Courtesy of Harmony Books
The motorcade pulled up to the side of the gleaming new FBI building on Chicago's west side at midmorning on the first Tuesday in September, just as the 2008 presidential campaign was shifting into its final, most brutal phase. There was a brief pause as Secret Service agents made one last check of the surroundings and radioed back to their headquarters that the man they had codenamed "Renegade" had arrived. Barack Obama emerged silently, a few foreign policy advisers in tow, and quickly took a waiting elevator to the tenth floor. The candidate strode past the long corridor lined with identically framed portraits of the special agents-in-charge who have run the FBI's operations there since the era when bank robbers such as John Dillinger were still considered Public Enemy Number 1. Obama and his team were headed for the FBI's secure conference room — a "bubble" that deflects any electronic intercepts — for one of the quietest rituals of the quadrennial presidential campaign season: a ninety-minute, classified briefing about the world that the winner of the 2008 presidential election would confront.
Waiting for him in the windowless room was a man who, unlike Obama, had been able to walk into the FBI building almost completely unnoticed. At sixty-five, J. Michael McConnell, the director of national intelligence, was pale, a bit stooped because of a bad back, and wearing wire-rim glasses that made him look like a well-heeled consultant — the job he had held until President Bush convinced him to return to government at the lowest point of Bush's presidency, as Iraq was dissolving into chaos in the fall of 2006.
The two men who shook hands in the bubble could not have come from more different worlds. When Obama was a six-year-old living in Jakarta, McConnell was patrolling the Mekong Delta on a small Navy boat, seeking out the Vietcong. In 1991, the same year Obama graduated from Harvard Law School, McConnell was already a veteran of the Cold War, directing the National Security Agency, the biggest and most technologically complex of the intelligence agencies. By the time Obama was heading into government service in the Illinois state legislature, McConnell had already retired from the covert world and had started a second career earning millions from corporations desperate to protect their computer systems.
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The spy chief commissioned a stack of digestible reports for Obama and his rival, Senator John McCain, as a sort of field guide to American vulnerabilities at the end of the Bush era. "We came up with thirteen topics," McConnell said. "If you made a list, you'd probably get eleven or twelve of the thirteen."
Among the reports was a grim assessment that al Qaeda — the terror group whose middle ranks Bush used to claim were being decimated — had not only reconstituted but had more allies and associates than ever along the forbidding border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. There was a description of how the Taliban were making huge inroads into Afghanistan and how other militants saw an opportunity over the next two years to attempt the first violent overthrow of a nuclear-armed state: Pakistan. The country was ripe for the picking: Its weak, corrupt government faced national bankruptcy, an insurgency raged on the doorstep of the capital, and the Pakistani government had no comprehensive strategy to confront either threat. Nor did it seem to want one. McConnell himself had come to the conclusion months before that Pakistan's aid to the Taliban was no act of rogue intelligence agents but instead was government policy. Nonetheless, Washington kept paying billions in "reimbursements" for counterterrorism operations to the Pakistani military.
From the book The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power by David Sanger. Copyright 2009 by David Sanger. Published by arrangement with Harmony Books, a division of Randomhouse, Inc.