Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent


in Bombs and rockets, Books and literature, Geek stuff, Law, Politics, Security, Writing

Purple grasses

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.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. August 28, 2009 at 9:38 am

Do you know if the laptop used whole disk encryption, or whether individual files were encrypted?

Milan August 28, 2009 at 9:51 am

In Christopher Dickey’s Securing the City: Inside America’s Best Counterterror Force – the NYPD, the author writes that:

“[Yousef] managewd to flee again, but left behind a laptop computer that revealed some of his plans. (Other files were encrypted, and never have been opened.)”

p.16 (hardcover)

Milan August 28, 2009 at 2:28 pm

“I mention that Kelly had told me at a dinner a few nights before that even the contents of Ramzi Yousef’s computer has never been fully decrypted. “Yeah, and we don’t know what’s in there,” said Cohen. “Just this week I was trying to drive home to the NSA that we need to go back through those and see if there’s technologies that will get us into things that we couldn’t get into two years ago.”

Dickey, Christopher. Securing the City. p.263 (hardcover)

Fred Burton August 29, 2009 at 10:45 am

Hello Milan,

Thank you for your very kind review of Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent .

Best Regards,

Fred Burton
VP, Counterterrorism

Milan September 1, 2009 at 11:57 am

For those interested in intelligence and security matters, STRATFOR is offering 500 annual subscriptions for US$99, discounted from $349.

Not cheap, especially given that the information is electronic only, but a reasonable deal for those with a strong personal interest in the area.

. September 1, 2009 at 4:23 pm
. September 4, 2009 at 12:13 am

Civil Liberties and National Security
May 17, 2006

By George Friedman

USA Today published a story last week stating that U.S. telephone companies (Qwest excepted) had been handing over to the National Security Agency (NSA) logs of phone calls made by American citizens. This has, as one might expect, generated a fair bit of controversy — with opinions ranging from “It’s not only legal but a great idea” to “This proves that Bush arranged 9/11 so he could create a police state.” A fine time is being had by all. Therefore, it would seem appropriate to pause and consider the matter.

Let’s begin with an obvious question: How in God’s name did USA Today find out about a program that had to have been among the most closely held secrets in the intelligence community — not only because it would be embarrassing if discovered, but also because the entire program could work only if no one knew it was under way? No criticism of USA Today, but we would assume that the newspaper wasn’t running covert operations against the NSA. Therefore, someone gave them the story, and whoever gave them the story had to be cleared to know about it. That means that someone with a high security clearance leaked an NSA secret.

Americans have become so numbed to leaks at this point that no one really has discussed the implications of what we are seeing: The intelligence community is hemorrhaging classified information. It’s possible that this leak came from one of the few congressmen or senators or staffers on oversight committees who had been briefed on this material — but either way, we are seeing an extraordinary breakdown among those with access to classified material.

The reason for this latest disclosure is obviously the nomination of Gen. Michael Hayden to be the head of the CIA. Before his appointment as deputy director of national intelligence, Hayden had been the head of the NSA, where he oversaw the collection and data-mining project involving private phone calls. Hayden’s nomination to the CIA has come under heavy criticism from Democrats and Republicans, who argue that he is an inappropriate choice for director. The release of the data-mining story to USA Today obviously was intended as a means of shooting down his nomination — which it might. But what is important here is not the fate of Hayden, but the fact that the Bush administration clearly has lost all control of the intelligence community — extended to include congressional oversight processes. That is not a trivial point.

. September 4, 2009 at 12:15 am

“What we are describing here is neither a Democratic nor a Republican disease. It is a problem of governments. They are not particularly trustworthy in the way they use laws or programs. More precisely, an extraordinary act is passed to give the government the powers to fight an extraordinary enemy — in these examples, the Mafia or al Qaeda. But governments will tend to extend this authority and apply it to ordinary events. How long, then, before the justification for tracking telephone calls is extended to finding child molesters, deadbeat dads and stolen car rings?

It is not that these things shouldn’t be stopped. Rather, the issue is that Americans have decided that such crimes must be stopped within a rigorous system of due process. The United States was founded on the premise that governments can be as dangerous as criminals. The entire premise of the American system is that governments are necessary evils and that their powers must be circumscribed. Americans accept that some criminals will go free, but they still limit the authority of the state to intrude in their lives. There is a belief that if you give government an inch, it will take a mile — all in the name of the public interest.”

Milan September 4, 2009 at 11:45 am

The discussion of protection from terrorism versus protection from government is much more nuanced than the same discussion in Burton’s book.

As I have expressed several times before, I think governments are ultimately more of a threat than terrorist groups. That being said, effective checks and balances make it possible to protect individuals from both sorts of danger.

As I said before, security is immunity from the will of others.

. September 8, 2009 at 11:09 am

What Can We Learn About Mohamed Atta From His Work as a Student of Urban Planning?
By Daniel Brook
Updated Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2009, at 9:32 AM ET

The subject of the thesis is a section of Aleppo, Syria’s second city. Atta describes decades of meddling by Western urban planners, who rammed highways through the neighborhood’s historic urban fabric and replaced many of its once ubiquitous courtyard houses with modernist high-rises. Atta calls for rebuilding the area along traditional lines, all tiny shops and odd-angled cul-de-sacs. The highways and high-rises are to be removed—in the meticulous color-coded maps, they are all slated for demolition. Traditional courtyard homes and market stalls are to be rebuilt.

For Atta, the rebuilding of Aleppo’s traditional cityscape was part of a larger project to restore the Islamic culture of the neighborhood, a culture he sees as threatened by the West. “The traditional structures of the society in all areas should be re-erected,” Atta writes in the thesis, using architectural metaphors to describe his reactionary cultural project. In Atta’s Aleppo, women wouldn’t leave the house, and policies would be carefully crafted so as not to “engender emancipatory thoughts of any kind,” which he sees as “out of place in Islamic society.”

. September 8, 2009 at 11:26 am

Straw admits Lockerbie trade link

Trade and oil played a part in the decision to include the Lockerbie bomber in a prisoner transfer deal, Jack Straw has admitted.

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, the UK justice secretary said trade was “a very big part” of the 2007 talks that led to the prisoner deal with Libya.

However, Mr Straw’s spokesman accused the press of “outrageous” innuendo.

Scotland’s Justice Secretary granted Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi compassionate release because he was terminally ill.

Milan November 2, 2009 at 9:38 am

Some of the same events (such as acts of terrorism involving Hezbollah, Iran, and Libya) are discussed in Matthew Aid’s The Secret Sentry: The Untold History of the National Security Agency.

. November 4, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Counterterrorism: Shifting from ‘Who’ to ‘How’
November 4, 2009

As STRATFOR has noted for several years now, with al Qaeda’s structure under continual attack and no regional al Qaeda franchise groups in the Western Hemisphere, the most pressing jihadist threat to the U.S. homeland at present stems from grassroots jihadists, not the al Qaeda core. This trend has been borne out by the large number of plots and arrests over the past several years, to include several so far in 2009. The grassroots have likewise proven to pose a critical threat to Europe (although it is important to note that the threat posed by grassroots operatives is more widespread, but normally involves smaller, less strategic attacks than those conducted by the al Qaeda core).

From a counterterrorism perspective, the problem posed by grassroots operatives is that unless they somehow self-identify by contacting a government informant or another person who reports them to authorities, attend a militant training camp, or conduct electronic correspondence with a person or organization under government scrutiny, they are very difficult to detect.

The threat posed by grassroots operatives, and the difficulty identifying them, highlight the need for counterterrorism programs to adopt a proactive, protective intelligence approach to the problem — an approach that focuses on “the how” of militant attacks instead of just “the who.”

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