American intelligence uncovers evidence that Cuba is secretly developing biological weapons in a plan to attack the United States.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urges military action to destroy the threat. But President Bush disagrees: "After our experience in Iraq, I don't think the kinetic approach is the answer," he says. "I think the real center of gravity in this issue is Castro's motivation. We must destroy his motivation to continue this program...."
With this oblique jab at the Pentagon's Iraq strategy, veteran Special Forces commander Maj. Gen. Jeff Lambert (ret.) begins his first novel, released in paperback by a small publishing house in Wichita, Kan. "The Singleton: Target Cuba," co-written with Robin Moore, is a thriller with real-world advice at every turn. In essence, it's a public appeal for a smarter and less costly way for America to defeat foes: avoiding conventional military force in favor of using sophisticated "influence operations" that meld the skills of the CIA, Special Operations Forces, and foreign allies.
"I am an advocate of using influence operations and surrogate warfare whenever we can," General Lambert explains, "unless there is a time-sensitive or overpowering rationale to use our own forces."
Equally vital, he says, the US government must freely tap into expertise across agencies and allies to design the best-qualified team for the mission. "It's a plea for an end to interagency, interservice, and intraservice bickering and getting on with the war," he says in an interview, stressing that all have something unique to contribute.
Lambert, who headed the US Army Special Forces Command for two years after Sept. 11, 2001, draws on decades of experience in the Green Berets that convinced him a handful of highly trained, culturally savvy soldiers - or in this case a "singleton" acting alone - can have far-reaching impact if deftly employed.
Fictional players in "The Singleton" mingle with the real-world leaders and events of 2004. The story begins when a female British agent in Panama City kills two hit men and saves a Cuban exile who is delivering documents on Cuba's biological weapons program.
A CIA analyst takes the evidence as part of an "agroterror" plot. Cuba would use migratory birds to deliver an engineered pathogen that would wipe out US wheat crops, causing a severe domestic food shortage as well as a global quarantine and ban on US exports.
In deciding how to respond, President Bush brushes aside Mr. Rumsfeld's proposal for a strike by Tomahawk missiles and ground- penetrating bombs. Instead, he opts for a global covert operation that CIA director George Tenet promises will convince "Fidel that it is not in his interest to continue."
A CIA-led interagency team known as the "Hybrid" forms to plan a series of disparate intelligence and military operations. It orchestrates an attack on a Sierra Leone diamond mine that helps fund the Cuban program, and it sabotages a shipment of German stainless steel tanks. British Prime Minister Tony Blair agrees to let American operatives work under British cover - allowing Washington to deny any involvement.
Yet the most critical and dangerous mission is reserved for a lone Green Beret. The charismatic Maj. Mike Trantor is recovering from wounds to his chest as well as to his marriage after a recent tour in Afghanistan - the latest in a string of deployments that have left his wife, Kirsten, feeling single herself.
Major Trantor's mission: to infiltrate Cuba posing as a British diplomat on a romantic weekend and steal a briefcase from a leading scientist on the program, Mundo Nuevo. What Trantor doesn't know is that he's being used as bait to create so much chaos that Cuban leader Fidel Castro will think a foreign-led insurgency is under way and cave in to British pressure to close the program.
Lambert says he wrote the book to impress upon the US public that in the information age, "intelligence is more important than weapons and platforms." Nonetheless, he adds that current technological innovations are offering "unlimited" options for fighting wars. Influence operations are finally beginning to be embraced throughout the government, he says.
The book does not address who would hold the Hybrid accountable as it plans complex global missions in which disparate organizations coalesce and act in extreme secrecy. Lambert says congressional oversight would play that role. Lambert also chose not to include a core Green Beret mission - the recruitment, training, and mentoring of indigenous forces in what's known as "unconventional warfare," but says he may in another book.
One weakness of the novel lies in Lambert's fictional treatment of real-life characters, such as President Bush in his meetings with cabinet members. Here, the dialogue sounds written, not spoken, and some people come across as one-dimensional. Bush, in particular, is unconvincingly flawless.
In contrast, "The Singleton" is at its fast-paced best when Lambert draws on his Special Forces experience to detail Trantor's exhaustive training - from Cuban dialect Spanish to running shoes modified to blend into the barrio - and the high- suspense mission itself.
Ultimately, Lambert's story makes a compelling argument that creative and subtle efforts at persuasion can prove far more effective and less costly in blood and treasure than full-scale military operations.
"Wars are to capture human terrain," he says. "The war on terrorism is a war to change the thinking of billions."
• Ann Scott Tyson is a Pentagon reporter for The Washington Post.