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A Novelist Wonders If His Plot Could Come True ... Assassination at the Inauguration?

John Dean in these pages and Messrs. Ornstein and Fortier before him have pointed out the enormous risk to our Republic from an Inauguration Day mass assassination. They indicate that if an assassin managed to kill the president, the vice-president, the House Speaker, president pro-tempore of the Senate and all existing cabinet members at the Inauguration, there would then be no legal successor to the presidency. Their conclusion came as no surprise to the fictional villain of my 2002 novel, After Kamisiyah. Dean, et al. suggest that the mass assassination could be accomplished by detonating a suitcase nuclear bomb several blocks away from the actual site of the Inauguration. Do suitcase nuclear bombs exist? Is that kind of a disaster possible?

Retired Soviet General Alexander Lebed told a congressional delegation led by Rep. Curt Weldon that the Russian military couldn’t account for 48 of 132 suitcase bombs the Soviets made during the “Cold War” years. Lebed increased the inventory to 250 and the number missing to 100 when interviewed by CBS’s "60 Minutes." Russian Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin immediately termed Lebed’s charges an “absolute absurdity” and other highly placed Russian officials agreed with Chernomyrdin, with some stating that the Soviets had never built any nuclear suitcase bombs. Following those denials by Russian officialdom, Boris Yeltsin advisor Alexy Yablokov said the suitcase version of nuclear bombs were built in the 1970’s for the KGB and not for the Ministry of Defense, and were therefore not considered in the negotiations for nuclear weaponry reduction. Despite the official Russian reaction from the Russian Ministry of Defense that there were no missing suitcase nuclear bombs, if indeed they ever made any of them, Lebed and Yablokov continued to stand by their statements. Former deputy security council member Vladimir Denisov said he served on a commission to investigate the possibility that some of those weapons had fallen into the hands of Chechen separatists. Denisov concluded the small nuclear bombs had been withdrawn to central storage, but that it was "impossible to say the same about former Soviet military units which remained on the territory of the other states in the CIS.” It should be noted that former Secretary of Defense William Cohen has acknowledged that no independent checking has been done of the old Soviet nuclear arsenal and that the U.S. relies on the statements of the Russian government concerning those matters. How comfortable does that make you feel?

While there is no clear and convincing proof that there are suitcase nuclear bombs or that, if there are, some are missing. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s number two man, stated in an interview televised in Australia, "if you have $30 million, go to the black market in Central Asia, contact any disgruntled Soviet scientist and a lot of …. briefcase bombs are available.”

If they do indeed exist, what is a suitcase nuclear bomb? It is exactly what its name implies, a portable nuclear weapon that will fit in a suitcase that’s 24 x 16 x 8 inches. If you conclude that Soviet suitcase nuclear bombs don’t exist or that they are all accounted for, don’t rest easy, the disaster could still occur. In my novel, the antagonist, disguised as a GSA employee, plants a conventional bomb in the TelePrompTer that is directly in front of the president, so other ways can be found. Become a novelist for a moment and let your imagination loose. I’m sure you’ll think of other possible scenarios. For example, in my sequel novel, The Accidental President, published last year, the assassination of the new president is attempted by loading a toy model airplane with explosives, equipping it with a miniature TV camera and flying it to the Rose Garden. The terrorist watching the flight can remotely detonate it at precisely the right moment. Ask the model airplanes hobbyist. You’ll find that is also possible.

It took Mr. Dean and Messrs. Fortier and Ornstein considerably fewer pages to point out the risks associated with the Inauguration Day Ceremony than in my novels, so why bother reading a novel? After all, there is so much to learn and so little time.

Of course, there’s something to be said for the pure entertainment value of fictional works. The cliché about all work and no play tells that story, but fiction has a different impact. For example, there’s a place for a news report describing the disaster at Mogadishu, a place for opinion pieces on the same subject from differing points of view and the movie, Blackhawk Down that embellished and told the story from the point of view of some of the troops affected by that disaster. Part of the difficulty comes from the obliteration of the lines between fact, opinion and fiction. Fiction writers add a touch of reality to the premise of their story to inform the reader and make the story more relevant. However, the novelist who forsakes the primary task of entertaining the reader to inform does neither. He or she just writes a boring novel.

My January, 2002, novel, After Kamisiyah, deals with the aftermath of an Inauguration Day mass assassination in which the only legal successor to the presidency is a relatively obscure cabinet officer, the secretary of education, who avoids death by unexpectedly failing to attend the Inauguration. He is then suspected of somehow being complicit in the assassination. The novel makes the disaster and the resulting problems real for the reader. The reader lives through the situation and it will be understood in a different way than the scholarly pieces.

While I’m at it, I would like to point out that the novelist has license to embellish to add dramatic content and to incorporate fact into the story. I did that in writing After Kamisiyah, by using the factual destruction of the ammunition depot at Kamisiyah as a plot device. Dan Brown did it in The Da Vinci Code. Nobody expects everything the novelist says to be totally true. The question as to what is and isn’t true adds to the intrigue. Of late, I’m sorry to say, the entertainment and the agenda factor has begun to negatively impact the reporter’s role. We have had a disgrace in the New York Times newsroom and in CBS’s reportage of the Bush National Guard service by anchorman Dan Rather. The lines between opinion, fact and fiction seem to be blurring. Was the book by the Swift Boat veterans on John Kerry fact or fiction? Truth in advertising doesn’t seem to apply to elections. If they were selling stock instead of a candidate, someone would go to jail.

All that research and speculation in fiction and non-fiction writings brings a problem to our collective attention, and perhaps to different segments of our population, but that’s probably what’s necessary to force Congress to consider the problem and act to correct it, but fact should remain fact, and only the novelist should be able to blur the distinction.