Face in the Crowd
A man melted into the throng of tourists gathered along the E Street walkway. He was neither tall nor short, muscle-bound nor skinny. Just an average guy, not too handsome.
A Washington Nationals baseball cap was pulled low over his eyes to thwart the security cameras. He’d shoved rolls of dental cotton above his molars to alter his facial structure and thwart the biometrics software that the Secret Service ran on every face in the crowd. He wore fitted clothing that showed the contours of his body, no out-of-season overcoat that might conceal gear or weaponry and draw unwanted focus.
He had flown to D.C. from the West Coast—as he had the time before and the time before that—under a passport in another name. He’d rented a car using a different identity and checked in to a hotel using a third.
He slurped the Big Gulp he’d picked up at 7-Eleven, another prop to augment the T-shirt from the National Air and Space Museum and the Clarks walking shoes he’d bought last week and tumbled in the dryer with dirty rags so they’d look broken in. The soda tasted like what it was, sugar soaked in corn syrup, and he wondered why people willingly put this type of fuel through their system.
He knew which visual triggers to avoid; he wasn’t sweating and was careful to make no nervous movements—no protective hunching of the shoulders or jittering from foot to foot. He didn’t carry a bag or a backpack and he kept his hands out of his pockets.
Evan Smoak knew the Secret Service protocols well.
He’d spent the past half year assembling intel piece by piece and tiling it into a larger mosaic. He was nearing the final stages of general reconnaissance. It was time to get down to mission planning.
He set his hands on the bars of the eight-foot-high gates. The trees of the South Lawn formed a funnel leading to the White House, which would have been a fine metaphor for Evan’s own narrowed focus if he were the type to bother with metaphors.
Setting his Big Gulp on the pavement, he raised the camera dangling around his neck and pretended to fuss with it. In order to slip it between the bars of the fence, he had to remove the hood from the 18-200mm Nikkor lens. When he put his eye to the viewfinder, a zoomed-in image of the White House’s south side loomed unobstructed.
Lost in a mob of tourists taking pictures, he let the lens pick across the grounds. The obstacles were impressive.
Strategically positioned steel bollards dotted the perimeter.
Subterranean beams waited to thrust up from the earth at the slightest provocation.
Ten feet back from the fence line, ground sensors and high-res surveillance cameras lay in wait, ready to capture any flicker of movement or tremble of the earth on the wrong side of the bars.
Uniformed Division officers stood at high-visibility posts at intervals across the terrain, backed by an emergency-response team equipped with FN P90 submachine guns. In keeping with Secret Service stereotypes, the agents wore Wiley X sunglasses, but the shades had a strategic advantage as well: A would-be assailant could never be sure precisely where they were looking. The high-visibility posts kept people in the crowd from seeing all the security measures they were supposed to miss.
At the southwest gate, a pair of Belgian Malinois commanded a concrete apron that was thermoelectrically cooled so it wouldn’t burn their paws in the summer heat. They sniffed all incoming vehicles for explosives. They were also cross-trained to attack in the event a fence jumper made it over the spikes. If there were worse places to wind up than in the jaws of a seventy-five-pound Malinois, Evan wasn’t sure where they were. The dogs were bona fide assaulters, way above their weight class; SEAL Team Six had gone so far as to parachute into the Abbottabad compound with a specimen of the breed.
Next Evan swiveled the camera to the White House itself. The semicircular portico of the south side, like the rest of the building’s exterior, was outfitted with infrared detectors and audio sensors, all of them monitored 24/7 by on-site nerve centers as well as by the Joint Operations Center in the Secret Service headquarters a mile to the east.
Agents at the JOC additionally monitored radar screens that showed every plane entering the surrounding airspace. They maintained an around-the-clock interface with the Federal Aviation Administration and the control tower at Reagan National Airport. If a drone or a superhuman pilot managed to steer through the gauntlet of early warning mechanisms, an air defense system loaded with FIM-92 Stinger missiles was hard-mounted to the White House itself, standing by for dynamic air interception.
Evan tilted the zoom lens up to the roof above the Truman Balcony. A designated marksman with a Stoner SR-16 rifle held a permanent position providing overwatch for the south lawn, where enormous red coasters marked the landing zone for Marine One, the presidential helicopter. Countersnipers patrolled the roof toting .300 Win Mags, good to fifteen hundred meters out, which created a protective dome stretching a mile in every direction.
It wouldn’t merely be tough to reach the White House. It would be impossible.
Not that it got easier if some lucky soul managed to get to the building’s threshold.
Between metal detectors, guard stations, and magnetometer wands, nothing entered the White House that hadn’t been painstakingly screened. Not a single one of the million pieces of annual incoming mail. Not even the air itself. Electronic noses at all entrances detected the faintest signature of airborne pathogens, dangerous gases, or any other ill wind blowing no good. The Technical Security Division ran daily sweeps on every room, checking for weaponized viruses, bacteria, radioactivity, explosive residue, and contaminants of a more exotic stripe.
Even if by a miracle someone was able to actually penetrate the most secure building on earth, the White House was equipped with further contingencies yet. The interior hid not just countless panic buttons, alarms, and safe rooms but also multiple emergency escape routes, including a ten-foot-wide tunnel that burrowed beneath East Executive Avenue NW into the basement of the Treasury Department across the street.
Lowering the camera, Evan drew back from the reinforced steel bars and let out an undetectable sigh.
Killing the president was going to be a lot of work.