Book: GHOST—Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent
Interview with Fred Burton, author & former counterterrorism agent
By Mark Young
Everyone remembers where they were on 9/11 when we came under attack. That moment in history will never be forgotten. Everything changed for America—and the world—on that day. The devastation hurled upon us by nineteen al-Qaeda terrorists was an act of war. Tragically, counterterrorism experts around the world knew terrorists would try to strike like this. Agents also knew they might not be able stop it. They were right.
Most of us will never know how many times potential tragedies like the World Trade Center (WTC)—already scarred by an terrorist attack in 1993—have been quietly and effectively suppressed by counterterrorism efforts. These heroic struggles take place in a world closed off to most of us, a world where darkness hides most of these desperate battles.
Former counterterrorism agent Fred Burton is one of those experts who fought the good fight against terrorism. He wages that battle today. Fred served with the little-known Diplomatic Security Service (DSS)—the U.S. Department of State’s counterterrorism division—for thirteen years, rising to the position of deputy chief. He left that agency in 1998 to become vice president for counterterrorism and corporate security at Stratfor Global Intelligence, a unique company staffed by a worldwide community of intelligence professionals. Stratfor uses its own far-flung HUMIT (Human Intelligence) contacts as well as other sources of information to provide governments and businesses up-to-date analysis of political, economic and military developments around the world.
Fred lived a crisis-ridden life in what he terms the Dark World beginning on February 10, 1986. He writes, “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.”
He joined the Dark World and began to fall “Down the Rabbit Hole” as he described it in one chapter. The first cases on his desk to study were the twin bombing tragedies in Beirut, Lebanon three years earlier. On April 18, 1983, Hezbollah terrorists orchestrated a suicide bomber to drive a van—loaded with two-thousand pounds of explosives—to the front of the U.S. Embassy. The explosion killed sixty-three people and wounded a hundred more. Four months later, another Hezbollah suicide bomber crashed through security and detonated himself, setting off an explosion killing two-hundred and forty marines and fifty-eight French paratroopers.
Thus began Fred’s indoctrination into the Dark World, leading him to become DSS’s expert on the Mid East. Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent is Fred’s personal account of living in a world where nothing is as it seems, a world of darkness filled with adversaries and friends, killers and victims, fighting a war without borders. We have been invited to take a glimpse into this Dark World and share Fred’s journey.
This will be a two-part interview. Today, we’ll learn about Fred’s life as a DSS agent between 1986-1998. We will try to grasp the threats he faced, the cases he worked, and the means by which he investigated these cases. The second interview will deal with the events leading up to and after 9/11, and the current challenges faced by counterterrorism agents.
MARK: Your book, GHOST, helped me to understand some of the challenges and dangers facing our countries’ counterterrorism agents. Thank you, Fred, for allowing us to get a glimpse into this world. Let’s start with information about yourself—life prior to GHOST, why you joined DSS, and what kind of training equipped you for this work.
FRED: First, very humbling that anyone wants to read my story, so I thank you.
I go over a great deal of my training in GHOST, but I was a former police officer, a job I loved. We had State Dept. Special Agents (known as the DSS now) protecting SECSTATE (Secretary of State) in our county (next to DC) and the job seemed very interesting. Our training went from Rosslyn, Virginia, FLETC (Federal Law Enforcement Training Center), flash and bang school in West Virginia, and back to DC. Subjects included: Guns, protection, IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), first aid, counter-intelligence, physical security and the dreaded background investigations.
MARK: Not many people are familiar with the history and existence of the Department of State’s counterterrorism division. What is DSS’s history? How did it evolve to become what it is today?
FRED: Steve Gleason founded the unit and we started in 1985 with three agents. I was one of his first two agents. Three of us for the world. Since I was the youngest, Steve gave me “the Sand Box.” Steve was a wonderful mentor and a true American hero. We remain in touch.
The State Department has a long history of special agents that precedes the CIA and FBI. Traditionally, the State Department has not gone out of its way to promote the organization, preferring to focus on the Foreign Service and diplomacy. Efforts along these lines have gotten better over the years, but the organization was always behind the PR curve.
After we captured Ramzi Yousef, the first World Trade Center bomber, other organizations like the DEA and FBI were claiming credit for his arrest. However, the fact remains that Yousef was captured by DSS special agents. You still find statements in various books attributing Yousef’s arrest to the FBI or CIA. Simply not true.
MARK: In GHOST, your reference the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy as Beirut I, and the bombing a few months later of the marine barracks as Beirut II. Were you prepared for what you faced as a new agent with DSS? How did DSS and other agencies start identifying and hunting down those responsible for these tragic events?
FRED: No! I was clearly not prepared, nor had any idea what to do. Fortunately, Steve was there for me to lean on.
Our unit also started the Rewards for Justice Program which has been very effective on the GWOT (Global War On Terror). I think Steve designed the first reward poster on a napkin. No kidding.
MARK: You spent 1986-1998 with DSS. Give our readers a thumbnail sketch of the patterns you began to see in those years regarding terrorist groups and those countries bent on destroying the U.S.
FRED: Embassy attacks by VBIED (Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Device), hijackings of aircraft due to poor security, hostage taking and diplomats targeted.
MARK: One terrorist group that repeatedly surfaces in your book is the Lebanese-based Hezbollah, a terrorist group with close ties to Iran and Syria. In my limited research of this group, I was surprised to learn that many European countries refuse to classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. How does this lack of understanding or apathy allow such a group to continue their terrorist activities?
FRED: Hezbollah is now a political party in Lebanon, so our efforts to capture terrorists linked to the group will remain impossible.
MARK: Ali Hassan Salameh, dubbed The Red Prince, seemed to have immense influence on these terrorist groups even after his assassination in 1979. Tell us a little about this man, his history, and his influence on terrorists groups in later years.
FRED: To understand terrorist m.o., one must study the Black September Organization (BSO.) All roads lead to BSO. In my assessment, Salameh was the picture perfect terrorist later turned PLO diplomat and U.S. Government informant. He was assassinated in Beirut by the MOSSAD in a brilliant CT (Counter Terrorism) mission. I talk at length about Salameh in my next book to be released in April 2011.
MARK: Prominent terrorists-turn-politicians such as Yasser Arafat seemed able to convince other countries in the global community that they are merely freedom fighters struggling for their people. How do terrorist politicians like Arafat—who made killers like Salameh his chief of security—hoodwink the rest of world to believe they have a right to participate in legitimate political discourse? How do global leaders justify sitting down at table with men who have shed innocent blood? Do these world leaders really believe they might protect their own countries from further terrorist acts by allowing these thugs to sit at the same table with the world community?
FRED: One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.
MARK: Part of DSS’s responsibilities is providing dignitary protection to world leaders when they are visiting this country. I empathized with you regarding some of the leaders your agency was forced to protect—for example, individuals like Arafat and another diplomat with close ties to the Italian mafia. Was it difficult to separate your personal feelings from the business of protecting these individuals while on U.S. soil?
FRED: DSS prepared its agents very well for missions like this. Fascinating job.
MARK: I can only imagine the level of stress you endured as a DSS agent, Fred. For example, during 1986 I read where your agency dealt with one crisis after another connected to conflict orchestrated by Libya and Muammar al-Qaddafi. For our readers, here is short summary of what DSS faced in March and April of that year:
- Navy F-14s shot down two Libyan MiGs over the Gulf of Sidra in self-defense.
- Libyans launched missiles at our naval aircraft in the Gulf of Sidra
- Turkey uncovers a Libyan plot to strike at a U.S. Officers club in Ankara.
- Libyans plan to strike at naval fleet headquarters in Naples, Italy.
- Our embassy in Japan, along with the Imperial Place, hit by rockets from a terrorist group supported by Libyans.
- A bomb detonates close to where the U.S. Secretary of State is housed in Athens, Greece.
- Libyans agents began offering large sums of money to Hezbollah to buy American hostages held by other terrorists.
- With Libyan assistance, master terrorist Abu Nidal’s organization sends hit squads into air terminals in Rome and Vienna, killing sixteen people and wounding another 138 waiting for El Al flights to Israel.
- A bomb explodes aboard TWA Flight 840, en route to Athens from Rome, killing four passengers.
- A bomb detonates in a German disco frequented by American GIs, killing several and wounding 200 people in a plot linked to the Libyans.
- U.S. launches operation against Libya, destroying Qaddafi’s compound. The same day, an embassy staff member is shot in Khartoum, Sudan.
- The bodies of three hostages show up in Beirut, obviously in retaliation for the bombings in Libya. Later that day, the British discover a plot to blow up an El Al jetliner leaving London.
- Terrorist unsuccessfully attempt to kill another embassy staff member in Sanaa, Yemen.
How did your agency scramble to handle such an onslaught of attacks? How did you personally handle this?
FRED: Not very well to be blunt. We were understaffed and overwhelmed. For every real attack you saw on TV and radio, there were 3-5 other serious plots/threats. Scary.
MARK: Many of our readers are mystery writers and readers. They become connected to their characters, draw to the character’s internal and external struggles. As they read your book, they will have the same kind questions about you that I did. You do a good job of sharing your thoughts and struggles with the reader as the story unfolds. In my opinion, one of the greatest crisis in your career loomed in 1988 when Pakistan’s presidential aircraft crashed killing everyone on board, including their president and our ambassador. As hostilities grew between Pakistan and India—with both countries wielding nuclear weapons—you were tasked with launching an investigation into this matter in an attempt to get at the truth. This investigation, in part, was intended to lessen political conflict. I don’t want to steal anything from the book because I think readers will find this investigation fascinating, but this James Bond-ish kind of case made me wonder what was going on inside Fred Burton’s mind while all this was unfolding. Can you tell us a little about the stress you faced during this event?
FRED: I asked myself why I chose to leave the comfort of my police car! The PAK-1 case was probably the most intriguing and challenging of the cases I worked. Some days, I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. Kinda like pushing a boulder up a hill. In retrospect, I was certainly overwhelmed by the nature of the responsibility and simply tried to do the best I could do. I’m sure many people would have done the same things I did if placed in similar circumstances. In the CT business, sometimes the only decisions you have are bad ones…..
MARK: Reading your book about those pre-9/11 years leaves a reader with an uneasy feeling. We know that day—when terrorists attacked the WTC, the Pentagon, and tried to reach Washington, D.C. with a fourth airliner—forever changed our perception about international terrorism. Your book tracks events leading up to 9/11—including the first WTC attack in 1993—as these terrorist groups began to broaden their base of operations and prove to the world they can strike anywhere. As your book unfolds, it becomes evident that such an event as 9/11 appeared inevitable. I know my next question is a difficult one to answer, and I don’t mean to point fingers. The 1993 WTC attack would seem to have dispelled any misconceptions that future strikes could not happen here. Why were we so ill prepared?
FRED: Lack of resources, lack of political will and a lack of HUMINT. Terrorism was not a national priority.
Fred is not one to mince words. On Monday, October 4, Terrorism Part II will be posted where we’ll learn about the current status of terrorism following 9/11. Find out about Fred’s company, Statfor, and what governmental agencies and private organizations are learning about global terrorism today. Which countries pose the greatest threat to our security and what can we do about it?