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America's night guards

Security without sleep A night in the lives of the US's national security leadership is often as much work as their daytime hours. It's also the time they wonder if they are up to the task of defending their country.

world Updated: Jul 10, 2010 23:13 IST

Washington DC Night

Headlights approach on an empty road. A government agent steps out of an armoured 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, the most secret book on Earth.

The PDB hand-off happens in the dead of every night, the time and location is classified. The book distills the US's greatest threats, intelligence trends and concerns, and is written by a CIA team.

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

As dawn draws near, intelligence briefers distribute over 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 General James Jones, Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter among others.

With two wars, multiple crises abroad and growing terrorism activity at home, these officials do not sleep in peace. For them, the night is a public vigil. They read the highest classification of intelligence. They pursue the details of plots that realise the nation's vague, yet primal, fears. It's all here, inside the brown leather binder. Black typeface on white paper, marked by red tabs and yellow highlighter. Compiling them is an all-night process, and it begins every day at sundown.

Andrews Air Force Base 0840 HRS

The day fades from gray to black, it's raining and the motorcades are late.

"Are they coming soon?" the aircraft commander radios. The C-40 was supposed to take off for Islamabad 10 minutes ago.

Panetta boards first, drenched.

"Where do you want me?" he asks, looking around the cramped cabin. He flies to West Asia so often "my body is probably somewhere over Ireland."

Tonight the CIA director will bunk with Jones at the back of the plane, sharing a chair, small couch and Tylenol-stocked lavatory. The men will travel 16 hours and then drive into meetings about Pakistani terrorist networks. "We can't afford to sleep. It's like the nighthawk that has to keep circling."

The CIA is engaged in the most aggressive actions in its history. Panetta is required to sign off on operations two or three nights a week. "When I was his chief of staff, Bill Clinton used to call in the middle of the night to talk. But in this job, when I get a call, it's a decision about life and death."

Jones strides onto the plane. He holds up his phone. "I'm trying to get in touch with my Russian counterpart."

Jones sets his watch to Pakistani time. "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 CIA aide prepares 200 pages of background material mapping Pakistan's terrorist landscape. The plane lifts off, lurching through black clouds.

Kansas city

"Good night!" Robert Gates says on his way to his Intercontinental Hotel suite, stopping by Room 718 where air force sergeants are testing secure lines.

For the one-night hotel stay in Kansas, the advance team cleared the room of furniture, filled it with 15 cases of communications equipment. The bed is replaced with a tent for reading secret cables, shielded against spy cameras.

Gates must be reachable at all hours. If North Korea tests a nuclear weapon or Iran tests a missile, he needs to know now.

Next to his bedroom at home, he has a sound-proof, vault-lock space that he calls the Batcave.

Even this confident cabinet minister slips, at night, into the shadows of doubt. In Washington, he'll change into jeans and take a walk after 11 pm. He'll count the number of surveillance cameras watching him, 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?"

"What keeps us awake at night? It's the idea of a terrorist with a weapon of mass destruction."

Napolitano Residence 2345 HRS

"This old fax keeps jamming," Napolitano (above) says, sticking her hand into the classified machine. Crumpled paper. "Oh, Lord."

She can't go to bed until she reviews a secret fax.

Recently, her department has intensified efforts against domestic extremism. Napolitano lives by herself. Her answering machine bleats messages from her chief of staff. Rand Beers, the counter-terrorism coordinator. The phone rings "Any suspects or targets?" she asks.

Nighttime calls about terrorism investigations are "not unusual in the weird, sick world I inhabit." At 2 am, she has been called about adjusting outbound rules at airports to catch a fleeing suspect and about emergency communications with the Canadian police.

To fall asleep, Napolitano reads on the couch. "A lot of times I'm reading, and I'll wake up and the book is on my face."

White House situation room 1235 HRS

The night duty officer can't hear. A White House maid is vacuuming. 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 General Jones with his Russian counterpart."

"Yes, sir," replies an officer at the end of the line, cruising on Jones's C-40 toward Pakistan.

The national security adviser is 37,000 feet over the Atlantic, with Panetta. Before he can sleep, Jones needs to talk to Kremlin foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko, to help negotiate a tougher stance against Iran.

Jones is a 6-foot-4, heavily decorated former Marine.

Now Jones finds himself on many nights dialing Moscow. If the cold war seemed scary, "this world has me more concerned."

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 am. Threat SVTC."

Counterterrorism Center 1300 HRS

At the ops centre conference room, NCTC, Virginia, the threat SVTC organiser says, "One minute to kickoff."

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

"Good morning, everyone," the organiser 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 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."

"Bed is the worst place for me," Leiter says, nodding toward his blue comforter. "The mind keeps running." The NCTC produces a daily threat matrix, which averages 15 or more terrorist threats against US interests, outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. In a 12-hour shift analysts sift through 4,000 reports.

Undisclosed location Night

Headlights approach on the empty road. A government agent steps out of an SUV, carrying a locked, black satchelm the President's Daily Brief. An intelligence aide approaches him.
"Good morning."
"Good night."
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."

In the White House, outside the Oval Office, a briefer delivers the report. Senior Obama aides like Rahm Emanuel are there. Jones has just returned from Pakistan.

The president walks out. "All right," says Barack Obama, eating a handful of cherries. Nine men file into the Oval Office. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden sit in the middle.They all are holding the brown binders, the book of threats, written in the hours of darkness.

Morning light from the Rose Garden pours in. The president crosses his legs and looks at his men.

What happened in the night?

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