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Plot Against Philadelphia

By Order of the President
By W.E.B. Griffin
544 pp. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. $26.95

Reviewed by Andrew Santella
New York Times Book Review
January, 2, 2005

W.E.B. Griffin has written a small library of unabashedly red-blooded novels about American fighting men--33 books in all, including one with a title for the ages, "Retreat, Hell!"--that have found a large and devoted following. So it’s easy to see why he comes decorated with blurbs calling him things like "the poet laureate of the American military." I assume this is just review-speak and not an actual position in the Pentagon hierarchy.

With his latest, Griffin--the pen name of William E.. Butterworth--turns his attention from the battles of the twentieth century to those of the very near future. Set in the late spring of 2005, "By Order of the President" is about the effort to unravel and defeat a terrorist plot to crash a stolen 727 into the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. It’s not the most promising story line, and even Griffin seems to know it. The bell gets no respect as a plausible target here; characters keep asking questions like, "The Liberty Bell? Why would they want to do that?"

But the premise at least creates the need for a hero, and tracking the bad guys in this case is the latest in a line of Griffin super-soldiers. Major Carlos Guillermo Castillo is known as Charley to his friends, a group that includes a number of generals, the secretary of homeland security and, by page 54, the president. Charley is the kind of soldier who wins highly placed admirers without really trying. He comes complete with portentous ancestry: "Hungarian cavalry men, including several generals" on his mother’s side and defenders of the Alamo on his father’s. Charley is a linguist, but as if to make up for that lapse into the merely cerebral, he’s also a decorated war hero, a Green Beret, and it should go without saying, a lady’s man. And he has access to a family fortune, which comes in handy when Charley is able to borrow the family Lear jet to help run down the terrorists.

Frustrated by the inability of the intelligence agencies to get to the bottom of the terror threat, Griffin’s president turns to Charley to run a freelance investigation behind the backs of the spymasters and even his military superiors. [53] Thus, Charley is that rare Army major who can get through to the White House just by picking up his cell phone. He develops his own overseas intelligence sources, reports back regularly to the White House, flies to Philadelphia to brief local officials, then boards his private plane one last time to take part in the climactic battle with the terrorists. That sounds like a lot for one man to bite off, but keep in mind that he is a Green Beret and that Griffin’s faith in the military seems bottomless. One soldier doing the work of an entire intelligence community? Think of the potential cost savings!

For all its over-the-top and unlikely elements, Griffin’s story does touch on recent realities in ironic fashion. Check out the president discoursing on intelligence failures: "Intelligence…is too often colored or maybe diluted or poisoned, I have learned, by three factors…One of them is interagency rivalry…Another is to send up intelligence that they believe is what their superiors want to hear, or the reverse, not sending up the intelligence that they think their superiors don’t want to hear. And yet another is an unwillingness to admit failure."

Part of Griffin’s appeal is the dogged care he takes to get details right. He is the kind of writer who bothers to learn the lifting capacity of the external cargo hook on a MH-53J "Pave Low" helicopter, and is determined to pass the information along, even if it requires a footnote. And even the most jargon-laden exchanges between officers--the kind of gritty talk best delivered with a well-chewed stub of cigar between the teeth--convey camaraderie and nuance.

Most of all, for a group of people operating under the imminent threat of terrorist attack, Griffin’s soldiers seem to be having a good time. They banter effortlessly under intense pressure. ("You’re a badass, general…With all possible respect, sir.") And they eat and drink exceedingly well. Hardly a meeting is taken or briefing delivered without someone pouring a round of drinks or offering to have sandwiches ordered up Charley reaches for the cashews on the bar more often than he reaches for his weapon.

But in the end, do we really want a book about national defense to make us hungry? One emergency meeting in the White House is brought to a close by the National Security Adviser, who suggests, "Why don’t we all go to my office and have a cup of coffee and a Danish?" That, like too many other moments in this otherwise entertaining book, is hard to swallow.