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President Obama's nighthawks: Top officials charged with guarding the nation's safety

By Laura Blumenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 4, 2010; A01

Headlights approach on an empty road. A government agent steps out of an armored SUV, carrying a locked, black satchel.

"Here's the bag," the agent says, to the intelligence official. "Here's the key."

The key turns, and out slides a brown leather binder, gold-stamped TOP SECRET. The President's Daily Brief, perhaps the most secret book on Earth.

The PDB handoff happens in the dead of every night. The book distills the nation's greatest threats, intelligence trends and concerns, and is written by a team at CIA headquarters.

"This is the one for the president," the intelligence official says, moving inside a secure building, opening the binder.

As dawn draws near, intelligence briefers distribute more than a dozen locked copies to Washington's nocturnals, a group of top officials charged by the president with guarding the nation's safety: CIA Director Leon Panetta, national security adviser James L. Jones, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, among others.

With two wars, multiple crises abroad and the threat of growing terrorist activity at home, these national security officials do not sleep in peace. For them, the night is a public vigil. It is also a time of private reckoning with their own tensions and doubts. They read the highest classification of intelligence. They pursue the details of plots that realize the nation's vague, yet primal, fears.

It is all here, inside the brown leather binder. Black typeface on white paper, marked by red tabs and yellow highlighter, an accumulation of the dangers hidden in the dark. Compiling them is an all-night process, and it begins every day at sundown.

8:40 p.m.

On board special air mission

Andrews Air Force Base

There is no sun. The day fades from gray to black. It's raining, and the motorcades are late.

"Are they coming soon?" the aircraft commander radios from the cockpit. Jet fumes seep into the government C-40, which was supposed to take off for Islamabad 10 minutes ago.

Leon Panetta boards first, drenched, wearing work boots. "Where do you want me?" he asks, looking around the cramped cabin. He flies to the Middle East so often, he says, "my body is probably somewhere over Ireland."

Tonight the CIA director will bunk with the national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, at the back of a C-40, sharing a chair, a small couch and a lavatory stocked with Tylenol. The men will fly 16 hours and then drive into midnight meetings about terrorist networks in Pakistan. "The pressure is on," Panetta says. "We can't afford to sleep. It's like the nighthawk that has to keep circling."

The CIA is engaged in some of the most aggressive actions in the agency's history. Panetta is required to sign off on operations two or three nights a week.

"When I was [White House] chief of staff, Bill Clinton used to call in the middle of the night" to talk, Panetta says. "But in this job, when I get a call, it's a decision about life and death."

"Dr. Panetta!" Jones calls out as he strides onto the plane. He holds up his phone. "I'm trying to get in touch with my Russian counterpart."

Panetta nods, sympathetic. "I have a call with Dianne Feinstein."

The crew urges them into their seats. Jones sets his watch to Pakistani time. Panetta keeps his synched with his home state, California. "What we do -- doesn't get done in regular time," Jones says. The White House situation room wakes him two to three nights a week. "We operate on a different clock."

A Panetta aide prepares 200 pages of background material, which maps the terrorist landscape in Pakistan. Jones calls his son, concerned about his pregnant daughter-in-law who's having complications: "I'm leaving. Let me know about Beth."

The plane lifts off, bumping and lurching through black clouds. The air ahead is rough. No one expects a good night.

10:52 p.m.

The Intercontinental Hotel, a hallway

Kansas City

"Good night!" says Robert Gates, on his way down the hall to his suite, stopping by Room 718, where Air Force sergeants are testing secure lines.

To prepare for a one-night hotel stay in Kansas City, Mo., advance team members paid a $125 fee to clear the furniture out of Room 718. Then they filled it with 15 cases of communications equipment. They put a satellite dish on the balcony. They replaced the bed with a tent for reading secret cables, to shield it in case of concealed spy cameras. When a maid knocked to ask whether she could straighten the pillows, one guy blinked: "Well, you could try."

The defense secretary must be reachable at all hours. He transmits orders from the White House to the Pentagon in an era when troops operate in every time zone. If North Korea tests a nuclear weapon or Iran tests a new missile, Gates needs to know now. "I don't feel like I'm ever really off," he said earlier. "I have security and communications people in the basement of my house. They come up and rap on the basement door."

Next to his bedroom at home, he confers in a soundproof, vault-lock space. He calls it "The Batcave."

Gates smiles. He radiates control: Individual white hairs lie combed into place; a crack in his lips is smoothed repeatedly with ChapStick. But even this confident Cabinet secretary -- the slightly feared Republican whose status others covet by day -- slips, at night, into the shadows of doubt.

At home, at a military compound in Washington, he'll change into jeans and a baseball cap and take a walk after 11 p.m. He'll count the number of surveillance cameras watching him and look out into the dark and reflect on the "persistent threat. You know, and you wonder, what more can you be doing? What have we missed?"

"The actual physical threat to Americans today from abroad, in reality, is worse than it was in the Cold War. All you have to do is look at these repeated attempts to set off bombs in populated places. I think if you asked any of us what keeps us awake at night, it's the idea of a terrorist with a weapon of mass destruction."

And once Gates is awake and walking beneath the hundred-year oaks, "the one thing that weighs on me most is knowing that our kids are out there getting wounded and getting killed, getting attacked." His voice falters. "And I sent them."

Wherever he is, whether the Batcave or Kansas City, he is followed by killed-in-action reports. They arrive by secure e-mail, slide into the room by a secure fax.

11:45 p.m.

Janet Napolitano's guestroom

"This old fax keeps jamming," Janet Napolitano says, sticking her hand into the secure fax. Crumpled paper. "Oh, Lord."

The secretary for homeland security can't go to bed until she reviews a secret fax. She asks an aide to have it re-sent. She puts up water for black tea.

"This time of night is the fourth act," says Napolitano, an opera fan. She rode home an hour ago in a motorcade accompanied by flashing lights and Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte." "There is the normal workday -- Act 1 -- with all the hearings on the Hill, banquets and news shows. But the real drama is behind the scenes, at very odd hours."

Recently Homeland Security has been trying to intensify efforts against home-grown extremism, pushing Napolitano's own home life to the extreme. Although Napolitano lives by herself, tonight her apartment all but sings with characters and action. A Secret Service agent hulks outside. The kitchen answering machine bleats messages from her chief of staff. Rand Beers, the counterterrorism coordinator, rings her bedside phone as she's stepping toward her gray slippers.

"No suspects or targets?" Napolitano asks Beers. "We'll talk to the undersecretary for intelligence about that."

She hangs up. Nighttime calls about terrorism investigations are "not unusual in the weird, sick world I inhabit." At 2 a.m., she has been called about adjusting outbound rules at airports to catch a fleeing suspect and about emergency communications with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. On a trip to Asia, a senior Napolitano staffer set her BlackBerry alarm to ring every hour, all night, so the staffer could check e-mail alerts.

To fall asleep, "to calm down my brain," Napolitano reads on the couch. "A lot of times I'm reading, and I'll wake up and the book is on my face." She lifts the 1,184-page "Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years." "I don't want to read this one before bed. If it falls on my face, I'll break my nose."

A shriek pierces the air -- the tea kettle boiling: "Let me get that, before the Secret Service comes in." The secure fax whirrs -- the secret memo: "Ah, bueno. Here it is. It's hot."

Napolitano reads the hot document. Drinks her hot tea.

12:01 a.m.

Eric Holder's kitchen

"Iced tea for me!" Eric Holder says. He jokingly cracks the door of his liquor cabinet. If Napolitano's nights are operatic, the attorney general's are notably calm.

At 11 p.m., Holder turned off the lights in his son's room where he's sleeping. He removed the iPod earbuds from his sleeping teenage daughter. His wife, a gynecologist who for years was jangled awake -- "I could do her calls by now, 'How far apart are your contractions? Okay, you're 5 centimeters' " -- is also in bed upstairs.

Holder now sits down at the kitchen table. He spreads legal papers across the round, granite surface and puts his legs up. At his Justice Department office, he plays Tupac and Jay-Z. Not here. He keeps it so quiet, he notices when the refrigerator motor clicks off.

All day, voices bombard Holder, advocating discordant legal remedies for terrorism. "So much of national security has been politicized," he says. "There's a lot of noise."

Only at night can he contemplate: "What's best for the case? What's best for the nation?" Here, he makes his most difficult, controversial decisions. At 1 a.m., eating Chips Ahoys, Holder determined that 9/11 detainees should stand trial in New York and that terrorist suspects should be tried in federal court. The conflicting demands filled him with tension: "That tension to be independent, yet part of the administration."

Of all the nighthawks, Holder occupies the loneliest perch. He is the president's friend, yet as the government's chief law enforcer, he has to stand aloof. White House aides roll their eyes behind his back; Hill critics roll their eyes to his face. His predecessors understand: "There's an AG's club. Former Republican AGs call and say, 'Hang in there!' "

Holder does, one midnight at a time. He turns off the lights around the house, even in the kitchen, except for the bulb above the round table. Sitting alone, in a cone of light, he listens. "I need a place and time to step away from the opinions and other voices, and almost -- "

The house is silent. " -- hear my own voice."

12:35 a.m.

White House Situation Room

The night duty officer can't hear his own voice. A White House maid is vacuuming. "Can you wrap it up?" He plugs a finger in his ear and presses his mouth to the classified, yellow phone: "This is the Situation Room. We are going to try to connect Gen. Jones with his Russian counterpart."

"Yes, sir," replies a communications officer at the end of the line, cruising with Jones on the C-40 toward Pakistan.

The national security adviser is 37,000 feet over the Atlantic, bunking with Leon Panetta. Jones has changed out of charcoal pinstripes into a Georgetown sweat shirt. He checked an e-mail update about his pregnant daughter-in-law. "No baby yet," his son said. There are complications, and Jones is concerned.

Before he can sleep, Jones also needs to talk to Kremlin foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko, to help negotiate a tougher stance on Iran's nuclear program. The Situation Room officer who handles secure calls for the West Wing is trying to locate Prikhodko, who's traveling in Kiev.

Jones stands by. He is a 6-foot-4, heavily decorated Marine and a light sleeper. He heard about his own son's birth in a monsoon on a hilltop near Cambodia, over the battalion radio at 1 a.m. As supreme allied commander in Europe, he learned that when darkness falls, opportunities rise.

Even as a boy, Jones was not afraid of the dark. He was afraid of Russia. His parents would talk soberly about the iron curtain. The image "terrified me as a child. Millions of people in prison, behind a so-called curtain."

Now a presidential envoy, Jones finds himself on many nights dialing Moscow, capital of his boyhood bogeymen. If the cold war of Jones's youth seemed scary, "this world has me more concerned. The threats we face are asymmetric and more complex." So he calls, at all hours, old adversaries to connect against the new threat.

It is 12:53 a.m., almost 8 a.m. in Kiev. The White House night officer reports, "Prikhodko's secretary said it might be an hour, or an hour and a half, to reach him." The officer mutters: "Our guys are up and working at 6 a.m."

On board the C-40, the CIA director takes a pillow and lies on the couch. Jones covers himself with a thin blanket and dozes in a chair.

At the White House, they dial the Russian's cellphone again. It rings 12 times. Another officer stands: "Got to go to the 1 a.m. Threat SVTC."

1 a.m.

National Counterterrorism Center Ops Center conference room

Virginia

The 1 a.m. Threat SVTC organizer says, "One minute to kickoff."

The secure video teleconference, convened by the National Counterterrorism Center, marks the apex of Washington's night watch. Feeds from 16 watch-floors blip onto a large screen. Dimly lit faces of men and women at the State Department, Coast Guard, NORTHCOM and others, cover a wall.

"Good morning, everyone," the organizer says, pressing a button on the microphone. "We're gonna brief three items." The FBI and NSA present terrorism reports.

Many nights an item prompts a call to wake the NCTC director, Michael Leiter, 41, the junior member of the nighthawks. He displays a copy of the Declaration of Independence next to a deck of baseball-style cards of high-value terrorist targets: "I keep the ones who are dead on top. It's a little macabre, but that's the world we live in." When the NCTC calls in the middle of the night, he is often half-awake.

"Bed is the worst place for me," Leiter says one evening, nodding toward his blue comforter, under the blades of his bedroom ceiling fan. "The mind keeps running."

The NCTC, created after 9/11 to integrate intelligence, produces a daily threat matrix, which averages 15 or more wide-ranging terrorist threats against American interests, outside Iraq and Afghanistan. In a 12-hour shift, analysts sift through 4,000 reports. "I can't shut that off; what else might be going on?"

Of all the jobs, counterterrorism intelligence seems the most likely to induce nightmares. Days before he resigned in May, Leiter's boss, director of national intelligence and retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair, talked about his dream he first had years before as head of the Pacific Command and was now having again: "I'm running the ship aground. I'm sitting out on the bridge and I see it coming -- but I can't keep it from happening. I see a crumpled bow of the ship and sailors dying."

Leiter, a Bush appointee, also has had anxiety dreams ever since Christmas, when his agency failed to detect a man who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound plane: "I'm getting called. Someone says there's been another attack. Oh, my God -- "

Then he wakes up. And he reaches for a pad in the dark and scribbles ideas. "I terrify my staff at 7:15 a.m. and say, I was having trouble sleeping last night and I thought of something."

Leiter's nighttime tension is haunting, yet oddly creative: "My brain keeps working while I'm sleeping." New ideas churn, the ceiling fan turns and the blades chop at black air.

3:42 a.m.

Mike Mullen's front yard

No sound, no movement, except rotor blades chopping black air, as a helicopter buzzes over Adm. Mike Mullen's brick Colonial. Minutes later, a light blinks on in his second-floor window. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is starting his day.

Mullen opens his front door at 4:03 a.m. in shorts and sneakers, his eyes still slitty, his voice a note deep. "Let's go," he says to his security detail.

Mullen drives to the Navy Yard gym, where he gulps a protein shake and bench-presses 255 pounds. Big Dave, his trainer, barks: "The baddest chairman ever!"

The admiral understands that to be baddest, he has to get ahead -- every day -- of the day. Fight the current war; anticipate the next one. Where will the next terrorist attack originate? "Yemen is a great worry. Somalia is a failed state. But we have to try to pay attention to the rest of the world, too. We don't anticipate well where stuff comes from in these wars. Our ability to predict is pretty lousy."

As senior military adviser to the president, Mullen steeps his predawn routine in anticipation. He drives to the gym through a night fog, scans headlines, reads e-mails from commanders, clips four stars to his collar and packs his seven briefcases of paperwork, all before 6:30 a.m.

Yet for all his talk about anticipating the future, Mullen is the nighthawk who is drawn deeply to the past. A Bible sits on his kitchen microwave. He buttons his dress service khakis, while reading the ancient wisdom of the Proverbs.

The enemy America's fighting, he says, "killed 3,000. But they would like to kill 30,000, or 300,000. They're still out there, trying. It's not their religion. It's not Islam. It's an evil that doesn't believe in anything we believe in. They don't value civilization. They have no limits in what they'll do to kill us. "

A Jerusalem, olive-wood cross swings from his rear-view mirror. His headlights shine on the empty road.

Dead of Night

Undisclosed location

Headlights approach on the empty road. A government agent steps out of an SUV, carrying a locked, black satchel. An intelligence aide approaches him.

"Good morning."

"Good night."

The two silhouettes merge for a moment. "In this city, people have no idea what's going on," the intelligence aide says, nodding toward buildings with darkened windows.

The agent drives away, after handing off the brown leather binder, gold-stamped "TOP SECRET." The President's Daily Brief.

Briefers fan out across the city, distributing locked copies, modified for each department.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's briefer rolls her satchel in on wheels. FBI Director Robert Mueller gets briefed, he says, "365 days a year, even on Christmas, even on vacation." Napolitano scours her book over one of her four morning cups of coffee. Holder unzips his while riding in the motorcade to his office: "If you read it, you're left with the reality of how many organizations are trying to harm our people. . . . I'm not in a good mood when I get to work. You don't get used to it. You just don't." He taps his window: "It's armored."

At the White House, outside the Oval Office, a briefer arrives to deliver the president's report. Rahm Emanuel is there, as is counterterrorism adviser John Brennan. National security adviser James Jones joins them. Since Jones returned from Pakistan, Russia agreed to toughen Iran sanctions. Jones's daughter-in-law gave birth to a boy.

"The baby was 10 weeks premature," the general says quietly. His grandson is being kept at the hospital under round-the-clock watch.

The president walks out. "All right," says Obama, eating a handful of cherries between meetings. "Come on, guys. Let's go."

Nine men file into the Oval Office, under the wings of an American eagle carved into the ceiling. Obama and Vice President Biden sit in the middle. Jones sits on a side couch. They all are holding the gold-lettered brown binders, the book of threats, written in the hours of darkness.

Morning light from the Rose Garden pours in from the east and the south. A mahogany grandfather clock ticks loudly. Jones takes a deep breath, runs his finger to the edge of the binder.

The room is bright. The president crosses his legs and looks at his men. What happened in the night?

Researchers Alice Crites and Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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