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Three Minutes to Doomsday by Joe Navarro

Joe Navarro tells the full story of the case that made his career, and brought America terrifyingly close to disaster

April 17, 1961

The place is Cienfuegos, at the crest of a large, sheltered bay on the south coast of Cuba. The time: early morning. I’m seven years old, on my way to the corner bodega to pick up fresh bread for our family breakfast, when the sky suddenly roars with the sounds of planes, flying low with guns blazing. I can hear my mother yelling at me, but I’m frozen, transfixed by what is happening above, when suddenly I’m tackled to the ground. My father is on top of me, his breathing heavy as he gathers his knees around me, enfolding me so nothing will be left exposed. My face is inches from a utility pole. I smell the black tar around its base as I study the cleat marks left behind by countless utility workers.

My father is whispering urgently in my ear to stay still, to keep down, but I stretch to see above me all the same. I can’t help myself. Something metal and shiny falls from the planes as they fire—not bullets (I later learn) but their shell casings. Afterward, we neighborhood kids will search for them for hours, but not now. Unknown to us, less than an hour’s drive away, at Bahia de Cochinos, the American-­led Bay of Pigs invasion has begun.

The next day, Castro’s thugs come for my father.

He has been detained for nineteen days—roughed up, threatened, barely fed, one of thousands being held without charges at a local sports facility—when a fellow prisoner loans him an identification card. The man knows my father hates Castro and eventually will be fingered as a counter revolutionary. The ruse is thin but, in the confusion, just enough to set him free. He comes home to us — my mother, me, and my two sisters: one older than me and one younger—but only for a precious hour or two. Father gathers a few things, no luggage, and tells my mother he must leave before the guards realize their folly and he ends up like so many other counter revolutionaries — on the paredon (the wall), awaiting execution. And indeed within weeks, thousands are shot, or simply disappear.

Where will he go? My father won’t say. He doesn’t want us burdened with that knowledge when the soldiers return. Instead, he hugs us all and kisses me last. True to the patriarchal society that Cuba is, his final words to me are: “You’re now in charge of the family. You must be a man.” Tears are falling down my face, my skinny legs shaking: This is the moment my childhood ends.

A week after my father’s departure, Cuban soldiers — who’ve been secretly surveilling our house — arrive one night and thunder from room to room, searching. Eventually they go, but only after herding all of us into the living room and flashing their gun barrels at us. The message is clear: We have to leave, and America is our only hope.

Jump ahead to 1971, ten years to the day since the Bay of Pigs invasion. The place is South Florida. I’m seventeen years old, finishing my final year at Hialeah High, where I’ve played defensive end well enough to attract more than thirty scholarship offers. Evenings, I work at the Richards Department Store on 103rd Street in Hialeah, minding the cash register in the sports department. That’s where I am when the manager calls my extension and says in an urgent voice, “Stop the two men walking side by side down the middle of the store. They’ve just robbed us!”

As I race toward them, they disappear into a rack of clothes. I run ahead and am blocking the store exit when one of the men reappears from the rack and runs straight toward me. At the last moment, as he lunges, I see the knife. My body twists, my left arm tries to move away and up to avoid the blade, but it’s not enough.

By the time the doctors are through with what the knife has done to me, I have 180 stitches, internal and external, in my arm. The doctors have sewn my bicep and tricep together. They’ve repaired my slashed arteries. The severed muscles in my arm have retracted into my chest, and the surgeons have pulled those back into my arm, too. For twenty-­one days I linger in the hospital. I’ve lost immense amounts of blood. My arm is badly infected, and I can barely feel my fingers or move them.

I do recover, but my athletic career is over. I won’t be able to lift my arm above the shoulder for another two years. But once I finally come out from all the medications, electrical stimulation, plastic surgery, and rounds of vocational therapy and rehabilitation, there’s a letter waiting for me from President Richard Nixon, thanking me for my “heroism.” Nixon’s worst days — Watergate most dramatically — still lie ahead. For now I’m honored that an American president would take the time to thank this immigrant for doing nothing more than his civic duty.
From an early age, three powerful forces have combined to set my True North: a love of America for taking in my family, an abiding sense (still with me) that I can never pay this country back in full for the opportunities handed us, and a deep belief that, in Emerson’s words,

“When Duty whispers low, ‘Thou must,’
The youth whispers, ‘I can.’ ”

In the years ahead, Rod Ramsay will test that call to duty in ways I can’t yet imagine. At times I’ll fear he might even beat us. His intellect and interests will prove jaw-dropping, and yet it will be clear that he cares deeply about few things — least of all what matters most to me: country, honor, patriotism. That’s what will make him so dangerous, not just to this nation but to the entire world.

More about the author

Three Minutes to Doomsday

Joe Navarro

It is 1988 and Florida-based FBI agent Joe Navarro divides his time between SWAT assignments, flying air reconnaissance, and working counter-intelligence. A body-language expert with an uncanny ability to “read” those he interrogates, Navarro is known as super-intense – an agent whose work ethic quickly burns out partners. He craves an assignment that will get him noticed by the FBI top brass but then again, as he’ll come to learn: be careful what you wish for . . .
It was while on a routine assignment – interviewing a ‘person of interest’, a former US soldier named Rod Ramsay with links to another soldier, Clyde Conrad, recently arrested in Germany as a traitor – that Navarro thought he smelled a rat. He noticed a tic in Ramsay's hand when Conrad’s name was mentioned. Not a lot to go on, but enough for Navarro to insist that an investigation be opened.
What followed was extraordinary – and unique in the annals of espionage detection - a game of cat-and-mouse played at the highest level: on one side, an FBI agent who must not reveal that he suspects his target; on the other, a traitor, a seller of his country’s secrets, whose weakness is the thrill he gets from sparring with his inquisitor.
To prise from Ramsay the full extent of the damage he had wrought, Navarro had to pre-choreograph every interview because Ramsay was exceptionally intelligent, with the second highest IQ ever recorded by the U.S. Army. It would become an interrogation that literally pitted genius against genius – a battle of wits fought against one of the most turbulent periods of the 20th century – the demise and eventual collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union - and the very real possibility that Russia's leaders, in a last desperate bid to alter history’s trajectory, might engage in all-out war. As Navarro was to learn over the course of nearly fifty exhausting and mind-bending interviews and interrogations, Ramsay had handed the Soviets the knowledge needed to destroy America and its western allies…

In Three Minutes to Doomsday, Joe Navarro tells this extraordinary story for the first time - a story of the exposure and breaking of one of the most damaging espionage rings in US history whose treachery threatened the entire world.

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