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Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent

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Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent [Paperback]

Fred Burton
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (79 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

With spy thriller suspense and the clarity of a police report, former special agent Burton's State Department saga reads like a brewing-storm prequel to the current "war on terror." Working for the tiny, newly created counterterrorism division of the Diplomatic Security Service in the mid-1980s, Burton liaisons among the FBI, the CIA, and a network of covert informants "to find out the how" of terrorist attacks, and prevent repeat events. This snapshot of his career reveals "the foundations for the chaos we face today: a cold war between superpowers overlayed atop a growing struggle between the Christian world and radical Islam." Of obvious interest to anyone with an eye on world affairs, Burton's assets will draw in even casual counterterrorism fans: the spook can actually write. His first hook is a Dashiell Hammett-esque preface about his hand-written list of targeted terrorist masterminds, which he keeps on his person at all times and "as current as today's headlines." From there he takes readers through the crimes and captures of a few, along with the formation and administration of the first State Department unit of its kind. Most striking is the material's relevance twenty years later; Burton's clashes with Hezbollah in Beirut and prickly diplomacy with Iran could almost be pulled from present-day newspapers.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

In the mid-1980s, Burton, a Maryland police officer, joined the Diplomatic Security Service, a little-known U.S. government agency, and was assigned to its even less-well-known counterterrorism branch. Far from the fictional CTU of television’s 24, Burton’s new office consisted of three men: the author, another new recruit, and the boss, a no-nonsense career man who had been trying to combat all the world’s terrorists single-handedly. Soon Burton was plunged into the world of Middle Eastern terrorism, and this memoir follows him as he works a number of cases, including the release of hostages from Beirut, which exploded into the Iran-Contra affair and appears to have affected the author in a deep and personal way. In many ways, this book reads like a le Carré spy novel: it’s not flashy, not filled with pyrotechnics, not full of chase scenes and derring-do. Rather, it’s the story of a working man whose job involved trying to prevent people from attacking his country. Shorn of ideological rights and wrongs, it’s a fascinating look at what counterterrorism really means on a day-to-day level. --David Pitt --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


“Rife with anecdotes of assassinations, nuclear threats and double agents.”—Oklahoma Gazette

“Revealing . . . Burton was there, and you will be as well.”—Bobby R. Inman, former director of the National Security Agency

“The world of counterterrorism is like that old jigsaw puzzle in the back of the closet: Its many missing pieces and extra parts jumbled in from other puzzles make it almost impossible to assemble. But in Ghost, Fred Burton manages to join together enough pieces to give us a discerning look at that world. This is a story, told in human terms, that will help make sense of the great puzzle of our times.” —Eric L. Haney, author of Inside Delta Force and executive producer of The Unit

“Striking . . . With spy thriller suspense and the clarity of a police report, former special agent Burton’s State Department saga reads like a brewing-storm prequel to the current war on terror.”—Publishers Weekly

About the Author

Fred Burton is one of the world’s foremost experts on security, terrorists, and terrorist organizations. He is vice president for counterterrorism and corporate security at Stratfor, an influential private intelligence company. He is the former deputy chief of the Diplomatic Security Service, the Department of State’s counterterrorism division.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter One

The Buried Bodies
February 10, 1986
Bethesda, Maryland

On my morning run through February's chilly darkness, my chocolate Lab, Tyler Beauregard, sets the pace. This is our routine together, though we always vary our route now. At agent training, which I just completed, they drilled into us the notion that in our new lives, routines will get us killed. When you join the Dark World, you must become unpredictable. Erratic. We must strip away all the conventions of our old lives and fade into the background. We've been trained. We've practiced. Today, I begin my life as a ghost.

These morning runs will be my one tip to the old life I'm leaving behind. Still, today I take new precautions, such as the snubby Smith & Wesson Model 60 .38-caliber revolver tucked away under my belt.

I love these morning runs with Tyler. She is a remarkable animal, my familiar, a canine that intuits more about loyalty and honor than most of the people I encountered as a police officer in Montgomery County, Maryland. She pads along, tongue lolling, breathing steady. She's a pro. She could run marathons of her own.

My footfalls echo across the empty Bethesda neighborhood. The tidy brick houses and apartments are dark. In my new life, I'll be spending a lot of time in darkness. I've learned to be paranoid. I've learned to look around corners and watch my back. Our instructors warned us that the KGB opens a file on every one of us new agents as soon as we graduate. Then they probe our lives and backgrounds in search of weaknesses, skeletons, or any sort of leverage by which to exploit or co-opt us. Sooner or later, they will make contact with an offer. Or a threat.

I glance behind me, half expecting to see some Eastern Bloc thug in a trench coat shadowing me. But all I see is a thin layer of fog and an empty suburban block.

I look behind me a lot these days. It goes with the job. Situational awareness is essential if we are to stay alive. I don't run with a Walkman banging out Springsteen's Born to Run anymore. My ears are unbound and tuned to the street. Every little sound, every shuffle or distant downshift of an automobile on MacArthur Boulevard registers with me. I file each new noise away in my mind, cataloging it so I'll notice anything out of the ordinary. I've been trained to be an observer. Since I started my training last November, I hone and refine this skill on every morning run.

Tyler picks up the pace. She's taking me toward Glen Echo, a small town on the Potomac. We reach a little jogging trail that runs along Reservoir Road. Here, we escape the suburbs and plunge into the woods. Just before we enter the tree line, I steal a sidelong glance behind me again. I practice this move every day; it is something we learned in training. The trick is to be unobtrusive, to not reveal that you're clearing your six. It has become automatic for me now.

No tails. We're not being followed.

Today my life changes forever. I have no idea what is in store for us new guys. I just know that a year ago, I was a Maryland cop. I protected my community. I loved law enforcement, but I wanted something more. So I applied for federal service, and the Diplomatic Security Service offered me a job. Until last fall, I'd never even heard of the DSS.

I started my training in November 1985, just a few weeks after terrorists hijacked the cruise liner Achille Lauro and executed Leon Klinghoffer for the crime of being an American citizen-and a Jew. They shot him then dumped him overboard in his wheelchair.

The world needs more cops.

Only three out of every hundred who start the training get to the finish line. I felt lucky just to be there. After the ceremony, we stood in alphabetically arranged lines waiting to receive our first assignments. Our class coordinator, Special Agent Phil Whitney, began reading off our names and telling us what we'd be doing for the next phase of our lives. Some of us picked up overseas assignments in our embassy field offices. Some landed protective security tours, guarding our diplomats and the secretary of state. Whitney told a few they'd be assigned as diplomatic couriers, where they would carry our nation's most-guarded secrets from one place to another all around the globe.

When he got to me, Whitney paused. He stared at his clipboard for a moment before saying, "Burton, Counterterrorism Branch."

I'd had no idea what that was. When Whitney reached the middle of the alphabet he called out, "Mullen, Counterterrorism Branch."

I looked down the rows of agents to John Mullen. His flaming red hair was easy to spot. I could see him searching me out. We were the only two to be sent to this puzzling assignment. We exchanged confused glances. What had we gotten into?

At least I'd be going into it with a rock-steady veteran. Before he joined the DSS, Mullen had been an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, battling the growing narco-criminal element and cocaine cartels on the streets of New York City. Legend had it that he'd been in a nasty shoot-out and had run out of ammunition in the midst of the fray. After that, he always carried two guns. One he tucked away in a shoulder holster. The other he wore strapped to his ankle. He prepared for the worst and trusted in firepower. I swear we all thought he slept with those weapons. They were his pacifiers.

A light rain drizzles down on us now. Tyler shakes her coat in midstride, sending water droplets flying. I wish I could do that. We're still on a course that is taking us away from our little redbrick apartment, a fact that I sense is starting to disappoint my dog. I hurry forward until I'm even with her and bend down to run my hands through her damp fur. She looks up at me with pure love. I've already told my wife that when I die, Tyler's ashes will be buried with me.

Back home, my wife, Sharon, is probably just getting up to face her own Monday. We were high school sweethearts and have known each other most of our lives. Up until now, we've lived an average DINK life (Double Income, No Kids). She's an accountant, a damned good one. She's aggressive and driven and works long hours. Now, I'm a spook. Secrecy is our watchword. I realize with a grin that we'll have nothing to talk about at cocktail parties.

Tyler Beauregard dashes ahead of me again until she reaches a narrow footbridge. She waits for me to catch up. She knows this bridge. We've investigated it before. It is top on the list of Dark World sites to see in Washington, D.C. Of course, there are no plaques or markers noting this piece of spy history. To the average workaday American-guys like me until four months ago-it was just a little bridge over a small creek.

But now I know its dark side. This was Kim Philby's dead-drop point. Philby was the KGB's first true superspy, a British intel operative who embraced Communism while at Oxford in the thirties. He compromised hundreds of agents, destroyed scores of operations, and sold out the lives of countless patriots. When his cover was finally blown in the sixties, he escaped to Moscow and got what he deserved: a hellish life under the regime he had helped sustain. In the dingy concrete apartments he later called home, he devolved into a bitter, broken alcoholic given to frequent bouts of complete incoherence. His conscience became his enemy. He died in shame, his name a byword for treason.

In the late 1940s, Philby was posted to Washington, D.C. It was said that he somehow learned the true size of our atomic stockpile, which was not large at the time. He passed that vital tidbit of national security on to the KGB by taping a tube full of documents under this bridge. Legend has it that the information the Russians retrieved here emboldened Stalin to blockade Berlin in 1948.

This is my world now. The days of chasing speeders, driving drunken high school kids home, and taking down burglars is over. At least for me.

Tyler senses I'm brooding and sets off again. This is her way of telling me it is time to return to the warmth of our apartment. I trail along behind her, my breathing easy. As I watch her galloping for home, it strikes me that she too has a connection to the Dark World. She's from Winchester, Virginia. I bought her from a breeder there in town when she was just a pup. That's John Mosby country. He was a Confederate colonel, a renegade guerrilla nicknamed the "Gray Ghost" who struck terror into the hearts of Union rear-area types during the height of the Civil War.

Now I'm counterterror. Whatever that means. I suppose like every American who watches the evening news, I've seen Americans abroad fall victim to political violence. One terror attack after another has darkened the nightly broadcasts-the Achille Lauro, plane hijackings, car bombings, Beirut. We're a nation still scarred by the Iran hostage crisis and that 444-day nightmare. Will I be fighting against this sort of criminal now? I'm not sure, but I hope so.

Time to find out. We run through the morning, never retracing our steps. Periodically, I check my rear. No KGB agent picks up my tail. When we reach the apartment, we're still alone. A half hour out in the neighborhood and we never saw another soul. It is refreshing to have such privacy.

A quick shower and a hastily downed breakfast soon follow our arrival home. I dress carefully. I toss my Casio watch onto the nightstand. I use it only for running. In its place, I strap on a black-faced Rolex Submariner. There's no way I could afford such a luxury at retail price on my salary. A government special agent makes $22,000. But on our honeymoon to the Virgin Islands a few years ago, I snagged this one for $750.

In the closet, I find my Jos. A. Bank suit. Brown. Standard spook issue. The company gives us agents a discount. I button up a white dress shirt and throw on the one thing that will give me any distinction among my colleagues: a duck-patterned Orvis tie. No sense in totally obliterating my identity with my government threads.

From AudioFile

In the first five minutes you'll be hooked, knowing you're going to enter the dark world of a former counterintelligence agent. Tom Weiner's deep voice maximizes the impact of the author's machine-gun present-tense style to create an aura of tension and awareness. Starting at the beginning of his career with government intelligence, Burton takes listeners on secret missions, gives intimate details of headliner terrorism cases, and shares how such a dangerous job affected his personal life. Weiner has distinct voices for all the author's colleagues, enemies, and informants. Each is so convincing that none sound contrived. Burton writes with the skill of Tom Clancy, but his plot contains the extra dimension of historical accuracy. J.A.H. Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award © AudioFile 2008, Portland, Maine --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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