Heroes for a Day

By Meltzer, Brad | Newsweek, May 31, 2010 | Go to article overview

Heroes for a Day


Meltzer, Brad, Newsweek


Byline: Brad Meltzer

I was sitting at home one day in 2004 when the phone rang. "Department of Homeland Security," said the voice on the other end of the line. "We have a question for you." If this sounds like the setup to a thriller, trust me, I know: I write them for a living. I thought this had to be a prank. But eventually it became clear that the caller was serious. Even without a fancy accent and an Aston Martin, I was being recruited for something called the Red Cell program, an unorthodox federal attempt to anticipate how, in the wake of 9/11, terrorists might next attack the U.S. The black shoes at Homeland Security already had hundreds of people steeped in the same books, thinking the same thoughts about the same targets. Members of Red Cell were brought in to be "out of the box" thinkers.

I didn't know how I'd been selected (an FBI friend later told me it was because the bureau had found one of my books on the desk of an alleged money launderer). But after a pang of initial fear--if we needed my help, I thought, then we're all in deep trouble--I signed on to the job. During the next few months, the program's staff would email me a target. My mission: imagine a way to attack it. I can't tell you what or where we targeted. I can say, though, that I would destroy major landmarks and level great cities. I got invited to a group session in northern Virginia, where the government had leased some nondescript office space in the kind of complex where only nondescript business was done.

We ate bagels, leafed through info packets, and small-talked before the brainstorming session began. My squad included a chemist, a professor of Middle Eastern studies, and former CIA and FBI employees. We'd take a question--for example, how would you attack the White House?--and run through scenarios. With the chemist handling explosives, the professor suggesting motives, the ex-agents highlighting possible security flaws, and me channeling the creativity of the bad guys in my books (and The A-Team), we would flatten some piece of America in minutes.

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