Brickell Plaza Federal Building, Miami, Florida 0225 EST, 21 January
Benjamin Wyporek, Lieutenant Junior Grade, United States Coast Guard, hated the Federal Building. A lot. Nothing “good” happened when you visited the Federal Building—the best you could hope for was to break even. That was true for visits during a typical working day. And when they summon you and your commanding officer here to explain yourselves at two o’clock in the morning with your crew locked-down incommunicado awaiting the results? Well, my friend, you can be sure you’re facing one hell of a climb to get to “break even.”
The fun started the moment they arrived. The guards at the entrance took advantage of the absence of a lengthy queue of irate federal employees at this hour to give Ben and his CO, Lieutenant Samuel Powell, a thorough examination. Then, the two men passed through a similar screening by two cold-as-ice defense counterintelligence special agents outside the secure conference space on the eighth floor. After checking their IDs, scanning their fingerprints, and confiscating their cell phones and anything else electronic in their possession, the agents ushered the two officers into an anteroom. Before leaving and locking the door, the lead special agent said a curt, “Wait here until they call you.”
Ben was desperately worried. Nothing in his training or experience prepared him for the events he faced over the last week. Hell, before a week ago, he couldn’t even conceive of them. Sam’s expression did not help. Also deep in thought, he was apprehensive, and rightfully so: Sam bore the entire responsibility for everything within his command. After a brief time, Sam glanced over, and, seeing Ben’s worried look, his face softened into a sad smile. He put his hand on Ben’s shoulder and gave it a soft shake. “Take it easy, Ben. We’ll come through this OK.”
In the heat of action, Ben and Sam’s decisions and actions seemed right, but many violated Coast Guard regulations, perhaps even the law. In the cold light of day, the achievements of bringing their crew through the ordeal alive and succeeding in their mission may not be enough. It was time to pay the piper. That potential payment ranged from a “slap on the wrist” in his next fitness report to dismissal from the service and imprisonment. Ben was anxious about what they faced, both for himself and his best friend, Sam.
A muffled conversation outside the entry door made him turn. The door opened, and Dr. Peter Simmons, an erstwhile shipmate of the two men and defense intelligence special agent, entered, unusually dressed in a suit and tie, with his left arm in a sling. When the door closed, Ben stepped forward with his right hand outstretched. “Hi, Doc. Guess I’m glad to see you here. How’s the arm?”
“Still hurts like hell. How’s your head?” Simmons replied, eyeing the small bandage on the side of Ben’s head while he shook the young officer’s hand.
“Been better, but OK now.”
Sam watched the exchange with open hostility. In his view, Simmons was a reckless fool who nearly got his best friend killed and forced Sam to risk his crew and ship to save him. Sam and Ben’s professional life might come to an ignominious end in the next few minutes, thanks to the agent’s appalling judgment. Under the circumstances, Simmons’s smug expression infuriated him, and Sam’s folded arms and icy glare squashed any notion the agent had about a cordial handshake.
Simmons turned to continue his chatter with Ben when the inside door opened, and Captain Jane Mercier entered. The two junior officers snapped to attention, and Mercier quickly said, “Carry on.” Mercier was the chief of response for the 7th Coast Guard District. She was responsible for the better-known Coast Guard missions of search and rescue and law enforcement in the region covering most of Florida, the Bahamas, and Puerto Rico. For now, she was also Sam’s boss, and his and Ben’s fates rested in her hands. “Mr. Powell, Mr. Wyporek, Dr. Simmons. We are ready for you now. Please come with me.”
The men filed past Mercier into the conference room, and she closed the door behind them. Three men and two women, by appearance and dress, senior government people, already sat on the far side of a large table across the room, and Mercier sat down with them. A third, much younger woman sat at the end. An elderly man in the center spoke, “Please be seated, gentlemen.” He motioned to three empty chairs in the center of the room, about five feet away from and facing the table.
The sight severely rattled Ben. The setup of the three chairs in a brightly lit area of what was otherwise a moderately darkened room screamed “inquisition” to him. Shit, they will rip us to shreds, Ben thought as he approached the chair on the far left. He was grateful he wasn’t going through this alone.
After the three men sat down, the elderly man nodded to the young woman seated at the end of the table, and she activated what Ben assumed was a recording device in front of her. The man continued. “For the record, this interview is conducted under Executive Order 10273, and all material discussed here is classified top secret, under codeword JUBILEE. Gentlemen, I need you to state your name and position and that you understand the security level of this discussion.”
“And gents, that means if you talk about anything said in here, you go away forever,” Simmons intoned. “Oh, yes, Dr. Peter Simmons, SA2, DIA-5B.” He turned to Sam and nodded.
“Samuel Powell, Lieutenant, United States Coast Guard, Commanding Officer, Coast Guard Cutter Kauai. I understand the classification and penalties for disclosure.”
Ben’s mind raced as he stared at the people sitting at the table, mentally noting that none of them were providing their names for the record. After a few seconds, Sam nudged him with his elbow. “Um, Benjamin Wyporek, Lieutenant Junior Grade, United States Coast Guard, Executive Officer, Coast Guard Cutter Kauai. I acknowledge the classification of this discussion and the penalty for disclosure.”
Frowning at Simmons, the elderly man resumed. “Thank you, gentlemen. We are inquiring into the events occurring in the Gulf of Mexico, Florida Straits, and the Florida Keys from the 13th through the 19th of this month. Let the record show the U.S. Coast Guard is represented in these proceedings with an observer.” Turning to Mercier, he added, “Please state your name, rank, present station, and acknowledgment of classification, madam.”
“Jane C. Mercier, Captain, United States Coast Guard, Chief, Office of Response, 7th Coast Guard District. I acknowledge the classification of this discussion.”
“Thank you, Captain.” Turning to the three interviewees, the elderly man said, “Now gentlemen, this is a fact-finding session, not an interrogation. We need the full picture of this operation as quickly as possible. Dr. Simmons’s flippant remarks aside, we depend on your honesty and forthrightness here, and discretion afterward. Now we’ve dispensed with the formalities, gentlemen, what the hell happened out there? Please start at the beginning of your involvement, Lieutenant Powell.”