Book Excerpt: GHOST: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent
Ed Note: PoliceOne will occasionally publish excerpted chapters of GHOST, Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent, by Fred Burton, who presently serves as vice president for counterterrorism and corporate security at Stratfor, an influential private intelligence company. Burton is the former deputy chief of the Diplomatic Security Service, the State Department's counterterrorism division. For a special offer to get a copy of GHOST, and to read additional information about Fred Burton and his role at Stratfor, please click here
Preface: The List
I carry a list of names with me at all times. It is written in the black ink of a fountain pen in a hardback black Italian moleskin journal, and it travels with me around town in my weathered Ghurka shoulder bag or, when I’m on the road, in my small Zero Halliburton aluminum case, right next to my Smith & Wesson Model 637 five-shot revolver.
There are about fifteen names on the list at any given time, but really the number varies, depending on the speed of justice in the world. Some of the names on the list are known actors, while others are aliases or secret code names. I classify some as UNSUB, spook language for an unidentified suspect. A few are rogue intelligence operatives who have carried out assassinations and bombings over the years.
Mostly the names are those of the so-called puzzle makers: the tactical commanders who put together terrorist operations and dispatch the foot soldiers to carry them out. They are the brains behind the attacks. Every attack has a cycle of planning and execution, and I have always been fascinated by the planners who can put it all together.
A few of the names on my list are those of the watchers, a phrase stolen from John le Carré’s stories about George Smiley of British intel-ligence. The watchers conduct the preoperational surveillance—the crucial first phase of the attack cycle. Lurking in the shadows, or operating openly with a laptop perched at a Starbucks table, they study a target in detail to find openings to attack. The good ones move like a gentle breeze, are never noticed, and rarely leave a trail.
Others on my list have been trigger pullers in an assassination operation, placed a bomb on a plane, or attacked a building containing innocent children. These are the cold-blooded knuckle draggers, the shooters. In the bloody aftermath of most of these things, a political group will claim credit under the banner of jihad. But in my mind, the prime responsibility goes to the one who squeezed the trigger or connected the detonator’s wires. They are special to me.
Each name on my list has eluded pursuit and is still out there, on the loose. There is a story behind every one. Images of their victims still hover in my view. Some are frozen in time, forever young, with loved ones and family members and children standing by grave sites, left, sometimes forever, to wonder what happened.
I have been told that it is normal to forget. That time heals. For some reason, that has not been true for me. Some nights, after the kids are in bed, I sit and look at the list and pick up my Parker rollerball pen to make updates, add new names, or relish the opportunity to finally cross one off when he has been arrested or slain. The fate of some will never be known. That troubles me the most of all.
I don’t need the list to remember their names, for they are all burned into my memory like the sharp flash of a revolver in a dark alley. I close my eyes and recall the sophisticated street dances of surveillance, the code names and radio traffic chattering in my earpiece while my feet ached from standing so long on post, the sharp smell of a lit time fuse, the feel of an Uzi bucking in my hands, or the satisfying final crimping of a blasting cap. The shadow work, the attack cycle, safe-house meetings, eyes-only back-channel cables, black diplomatic passports in various names, cash reward payments in standard-issue black Samsonite briefcases, hotel rooms with signed receipts under code names, airplane fuselages split by explosions, and kidnapping victims chained to radiators. I remember the bodies of children made unrecognizable by the blast of a truck bomb, embassies lying in rubble, body bags on an airport tarmac. Unfinished business, all of it.
I have been told that James Jesus Angleton, the legendary CIA spymaster known by the code name of “Mother,” kept such a private, handwritten list. Upon his death, Mother’s list was cremated along with his body by the old boys at the Agency, letting him take his secrets to his grave.
My own list remains as current as today’s headlines. Most of the names have long been forgotten by the public, but not by me. I take it personally when justice has not been done, and I intend some day to catch up with every one of them, to help in some way to bring them down. Only then will I remove them from my list.
I have been fortunate enough to have had a hand in scratching off a number of those names. I helped create and lead the Counterterrorism Division of the Diplomatic Security Service of the U.S. Department of State. Very few people have ever heard of us. My training for that work was as a street cop back when terrorism was in its infancy.
In the old days, we cataloged what we knew about terrorists by hand on index cards. Today the agencies collect, sort, and store a daily avalanche of information and analysis with a state-of-the-art datamanagement system. But raw data does not bring wisdom. Information alone cannot distill experience. Computers do not go into the weeds after the bad guys. That is where guys like me come in.
People have always been intrigued by what I do, particularly since most of it was so shrouded in secrecy. Counterterrorism special agents do not court publicity. We have no wish to become targets instead of hunters. We seek the shadows, using secure telephones and untraceable license plates to keep us hidden. Before I left public service, I wore a necklace of laminated identity cards that granted entrance to the inner recesses of the intelligence agencies. My special black passport whisked me past customs officers abroad. My bag was kept packed at all times to answer calls that would have me heading for the other side of the world within hours.
But the rules have changed. It was once thought that security matters and knowledge of the inner workings of terrorism were best kept quiet and left to specialists within the intelligence trade. Now everyone needs to know more, for knowledge is always power. Be it a multinational corporation, a government agency, or an individual citizen, the more you know, the safer you can be.
With this book, I hope to let readers walk in my shoes for a while, to go behind the curtain to look at the “how” as well as the “why” of what I call “the Black World.” I’ll explain the nuts and bolts of how terrorists plot, stalk, and kill, and how counterterrorism agents try to bring the perpetrators to justice. The difference between failure and success can depend upon tiny things: a piece of pocket litter or an offhand boast by an interrogation subject. The truth is often elastic, the process of seeking it like aiming a telescope through a rotating glass prism.
This book is partly a personal catalog of balls dropped, leads not followed, opportunities missed and the ensuing cover-ups. I also have some successes to report and some conclusions that might surprise you, just to show that good things can happen when everything comes together the right way. All too often, success is not quantifiable, and many stories go untold because of the need to protect ongoing operations.
The personal payoff for me comes when we bring down one of the terrorists. I never really care if he’s captured in handcuffs or loaded dead on a stretcher. I don’t care whether the takedown was the result of hard work, bravery, or pure luck. Whenever we take a bad guy off the board, I feel good. I can justify relaxing for a moment and spending time with my wife and children without a second thought. I can take a long jog with my trusty canine partner. I can watch a game of football or visit an old friend.
But for a great many years, during my whole tenure in government service, I found that no matter how much I wanted to leave the Dark World’s burdens behind, the call of the next operation always seemed to bring me back. I couldn’t ever stop thinking that how hard we terrorist hunters worked would determine the speed of justice in the world. And I couldn’t wait for the next opportunity to scratch another name off my list.