By Caspar Weinberger and Peter Schweizer

Atria. 360 pp. $25.95

Has Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan's secretary of defense for nearly seven years, violated the Eleventh Commandment in his fictional debut? The answer is clearly no, but a guarded no nonetheless.

For those who read no other sections of this newspaper, I should explain that the Eleventh Commandment is the time-honored admonition that no Republican shall speak ill of another Republican, no matter the circumstances. (All that outsiders need to know about our two-party system, perhaps, is that Democrats neither recognize nor observe any such restriction.) As the principal Pentagon architect of Reagan's Cold War policy and, subsequently, the publisher of Forbes magazine, Weinberger possesses unimpeachable conservative credentials. But the man known universally within the Beltway as "Cap" was never among the most hawkish members of Reagan's inner circle, and compared with some other Republicans who currently haunt the corridors of power -- like, say, the verbose fellow who sits in his old chair at the Pentagon -- he looks almost like Kofi Annan.

So it's bound to raise some eyebrows among Grand Old Party loyalists that Weinberger's first novel, Chain of Command, depicts a fictional United States president who uses a trumped-up terrorist threat to undermine the Constitution and institute a quasi-fascist military state. Is this a coded -- and disloyal -- reference to the Bush administration's response to Sept. 11, to what some on both the left and right have seen as the civil-liberties invasions of the Patriot Act?

Absolutely, positively not. Sort of. For one thing, President Morgan Boyd, the villainous chief executive involved, may not even be a Republican. Weinberger and his co-author, Peter Schweizer (who also co-wrote The Next War, Weinberger's study of the post-Cold War U.S. military), astutely duck the question of Boyd's political beliefs. There are no issues at all in Chain of Command except terrorism and the Constitution; if people in this book have opinions about abortion or gay marriage or creationism in the schools, they keep them to themselves. Boyd might be a conservative Democrat or a moderate Republican, but he bears no strong resemblance to anyone on the national political stage today.

Perhaps the most compelling creation in Weinberger and Schweizer's novel, Boyd is an intense little man, a Montana political science professor turned senator who becomes the running mate of Dean Fairbank, a charismatic movie-star type who lacks grand visions. As vice president, Boyd goes from intellectual to ideologue after his wife is killed in India, during an attempt on his life by Hindu fundamentalists. (Chain of Command is careful not to stigmatize Islamic militants as the world's only bad guys.) When President Fairbank is gunned down at Camp David, purportedly by a member of a homegrown neo-fascist group, Boyd seizes the reins of power. He waives the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 and orders troops to maintain order in American cities. He asks Congress to grant him broad emergency powers by passing a sweeping bill called the Freedom from Fear Act (a masterstroke of hypothetical Washington doublespeak). Then he tries to convince Lt. Gen. Bill Fairbank -- yes, that's the dead president's brother -- to become commander in chief of Domestic Operations Command, or CINCDOP, in the Pentagon's argot that Weinberger renders so convincingly.

"Look at our history," Boyd tells the general. "Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, ordered troops against American citizens, imprisoned dissenters, did a host of other things that seem unpalatable when taken out of the context of the threat he faced. But he saved the Union. . . . And I don't think any reasonable person today would argue that the United States was in danger of turning into some kind of fascist dictatorship as a result of Lincoln's actions."

It would be stretching the point grotesquely to argue that Weinberger intends some specific criticism of the current administration. He is, I think, firing a warning shot across the bows of politicians of all stripes who twist the legitimate threat of terrorism out of context, wrap it in bogus historical parallels and inflated rhetoric, and bend it to their own ideological purpose.

If only the rest of Chain of Command were as pointed. The nefarious Boyd is opposed by a renegade Secret Service agent named Michael Delaney, an ex-military, ex-alcoholic, ex-jock Irish-American type, and Delaney's ex-lover, a gym-toned antiterror babe named Col. Mary Campos. Delaney is framed for the Fairbank assassination while Campos is appointed the cover girl for Boyd's crackdown, but separately and jointly they begin to unravel the conspiracy behind the coup. All this is capably plotted and chopped up into ticking-clock segments that simulate urgency: "Talladega National Forest, Northern Alabama 11:40 AM"; "FBI Gulfstream IV, 33,000 Feet above Fort Wayne, Indiana 4:15 PM." Most of it reads as if it might have been assembled by a software program.

All the trappings of the military-thriller genre are here: a lone hero (Delaney) who has become the target of his own agency; a fetish for high-speed vehicles and high-powered firearms; peculiar and/or nondescript locations (half the book seems to take place in Beltsville, Md. and Reston, Va.); cameo appearances by shadowy guys (an ex-Colombian military torturer, a dyed-blond neo-Nazi, a Chechen arms dealer). Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler have nothing to fear here, but politicians of any party may face a sleepless night after reading Chain of Command. *

Andrew O'Hehir is a senior writer for