Book Review – Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent

Recently I was thinking about some of the books that I had read earlier in 2011 and did not really remember what I had learned or found interesting in those books.  I realized that I was not really retaining the information that I had read and I was not remembering the lessons learned.  So, from now on until I stop, I have decided to write a book review for the items that I gained from each book.

First is Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent by Fred Burton, published in 2008.  I really didn’t know what to expect from this book, but I expected it to be by some ex-CIA field agent type detailing experiences since 9/11.  That is not the case with this book.  Fred Burton was an agent in the counter-terrorism branch of the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service.  They analyze and respond to threats against state department employees and embassies throughout the world.  The story starts in 1986 when he begins his job as an agent.  Burton is rapidly sucked into a world where constant threats and warnings of threats are encountered every day.  This begins to take a toll on his life, and one of the major themes of this book is the burden and compartmentalization that he must do to stay sane and keep pushing forward in the face of extreme uncertainty.

One twist at the beginning of the book is Burton’s involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal.  He was involved in trying to get the hostages in Beirut released, unaware of Oliver North’s actions working at large to negotiate with the terrorist’s controllers in Iran.  The key part of that episode came at the end – the US had agreed to trade arms for the hostages that we had, and the miraculously, as the arms started to change hands and the first hostages were being released, more hostages were taken.  This was contrasted with the KGB approach when one of their agents in the area was taken – the families of several of the men who seized the KGB agent were killed in rapid succession.  Guess what – no more KGB agents were taken.  I’m not advocating we need to go around murdering families of those who are seize Americans or kill them, but it is a necessary reminder that negotiating with terrorists does not work.

Fred Burton

Another interesting story is how he was involved in an investigation into how the flight that killed the Pakistani president and several top generals in 1988.  How close India and Pakistan were to nuclear blows is quite apparent, and the investigation as to what happened.  I won’t spoil the result for you, but only say the plane crash was not caused by a mechanical failure…

The last few chapters are how he spearheaded a series of changes to diplomatic security to be more proactive and aggressive in identifying and preventing threats to US embassies abroad and to foreign diplomats who visit the US.  There are some discussions of how he improved counter-surveilience measures and techniques, but nothing too technical.

Overall, this book gave me more respect for the job that counter-terror agents do, no matter what agency they work in.  Dealing with large numbers of potential threats, grading them, and having to deal with the tension that always exists when not being able to run every potential item to ground is evident.  The stress and concern that Burton has for getting things right and not letting the people he is protecting down is clear.  It is folks like him who have worked behind the scenes for many years prior to and after 9/11 to keep us safe.  Let’s hope the bureaucracy and burnout doesn’t get the best of them again.

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You can purchase the book from Amazon here.

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