September 01, 1980 12:00 PM

A President of the United States had been threatened with nuclear blackmail before. In 1974 during Gerald Ford’s term, Palestinian terrorists claimed they would detonate an atomic device in Boston if 11 of their comrades were not released from Israeli jails. That threat turned out to be a hoax, but Ford’s successor in the Oval Office knew this time the blackmailer had the blueprint for a three-megaton hydrogen bomb. A copy of the design had been delivered to the White House gate along with a tape-recorded message from Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi. “By the grace of God, I now possess the ultimate weapon on earth,” Qaddafi boasted. The bomb, he said, was hidden in New York and, unless the President met his terms, it would explode 39 hours from the following midnight. Qaddafi demanded that by his deadline the U.S. force Israel to abandon its illegal settlements on the West Bank and accept a Palestinian state.

If the President retaliated by attacking Libya with missiles, in all likelihood he would not save New York. The bomb surely was already triggered to explode, and only a negative radio signal from Libya would prevent the apocalyptic explosion. As squads began searching for the bomb, the President clung to the hope that Qaddafi was bluffing.

In Washington, D.C.’s National Airport, a tight police cordon screened off the late-evening travelers stretching and straining to follow the progress of the FBI’s Bomb Squad. Cautiously, the agents scanned the bank of gray metal luggage lockers with Geiger counters, looking for radioactivity. They found none. Then three German shepherds trained to detect the scent of high explosives were led along the locker ranks. Finally, a pair of agents employing a touch as delicate, as precise as that of Japanese women assembling the circuitry of a computer chip unscrewed the door to locker K602. Fifteen minutes before, an anonymous caller had informed a White House operator that the locker contained a message for the President.

The only thing the agents found was an envelope leaning against the back of the compartment. The typed message was brief. It said that at midnight Washington time, 7 a.m. Libyan time, at a spot 153 miles due east of the junction of the 25th parallel and the 10th meridian, at the southern tip of the Awbari Sand Sea in the southwestern corner of Libya, Muammar al-Qaddafi would provide the United States government with a conclusive demonstration of his ability to carry out the threat enunciated in his earlier communication.

Shortly after 11:30 p.m., the President, in the front seat of an unmarked Secret Service car, rode up to the river entrance of the Pentagon. The members of the Crisis Committee had preceded him. An MP saluted the Chief Executive and led him to a door under an archway bearing the words “JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF.”

A closed-circuit television system always records on videotape the face of everyone who enters the room, the hour and the day and his reason for being there. There is good reason for that rigid security. Beyond the door lies an Ali Baba’s cave of the electronic age, the most mind-boggling display of technological wizardry of which 20th-century man is capable, the National Military Command Center.

Seated in a leather chair at the oval conference table the President can, quite literally, watch the world go by. Every communication system the United States possesses, every electronic surveillance network, all the vast gadgetry at the disposition of the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, funnel into that immaculately white room not much larger than a small movie theater.

The network of KH-11 satellites girdling the globe can flash onto any one of its six movie-size screens a live television picture of any quarter of the planet. So fine is the resolution of those satellite pictures that from 90 miles into space the President, sitting in his armchair, can tell the difference between a Jersey and a Guernsey cow in a pasture in Nottingham, England, or note the color and make of an automobile leaving the gates of the Kremlin. He can talk to a Marine Corps lieutenant leading a platoon on a patrol in Korea. He could listen, thanks to the CIA, to the sound of men’s footsteps walking in certain offices in Moscow, Potsdam and Prague.

Still wearing his blue jeans and cardigan, having been summoned from his Sunday dinner, the President settled into an armchair. The rear admiral in charge of the center, one of the five flag officers in command of the shifts that man it 24 hours a day, moved behind his console. He flicked a series of controls. Now a stretch of desolate sand reddening in the first light of morning appeared on the screen. At its center, barely visible, was a tower.

“There, Mr. President, is the location we were given on the note that was found.”

A second screen lit up. On this one was a detailed resolution of the tower on the first. It was a spindly metal assembly resembling an old-fashioned oil-drilling rig, and at its top the men in the conference room could make out the outlines of a large cylindrical object looking like a barrel. It resembled very closely the description of the bomb given to them by Harold Agnew, who had studied Qaddafi’s blueprint at the Los Alamos nuclear research facility.

The admiral turned again to his console. There had been, he noted, no satellites in position over Libya at the time the threat had been delivered to the White House. The precious satellites, whose orbits were set once each month by the National Security Council, were for the most part deployed over the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Since the first alert, however, three KH-11s had been shifted into fixed orbits over Libya, and the images delivered by a second satellite rose on one of the six screens. It showed a cluster of buildings, the barracks compound of Bab Azizza near Tripoli to which the U.S. chargé d’affaires had earlier been dispatched and refused admission. Watching the screen, the President could see the paratroopers who had turned the charge away stomping their feet in the morning chill.

The image moved as it was adjusted and stopped again, this time on a series of small buildings. A white circle highlighted a roof inside a small walled compound.

“Sir,” the admiral said, “we believe this to be Qaddafi’s residence. We’ve had it under surveillance since shortly after Los Alamos’ first alert. We’ve seen no evidence of any activity whatsoever or any sign that the building’s even occupied.”

“What makes you think that’s Qaddafi’s residence?”

The admiral adjusted the focus of the satellite picture. Clearly visible, in the compound yard, was a black tent and tethered to it, a camel.

“Sir, Intelligence informs us Qaddafi keeps a tent and a camel in his yard because he likes fresh camel’s milk for breakfast. This is the only residence at Bab Azizza that meets that description.”

“What do you make of the tower?” the President asked Harold Brown, his Defense Secretary.

“It looks a lot like the pictures I’ve seen of the old Trinity test site,” Brown replied. Trinity was the code name for the test of the first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert in July 1945. “Simple. Primitive. But efficient.”

“Harold,” the President said, “he’s going to be letting the world in on his secret if this works, isn’t he?”

“Not necessarily. That’s about as remote a part of the world as you can find. No radiation monitoring devices there. They’ll be reading a four or a five on their Richter scales in Europe. Probably put it down to an earthquake if it goes off.”

It was four minutes to midnight. There was little to do now but wait. On the clocks suspended on one wall of the room, the white numbers silently clicked off each passing second.

The President’s eyes concentrated not on the test site but on the screen on which Qaddafi’s bungalow lay trapped in its circle of white. The details of the house and garden were clearly visible, the reddish tiles on the roof, the purplish splash of flowers beside the house. In the garden there was a child’s playground.

Is it really possible, he asked himself, that a man living in a pleasant little house like that, a man with children, a man who believes in his God as devoutly as I believe in mine, could propose something as mad, as senseless, as this? What is there, he wondered, what hatred, what lust for power, what drive for revenge for a wrong that didn’t even affect him or his people directly that could drive him to so irrational an act?

11:59—every eye was on the screen along the room’s far wall, on the emptiness of the desert, on the frail tower planted on its sands like a withered tree trunk that had somehow survived despite the ravages of time and nature.

Five seconds, ten seconds. Nothing happened. Fifteen seconds. Thirty seconds. The first creak of twisting armchairs indicated that the tension pent up in the room was easing. Forty-five seconds. Nothing, not even the eddying currents of a passing gust of wind moved on the screen.

One minute. Men sat back in their armchairs. A relief so intense it was almost a physical presence enveloped the room.

“I told you the son of a bitch didn’t have it,” blurted the Secretary of Energy, Delbert Crandell. Tap Bennington, the CIA chief, chewed on his pipe stem. “Mr. President, we’ve now got to decide what our response to the threat should be. I think we should review immediately the range of military options we can address against Libya.”

Warren Christopher of State was pleading: “We still have no confirmation that Qaddafi is behind this. It could be terrorists simply using his name.”

“You mean,” a furious Crandell demanded, “you propose to let that son of a bitch off scot-free…”

He never finished. A white wall of light seemed to explode from the screens. The men in the room flinched and shielded their eyes. The satellite cameras sucked up the fireball soaring over the Awbari Sand Sea and sent it hurtling onto the screens of the Pentagon, a roiling caldron of exploding gases: whites, reds, yellows and oranges arranged in a dazzling kaleidoscope of light and fire.

For seconds, the two dozen men in the room stared, thanks to those cameras, at the bowels of hell, the incandescent heart of a thermonuclear explosion.

The President was squeezing Harold Brown’s forearm in his fingers, his lower lip was curling downward in dismay. Watching, mesmerized, he could think of only one thing: John the Divine’s Revelation of the Apocalypse: “…behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”

Now, he thought, a Fifth Horseman has emerged from the entrails of hell to scourge humanity with terror and with arms so terrible even John’s hallucinating imagination could not have conceived them.

For the first time in his life David Hannon faced an American President. He removed a circular blue-and-white plastic wheel not much thicker than a dime from his breast pocket and set it on the table before him. It was a nuclear-bomb-effects computer designed by the Lovelace Foundation, computed for sea-level conditions. Hannon was never without it. There was almost nothing he couldn’t tell you about nuclear explosions with that wheel: how many pounds pressure per square inch would break a glass window, snap a steel arch or hemorrhage your lungs; the degrees of burns you’d get 23 miles away from a five-megaton burst; how much fallout it would take to kill you 219 miles away from an 80-kiloton explosion; the time the fallout would need to reach you—and how long you’d go on living once you’d been exposed to it. He glanced at the wheel. New York, he thought reassuringly, was at sea level. There would be no need to make any adjustments in his calculations.

“Let’s get going.”

Hannon recognized the familiar face of Jack Eastman, the President’s National Security Assistant. He self-consciously touched his wavy white hair to make sure it was in place and gave a nervous tug to his striped tie.

“Sir, in New York with a three-megaton thermonuclear explosion we’ve got a situation that is unique in the world. All those tall buildings. The thrust of our studies has always been what we can do to the Soviets, not what they can do to us. And since they don’t have any tall buildings, this is a circumstance where the data runs out, so to speak. What we’ve done is work out our best estimate of the destruction it would cause, based on computer calculations.”

Hannon walked to the map of the New York area his deputy had pinned to the display board of the conference room. A series of concentric circles—blue, red, green and black—moved out from the narrow pencil of Manhattan Island at its center. “Since we don’t know exactly where this device is, we’ve assumed for the purpose of our study that it’s here.” His ringer indicated Times Square.

He moved his finger along the circumference of the blue circle, to Chambers Street in lower Manhattan in the south, over the East River by the Williamsburg Bridge, through Greenpoint in Brooklyn, Long Island City in Queens, across upper Manhattan at 96th Street, and, west of the Hudson, around Union City, Hoboken and parts of Jersey City. “Nothing inside this circle is going to survive in any recognizable form.”

“Nothing?” the President asked, incredulous. “Nothing at all?”

“Nothing, sir. The devastation will be total. The blast wave that a device like this will produce is going to generate winds unlike any that have ever existed on earth.”

“Not even those at Hiroshima and Nagasaki?”

“Remember, we employed atomic, not hydrogen, bombs in those cities—with comparatively low yields. The winds that they created were just summer breezes compared to what this one’s going to generate. We know from our studies in both of those cities that modern steel and concrete buildings just disappeared. Poof!” Hannon snapped his fingers. “Like that. With the winds this is going to produce, you’re going to have skyscrapers literally flying all over the landscape. They will disintegrate in seconds. They’ll blow away like Long Island beach huts in a hurricane.”

“How about survivors in the area?” New York Mayor Abe Stern asked, nodding toward the blue circle inside which were trapped, at that very moment, perhaps five million people.

Hannon gave Stern a look of total incredulity. “There won’t be any.”

“And fire?” asked the Secretary of Defense.

“The fire this will create,” Hannon replied, “will be unlike anything in human experience. If this device explodes, it’s going to release a heat burst that’ll set houses on fire all over Westchester County, New Jersey and Long Island. You’ll have tens, hundreds of thousands of wooden houses bursting into flames like matches.”

Hannon glanced at his map. “Inside the first circle, what will happen first is that the thermal pulse, the heat of the fireball, will pass through the glass sheaths of all those modern buildings in the center of Manhattan. Now, when you look inside those glass skyscrapers, what do you see? Curtains. Rugs. Books. Desks covered with papers. In other words, fuel. What will happen is you’ll have a million fires lit instantly on Park Avenue. Then, of course, the blast will hit and turn the place into piles of smoking rubbish.”

“Christ!” one of the deputies along the conference room wall said. “Imagine those poor people trapped in those glass buildings!”

“Actually,” Hannon replied, “according to our calculations, glass buildings may turn out to be less dangerous than you’d imagine, provided, of course, they’re located well away from the shot. Glass structures are going to fragment into millions of pieces which are not going to have a high degree of penetration. I mean, they’ll make you look like a pincushion, but they won’t kill you.”

Is this guy for real? Eastman asked himself. He stared at Hannon, the square pink fingernails of his thumbs pressed tensely together, his heavy shoulders and upper body untidily enclosed in a gabardine suit. Doesn’t he realize he’s talking about people, Eastman thought, living flesh-and-blood people, not a chain of numbers spat out by a computer?

“What are the possibilities of survivors outside your first circle?” the President asked.

“We’ll begin having survivors,” Hannon answered, “inside the second circle, three to six miles from ground zero.” He mechanically ran his finger along the circle’s red circumference encompassing the rest of lower Manhattan, South Brooklyn, Jackson Heights, La Guardia Airport, Rikers Island, Secaucus and Jersey City, the guts of the most important metropolitan area in the world. “Fifty percent of the population in this area will be killed. Forty percent will be injured. Ten percent will be unscathed.”

“How about the fallout?” the President queried.

“Sir, if there is an onshore wind blowing to drive the fallout up into New York State and New England, it’ll contaminate a swath of land thousands of miles square. Right up into Vermont. Nobody will be able to live there for generations to come.”

“Look, Mr. Whatever-your-name-is,” Abe Stern blurted. “I’d like to know one thing from you. God forgive me for using the expression but I want the bottom line. How many of my people are going to be killed if this thing goes off?”

“Yes, sir.” Hannon opened a stiff black cover ostentatiously stamped “Top Secret.” Inside was the indispensable crutch of the modern bureaucrat, a computer printout. Everything that would happen to the Mayor’s city should Qaddafi’s bomb explode was on those pages. It was as if some computerized Cassandra had uttered an infallible prophecy recording in minute, macabre detail the instant future which awaited New York in that awful eventuality; what percentage of the buildings along Clinton Avenue in Brooklyn would remain standing (zero); the number of dead on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, between 34th and 36th Streets (100 percent); the percentage of the population of Glen Cove, Long Island, that would die from exposure to radioactive fallout (10 percent); how many private dwellings in East Orange, New Jersey, would surfer severe damage (7.2 percent); the destiny of the people of Queens (57.2 percent would die from blast and fire, 5 percent from the fallout, 32.7 percent would be injured).

It was a multimillion dollar Baedeker to the unthinkable, right down to how many nurses, pediatricians, osteopaths, plumbers, hospital beds, airport runways and, naturally, government tax records, would survive in each corner of the affected area. Hannon methodically toted up the horror encapsulated in those dark chains of numbers.

“The total dead, sir, for the conditions we’ve been given in the five boroughs and New Jersey would be 6.74 million.”

The clock on the woodpaneled wall of the National Security Council conference room read 1428—barely 24 hours before the expiration of the ultimatum. One thing became clear: There was no hope of finding the device in the time Qaddafi had allocated. The President was certain all their hopes came down to his trying to reason with a man more than 4,000 miles away who only a generation ago would have been just the inconsequential ruler of a lot of sand.

The President gave a last glance at the yellow legal pad before him. On it were notes he had made listening to the psychiatrists’ advice:

Flatter him; play up to his vanity as a world leader.

He’s a loner. Must become his friend. Show him I’m the person who can help him out of the corner into which he’s painted himself.

Voice always soft, nonthreatening.

Never give him the impression I don’t take him seriously.

Keep him in a position of fundamental uncertainty; he must never know exactly where he’s at.

Good maxims for a police negotiator, the President thought. But were they really going to be any help to him in this phone call? He swallowed, feeling the tension, and indicated to his aide that he was ready.

“Colonel Qaddafi,” he began, “I want to address the very grave problem posed by your letter. I understand how ardently you want to see justice done for your fellow Arabs in Palestine. I want you to know that I share those sentiments. Colonel Qaddafi, I…”

The Libyan cut into his speech. His voice was gentle.

“Please, Mr. President, do not waste my time or yours with speeches. Have the Israelis begun to evacuate the occupied territories or have they not?”

“No stress reading at all,” the CIA technician monitoring the telephone conversation reported. “He’s perfectly relaxed.”

The President pressed on, striving to control his emotions. “I understand your impatience to reach a settlement. I share it. But we must lay together the basis for a durable peace, one that will satisfy all parties concerned, not one forced on the world by a threat such as the one you have made to New York.”

“Words, Mr. President.” The Libyan, to the Chief Executive’s irritation, had interrupted him again. “The same kind of hollow, hypocritical words you have been feeding my Palestinian brothers for 30 years.”

“I assure you I speak with the utmost sincerity,” the President rejoined—to no avail.

Qaddafi, ignoring him, was continuing. “Your Israeli allies bomb and shell Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon with American planes and guns, kill Arab women and children with American bullets, and what do you offer in return? Words—while you go right on selling the Israelis more arms so that they can kill more people. Your spokesmen in Washington wring their hands in public at the Israeli settlements but do nothing to stop them.

“Well, Mr. President, at last the Arab people of Palestine have the means of obtaining justice, and they are going to get it, Mr. President, because if they do not, millions of your people are going to die to pay for the injustices that have been committed against them.”

The impact of Qaddafi’s words was heightened by the flat, monotonous voice in which he uttered them, a voice so devoid of passion it seemed that the Libyan leader could have been a broker reading off stock quotations to a client, or a pilot working through his preflight checklist.

“I cannot really believe, Colonel Qaddafi,” the President continued, “that a man like you, a man so proud of having carried out his revolution without bloodshed, a man of compassion and charity, can really be serious about employing this satanic device, this instrument of hell, to kill and maim millions and millions of innocent men and women.”

“Mr. President.” For the first time, there was an undercurrent of stridency in Qaddafi’s tone. “Why can’t you believe it?”

The President was staggered that the man could even ask the question. “It’s a wholly irresponsible act, sir. It’s…”

“Such as your act when you Americans dropped a similar weapon on the Japanese? Where was the compassion and charity in that? It’s all right to kill, burn, maim thousands of yellow Asiatics or Arabs or Africans, but not clean, white Americans. Is that it? Who created this Satanic device, as you call it, in the first place? German Jews. Who are the only people who have ever used it? White Christian Americans. Who are the nations that stockpile these engines that can destroy the world? Your civilized, advanced, industrial societies. They are products of your world, Mr. President, not mine. And now it is we of the other world who are going to use them to right all the injustices you have committed against us.”

The President was desperately scrutinizing his legal pad. How inappropriate the words he had written there seemed to him now that he was actually confronted by this man.

The President doodled on his legal pad, hoping for some magic thought that would strike the responsive chord.

“Mao Tse-tung accomplished history’s greatest revolution with a minimum of bloodshed,” the President declared. That was a lie, but it reflected the psychiatrists’ advice. Invoke Mao, they had said, he sees himself as an Arab Mao. “You have the same opportunity if you will be reasonable, remove your threat to New York and work with me toward a just and lasting peace.”

“Be reasonable, Mr. President?” came the answer. “Being reasonable to you means that Palestinian Arabs can be driven from their homes, can be forced to live in refugee camps. Being reasonable means that Palestinian Arabs should stand by and just watch the creeping annexation of their homeland. When my brothers and I tell you, who are responsible for their misery, ‘Give us the justice you have denied us so long, or we will strike,’ suddenly that is unreasonable. Suddenly, because we ask for justice, we are fanatics.”

An idea struck the President. It was so bold, so dramatic, it might capture Qaddafi’s imagination. “Colonel Qaddafi,” he said, unable to conceal the excitement in his voice. “I have a proposal to make to you. Release the millions of my fellow Americans in New York from your dire menace and I will fly to Libya immediately, unescorted, in Air Force One. I, the President of the United States, will allow you to hold me as your hostage.”

The President’s unexpected proposal left his aides aghast. It might succeed in preventing a nuclear nightmare, but there would be dire repercussions for a government whose chief of state was held captive in a Bedouin oasis. Next week, in PEOPLE’S final excerpt of The Fifth Horseman, Qaddafi replies, the U.S. prepares for a military strike at Menachem Begin’s Israel and the Libyans realize blackmail can be a ghastly gamble.

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