Sunday, October 3, 2010

Terrorism: Interview with former counterterrorism agent and author Fred Burton—Part II

Book: GHOST—Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent
By Mark Young
Mystery novels and international thrillers are built on danger, intrigue, and chaos. Readers are given an opportunity to enter a world where danger lurks everywhere and world security rests in the hands of a few heroic characters. It is a relatively safe world because readers never get hurt. They can simply close the book and walk away when the story is finished or the plot gets too scary. That’s entertainment.

But there exist a real world where people do get hurt. Where real-life heroes face life-threatening dangers of global proportions. Where the security of the U.S. and its allies rest in the hands of a few groups trying to make the world safer for all of us. Among these heroes are counterterrorism agents and private security specialists trying to make sense of an ever-changing violent world. Fred Burton has walked in both these worlds of government and private industry. Based upon his experiences, Fred wrote a book, Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent about his time spent in this Dark World.

Fred entered the private sector in 1998 after spending thirteen years as a counterterrorist agent for the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS). He became 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.

In our last interview, Fred shared with us his work and experiences with DSS leading up to his departure in 1998. Today, we will delve into world events since that time, including 9/11 and the current status of worldwide terrorism. Fred tracked terrorists since his early days at DSS, and he continues this effort in his current position with Statfor, monitoring current world events, tracking down leads and information in this dangerous world of espionage and shifting world power. He still treks through the Dark World.

MARK: Tell us about your job with Stratfor, Fred. What kind of work are you involved with as vice president for counterterrorism and corporate security?

FRED:  We are a private intelligence company that provides analysis on geo-politics, economics, terrorism and security.   Many of our products are free and your readers can sign up for our materials at

MARK: What do you see as pressing security issues today? What are some of the countries or groups posing the greatest threat to our national security?

FRED:   Placing the global threat in perspective and making sense of conducting business in places like Mexico, India, Russia and China.   

MARK: Which events in the last few years do you view as indicative of these trends?

FRED:  Clearly, the soft target threat with a real concern towards mass transportation on subways and rail, primarily in the DC to NYC corridor. 

MARK: Since 9/11, more money and resources have been thrown at this war on terror then at any time in our country’s history. Is it working? Are we doing a better job of winning this war, or have we created more of a bureaucratic maze for our counterterrorist agents to navigate?

FRED:  Yes and no.  The greatest challenge facing the CT (counterterrorism) community today is making sense of the volumes of information collected, i.e., finding that needle in the haystack. 

MARK: In GHOST, you discuss some of the bureaucratic hurdles agents must climb over to obtain their objectives. How politically-motivated policies sometimes results in sensitive information being leaked to the wrong folks, or worse, bad guys escaping and sources getting killed.

One example in your book really helped clarify what agents are up against. Information came in about where to find a terrorist Ramzi Youself— a terrorist with a $2 million bounty on his head. You give us the inside story as to how his capture was orchestrated.

Let me briefly summarize this without giving way the drama and highlights of your manhunt: GHOST outlines how Yousef orchestrated the bombings of the World Trade Center in 1993 and Philippine Air Flight 434 in 1994. Police narrowly shut down another major terrorism campaign Youself set in motion. Your book tells how he planned to assassinate the pope as a diversionary event to help in a much broader goal—simultaneous bombings of eleven airlines while still airborne. This terrorist already escaped several times before because agents followed bureaucratic reporting procedures, slowing effective reaction and allowing information be leaked.  Finally, quick and effective action by your team resulted in the capture of this terrorist.

I found it incredible to learn that the State Department’s inspector general and the Department of Justice IG office opened investigations against you instead of awarding you a well-deserved commendation. I can only image how this must have affected morale in DSS and other agencies as well as stress in your own life, even after they cleared you. Near the end of GHOST, you  wrote, “Coordination between agencies remains touch and go, even during crisis. Politics infuses everything, especially after the WMD fiasco in Iraq.”

 Is it these kinds of problems—notifying every agency and nation in the alphabet before initiating action on intelligence information—that makes counterterrorism work so frustrating and challenging?

FRED:   I never expected to be praised for my efforts.  Frankly, I was doing my job.  I found it disheartening to struggle to get our agents recognized for their efforts, after learning cash bonuses were paid to many others “for their efforts in bringing Ramzi Yousef to justice.”   Having said that, nothing would have surprised me at this point.  In many ways, our job was never one set up for success.  

I don’t encourage anyone to get into the CT business especially today. 

MARK: How many agencies are now linked in this fight against terror? Who are they and how are they blended together?

FRED:  The primary lead are the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces, known as the JTTF’s.  However, there remains a tremendous amount of friction between the JTTF’s and the DHS (Department of Homeland Security) Fusion Centers. 

Which is why in many ways it’s much easier to work white collar crime or gang violence. 

MARK: Development of an effective network of human intelligence (HUMIT)—human sources placed in critical locations around the world—consistently emerges as a critical area of intelligence gathering still needing vast improvement. Has this improved? Or, are we relying too much on technology and not enough on boots-on-the-ground intelligence?

FRED:  One never has enough human assets.  Most CT failures occur due to a lack of HUMINT. 

MARK: One of this country’ great manhunts after 9/11 has been the search for Osama bin Laden, founder and leader of the infamous terrorist group al-Qaeda. Those of us who have not lived in this Dark World wonder how a suspect like bin Laden has never been captured. This inability to eliminate these kinds of threats seems to suggest a flaw in our capabilities. How do we hope to wage a successful war on terror if we cannot hunt down a man like this? What must we do to overcome these obstacles?

FRED:  We failed due to a lack of human intelligence – sources close enough to lead us to OBL.  Without human assets, you are blind. 

MARK: Going back to GHOST, you identified a problem that has plagued intelligence-gathering agencies whether they be local, state or federal—protecting the integrity of intelligence files and sources from public exposure. Those involved with intelligence gathering know it is critical to create a wall between intelligence-gathering efforts and criminal prosecutions. Once in court, a case against a defendant in U.S. courts calls for almost full discloser except under specific and articulable situations. The fear of any intelligence officer is that our courts will require intelligence files and information to be turned over to the defendant—terrorists, their associates and foreign powers that seek information against us. At the very least, those agents trying to exist as ghosts in this Dark World run the risk exposure.

One current case that caught my eye is the trial of accused bombing conspirator Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, scheduled for trial in the Southern District of New York. Ghailani will be the first Guantanamo detainee prosecuted in the civilian justice system. He is accused of participating in an al-Qaida conspiracy that resulted in 224 people killed when the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed on August 7, 1998. The political decision to move such trials from military tribunals to civilian courts seems ludicrous. Ghailani’s alleged acts were committed on foreign shores, the defendants are not U.S. citizens, and his actions should classify him as an enemy combatant.

There are many issues revolving around this political decision to bringing Gitmo detainees into our civilian courts for prosecution. As a former counterterrorism agent, what dangers do you foresee this poses to DSS agents—and other intelligence-gathering capabilities—when intelligence debriefings and interviews are turned over as discovery? What are we going to lose by allowing these civilian trials?

FRED:  On the security front, cities like NY are reluctant to hold the trials due to the soft target threat outside of the secure perimeter of the courtroom.  

The prosecution will be challenging. 

I think it’s feasible we may see some sort of hybrid.  Meaning prosecution by a civilian court on a military base where security can be assured. 

MARK: I understand you are working on a second book based upon the assassination of an Israeli fighter pilot, working as an attachĂ© at the Israeli embassy in Washing D.C. at the time of his assassination. The victim was killed in your old neighborhood. Can you tell us a little about what you’ve learned about this case and when your book might be available?

FRED: In April 2011 my next book will be published. 

The book is about my thirty-year quest to solve a political assassination on U.S. soil.   I’m optimistic folks will find it an interesting read.   It has certainly taken a long time to solve, but I’m persistent! 

At least I can finally sleep…

Thank you for joining us, Fred. Readers can find out more about Fred’s company, Stratfor, by clicking on this link. His book Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent Ghost is available through this Random House link.

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