Small Wars Journal

Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent

Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent. Fred Burton.

Hardcover: 288 pages

Publisher: Random House (June 3, 2008)

Book Review by Jon A. Custis

The Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), with its intermittent hiring freezes and exhaustive screening process, is a fairly well-known government security apparatus. With Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent, author Fred Burton pulls back the curtain on the formative years of the DSS's Counterterrorism (CT) Division, an element that began with three agents working in the bowels of the Harry S. Truman Building, behind a secure door and in the midst of the "dead bodies" files. In the process, Burton details his personal involvement in investigations into terrorist acts that occurred as far back as the Beirut Embassy and Marine Barracks bombings of 1983.

This memoir is all at once hard-hitting, well-researched, and an easy read. Organized into thirty-six chapters, with thoughtfully-placed transitions between each, Ghost becomes ones of those books that is easy to put down and return to in a few days. The book's appeal stemmed from the insight it provided on a multitude of state-sponsored and independent terrorist incidents, along with Burton's efforts to glean lessons in prevention. In today's counter-IED terminology, Burton could be considered to have been working towards "getting to the left of boom," as his team sought to determine the vulnerabilities that the Department of State faced abroad and at home. Burton also does an admirable job of delineating the division of labor between the various three-letter agencies that work against terrorism in the "Dark World." He sums it up well by stating: "In many ways, we're America's Dark World redheaded stepchild. We maneuver in the cracks and crevices between the other agencies. It is a tough place to operate." This may be news to the casual reader who previously assumed that the Central Intelligence Agency was the dominant actor in defeating terrorism abroad, and thus those chapters contribute to the book's readability.

The CT Division's efforts took Burton to Germany for debriefings of Hezbollah captives snatched from the streets of Beirut, to Pakistan as he helped investigate the crash of the Presidential C-130 that killed President Zia-ul-Haq, Ambassador Raphael, and Brigadier General Wassom, (U.S. Army) in 1988, and to Cyprus as he probed the causes of Pan Am Flight 103's break-up over Lockerbie, Scotland. It was illuminating to see how the defensive efforts of the DSS intersected with terrorist acts that captured headlines throughout the eighties and nineties.

The book should not be subtitled as a confessional, since it is not a story of misdeeds, secrets, and recurring lies. Rather, it recounts aggressive actions taken to protect our nation's diplomats -- actions in a campaign that almost cost Burton his marriage and family. Fred Burton left DSS to serve as the vice president for Strategic Forecasting (STRATFOR), and seems to attempt to offer the truth and provide justice for the families of victims who were taken by terrorism's hand. The writing can be a bit clichéd in the early chapters, but picks up its pace and matures along the way. There is nothing earth-shattering about Ghost, but it is good material presented well, and an eye-opener in a few areas: 4 out of 5 stars. It is a good read from a security professional who has been on the front lines of the good fight. It will make for excellent pleasure reading for the aspiring Homeland Security, intelligence, or protective security professional.

Major Jon Custis is Small Wars Council member jcustis and a Marine infantry officer.