Balance of Power: A Novel
by James Huston
Review by Linda Marie Schumacher
Harper Mass Market Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780061703201
Date: 01 June 2009 List Price $9.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Balance of Power by James W. Huston is both an action story and a legal thriller. A US-flagged merchant ship is attacked by terrorists and sunk. The United States Congress comes up with a unique plan for reprisal.
Balance of Power starts out with a terrorist attack on a United States flagged merchant ship in Indonesia. The terrorists board the ship disguised as maintenance workers, and quickly gain control of the ship. They murder the crew and take the captain hostage right before they abandon the ship and quickly sink it.
The aircraft carrier battle group of the USS Constitution is operating in the South Pacific and fully expects to be the military arm that responds to the attack. The President, however, decides to quote, "stop the cycle of violence", that terrorism and reprisals has become. He believes that violence only begets more violence and that the pattern of attacks and reprisals must stop. He allows the Indonesian government to handle capturing and punishing the terrorists. The carrier group is surprised, but their job is to follow orders, so they do not respond.
The meat of the book is Congress' response to the problem. Congress is dissatisfied with the President's decision and invokes a little-known clause of the US Constitution that allows Congress to issue a Letter of Marque. The Letter of Marque allows Congress to charter a merchant vessel to act as warship on behalf of the United States, without the consent of the president. A letter had not been used since the War of 1812. The Speaker of the House and his staff thoroughly research any legal history and can find nothing that prohibits issuing the document. Congress issues the Letter of Marque to the USS Constitution and her battle group. Although a little bit of a stretch to issue a Letter of Marque to a military vessel, Congress uses the justification that merchant ships are no longer armed to perform an attack as they were earlier in our nation's history. The legal battle that ensues between the Justice Department and Congress is massive, as would be expected.
One interesting factor is the thought process of the admiral in charge of the USS Constitution and her battle group. The admiral must decide between two orders, one from the President and one from Congress.
I enjoyed the military side of the book, particularly how the ships obtain information about the terrorists as they travel around the many islands of Indonesia. Various electronic data is available through the standard communication systems. Both the airplanes and the SEAL teams gather intelligence too. The capabilities of the SEALS to sneak ashore and gather information is hard to believe, but they are vital to the information gathering.
I find the interpretation of the Constitution of the United States fascinating, and I also like the way the terrorist story was combined with a legal thriller. I highly recommend Balance of Power by James W. Huston.