Enemy Among Us: Chapter 46

Doctor Beckman entered the FBI Director’s suite along Mahogany Row in a high-security floor of the headquarters building. She rolled her carry-on luggage behind her and had a laptop computer case slung over her shoulder. An array of security badges dangled around her neck. “I caught the red-eye,” she told the FBI Director, Dean Hoffnagle III, a short man of slight build and Italian descent with black hair and brown eyes a few shades darker than his cordovan shoes. “Candice Beckman from the CDC. It’s good to meet you.” She shook hands with the man dwarfed by his executive desk and glanced at the office decorated with diplomas and award plaques highlighting Dean Hoffnagle’s illustrious twenty-eight year career with the FBI.

“Thank you for greasing the skids to get here,” said Director Hoffnagle, with a stern expression and riveting eyes. “You know my Section Chief, Agent Kriegel, I presume.”

Before Doctor Beckman could reply, Kriegel entered the room as if on cue and closed the door. She noted he kept his distance from his superior. “I’m ready.”

Doctor Beckman unzipped her laptop case. She wore a muted smile to mask any hint of impropriety between herself and Kriegel. “Give me two minutes to set up—”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Director Hoffnagle. He closed the vertical blinds behind his desk.

Kriegel shut the door. “Doctor Beckman is a Chief Scientist with the CDC’s department of Emergency Preparedness and Response.”

“I’ve seen her resume, Agent Kriegel. That’s why she’s here.” Director Hoffnagle turned his attention to Doctor Beckman. “This meeting is classified at the SCI level. Anything we discuss in here, stays in here. Are we clear?”

“Yes Sir.”

“Now what can you tell me about this anthrax scare?”

“I can tell you it’s for real.” Doctor Beckman opened the front compartment of her carry-on luggage and withdrew a notepad with a CDC logo imprinted on the front. “Twenty-seven. That’s the number of hospitals I’ve contacted in the last forty-eight hours. Two hundred and twelve—the number of individuals now dead or dying from acute inhalation exposure to a weaponized anthrax strain of unknown origin.”

“Not exactly unknown,” Kriegel added. He pointed to the file on the Director’s desk. “My report cites—”

“I’ve read the report, Agent Kriegel. I’ve also been briefed by Homeland Security. There’s no correlation between your bank robberies and these anthrax incidents.”

“With all due respect…” Doctor Beckman cleared her throat. She looked to Kriegel for support. “I—we—believe there is a strong correlation between these robbery events and the recent anthrax outbreaks. Toxicology reports on our robbery victims show unusually high concentrations of anthrax spores, meaning that these people were in close proximity to an anthrax agent. The entire receptor population, those who could have come in contact with the anthrax before or after these robbery events, is unknown. Early symptoms are non-specific. There could be dozens or hundreds of more victims yet to be discovered. Depending on the level of exposure, the onset of symptoms can take days or weeks to present. Our area of infection could be greater due to migration of infected individuals.”

Director Hoffnagle leaned forward in his chair. He arched his eyebrows and stared at Kriegel from across the desk. “There’s no logic to your theory. People rob banks for money, not to launch poison gas attacks.”

“Canaries in a coal mine,” Doctor Beckman retorted. “These robberies were staged, not for the benefit of financial gain, but to test a new strain of anthrax, one we’ve never dealt with before. One that’s highly resistant to our antibiotic treatments. These are bioterrorists we’re talking about, not some street punks trying to score.”

“And what if you’re wrong?”

“In my professional opinion, these victims were guinea pigs. Rats in a twisted experiment designed to test the virulence of a new anthrax strain.”

Hoffnagle pondered Doctor Beckman’s assertion. “If that’s true, why aren’t our investigators sick or dying? There’s no mention in Kriegel’s report of any FBI or state law enforcement officials suffering from anthrax exposure.”

“Which doesn’t mean they aren’t. The incubation period varies from person to person. The amount of exposure, the rate of exposure, the health of the individual… These are just a few of the variables we’re dealing with. We’ve also administered anthrax vaccine to every field agent and support staff working this case—as a precautionary measure to safeguard our own people.”

“I still don’t buy your theory about using bank robberies to test an anthrax strain.”

Doctor Beckman recalled her slide presentation from memory. “In 1984 the Rajneeshee cult contaminated salad bars in Oregon as part of their scheme to prevent members of their own town from voting in a county election.”

“That was salmonella poisoning, doctor, not anthrax. The motive was election tampering, not murder.”

“Yes, but the cult still infected more than seven hundred people. Who’s to say Ahmed Abdullah’s not applying this concept on a larger scale?”

Kriegel took a memo from his classified folder. “The terrorist integration threat center faxed this yesterday. They’re correlating data between two terrorist cells, one operating in or around D.C. and the other out of Miami. The DEA is involved now as well as the Coast Guard and Homeland Security. We think these robberies were designed to disrupt our security strategy by planting specious leads on known terrorists and leaking faulty intelligence information to other agencies. We suspect Abdullah is behind this.”

“Abdullah’s been off our radar for months.”

“Sir, Doctor Beckman and I have reason to suspect something bigger is in the works. More wide-scale, possibly airborne. Up until now, Abdullah’s organization has been toying with us. Our monitoring and tracking systems have turned up nothing. Whatever poison they’re cooking up, they’re doing it quietly in-house. The latest incident report from the NIPC highlights a lot of chatter from radical jihad Muslims eager to promote their agenda.”

“Nothing new there, Agent Kriegel.”

“Maybe not,” Doctor Beckman interrupted. “Our data analysis from recent terrorist events in Pakistan, Indonesia, Kenya, Amsterdam, Kuwait, and Iran revealed a small-scale use of weapons-grade anthrax similar to the strain we’re dealing with locally—but not as potent.”

“You’re saying someone cooked up a batch of this shit overseas and had it imported?”

“Possibly. Or maybe someone developed the gene sequencing and sold the data to an unscrupulous buyer in our own back yard.”

“I hear a lot of ifs and maybes, Doctor Beckman. What’s your real take on this? Would an airborne anthrax attack—”

“With the right delivery mechanism, a few kilograms of dried powder could decimate a small population without warning.”

Hoffnagle stared at the blinds on his corner office window. “And you’re confident Ahmed Abdullah is our man, Agent Kriegel?”

“Yes.”

“Are you willing to bet your career on that?”

“Yes,” Kriegel answered resolutely. He tried to gauge the Director’s response. “The intel supports our conclusions.”

“And what about our little snafu with the DEA? This Ali Muheen you’ve been chasing is a ghost. How does he factor into your conclusions?”

“It’s not a perfect system.”

“Tell that to Agent Bryant’s parents and brother. I can’t have another joint task force operation literally blow up in our face again.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Given everything you’ve uncovered so far, what do you really know about Abdullah’s plans? I thought we wiped his organization off the map.”

Doctor Beckman parted a strand of hair from her face. “You only cut off one head. Abdullah’s organization is wounded but not dead. If they’re planning to launch a massive bioweapon attack, the sooner we act the better. They’re perfecting weaponized pathogenic bacterium. Once airborne, the anthrax spores cross the epithelial lining of the lungs and travel to the lymph nodes. The spores germinate, multiply, and spread to other tissues, releasing toxins along the way. If you don’t succumb to massive hemorrhage or respiratory failure, the toxic shock will kill you. If these bioterrorists develop a viable delivery mechanism, there’s no telling how many people will die.”

“I appreciate your candor, Doctor Beckman, but you’re out of your league. This issue is a political powder keg. If the media gets a whiff of this, every Muslim in America will have a bullseye on his back. I don’t have to remind you it’s an election year.”

“With all due respect, you might not have an election year if these attacks progress. Four years ago ten grams of powdered anthrax sent in postage envelopes temporarily disrupted all three branches of the federal government and closed down congressional offices. The Sverdlovsk outbreak in ’79 had an eighty-six percent fatality rate from exposure to inhalation anthrax—with an average incubation period of five days. This more sophisticated version we’re dealing with now is defeating our antibiotics. Most of our victims are not responding to our present course of treatment. Our basic bioterror detection, diagnoses, and response capabilities are woefully unprepared to address this issue from a large scale perspective. We need help to develop a viable vaccine quickly and produce it in mass quantities. I have a research colleague at the Canadian Science Center who specializes in genomics. I’ve asked him to assist with developing a stronger course of antibiotic treatment to help us—”

“You’re telling me you’ve disclosed classified information?”

“I haven’t shared any specifics about this case. I’m simply operating on a research level as one scientist to another, trying to quickly solve a complicated problem with lethal consequences. If we don’t take measures to circumvent—”

“I share your sentiments, Doctor Beckman, but your arguments are tenuous at best. These worst-case bioterrorism scenarios are unlikely to happen. Not with unpredictable weather patterns, temperature controls, dispersion rates, spore concentration levels, and so on and so forth. We’ve been down this road before. Bioterrorism has always been a psychological weapon intended for political effect, not a springboard to Armageddon.”

Doctor Beckman pressed her hands on Hoffnagle’s desk, undaunted by his formidable bureau rank. “Well it’s a new dawn, Director! And we have a responsibility to do all we can to prevent, protect against, and respond to this threat. We need to act on our assumptions and the facts underpinning them. We’re dealing with a new generation of bioterrorist, one who doesn’t operate from autonomous cells. One who’s spent thirty years successfully practicing clandestine operations to perfect his craft. One who fancies himself a master of disguise. One who will continue killing innocent civilians to advance his personal agenda.”

“I appreciate your candor, Doctor Beckman, as well as your keen insight into this investigation.”

“Do you? Because these men won’t stop. You might extinguish their operations in Afghanistan or Yemen or Chechnya or Tajikistan. But when you pull back the rug you’ll find sleeper cells in London, New York, D.C., Miami… You’re not dealing with a rogue terrorist, you’re dealing with a highly disciplined international group with educated leaders who promote self-sacrifice and reverence for their cause. These men hold ideological, political, and financial controls over other terrorist organizations. Until 9/11, only fourteen terrorist attacks killed more than a hundred people in the entire twentieth century. These men believe everything happens according to God’s will. If they believe the defeat of America is God’s will, they will engage in mass casualty terrorism to achieve their desired result. Your anti-terrorism task force won’t defeat them by traditional means.”

She reached for her rollaway luggage and thought about the issue some more. “Have you even read my report?”

Hoffnagle stood up with his chest out and his shoulders back. He’d gone toe-to-toe with civilians before, but never with one as irritating and persistent as Doctor Beckman. “I didn’t rise to this position on my good looks and charm. I can tell you that religious fanaticism is not necessarily the driving force among all terrorists. And I know a thing or two about bioweapon manufacturing. There are more than seventy different strains of Bacillus anthracis, Doctor Beckman. Abdullah would have to isolate a specific strain and develop a workable plan for mass production. This can’t happen in the back of a van or the roof over Joe Blow’s garage. It takes sophisticated equipment and highly specialized knowledge.”

“Who says Abdullah doesn’t have the tools and the know-how to use them? Who says terrorists don’t kidnap consultants and extort their knowledge?” She reached in her briefcase and slapped a report on Hoffnagle’s desk. “Read the top of page two.”

Hoffnagle flashed a searing glance at Kriegel and snatched the four-page memo. He flipped the cover sheet and skimmed the first paragraph. “How did you get this?”

Doctor Beckman sighed impatiently. “We’ve already traced one infection to an anthrax strain developed under Project Coast, one of forty-six anthrax strains South African scientists genetically engineered to kill opponents of the apartheid regime. The strain’s designed to mimic the flu and evade detection. It’s also highly contagious and environmentally persistent.”

“I’m well aware of Project Coast, Doctor Beckman. The program was dismantled in ’93. The pathogens you speak of were destroyed.”

“Are you willing to bet your career on that?”

The Director shoved the memo back. “Was there anything else, Doctor?”

Kriegel cleared his throat and stepped forward. “Our missing mole, Fayez Sayeed, is still at large. He has family in the United States and ties to other terrorist organizations overseas. He also holds a private pilot’s license.”

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