GHOST: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent
Editor's Note: This week's Terrorism Weekly is the first chapter of Fred Burton's new book, GHOST: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent. Burton is vice president for counterterrorism and corporate security at STRATFOR. He is the former deputy chief of the counterterrorism division of the U.S. State Department's Diplomatic Security Service.
To view a short video of Burton discussing some of the topics in his book, click here.
To purchase a copy of GHOST directly from the STRATFOR Bookshelf, click here.
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Chapter One: The Buried Bodies
February 10, 1986
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."
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.
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.
I fold the creds up and tuck them into my left jacket pocket. I’m agent number 192. Last, I strap on my belt holster. It holds two speed loaders for my Smith & Wesson Model 19 .357 Magnum.
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.
Finally, I reach down to find my Johnston & Murphy lace-up shoes. I used to wear loafers when I wore a suit, but that's a no-no in the Dark World. Our instructors taught us to always wear lace-up shoes. Why? If you have to kick someone while wearing loafers, chances are your shoe will fly off. Lace-ups stay on through hand-to-hand combat.
I wonder who I'll need to kick in the months to come.
I slip a Parker rollerball into my shirt pocket, then check my briefcase. Inside is a small black pouch with the Holy Grail of our business: five little pins designed to be affixed to our left lapels. Each one is color-coded: black, red, blue, green, and gold. Depending on the day and the mission, they denote to other agents that the wearer is on protective security duty. That's basically bodyguard detail, like what the Secret Service does for the president. In agent training, we were told that if we lose these pins, it would automatically trigger an internal affairs investigation.
In the briefcase next to the pouch is my custom-made radio earpiece. It was molded specifically for me and my left ear. When in the field, this will be my lifeline to my fellow agents.
I pull my credentials out of the briefcase. They look like an average wallet until you open them. Inside, they're marked "This special agent holds a Top Secret clearance and is worthy of trust and confidence." Our gold badge sits next to those words. I fold the creds up and tuck them into my left jacket pocket. I'm agent number 192.
Last, I strap on my belt holster. It holds two speed loaders for my Smith & Wesson Model 19 .357 Magnum. I slide the ebony weapon into its sheath and snap the strap in place. With the two speed loaders, I've got eighteen rounds. That should be enough. If you can't get the job done with eighteen shots, you'd better run.
I'm ready for work. Well, almost. It's a cold day and I'll need a jacket. Inside my closet hangs a green Barbour Beaufort. This is a standard-issue piece of cold-weather gear for the British MI5 and several other intelligence services. They're warm and have inner pockets that are perfect for hiding an extra revolver or a small radio. The pockets are lined and keep hands toasty, even on a snowy day. This allows us to forgo gloves, making it easier to draw our weapons.
Or so the veteran spooks have told me.
Back in the day, special agents preferred tweed. Look around D.C. in the sixties and seventies, and the spooks from Langley and the Hooverite FBI agents all wore brown tweed with elbow patches. They looked a bit like college professors, only cooler and in better shape. And well-armed.
That's old-school now. We new guys go with the Barbour Beauforts. One of my instructors told me just before graduation that in a pinch, if you need help while out on the street during an assignment, look for the Barbour Beaufort jackets. Chances are they'll be keeping a spook warm.
But for which side?
By now it's almost six. Sharon's coiffed and ready for work. We kiss and both of us depart, leaving the apartment to Tyler. She'll take good care of it.
My gold Jetta awaits. It is not James Bond's Aston Martin, just the best we could do on our salaries. I climb aboard and head for MacArthur Avenue. I check my rearview mirror every few seconds, memorizing the cars behind me. Are any following? I merge onto Canal Road and pass along the outskirts of the Georgetown University campus.
It seems like such a normal commute in an average part of America. Yet I know that today is going to be different. The life here on the surface, the life 90 percent of us lead, is going to be a mere reflection from now on for me. Already there have been changes. I have a false driver's license. I'm Fred Booth to people in the normal world. We keep our first names so we respond naturally when somebody uses it. I stole my uncle's last name for my pseudonym.
There's another distinction. The plates on my Jetta are standard- looking Maryland issue, but they are blanks in the state's computer system. If anyone runs a trace on them, the Maryland DMV will alert our office. If the KGB wants info on us newbies, our license plates will be a dead end.
Through the predawn darkness, I drive and watch my tail in the light traffic. Seventeen minutes later, I reach the Harry S Truman Building. This is the State Department's home base. Located a short ways off the National Mall, it is an imposing edifice.
I flash my creds to the guard. He nods. I’m new; he recognizes it. I ask him where the Counterterrorism Branch is located. He shrugs. Even the guards don’t know where it is. It takes me a few minutes to find my way down to the investigations section, located deep inside the bowels of the building. I find myself underground. No windows, poor air circulation. Government-issued desks abound. Someone takes pity on me and leads me to a narrow corridor, past a set of restrooms, where I am left in front of an oversized wooden door, painted blue. Embedded inside the wood is
an S&G combination lock. I knock tentatively.
I try not to stare by keeping my eyes on the file cabinets. It takes me a minute to realize that stacked around us are piles of plastic explosives, some of which are labeled in Russian Cyrillic.
The door opens, and I come face-to-face with . . . not James Bond. Medium length, salt-and-pepper hair, mustache, ruddy, rugged features make this man look more like a patrol sergeant than James Bond. For a moment, I’m rooted in place with astonishment. All I can do is stare as he swings back out of the doorway and sits behind a weather-beaten old desk, cigarette dangling from his lips. He ignores me and picks up two phones, sticking one in each ear. Piled on the desk in front of him are stacks of paper. He seems to be reading as he talks. Using a red pen, he scribbles something across a piece of paper even as he shouts into one of the phones. Then he slams it down, takes a long drag on the smoke, and stares up at me.
I look around the room. The walls are bare. The office is tiny, made even smaller by the fact that there are three oversized wooden desks in it. Not Bond’s sits slightly off to one side, but the other two are back-toback. Mullen is perched in an ancient chair that looks like it could have gone government surplus sometime before the Spanish-American War. He appears completely dumbfounded. He’s already surrounded by stacks of paperwork and file folders. He’s gamely making an effort to read something, but I can tell his attention is really on Not Bond, who has returned to chewing somebody out over the other phone while crushing his cigarette out in an overflowing ashtray. He nods at me and points at the remaining desk. Apparently, I get to sit face-to-face with Mullen all day. Privacy is not a luxury we will enjoy here.
A couple of fans blow the dusty air around. Already, it carries a whiff of body odor, tinged with that musty smell yellowing documents give off. They mingle to create a totally new sort of odor, one part locker room, one part dingy, dank document repository, like a high school football team has set up shop in the basement of the National Archives.
Mullen gives me a weak grin, as if to say Welcome to Oz, Burton.
I step to my desk. Around it, in every nook and cranny, tan burn bags are stacked and double stacked. Apparently, we’ll be turning much of the paperwork in here into ashes at some point or another. More burn bags slump against a series of five paint-flecked, industrial gray file cabinets. I wonder what those contain. I glance over at Not Bond. He waves at me and points to my chair. Dutifully, I sit in it. He’s jabbering a mile a minute. Words spill out of his mouth, but I can’t understand what he’s saying. He seems to have his own language. I hear him use Fullback, POTUS, Eagle 1, LIMDIS, and NODIS all in the same series of sentences. Is this English or is Not Bond a Navajo code talker? And will I have to learn all this stuff, too? Who starts a new job that requires a new language?
I try not to stare by keeping my eyes on the file cabinets. It takes me a minute to realize that stacked around us are piles of plastic explosives, some of which are labeled in Russian Cyrillic.
Not Bond lights another cigarette and sticks another phone in his ear. I wonder if smoking around stuff that blows up is all that wise of an idea.
One of the fans blows a big waft of tobacco smoke across my desk. I try not to cough. Mullen studiously avoids eye contact. He looks like a frazzled redheaded college student cramming for a midterm.
Not Bond slams one of his phones down onto its cradle. It’s an old rotary, like something from the seventies. Minutes later, he cradles the other one.This is a mixed blessing.Now all his multitasking attention is riveted on me.We stare at each other. I try not to look panicked, but the truth is I can already see I’m in way over my head. I’m in an office full of bombs.
“Steve Gleason,” says Not Bond. “Sorry about that. Talking with the Folks Across the River.”
I give him a blank look.
“The CIA. This is an unsecured line. We have to talk around things.” He guffaws, takes a deep drag on his smoke, then adds, “As if the Reds couldn’t figure out who the ‘Folks Across the River’ are.”
I stay silent. It seems like the prudent thing to do.
“See those cabinets?” He points his cigarette at the line of gray boxes on the far wall.
“That’s where the bodies are buried.”
I hope that’s not literal. At this point, given the plastique, the burn bags, the smells, all bets are off.
He reaches over his desk and grabs a couple of files. He tosses them at me. They slide across my desk. “Beirut I and II. Read them.” I look down. The files are coded with numbers and letters. They offer me no clue as to what they contain.
He lunges for more paperwork. “Open a case number on these two. Then go draw some travel money. We take turns running to FOGHORN to pick up the latest cables.”
I don’t understand any of this. I want to ask what FOGHORN is, but I decide it would be more prudent to remain silent.
“Look, what we do here is very secret. Hardly anyone here at State knows what we do. Keep it that way. What we do here stays in this room, clear?”
“Read these.” He launches a raft of diplomatic cables my way. The top ones are marked “SECRET” in red letters. I’d never read a secret document in my life. Now, I’m trapped in a blizzard of them. It’ll take me hours to read this stuff.
“Check out the cold cases. Dissect them. Find ways we can keep our people alive in the future, okay?” He stabs the air with his cigarette, pointing at the file cabinets again.
His phone rings. He snatches it up, his attention on me broken. It is time to get to work.
I look down at the pile of paper and wonder where to start.