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.
GHOST, Chapter One: The Buried Bodies
Preface: GHOST, Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent
“CT03.” That’s what the outside of one oversized brown file folder says. It was written with a black Magic Marker in spiky hand lettering. I untie the folder and open it up. Sitting inside are more legal-sized green file folders. They’re worn and ragged and look decades old. Each one has a label. I sort through them looking at the subheadings: “Intelligence,” “Unsolved Leads,” “Unanswered Questions,” “Witness Statements.” In the back is another one marked “Evidence.”
My cop instinct leads me to pull out the evidence folder first. It seems awfully thin. When I open it up, I find only a single sealed plastic bag. On the outside it reads, “Department of State—Evidence—SRG.” I assume those are Gleason’s initials. I lift it up and examine its contents. Whatever is inside looks like a dried-up mushroom.
“What is this?” I ask myself softly.
Gleason overhears me and replies, “An ear.”
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 the image of the book's cover above.
First day on the job, and I’m holding a human body part. The Alice in Wonderland experience is complete. I’ve gone down the rabbit hole.
I continue to hold the ear. Miss Manners doesn’t cover this sort of scenario. What should I say? How should I react? I’ll wing it.
“So, did you cut this off a suspect?” I ask Gleason.
He is not amused. He just looks at me with a You have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into here sort of expression. Then he goes back to scribbling on more paperwork. Almost as an afterthought he says, “That’s what’s left of the suicide bomber.”
Suicide bomber? As in kamikaze? I better start at the beginning. I tuck the ear away and pull out the first file. The sheaf of papers becomes my gateway to the world we Americans don’t want to know about. I read the stilted words, mesmerized by the meaning behind them.
April 18, 1983. Beirut was chaos—it is even worse now. The city, once known for its Westernized and cosmopolitan atmosphere, had long since become a battleground. As the various factions dueled for control, spooks and terrorists played a game of cat and mouse amid the ruins. On April 18, the anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride, the terrorists scored their first decisive victory against the United States.
At 1300 hours local time, a van passed through a security checkpoint and drove up to the front of the embassy. The driver parked under a portico, then detonated the two thousand pounds of explosives stuffed into the back.
Now I understand why there is only an ear left.
The explosion tore apart the entire front of the U.S. Embassy, killing sixty-three people and wounding a hundred more. I vaguely remember hearing about it on the news three years ago. I never heard who carried out the attack.
What possesses a man to blow himself up while murdering scores of innocents at the same time? What is the motivation? I suspect those are questions I’ll be wrestling with for a long time.
The attack was orchestrated by Islamic Jihad, which has been in the news a lot lately. The “Intelligence” folder has plenty on Islamic Jihad, and before lunch I learn that it is really just a name. The real player is Hezbollah, and the power behind that name is Iran.
The Iranians blew up our embassy in Beirut. Hezbollah—controlled, directed, and supported by Iranian intelligence—provided the foot soldiers for the attack.
How was this not an act of war?
I sit back and take a breath, then I press on. The witness statements are the worst. The grim, bloody retelling of broken bodies, the rubble, the misery—even the formal, objective language used in these documents can’t conceal the trauma of this attack. It was the worst one ever against a U.S. embassy. Nothing in our history compares to it. That much is clear to me just from the initial reading.
I delve further, flipping through well-worn pages, many of which were written by Gleason himself. One thing begins to stand out. The timing of the attack was peculiar. As it happened, the CIA’s entire Middle East contingent was hunkered down in a meeting room toward the front of the embassy. When the bomb exploded, the CIA’s Near East director, Robert Ames, and seven other CIA officers were killed.
Was the CIA meeting compromised? I open the “Unanswered Questions” file. There’s no evidence to show that Hezbollah knew of the meeting. Then again, with all the foreign nationals working in the embassy, it is quite possible that word of the meeting had been leaked. This question is a loose end, one of many stemming from the attack.
Coincidence or cunning? In the Dark World, our instructors told us, there are no coincidences. Nor will all the puzzle pieces ever fall into place. The best you can do is assemble what you have and try to divine the rest. This first file reinforces that training lesson.
Just before lunch, Gleason tells us the combination for the big blue door. “Don’t write it down. Just memorize it,” he says. Then he gives us the combinations to the safes under our desks. I hadn’t noticed mine until he mentioned it. They are for storing top-secret files we’re using. Every time we leave the office, the material on our desk needs to be locked up in these safes or returned to the dead bodies cabinets.
With those combination numbers rattling around in my head, I decide to take a short break. I head for the restroom out in the hallway on the other side of the big blue door. When I get there, Mullen is just coming out. As he slides through the doorway, he grimaces at me and mentions, “Gleason told me the Weather Underground blew this bathroom up back in ’75. Took out three entire offices.”
I’m working at ground zero of a terrorist attack. I hurry into the restroom as Mullen starts spinning the combo lock on the big blue door. I make a mental note not to spend too much time in this place—just in case.
Back in the office a few minutes later, I find Gleason eating andsmoking at his desk. He manages to multitask in ways I’ve never seen before. He alternates stuffing a sandwich into his mouth between puffs on his smoke while writing notes on a cable. Periodically, he grabs a phone and barks at somebody in that foreign language of his.
I sit back down and begin reading again. Gleason asks, “Have you opened those two cases yet?”
“No, I’m still studying the files you gave me.”
“Beirut One or Two?”
Gleason grunts and goes back to work.
There was a second attack in Beirut. I close the April 18, 1983, case folder and untie the other one Gleason had given me when I first came in. Sure enough, a year after the first bombing, Islamic Jihad scored another big victory against us. Already, Hezbollah and the Iranians had crippled our military effort in Beirut with another suicide bomb attack, this one aimed at the marine barracks near the airport. That was in October 1983. Two hundred and forty-one marines died in that attack. The destruction prompted the Reagan administration to pull our troops out of Lebanon. Hezbollah: 2, United States: 0.
A year later, Hezbollah hit the American embassy annex in northeast Beirut. This was where our diplomatic staff had been operating. Although the fixed-site security had been beefed up, another Hezbollah suicide bomber managed to breach the outer perimeter. This time the guards unloaded their weapons at the speeding vehicle, but the suicide bomber still managed to reach his target and detonate himself.
Twenty-four people, including two Americans, died. Hezbollah: 3, United States: 0.
Each of these cases is so complex that every file leads to more reading. I feel like I’m peeling an onion. Each layer reveals more layers, more information that I will have to know for my new life. I discover that Hezbollah’s tactics derived from the true pioneers of terror: Black September. Known as BSO, or Black September Organization, in the files, these fanatical Palestinians assassinated eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich back in 1972.
Gleason tells me, “To understand terrorism today, you must understand Black September.”
I put down the Beirut I and II files and delve deeper into the dead bodies cabinets. I find thick folders devoted just to Black September and its evil genius, the erudite, impeccably dressed mass murderer known as the Red Prince. The Red Prince was the archterrorist, the mastermind behind countless hijackings, bombings, and assassinations. He liked to keep things simple and used brute force whenever possible.
Gleason’s right. Hezbollah is only the latest iteration of terror. Same with all the other alphabet-soup terror groups. They are only evolutions on BSO’s heyday in the 1970s.
I start taking notes. I find some three-by-five index cards and return to the Beirut I file to start jotting down the basics of the attack. Suicide bomber. The van breached all the outer security and was able to get right next to the main embassy building. This was vital to the success of the attack. Had the outer security perimeter stopped the van, the damage would have been minimized.
I underline a lesson here. I have no idea what I’m doing, but it just appears to me to be common sense. Stand-off distance.
I grab another index card and write out the basic facts and lessons learned. Again, the outer security ring was obviously deficient. Was I even supposed to be noticing these things? I glance over at Gleason, wondering if I should ask for guidance. He’s buried in paperwork, a phone growing out of one ear. He looks irritated and overwhelmed.
The attacks in Beirut sparked a congressional inquiry into the safety of our overseas diplomatic missions. Headed by Admiral Bobby Inman, the commission reported a long list of security deficiencies in embassies all over the globe. Among the laundry list of recommendations, the Inman Commission sought millions of dollars to build new facilities, plus additional money to hire more State Department agents. In 1985, in response to the Inman recommendations, Congress created the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the DSS. Mullen and I are the first wave of agents resulting from that piece of legislation. In agent training, they called us “Inman Hires.”
I glance over at Gleason again. He’s off the phone now. He sees me looking at him and tosses me a few more files. “Lebanon.” “Beirut.” “Hostages.” “Look these over. See what you can piece together.”
My stack of first-day reading just got even larger. As I flip through the new material, Gleason says, “Mullen, you’re going to cover SouthAmerica. You’ve dealt with the cartels. You know the ground. There’s plenty there to keep you busy. Colombia. FARC. Shining Path.”
Our new boss pauses long enough to toss another butt in the growing morass in his ashtray. He pulls out a fresh smoke and lights it up.
“Burton, you’ve got the Sandbox. But you’ll both help out where needed.”
I’m not sure what that means. He sees that right away and adds, “Anything related to the Middle East. That’s your turf. You will become the subject-matter expert.”
I don’t know anything about the Middle East. The files on my desk right now are the tip of the iceberg. In the months to come, I’m going to be doing a lot more reading.
“We don’t have a mission statement. I don’t have time to write one. Just know that our job is to keep our embassy personnel alive. Take a look at the cold cases. Think about how the attacks were carried out. Who did them, the mechanics, the tactics. Then we’ve got to figure out ways to counter them. Ways to prevent them. Right now, we’re playing catch-up. We’re reactive and always undermanned. We need to figure out how to get in front of things. Understood?”
Two new agents nod dutifully. This is why Gleason handed me Beirut I and II right off the bat. They are the big ones, the attacks that reshaped the security landscape for our diplomats.
I wonder how I’m supposed to figure out how to stop such catastrophic events like those two. Six months ago, I was a Maryland cop. The worst I’d seen were homicides and car wrecks. I’ve never encountered anything on the scale of Beirut I.
I guess in my gut I realized that when I joined the DSS, I would not be working a run-a-day nine-to-five job. Now, I’ve glimpsed the scope—and the stakes. This isn’t a job or a career, it is a way of life. Lives are at stake. The moves we make in the weeks and months to come will mean the difference between a thwarted effort and a lead story on CNN.
No pressure or anything.
Gleason disappears through the big blue door. Mullen and I work on in silence. I read through more cases, more carnage, more destruction. The same names keep popping up: Hezbollah, Imad Fayez Mugniyah, Abu Nidal. I discern that there are three major players in the Middle East terror game: Iran through Hezbollah and its cohorts, Libya through itsown intelligence service and its surrogates, and the Palestinians through the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), its splinter groups, and Black September. I have much to learn. The curve is steep.
Gleason returns and hands me more files that he’s taken from the dead bodies cabinets. They land on my desk with a heavy thump. I’m getting a crash course in human depravity. It is tough to take, and after a while, all the human misery resident within these pages starts to blur together. The parade of violence, the car bombings, the suicide attacks, the machine gunning of civilians, hostage takings, hijackings—file after file describes horrific events. It leaves me numb.
The world is on fire. And I had no idea.
Late that afternoon, Gleason leaves the office again. Mullen and I work on in silence, continuing our crash course in world terror. A few minutes later, he returns with another raft of diplomatic cables. “Okay, this is the latest from FOGHORN, our communication center. All incoming messages are sent there and prioritized. I’ll show you where it is later.”
As he squeezes by my desk, Gleason says, “Burton, we’ve got a source who says our ambassador to Chile is about to get assassinated. You’re meeting the informant tomorrow in Charlottesville. When you’re done there, write it up, then get up to Philadelphia.”
“Yeah, we’ve got a source who says his family is Hezbollah. He says he knows where the hostages are in Beirut. For a hundred and fifty grand, he’ll spill his guts. Go see if he knows anything.”
He hands me two more files on these informants. “Get familiar with them tonight. In the meantime, you’ll be traveling on a moment’s notice from here on out. Keep an overnight kit packed, okay?”
So much for on-the-job training. Tomorrow, the real game begins.