Saturday, 13 June 2009

Book Review: Ghost - Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent, by Fred Burton (2008)

Fred Burton was a counterterrorism agent at the State Department Diplomatic Security Service, tasked with protecting US diplomats and embassies around the world. In Ghost, he takes us on a fast-paced tour of life in what he calls the Dark World of spying and counter-spying, international terrorist attacks, and multitudes of threats both real and false.

It is an eye opening look at the inner workings of United States counterterrorism. Focusing on the period from 1986 to 1995, Burton evolves from a beat cop in the Washington DC area breaking up knife fights among aimless youth to a grizzled veteran of the Dark World, investigating the downing of the plane of the President of Pakistan in the desolate desert, and helping to plan the capture of Ramzi Yousef.

He debriefs American hostages released from Beirut, skirts at the periphery of the Iran-Contra scandal, attempts to infiltrate Hezbollah, and deals with the fallout from the shadowy war waged between Libya and the US, which culminated in the downing of Pan Am 103. On the home front he also has to thwart home-grown threats against State Department officials.

Burton reveals the evolution of international counterterrorism at the State Department, from a tiny underfunded group to a large organization, always having to navigate around the egos and turf of other intelligence agencies.

But perhaps the books' most powerful contribution is in revealing the life of the agent at the human level, the constant traveling at a moment's notice, the detachment from family, the endless, fraying tension about when and where the next crisis will hit and what the next phone call will bring. Burton is an excellent writer with a good eye for detail, and Ghost is a powerful personal journey through his emotions.

The book is presented as a chronological personal story, which means that we get the slice of the international event that Burton himself witnessed and participated in, and there is no neat start nor end-point to most of the conflicts that he experiences -- a very appropriate look into the immense Dark World.

The one shortcoming of the book is Burton's utter lack of demonstrated understanding of the motivations of the enemies that he fights. He presents an ultra-simplistic "us is good, them is bad" scenario that perhaps served him well in his career, but a failure to discuss why the enemy fights does not make for a nuanced exploration of the roots of the simmering conflicts.

Ghost is an enjoyable personal and international story, well written and gripping both in its real action and true emotion.

272 pages. No Index.

Published in hardcover by Random House.

Ghost at the Ace Black Store.
Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 21.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

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