The Department (Part 1)
The First Mission
Although this story contains material from the world in which we live, including references to actual places, persons, and events, it should be read entirely as a work of fiction. All dialogue is invented. All characters are fictional and not based on any actual living person. The events that take place in this story are entirely the product of my imagination.
I walked into what appeared to be a typical federal government outer foyer setup: Two young, well-groomed 20-somethings sitting behind cherry-wood desks, earnestly working on what passed these days for a desk-top computer system; laptop connected to docking station, docking station connected to elevated screen at eye-level such that they didn’t strain their necks, clicking away with their mouse, reading something. They glanced up and when they saw Wilson, they both said, “Hello, Sir.” Wilson returned the greeting, and without looking at me said, “This way.”
“Where are we going?”
“To a meeting, of sorts.”
“You’ll see. Please be patient.”
Beyond the entry foyer we now walked down a long hall, carpeted in federal government dark red, walls covered in some kind of mahogany-stained wood, ceilinged in the obligatory light-gold tapestry with diverse and sundry designs throughout the material. It was like every other classic, old federal building I had ever been in. I involuntarily sighed.
“What is it?” Wilson asked turning back slightly.
“Nothing. I’ve just been in a hundred places like this it seems. They’re always the same on the inside.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s like we decided to decorate all our buildings as if Louis XIV was our king or something. We’re always making fun of the French, yet every government building looks like Versailles.”
Wilson smiled. “You’ve got a point.”
Finally, we arrived at a set of double doors. Wilson put his hand on the small, nearly imperceptible screen to the right of the door handle, and the door opened with a metallic click. “Come on,” he told me.
I followed him into a conference room with no windows. A rectangular table sat in the middle of the room with about a dozen leather and brass tack-bound chairs around it. A man and woman roughly Wilson’s look and age stood.
“Hello Colonel Scott, I’m Robert McKinnon, and this is Mary Abraham. We work with Mr. Wilson.” He extended his hand and we shook. “Hello Colonel,” said Ms. Abraham and followed with her own obligatory handshake.
“I’m retired. Please call me David.” Who were these people? They were talking to me like I was still on active-duty.
“Sure. Thank you for coming David. We’re sure you’re wondering what you’re doing here, so we’ll get right to it. Please take a seat. Coffee? Anything to drink?”
Abraham was already raising the wooden panel that covered a projection screen, and some kind of briefing was booting up from the unit behind us.
Each person sat down, and McKinnon led off the show. “Simply stated, we need your help.”
“Yeah, that’s what Mr. Wilson said. But I’m at a loss. How can I help you?”
McKinnon pointed to the screen. I looked. There on the screen was a photograph of a man named Khalil al Qosi. I’d seen the picture a thousand times. Probably more.
I couldn’t believe it. I shook my head.
“This is why you guys brought me over here? To talk about Khalil?” I said incredulously.
“Not just to talk. Please bear with us David,” said Ms. Abraham.
“Because I’m done with this,” I said in frustration. “I’ve talked about this guy with people like you until I’m blue in the face. For almost 20 years now. I’m sick of this.”
“We assure you this is different. There’ve been a few new developments.”
“I’ve heard this before. There’s always a ‘new development,’ but it’s never really a new development, is it?”
“Please David.” It was Wilson now. He wore a serious, almost worried expression. Until this moment, the guy had been unflappable. Now, the look on his face suddenly had me a bit worried too.
“Okay. you got five minutes. Then I’m out of here.”
“As you know — maybe better than anyone else — this is Khalil al Qosi. Yemeni. One of bin-Laden’s ‘Shadow Hawks.’ One of the top lieutenants in the organization. In charge of recruiting and funding for AQ. Came up through the ranks, first as a fighter in the Tajik civil war, then in Chechnya, then almost got his leg blown off in the Balkans, after which they made him their top logistical guy. Quickly established himself as someone who could get them new bodies, ship the recruits to the camps in Afghanistan, get them trained, and then ship them back out again to prepare for operations. And he showed a knack for moving their money around and laundering it.”
I knew all of this.
“We know he was with UBL and the inner circle at the Airport Camp in the weeks and days leading up to the Cole bombing, and we know he was also there in the lead-up to 9–11.”
“After 9–11 when we started the bombing campaign, he was initially with bin Laden in the caravan hightailing it out of there into Tora Bora, but at some point he separated from the main group and disappeared. Until you captured him of course.”
The room was silent for a few seconds. They looked at me.
“Am I supposed to say something?”
“Your report on that is pretty succinct,” observed Wilson, who was looking over the one-page document I had written back in December, 2001. Seventeen years ago. My kids were in preschool at the time. Now they were in college.
“We were directed to prepare ‘succinct’ after action reports,” I said plainly.
“What happened to him after that?” queried McKinnon.
“You guys know exactly what I know, probably more actually. We turned him over to the people we were told to hand him over to. That was the last time I saw him. Until he showed up on the island a few years later.”
“How many times did you talk to him after he got to GITMO?” asked Abraham.
“To tell you the truth, I honestly lost count. Probably over 50 times.”
“Did he give us anything?”
I was already getting annoyed with this. I had forgotten how many reports I had written on the guy and how many debriefings I had endured on these subjects. I was certain the people in the room knew this, and I figured they had poured over every word and probably watched every videotaped session I had done with him. What did they want from me?
“What do you guys want from me?” I said in exasperation. “You already know the answer to everything you’re asking.”
The room went silent again. McKinnon nodded at Wilson. “Tell him.”
“There’s been renewed discussion of moving the Cole and 9–11 cases from the island up here to be tried either in New York or the Eastern District of Virginia in the Alexandria courthouse. But as you know, they can’t use any of the statements any of these guys made in detention. The judges will never allow it into evidence.”
Again, this was common knowledge. “And?”
“We need a witness. As you’re well aware, although we’ve interrogated and proferred hundreds of them, not one of them has ever become a government witness against another. We’ve never been able to turn anyone,” said Abraham.
“And what does that tell you?” I asked them. “It’s been 17 years and nobody has cracked. They’re stronger than any Mafia group that ever existed at not turning on their brothers. They’ll all rot down there before they’ll dime anybody out.”
The silence that ensued lasted for a full minute. I looked at my watch.
Wilson broke the silence. “Well, like we said, there are two developments. First, we’ve received word that the new administration is going to let the AUMF run out. It’s been in place since September 14, 2001. If it runs out you know what that means. We will have no authority to keep the detainees remaining on the island down there; we’ll either have to bring them to trial in federal court or release them. So time is of the essence.”
“And the second?” I asked.
“For the first time in seven years, Khalil is asking to speak to someone. It came out of the blue, because he fired all his defense attorneys years ago and withdrew all his habeas filings. He’s been a virtual recluse down there ever since. From the reporting he doesn’t talk to any of the other detainees. He says prayer five times a day, takes his meals alone, reads, writes, and walks laps around the yard. Now all of a sudden, he reaches out and wants to speak with someone.”
“About what?” I asked.
“About making a deal.”
“A deal?” I said, grinning and shaking my head again. “I tried to get him to deal too many times to recall. He never showed any interest whatsoever.”
“Yes, but was he ever the one who initiated the discussion, or was it always you?”
It was Wilson again. And he was right; Khalil had never initiated such a discussion. This was new, I had to admit.
“So how do I fit in to this?”
McKinnon hesitated for a second, and then said, “Well, he asked for you by name. He said you’re the only person he’ll talk to. That’s why you are here.”
I looked at McKinnon, then Wilson, then Abraham. “Me. Why me?”
Wilson: “He says you’re the only person he trusts. The only person he respects. You captured him. You treated him with respect and dignity. After the capture. During all the proffer sessions before you retired and he subsequently shut down. He says it’s you or nobody.”
“And what do we have over him when it leaks out that the AUMF is going to expire? He’ll never cooperate if he thinks he’s got a chance to get released.”
“He’s never going to be released David. If it comes to it, he’s going to be indicted. 3,000 counts of conspiracy and accessory to the murder of those people on those planes, in the Trade Center and the Pentagon, and 17 more counts for those 17 sailors on the Cole. And unlike the other cases, we can prove it up on him without having to use his statements. We have a massive paper trail with the money alone. The one mistake he made was his failure to cover his tracks moving all that money around. He’s looking at the death penalty. Unless you can get him to cooperate. We need him to testify in the Cole and 9–11 cases. It’s the only way we can get a conviction.”
I sat back and took it all in. I had to admit that my inability to get Khalil to cooperate was the one thing in my career that had always bothered me after it was over. I felt like I had failed. And I felt like there was unfinished business. But in the intervening years, I had tried to put it away and move on into my second career. I had all but forgotten about Khalil al Qosi. Until Wilson sat down next to me at the Old Ebbitt Grill.
“If I agree to do this, I’m doing it my way.”
They all sat up in their chairs. “I travel when and how I want. I go down there and come back when I want. I stay where I want. You guys turn my TS clearance back on now with unlimited access. I don’t want to put up with any bullshit from anyone down on the island, not JTF-GITMO, not the stakeholders, not DOJ, not anybody. I have total access to every camp, including Camp 7. I walk in and out whenever I want. Anyone gets in my way or tries to stymie me at any point, I walk away. If you can somehow manage all of that, I’ll go down and meet with him.”
“Those are my terms. They’re not negotiable. Take it or leave it.”
Wilson, McKinnon, and Abraham sat back in their chairs again and absorbed what I had just laid out. It was not a short list of demands; whether they worked directly for the President or not, they were going to have to jump through a lot of hoops to accommodate what I had just requested.
McKinnon finally nodded. “We’ll take care of it. How soon can you get down there?”
“When you have all that in place, call me, and I’ll be on the next plane you can fly out of here,” I guaranteed. “Until then, I have some things I better take care of, so if you’ll excuse me.”
We all stood. “I’ll show you out,” Wilson said.
We walked back through the same hallway we had come down about an hour before. We went through the entry foyer and stepped out again onto the marble entry-way. Wilson pulled the door shut behind him.
“You drive a hard bargain,” Wilson noted, grinning.
“I’ve been through too much BS with this over the past 17 years. Too many obstacles. Too many people trying to get in my way. I’m not playing those games anymore Wilson.”
“Well, just so you go into this with your eyes wide open,” he said as he glanced around. When he continued, he spoke in a more hushed tone. “There are certain people and certain organizations who have no desire for these cases to ever see the inside of a courtroom. And those people and those organizations are located all over the planet. So just be watchful at all times. No matter what we do to cover your movements, people are going to know who you are and where you go. You have to operate in plain sight.”
“So what now?” I asked him.
“Just go back to what you were doing. Do whatever you need to do to prepare. I’ll contact you when we have all of your requirements set up and in place.”
He extended his hand. “Thank you David. We’ll be in touch. Soon.” We shook hands firmly, and then Richard Wilson turned and walked back into the building. The door locked behind him.
I turned, took in the view, and walked slowly down the marble steps, turned back east up Pennsylvania, and made my way toward my vehicle.
What had I just gotten myself into?
To be continued.
Copyright©, 2018. All rights reserved.
Glen Hines is the author of two books, Document and Cloudbreak, available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. He is presently at work on his third book, to be published later this year. His writing has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.