READ AN EXCERPT FROM
THE Sahara INTERCEPT
Chapter 1: Unit 8200
Thursday, 26 June 1980, Tel Aviv, Israel
El Al forces passengers to travel unarmed. That’s why I arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport, site of the 1973 Lod massacre, without my Walther PPK pistol. Always thought the best way to stop a hijacker was to blow his head off.
This was a routine trip. But then it never hurts to practice situational awareness. Not paranoia, a prudent attention to details. The most important things: blend in, keep a low profile, and don’t project an image someone will remember. The key: act confident and natural, like you belong. Resolute in my ability to spot imminent threats, I strode into the main lobby.
"Mr. Ross Brannan?"
A young woman dressed in a crisp-pressed olive-green army uniform, stood before me. Her self-assured smile and deep penetrating green eyes enhanced by the 9-millimeter Uzi slung over her shoulder.
"That's me." How did she pick me out?
"Shalom, welcome to Israel. I am Tamara Alon, your escort." The way she said escort was both sexy and suggestive.
She seemed pleasant enough and not bad looking. "Thanks. How did you know who I was?"
"They showed me your picture." She paused with an intriguing grin. "I watched for the cowboy from the movies."
In the past, what some people thought was a faint resemblance to Steve McQueen had proved socially useful with the ladies. Not much use if you're trying to keep a low profile. I changed the subject. "What now?"
She smiled an open friendly, even inviting smile. "I will drive you to the hotel."
"Is it far?"
"Oh, no, nothing in Israel is far away, we are such a small country. O only thirty kilometers, on the beach near Camp Glilot."
Beach, maybe this won't be so bad.
As we exited the airport terminal, she brushed against my hip. "Is this your first visit to Israel?"
"First time," I lied. In fact, my second visit. The first, officially unofficial, the less said, the better.
"If you wish, I can show you the sights later." There it was again, a sultry suggestive tone. "Do you like to dance? I know all the popular discos."
Oh, man, gotta watch out. Is she coming on to me, or is this some sort of honey trap? Don't need to look for trouble — its right beside me.
Torn between expectation and sound judgment, I stammered, "Sorry, I can't. I … I'm married." My sixth sense told me to be wary.
"We can still have a little fun, can't we?" Her eyes came alive. "We can go for a swim at the hotel."
The way she said it, an inflection that suggested there's more to come, made me tingle. My situational awareness shoved aside and stomped to the ground. I imagined her in a bikini.
Gotta get this under control. "No, we have a new baby and…"
"Very well." She switched off the charm in an instant. "Here is the jeep."
We left the airport in silence. The open jeep, not air-conditioned. I started to sweat. Living in Albuquerque, I sweat a lot, but Tel Aviv was hotter than Wyatt Earp's pistol at the O.K. Corral. A trip to Alaska or some cool place would've been preferable, but no, I was in Israel, the Middle East — the hot dry Middle East.
Hopelessly distracted, I tried to refocus. As we approached downtown Tel Aviv, I asked, trying to break the tension, "How long you been in the army?"
"Eighteen months," she said without emotion, "Only a few more to go."
"I am undecided." She paused as if to contemplate her future for the first time. "Perhaps modeling or whatever."
"You should do well." She probably will. "I'll look for you on the cover of Vogue." When do I ever read Vogue? Lisette doesn't even read Vogue.
"Oh, thank you." The smile returned. "Tell me about your wife."
"Oh la la? Do you live in Paris? How did you meet?" She started to bubble again. "Oh, I love Paris."
"We met in Africa, in Kenya, on Lamu Island."
"You were married in Africa?" Her astonishment appeared real.
I laughed. "No, we were married in Mexico, Baja California."
"You live in Mexico? How strange."
"No, we live in New Mexico, north of the border."
"Now I am confused."
"New Mexico is in the United States, next to Texas."
"You are a cowboy?"
I gave up on the geography lesson. "Yeah, I guess you could say so." Tamara responded with a silly smile and concentrated on the evening traffic. At least she didn't ask if I rode a horse. "Where's my hotel? I need to clean up before I check in with your people."
"Further on, close to the unit." She stared straight ahead, all business again. "I will come for you tomorrow at 0900."
Friday, 27 June 1980, North of Tel Aviv, Israel
The headquarters of Israel's signals intelligence service, Unit 8200, lay only a half mile down the road from the seaside hotel. Tamara ushered me through the security checkpoints and down into the bowels of the center. Her demeanor, all proper and military, with none of yesterday's flirting.
A balding average sized man, about my age, wearing an olive-green uniform sat behind a cluttered desk. He stood to greet me. "Shalom, I am Major David, welcome to Camp Glilot." He motioned for me to take a seat. "Thank you for coming on such short notice."
He spoke English with a slight BBC accent. At first glance, one wouldn't give him a second thought. Up close, he had presence, an aura of poise and authority, a natural leader. He didn't reveal his position in the organization.
I decided to be cautious too. "Ross Brannan from Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico." I didn't tell him whom I worked for: The Special Signals Research Project, a joint venture of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency. He doubtless knew anyway.
The SSRP, located at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington D.C., focused on clandestine ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) collection involving Soviet radar and telemetry signals. Our mission was to deal with situations where conventional methods proved neither effective nor practical. My unit, Detachment R-1 or Raven-One, was stationed in Albuquerque. A matter of hiding in plain sight, camouflaged as a routine and dull Air Force outfit doing mundane research on radio propagation and antenna testing.
"Your engineering specialty is electronic warfare?"
"No. I'm not an engineer, a signal analyst. Learned everything I know in the military." I had spent eleven years in Army Security Agency as an electronic intelligence analyst and intercept operator, travelling the world collecting data on enemy radar systems to aid in development of effective countermeasures.
"Oh, you were an intelligence officer?"
"No, an enlisted man."
Had the impression he expected someone else. My boss Colonel Wilson called two days ago, with the news: pack your bags you're going to Israel. He said they needed some help analyzing a radar signal and didn't give any details. He wanted me to approach the problem with no preconceptions, to keep an open mind. Even so, I had a preconceived notion: another waste of time, it usually plays out that way.
The major nodded. "I was informed you are one of the best."
"Suppose that's why I wasn't an officer."
My answer prompted a wry grin. "Good. That is the way we train our people. We prefer young soldiers schooled in our ways, not prima donna academic types. We stress teamwork along with individual initiative. Like your service, we take only the select few."
"Believe me, I understand. That's why I'm a civilian." I loved my army job but grew tired of bureaucratic runarounds and broken promises. My civilian job paid a lot more, not getting rich, but doing okay. Now I was married, had a baby boy, and settled down. I glanced around, wanting to explore the place. "Nice facility you have here."
"Yes, I would conduct a tour, but our security protocols will not allow."
"Sure." Should've known. "What do you have for me?"
I wanted to get it over and go home. I didn't feel comfortable dealing with the Israelis. Something to do with the U.S.S. Liberty, the intelligence collection ship their forces attacked during the 1967 war. I worked with a guy who had been on board and I never did buy the official versions of what happened. I doubted if Major David had anything to do with the incident, but it bothered me, nevertheless.
"Yes, the matter." He hesitated a few seconds. "Our collection site intercepted a signal with an atypical element two weeks ago." He noticed I was about to ask and answered, "The azimuth pointed deep inside Syrian territory. Our analysts examined the parameters and failed to come to a firm conclusion as to its function."
"What band was it operating in?"
"E band. The signal seemed to be in conjunction with a Soviet 2K12 air defense system."
He nodded. "Correct."
I continued, "The fire control for the SA-6 is I band. Could it have been emitting from a P-40 Long Track early warning radar?"
"That was our first assumption, but the signal exhibited somewhat different characteristics."
"The base signal produced an almost perfect sine wave, except it changed to a saw tooth pattern at short random intervals."
A quiver of anticipation ran through my body. "Have you been able to check the third harmonic?"
His face lit up in astonishment. "No. What do you mean?"
"Let me examine your tape."
A harmonic is a signal whose frequency is a multiple of the frequency of the base signal. Nearly all signals produce energy at harmonic frequencies unless the signal is a perfect sine wave. Square waves, saw tooth waves, and triangular waves have large amounts of energy at harmonic frequencies.
Halfway through the tape, I hit the jackpot. The signal had Marsden's fingerprints all over it. J. Andrew Marsden, the electrical engineer who defected from the Cochise Project at Fort Huachuca and took his secrets to the Soviet Union — the rat-bastard that shot me and killed a policeman in Mexico — the one person I would kill on sight. Last year Marsden disappeared into the woodwork and now he was back. I trembled in expectation.
"Are you familiar with this signal?" asked the major.
"Not at this frequency, but I have a good idea." I struggled whether to tell him the whole story. Wilson sent me with no guidelines. What was I authorized to say? How much should I reveal?
"What is the significance of the third harmonic?" he asked with an edge to his voice. He seemed to understand I was holding back.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I reckoned Wilson sent me for a good reason. "If this is what I think it is, the third harmonic contains random micro bursts with missile guidance instructions."
The major's face tensed with suspicion: "It is impossible to—"
"No, I worked with the inventor J. Andrew Marsden before he defected. Marsden developed a method to embed a guidance signal within the third harmonic. He was able to produce harmonics with enough power to carry the signal by changing the waveform to a saw tooth pattern at short random intervals."
His brow furrowed in disbelief as I continued, "Unfortunately, we were unable to maintain adequate signal stability to produce a reliable and workable system."
"You say, this harmonic provided guidance—"
"They contain the entire set of missile guidance instructions. The main tracking system never switches to the guidance mode. All the instructions are hidden in the acquisition signal."
"Your air force has this system?"
"No. We were never able to achieve a stable signal. But the Russians were working on the same concept and Marsden provided the missing piece of the puzzle."
"You have collected this signal by satellite?"
"No. The only way to collect the entire set is during the combat acquisition and tracking phase. The chance of picking the signal up by satellite intercept is slight."
"A clever deception. So, you worked with this Marsden?"
"Yeah, and if I ever catch up with the SOB again, I'm going to carve him up in little pieces." I took a deep breath, no use telling him everything. "Is there a chance I can go to your intercept site?"