I became aware of Fred Burton through the free weekly defence briefings put out by STRATFOR, his current employer. They stand out from other media reports, both as the result of the details they focus on and the thrust of their overall analysis. While I wouldn’t bet heavily on them being entirely correct, they do play a useful counterbalancing role when read alongside media stories that are generally rather similar.
Ghost describes Burton’s history with the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) between 1986 and 1993, with an epilogue in 2004. Burton’s work involved collecting intelligence, investigating plots and attacks, protecting diplomats, and so forth. He goes into detail on several of the investigations he was involved in, including the assassination of Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and the capture of Ramzi Yousef. He also describes some of the tactics and strategies employed by the DSS, as well as by other law enforcement and intelligence agencies. These include the operation of motorcades, cover techniques, and countersurveillance: a tactic he claims special credit for deploying in the protective services.
The book’s greatest strength lies in the details it includes, on everything from the character of different intelligence agencies to equipment used to various sorts of tradecraft. While the breathless descriptions can sometimes feel like the content of a mediocre spy novel, the detailed technical discussions offer insight into how clandestine services actually operate. Of course, it is virtually certain that security and secrecy led to parts of the book being incomplete or distorted. Still, it has a candid quality that makes it an engrossing read. One interesting perspective offered is on the connections between different states and terrorist groups: particularly the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah; between the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat, and various terrorist groups; as well as the ways in which modern terrorist tactics evolved from those developed by Black September, the group that carried out the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
At times, the book’s language is overwrought, especially when Burton is discussing the innocence of the victims of terrorism and the ‘evil’ nature of those who commit it. His reflections on his own ethical thinking may be genuine, but seem somewhat hackneyed and unoriginal at the same time. He never portrays American intelligence or police services as having any flaws, with the exception of when bureaucrats get overly involved and stop brave and effective agents from doing their work well. No consideration is given to the abuses that can occur when effective oversight is not present. Burton is also unrelentingly hostile towards the media: accusing them of offering superficial analysis and being eager to divulge information that undermines the clandestine efforts of intelligence organizations. The book is also a bit too well sprinkled with cliches, such as decisions being made and information being assessed ‘above Burton’s pay grade.’ In general, Burton seems a bit too willing to assume that all US intelligence agents are working on the side of the angels and that oversight and accountability can only hamper their efforts.
One interesting passage mentions how little time was required to circumvent the encryption on Yousef’s laptop. This makes me wonder what sort of algorithm had been employed and how it was implemented, as well as the techniques used by those breaking the encryption. I suspect that the actual encryption algorithm is not what was overcome, at least not through some brute force means. It is far more likely that they were able to compromise the password by comprehensively searching through the data on hand, including temporary files and perhaps contents of RAM. It does you little good to have a hard drive encrypted with AES-256 if it is possible to recover or guess the key in a short span of time.
In general, the book is one I recommend. It has a good authentic feel to it and includes some unusual perspectives and operational details. Burton’s personal dedication, as well as that of the agents he serves with and admires, is both convincing and commendable.