Sunday, June 15, 2008

Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent

Here is an expanded version of my book review on "Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent" which appears in today's San Antonio Express-News:

Twenty years ago, the idea of defending the United States against terrorism was relatively new. So new, in fact, that only a three-man Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) team situated in a windowless, smoke-filled office in the basement of the Harry S. Truman Building in our nation’s capital was responsible for keeping tabs on the most violent religious extremists in the world.

Fred Burton, a key figure in international counterterrorism and one of the original three agents, has taken off his Barbour Beaufort spy jacket to give a deeply personal account of the terroristic threats and acts America faced during his years as a DSS agent in “GHOST: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent.”

Burton, currently vice president for counterterrorism at Stratfor, a private intelligence company, recounts riveting, real world cases of espionage that detail how the U.S. tracked Libya-linked master terrorist Abu Nidal; captured Ramzi Yousef, architect of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; and pursued the assassins of major political figures including Yitzhak Rabin, Meir Kahane, and General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the president of Pakistan.

“Ghost” is a fascinating read, written in a solemn, heartfelt tone that conveys the angst and strife Burton felt as he tried to rid “The Dark World” of terrorists, while bringing home American hostages safely.

“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 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…Each name on my list has eluded pursuit and is still out there…Most of the names have long been forgotten by the public, but not by me.”

In a telephone interview during a nationwide book tour in Washington, D.C., Burton provides additional insight into his years with the DSS, and his thoughts on the Texas border serving as a portal for terrorists entering the U.S.

Q. Given your former job and current occupation, isn’t it dangerous to come out with a book and tour that exposes you to people who still reside in “The Dark World?”
A. Having been in this business for as many years as I have, going back to my days as a police officer as well as a special agent, it comes with the territory. I would venture to guess that street cops in San Antonio, and the border agents in Texas, are at more risk than I am. I have no fears of retribution, but I still take safety measures.

Q. How is “The Dark World” doing?
A. It’s getting harder for them. The U.S. government has a much more robust capability to analyze threats and to make sense of the puzzle than we ever did. There are now thousands of analysts and thousands of agents assigned to this issue around globe, so they have a much better capability to oversee things. The technology has greatly increased from the days when I first started with 3x5 index cards, so their ability to connect the dots is much better.

Q. How effective is al-Qaida today?
A. al-Qaida is under a tremendous amount of pressure. The Federal Government has done a very good job of hunting down, capturing and killing high valued targets as evident with the recent military tribunal of Khalid Sheilkh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.
The real concern from a domestic terror prospective is the “Lone Wolf Threat.” When you start game-boarding possible scenarios, one of the most worrisome is the individual who is inspired by al-Qaida and doesn’t tell anybody what he’s doing. Therefore, you don’t have the capability to have an informant close to him to report on his actions.

Q. How does religion reach the level of violent extremism in other countries?
A. We have extremists in all walks of religion. When you start looking at Islamic fundamentalists, you have individuals who are co-opted, trained and indoctrinated at an age where they’re easily influenced.
With regards to al-Qaida, they look for individuals who can be taken aside, used and manipulated. The Holy Grail for an organization like al-Qaida is to find individuals like Ramzi Yousef, who I was involved with in the first World Trade Center bombing, or a Mohammed Alta—individuals who have the intellect to become tactical commanders.

Q. How close was the world on the brink of nuclear war after the assassination of President Zia of Pakistan?
A. When that plane crashed, you had a country that was without a government. You had a country that had always been engaged in intelligence and covert operations and wars and rumors of wars with India. Literally, you had the world on fire there for a while and you had a very tenuous situation that wouldn’t have taken much to push either country over the edge. Fortunately, calmer minds prevailed and, with some diplomatic pressure, we were able to buy time which was exactly what we needed to help diffuse the situation.

Q. Governor Rick Perry has appointed you to the Texas Border Security Council. Are there any indications that terrorists are coming into the U.S. via Mexican smuggling routes?
A. We have evidence of terrorist operatives coming into the United States (via the Texas/Mexico border)…we have picked up terrorists that are on the No-Fly List, the Most Wanted List, and the Terrorist Lookout List. It’s a real issue…and it’s affecting our entire Homeland Security Program.

Q. If you could remove only one name from your list, which would it be?
A. Remember, this is my list and my reasons are personal. If I could only remove one name from my list, it would be Hasan Izz-al-Din, who is still operating in Lebanon. Among the many terrorism acts he’s been associated with, he was involved in the death of CIA Beirut Station Chief Bill Buckley, and the TWA Flight 847 hijacking and death of U.S. Navy Diver Robert Stethem.