in this century than my Palestinian Arab brothers. They were driven from half of their ancestral home by an alien people, forced onto our Arab lands by imperialistic Western powers. Then that same alien people occupied the other half of my brothers’ lands, in defiance of the Charter of the United Nations, in their aggressive war in 1967.

Now that alien people systematically attempts to dispossess my Palestinian Arab brothers from the last half of their homeland by placing upon it in constantly increasing numbers illegal settlements, which even you have condemned.

You have said publicly many times that you wish to establish peace in the Middle East and I beg God’s Favor upon you for that, for I too am a man of peace. But there can be no peace without justice—and no justice for my Palestinian brothers while the Israeli, with your nation’s blessing, continues to take away their lands with illegal settlements.

By the grace of God, I now possess the ultimate weapon on earth. I have sent with this letter the scientific proof of my words. With a heavy heart but also conscious of my responsibilities to my Palestinian Arab brothers and all the Arab peoples, I have ordered my weapon placed on New York island. I shall cause it to explode in 39 hours from midnight this night, at 2000 Greenwich Mean Time, or 1500 Eastern Standard Time, Tuesday, December 15, if in the intervening time the United States has not obliged its Israeli ally to:

1. Withdraw all of the illegal settlers and settlements he has established on the lands seized from the Arab nation in his 1967 War.

2. Withdraw his people from East Jerusalem and the site of the Holy Mosque

3. Announce to the world his willingness to allow my Palestinian Arab brothers who wish to do so to return immediately to the lands and enjoy there their full national rights as a sovereign people.

Should you make this communication public or begin in any way to evacuate New York City, I shall feel obliged to instantly explode my weapon.

I pray God will deliver upon you the blessings of His Compassion and Wisdom at this difficult hour.

Muammar al-Qaddafi

President

Socialist People’s Republic of Libya

The President looked up at his adviser. “Jack, what in God’s name is all this about?”

“Sir, we just don’t know. We haven’t been able to determine whether this is really from Qaddafi or whether it’s a hoax. But what’s of real concern is the fact that the nuclear-emergency command post at the Department of Energy tells us the design that came in with this thing is a very, very sophisticated piece of work. They’ve sent it on to the nuclear research facility at Los Alamos for analysis. We’re waiting to hear from them now. I’ve convened a Crisis Committee for 8 p.m. in the West Wing.”

The President pressed the index finger of his left hand to his lips, thinking hard.

“How about the Libyans?” he inquired. “Surely they don’t confirm the authenticity of this?”

“We haven’t been able to raise any of their people either here or in New York, Mr. President. But they have so few people stationed here it could just be a coincidence.”

“And our people in Tripoli?”

“State’s onto them. But it’s the middle of the night over there, and getting hold of someone in authority in Tripoli in a hurry is always a problem.”

The President’s mind was moving forward now. “It seems to me highly unlikely that this is from Qaddafi. No head of a sovereign nation is going to try to blackmail us by hiding an atomic bomb in New York. At the very worst it would kill 30,000 people. A man like Qaddafi has got to know we have the capacity to utterly destroy him and his entire nation in retaliation. He’d be mad to do something like that.”

Behind the President, through the room’s graceful windows, Eastman could see the lights of the White House Christmas tree, bright sparks flung against the December night.

“I agree, sir. I’m inclined to think it’s a hoax of some sort or, at the worst, a terrorist group masquerading behind Qaddafi for some reason.”

The President nodded. He had reread not long before the FBI’s 1977 study on the menace of nuclear terrorism and remembered its conclusion: There was no danger of such an act from any of the identified terrorist groups with one exception, the Palestinians. In the event of an Arab-Israeli peace settlement which left the Palestinians embittered and desperate, there were, the report warned, elements with the sophistication required for acts of nuclear terror.

The telephone rang. “Excuse me,” Eastman said. “It’s probably for me. I told the switchboard I was with you.”

The President was not, he knew, the first chief executive to face the possibility that terrorists had hidden a nuclear device in a U.S. city. That had been Gerald Ford. The year had been 1974, the city Boston, and that threat too had involved the Palestinian problem. It had come from terrorists who vowed they would detonate an atomic device in the Massachusetts capital if 11 of their fellows held in Israeli jails were not released. Like all of the 50-odd nuclear threats made against U.S. cities or institutions in the decade of the 70s, that one had turned out to be a hoax. Before it had, however, his predecessors in the White House had to ask themselves whether they should, or could, evacuate the city—and not a word had ever leaked to the Bostonians whose lives might have been at stake.

“Sir?”

The President turned toward his adviser, who was holding the telephone with one hand cupped over its mouthpiece. “Los Alamos just called in a preliminary analysis of the blueprint. It is a viable weapons design.”

At 8 p.m. the President entered the National Security Council conference room in the West Wing. The men and women in the room rose. There was always a special aura about the personage of the President, some intimation of the crushing dimensions of the problems he bore, of the awesome power that was his, of the responsibilities which made the holder of his office unique. He motioned to them to sit, while he remained standing, biting his lower lip as he often did when he was trying to concentrate, appearing, in his faded jeans, his rumpled cardigan, even smaller, even more vulnerable, than usual.

“I want to thank you all for being here tonight,” he said, “and ask you to pray with me that what’s brought us here is just a hoax because…” his voice trailed off…”if it’s not, we’ve got a long, long night ahead of us.”

He took his place in one of the inexpensive chairs upholstered in rust fabric ringing the oval conference table. The room was as unprepossessing, as unimaginative a place as. the boardroom of a medium-size Middle Western manufacturer of cardboard containers. Yet it was here that the thermonuclear Armageddon had been envisaged during the Cuban missile crisis; the decisions which sent half a million Americans to fight in Vietnam had been debated; the plight of the U.S. hostages seized by followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini pondered.

The President glanced at the people filling the room. Among them were the directors of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency, 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 U.S.,” 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 30-minute West German BASF. The complete lack of background noise would indicate that it was made in a studio under at least semiprofessional conditions. Regrettably, 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. Gardiner “Tap” Bennington, the heir to a Massachusetts textile fortune, had replaced Stansfield Turner 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 nice young men off the playing fields 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, sir. It’s something that’s been 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 Palestinians 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.”

“How about the Israelis?” the President queried. “Have you informed them what’s happened?”

“Not yet. For the moment we recommend holding this as tight as possible.”

The President turned to Warren Christopher, the Deputy Secretary of State. “Any answer from Tripoli?”

“No, sir. The chargé went personally to the army barracks at Bab Azizza, where Qaddafi and most of his ministers live, saying he had an urgent communication. The guards wouldn’t give him the time of day. Told him they had orders not to admit anyone before 8 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. “Tell me, Tap,” he said to his CIA director, “would Qaddafi have the capacity to do something like this?”

Bennington struck a match and noisily lit his pipe, a ploy he had learned from his second boss, Allen Dulles, who used it to get time to marshal his thoughts. “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.” “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 other.”

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 900-megawatt light-water reactor the French have just set up for him.

“The reactor is under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. Inspectors go 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, crass, outspoken, and at the same time a knowledgeable physicist.

“If all that stands between us and Qaddafi’s making an atomic bomb from that French reactor of his,” he noted in his rasping voice, “are those U.N. people, we’d best head for the bomb shelters right now. Those U.N. agencies are so choked by 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 probably got the job because it was Argentina’s turn to fill the slot.”

The President turned to Harold Brown. The Secretary of Defense was a former director of the Livermore, Calif, weapons laboratory, ex-president of Cal Tech and a brilliant nuclear physicist. “The French and the Germans for years have been telling people you can’t get nuclear weapons out of a nuclear power plant,” Brown said. “Well, the fact is you can. We blew off a bomb made with plutonium that came from a reactor’s burned-out fuel rods 15 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 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. The Defense Secretary continued, “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 20 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 20 bombs in a couple of cow barns where a satellite would never spot them.”

The Secretary sighed. “The PLO gets plenty of commandos to volunteer for suicide raids. Why wouldn’t it be able to get 20 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 Laboratory, stared out his office window at the blinking lights of the lovely little community nestling at his feet on the Pajarito Plateau, 7,000 feet into the mountains of New Mexico. It was a quintessentially upper-middle-class town of adobe homes and ranch-style houses, well-watered lawns and neat flower gardens; with a McDonald’s, a Holiday Inn and, on the Municipal Building’s lawn, a red-painted thermometer that indicated 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 36 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—geniuses long dead—stared down from portraits on the wall.

Harold Agnew 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 December 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 across 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? That was a question which had come naturally during the last hour while a team of his weapons designers had pored over the blueprint delivered to the White House gate.

The rasp of his buzzer interrupted him.

“We have your call to the White House,” his deputy announced. The scientist 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 blueprint?”

The voice filtering into the room through the white plastic holes in reply seemed strangely hesitant.

“Mr. Eastman, the drawing on the blueprint is not for an atomic bomb.”

The men in the White House emitted what seemed an almost collective sigh of relief. The distant scientist continued. “It’s my very sad duty to inform you that the design on the blueprint is for something that is a hundred times worse. The blueprint is for a thermonuclear device, Mr. President, a three-megaton hydrogen bomb.”

In the conference room silence followed Harold Agnew’s revelation. Unlike the atomic bomb, which depended on converting to reality a widely understood scientific theory, the hydrogen bomb involved the perfect interweaving of key elements. There was no “almost.” There was no margin whatsoever for error. Exploding a hydrogen bomb was a task so complex it was often compared to setting a wet log ablaze with a single match. It required putting three competing processes into perfect balance under conditions of temperature and pressure so extreme they rivaled those at the core of the sun.

“The device is meant to be contained in a cylinder roughly the size of an ordinary oil drum,” Agnew explained. “The length is about half again as long as a drum. We calculate it would weigh 1,500 pounds. There are several connecting wires meant, I presume, to be hitched up to some kind of control panel, probably a device that could receive an incoming radio burst which would release an electrical impulse into the high-explosive charge.”

The President was intent. “Where in God’s name would someone like Qaddafi have gotten the information to build something like this? Could he have gotten it from those articles that we tried to prevent being published in Wisconsin in 1979?”

“No.” Agnew did not hesitate. “Those articles set out the theory behind the H-bomb very completely. But they didn’t come to grips with the precise formula behind it. Without that, you’ve got no explosion.”

“Mr. Agnew,” the President asked, “assuming for the moment this device really existed and really was in New York and really was exploded, what would its effect be?”

“Sir, it would mean that, for all practical purposes, New York City would be wiped off the face of the earth.”

But does Qaddafi really have the bomb? In Part II of The Fifth Horseman, appearing in PEOPLE next week, the Libyan leader promises dramatic proof that he does, and the President comes up with a daring bargaining card.

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