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Cold Zero: Inside the FBI Hostage Rescue Team [NOOK Book]

Overview

Only 200 people have ever been in Christopher Whitcomb's elite branch of the F.B.I. The Hostage Rescue Team is its most highly trained and specialized squadron -- equivalent to the Navy's Seals and the Army's Delta Force -- charged with terrorist capture, hostage situations, and other large-scale emergencies in the U.S. and around the world. Whitcomb is the first HRT member ever to write about his experience.

With breathtaking immediacy, ...
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Cold Zero: Inside the FBI Hostage Rescue Team

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Overview

Only 200 people have ever been in Christopher Whitcomb's elite branch of the F.B.I. The Hostage Rescue Team is its most highly trained and specialized squadron -- equivalent to the Navy's Seals and the Army's Delta Force -- charged with terrorist capture, hostage situations, and other large-scale emergencies in the U.S. and around the world. Whitcomb is the first HRT member ever to write about his experience.

With breathtaking immediacy, Whitcomb describes the brutal training, the weapons and tactics, and the unbreakable camaraderie of the HRT. In short order, after joining HRT in 1991, Whitcomb was sent on missions to Ruby Ridge and Waco, and his frank assessment of those missions is must reading for anyone interested in modern law enforcement.

Only rarely does a writer this accomplished have a life this dramatic. "Cold Zero" is a book of rare action and emotion, and one that introduces a remarkable new writer to the world.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
A former journalist from Franconia, New Hampshire, Christopher Whitcomb was hardly a typical FBI recruit. Yet over the course of his career, he climbed into the bureau's most lofty ranks: the Hostage Rescue Team (HRC). In his riveting first book, Cold Zero, the 15-year FBI veteran takes readers deep inside the nation's elite force of G-men.

In Cold Zero, Whitcomb renders this transformation in powerful, razor-sharp prose. Following a rigorous personal exam, he reports to the FBI training facilities in Quantico, Virginia, where he passes the physical and mental tests with flying colors. He's then promptly shipped off to Kansas City, and shortly thereafter, Springfield, Missouri. He struts into the Ozarks and encounters oddballs of all stripes, from a nuclear physicist stalked by angry Mormons to a construction foreman with the blueprints to Saddam Hussein's secret bunker. Not all the work is so funny; he cuts his teeth on tough cases, attends his share of funerals, and deals with battered wives.

Intent on pushing himself, Whitcomb rises to the challenge in 1991 when presented the opportunity to work for the HRC. He drops 25 pounds and becomes a sniper. Slowly, ineluctably, he draws the reader into his mind-set as he describes the FBI's standoffs with Randy Weaver and David Koresh, shedding a cold light on these events. In his mind, such men are hardened criminals, beyond earthly salvation. Reading this book, it's sometimes difficult to argue with this assessment. And thanks to Whitcomb's bold storytelling skills, we feel like we are up in the trees with him as he makes this judgment, rifle poised. (John Freeman)

John Freeman lives in New York City.

Sebastian Junger
I could not stop reading his account of the intense, murky world he was once a part of. I love this book. —author of The Perfect Storm
Doug Stanton
…a gritty thriller told with an angel's voice…Whitcomb is that rare combination of tough guy and poet…impossible to put down. —author of In Harm's Way
David Baldacci
An absolutely terrific read; storytelling at its best...Whitcomb is that rare treasure..[he] can deliver every mesmerizing detail with the skill...of a seasoned novelist.
Publishers Weekly
This close-up look at the FBI's most elite unit by a 15-year veteran including firsthand accounts of actions at Waco and Ruby Ridge is alternately funny, exciting and disturbing. With his liberal arts background and experience as a D.C. speechwriter, Whitcomb was an unusual candidate for special agent. Currently director of information management for the Bureau's Critical Incident Response Group, he recounts his 1980s epiphany, following a State of the Union address, that he wanted to help preserve American democracy; he chose the FBI as his medium. He details the tricky, competitive process of becoming an agent, and humorously recalls how, as a cocky, ambitious FNG ("fucking new guy"), he clashed with his conservative superiors, yet soon valued their expertise as he chased an assortment of fugitives, bank robbers and kidnappers from a rural Missouri field office. He details these cases and his own growing expertise, then depicts with gallows humor the "physical and emotional hell" of applying to join the Hostage Rescue Team's (HRT). He succeeded and became a sniper, and offers excellent insight into the science and mindset of this rarefied killing art. In skillful prose, Whitcomb upholds the FBI's party line. Alongside sharp observations of the rituals and absurdities of federal law enforcement, he fiercely espouses an unreconstructed "thin blue line" philosophy whereby he perceives figures such as David Koresh and Randy Weaver simply as evil men and incompletely addresses civic disillusionment with the Bureau following Waco, Ruby Ridge and the FBI crime lab scandals. Still, Whitcomb ably portrays conflicts between the agency's factions Washington bureaucrats, profilers and negotiators,and the gung-ho HRT during these major crises. This valuable book makes a compelling read for armchair G-men everywhere. (Sept. 13) Forecast: There's always a market for insider FBI stories, and Whitcomb's involvement in the controversial Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents gives this one extra currency. A six-city author tour and print advertising in major newspapers should lead to brisk sales. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Special Agent Whitcomb here recounts his early years in the FBI, which included stops at Ruby Ridge and Waco as a sniper in the elite Hostage Rescue Team. Whitcomb is not only a true adventurer with interests in mountain climbing and sharpshooting but master of the "cold zero" shot the first, perfect shot. He is also a talented writer. Although he tends to go a little overboard with his patriotism and pride, this fast-paced memoir never lags. His realistic portrayal of the grinding training and work regimen coupled with the strains on family life make the "you-are-there" accounts of FBI operations in Waco, Bosnia, and, most recently, Vieques more gripping. A bit more background on these events would have helped with historical context. Still, it's hard to believe that Whitcomb has been an agent for only 15 years. Let's hope he stays with the FBI and continues writing. Karen Sandlin Silverman, Ctr. for Applied Research Philadelphia Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A cocky yet intelligent account of the making and actions of an FBI Hostage Rescue Team operator, by one of their own. After a painful amount of training, the Hostage Rescue Team, like firefighters and spies, sit through long periods of tedium, interrupted by furious, adrenaline-charged activity. Special Agent Whitcomb very neatly blends his tough guy patter-"They teach us to take out the brain stem"-with unexpected and pleasing wordplay: "Even at 2:07 a.m., the air feels rheumy against my skin." He explains how he got involved in the FBI in the first place; his extensive academy training; a whole lot of technical information on the tools of his trade; his first years on the job (including interviewing people who claimed to have been kidnapped by Martians); and his preparation to join the Hostage Rescue Team as a sniper. This is all impressive stuff, but the meat of the story comes in the blow-by-blow narratives of his more high-profile missions. These include the unpleasantness up on Ruby Ridge in Idaho ("The FBI, like most government bureaucracies, tries to swat flies with frying pans"), busts of drug gangs, and a journey into the killing grounds of Kosovo. Most dreadfully, he was also part of the disaster in Waco. Whitcomb is not your standard-issue killing machine; he has feelings and he is not afraid to speak them. The gassing and deaths of children at the Branch Davidian compound tear him to pieces, but as he notes, it took the FBI apart as well. He believes that a better organization can rise in its stead, that "we could heal," and so he keeps at the job, understanding that he can do good in the shadow of the past. Whitcomb is just the kind of guy who could restore a bitof faith in the FBI. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780446551212
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • Publication date: 11/15/2008
  • Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 330,064
  • File size: 947 KB

Read an Excerpt

ENTRANCE ON DUTY

The only thing the FBI ever promised me was that I'd get the opportunity to prove myself. I was working in Washington, D.C., as speechwriter and press secretary for Congressman Silvio O. Conte of Massachusetts when an FBI applicant coordinator named Wayne called in March 1987 to offer me a job. "Chris," he said, with the assurance of a man who knew virtually every detail of my twenty-seven-year life, "we have a New Agent class scheduled to start in two weeks. Can you make it?" My heart stopped in my chest. It had been more than a year since I'd mustered the courage to fill out a preliminary application for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Though I met the basic requirements, the notion that I might have the chops to join the world's most prestigious law enforcement agency seemed just a bit presumptuous.

As Wayne's voice rang in my ear, my mind raced back over the months and months of waiting for this one moment. I drifted to a quiet evening in 1986 when I sat at the dining room table of my basement apartment and started to fill out the initial application. The two-page form asked for basic things like my full name, date and place of birth, Social Security number-the kind of information most people assume the FBI already knows. It outlined the applicant criteria: All prospective agents had to be U.S. citizens between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-five, with at least a bachelor's degree and three years of work experience, or a graduate degree.

It all sounded simple enough back then, but after more than a year of testing, hoping, interviewing, waiting, and enduring their faceless form letters, I wondered how anyone ever got in. "I have been given authorization to offer you a position, if you think you can make the time constraint," Wayne said. "If not... well, I can't make any guarantees."

He struck me as a cross between a fraternity rush chairman and the caller at a bingo match. The last time I'd seen him was at the Washington Field Office three weeks earlier, where he handed me an old Smith and Wesson Model 10 revolver with a red pistol grip.

"This is the trigger pull test," he told me. "You have sixty seconds to cycle the hammer as many times as possible. This is designed to predict how well you will perform with an actual weapon." He showed me how to hold the gun at arm's length and pointed me toward a silhouette target taped to the wall. I didn't really get the part about cycling the hammer, but the drill seemed simple enough. I held the small dark weapon out in front of me and waited for him to hit the stopwatch. "Go!" he said. And I pulled for all I was worth.

No one ever explained the correlation between finger endurance and accuracy with a live weapon, but I asked no questions. I wanted the job, and if that meant playing shoot-out with the wall, using a fake gun, well, that was okay by me.

"Can you get away in two weeks?" Wayne asked, drawing me back into the job offer. He sounded impatient with the task, as if it were keeping him from something more important. I could picture him sitting at a steel gray government-issue desk with a No.2 pencil in his hand. I was just another name on an endless list of applicants, and he had slots to fill. If he called enough numbers, he 'd eventually close out his card.

Two weeks? I thought. The room around me started to spin.

I felt ready, in most ways. I had become a zealot for the cause, working out twice a day for the past year, preparing for the worst they could throw at me during New Agent Training. Each day started with a four-mile run through the streets of Southeast Washington. At night, I took my lumps, sparring at Finley's Boxing Gym, up above the 10th Street Body Shop, where the smells of paint solvent and Krylon lacquer cleared my head between beatings.

Every set of push-ups ended with three extras for the F-B-I. Every round of sit-ups included an exhaustion marathon in homage to J. Edgar Hoover. Though the Director's taste for madras sun-dresses and suede pumps hadn't leaked out yet, it wouldn't have mattered. I worked each day with crystalline ambition. I absolutely willed acceptance.

"Can I pencil you in?" Wayne asked, again, unaccustomed to vacillation.

I leaned back in my chair and tried to focus. Overwhelming excitement threatened to boil out of my gut and erupt into a banshee wail. My heart started to beat again, then pound, throbbing so hard I worried that people in the next room might hear.

I started to answer, but the words caught in my throat. The thought of breaking the news to my boss, a senior member of the United States Congress, and giving up my office on Capitol Hill seemed anathema itself. Only one person on the staff knew of my undercover job hunt, and he 'd sworn himself to the kind of secrecy he suspected my new life in the FBI might require. Accepting this offer meant turning my back on a promising writing career built at a California magazine and two of New England's finer unknown newspapers. I could kiss good-bye my hopes of moving over to a speechwriting gig at the White House. On top of that, my wife, Rose, enjoyed her staffer job with Representative David Dreier of California, we 'd just bought an 1880s brownstone, and our four-month-old son, Jake, was not quite ready for travel. The FBI wanted investigators, not writers. This kind of career move seemed ill-conceived. "Chris?" Wayne asked. "You still with me?"

What the hell was I doing?

The road to a Special Agent badge runs pretty much the same for everyone. Just about a month after submitting the initial application, you receive a Xeroxed form letter from an applicant coordinator. Mine came from Wayne. It listed a time and date for the entrance examination and stated that I should report to the Washington Metropolitan Field Office if I wanted to continue the process. If I scored high enough in comparison to other applicants from around the country, I would be "afforded the opportunity" to continue the application process.

So, on April 10, 1986, I scheduled a day of annual leave and traveled a little more than a mile from my Capitol Hill apartment to a gray, sagging office building in South East Washington, appropr-ately named Buzzard's Point. Inside, a receptionist greeted me through a wall of bulletproof glass and pointed me to a windowless waiting room full of like-minded applicants. I counted twenty-six other people. None of them said a word.

I looked the room over, trying to assess my chances. The group included men and women of all different sizes, ages, and colors. Some of them held their form letter in their hands as if the document might be checked for authenticity. One man fidgeted in his chair so overtly, I began to feel self-conscious myself. He kept staring up at the ceiling, as if looking for the cameras he assumed they'd use to record our behavior. He crossed and uncrossed his legs half a dozen times, then exhaled deeply, stood up, and left without explanation.

The man sitting next to me tapped me on the arm and said, "He ain't coming back. I seen him in here before." He wore a lime-green leisure suit and white patent leather zipper boots. The pants had hung so long on the hanger, they showed fade lines across his knees. Fashion sense probably wouldn't appear on the exam, I guessed, but basic decorum had to figure in to the equation somewhere.

I just nodded and tried to relax until a repressed-looking GS-6 clerk entered with an armful of examination booklets.

"How many of you have taken this before?" she asked.

Three people raised their hands.

"We have your names on record, and we 'll check," she prodded without expression. "Now, how many of you have taken this test before?"

Twelve more people, including my new pal in the double knit, raised their hands.

I knew very little about the FBI or their admissions procedures, but I figured that lying this early in the process had to be a bit risky.

My instinct proved true. A couple of months after the entrance exam, I received another form letter notifying me that my score had placed me high enough above the guys in leisure suits to warrant an interview. It was written with all the personality of a road sign, but it meant that this whole idea of reaching out to federal law enforcement might not be so preposterous after all.

On June 3, 1986, I took my second of five vacation days and headed back to Buzzard's Point for a little palaver. Two men and a woman, all very professional looking, entered a small conference room overlooking the Potomac and triangulated me.

"I imagine you feel a little nervous," the taller man said. I sat at the business end of a ten-foot conference table surrounded by people who knew more about me than my mother did. "A little nervous" seemed just a bit understated.

I adjusted my posture in the slippery naugahyde chair and tried to breathe normally. "Let me start out by asking if you remember a November day in the mid-nineteen seventies," one of the men began, "when three agents came to interview your father about a shooting." Nineteen seventies? I was just a teenager then.

"As I understand it, your father had some involvement in the untimely death of one of Mr. Hoover's top aides. Perhaps you could tell this panel how you think that will affect your chances of becoming an FBI agent."

The room began to spin. This was one of those moments in life when you can feel the current of manifest destiny switching polarity. My mind shot back to a sunny November morning in New Hampshire more than twenty years earlier, when three men dressed in business suits and long faces showed up at my house to share a few words with my old man.

"Hello, I'm Special Agent Michael Donelly with the Federal Bureau of Investigation," one of them said. He carried a cordovan briefcase and a small gold badge worn black around the edges.

The formality of his presentation stood out from everything around our house on Profile Road. FBI agents didn't visit northern New England very often. In fact, other than the official FBI briefcase-machine gun I'd received for my eighth birthday, I knew almost nothing about J. Edgar Hoover's intractable G-men. Franconia, New Hampshire, is a small mountain village halfway between Boston and Montreal. A steep notch pinches travel to the south with cliff walls that reach 1,000 feet straight up on both sides of the road, offering local boys such as myself a granite security but narrow horizons. The "Great Stone Face," a natural profile strong enough to inspire a poem by Daniel Webster, stands watch over the valley. His eye wanders south with a strange remorse, as if he stopped for a rest and lost his way.

Robert Frost, the town's most famous denizen, had lived out on the Easton Road, in a small meadow overlooking the Kinsman range. He spent several years walking the white birch forests and maple groves, resting on stone walls and marveling at the snows. If I ascribe the place immodest beauty, don't take my word for it. Read "The Road Not Taken" or "Mending Wall." Franconia swelled with meter and grace, from the deep beds of fall foliage to the understated truth of sunrise over a millpond. All a poet ever needed there was a pen and the audacity to call the words his own.

The only things even vaguely federal about the tiny village of 250 people boiled down to the Presidential Mountain Range, which filled the dining room window of our house on the Gale River, and an occasional Farm Bureau inspector. Our sole resource in the way of law enforcement was Police Chief Dunne, a spare, weary man who spent most of his time working a pint bottle of Old Granddad and plinking rats with Eddie Splude at the town dump. Crime -at least the sort of crime worthy of FBI intervention -just didn't roll through very often.

"Nice to meet you, sir," my dad said, reaching for Agent Donelly's hand. He wore that awkward grin he showed around the time report cards came out. "I'm sorry to hear about your boss." Agent Donelly reached into his pocket for a notebook. My father stood firmly at the bottom of our front stairs with both hands in his pockets. If he felt any embarrassment over the fact that a local man had just shot and killed a former Assistant Director of the FBI, he didn't show it. The killing bore no signs of malice. Marty Corliss, the soft-spoken son of a New Hampshire state trooper, simply mistook the Assistant Director for an eight-point buck on the back side of Sugar Hill. Though it was just a tragic accident, Corliss shot him as neatly as any Mob hit man ever could have.

The story made the front page of the Littleton Courier and sent shock waves through the North Country. Marty wasn't the first overzealous hunter to whack a fellow woodsman, but no one else had ever drawn a bead on one of the country's top crime fighters. Washington apparently took the news hard, suspecting everyone from the Luchese family to Russian cold warriors of the hit. Rumor held that the agents sent in to investigate the killing had driven all the way from St. Johnsbury, Vermont, a considerable distance by local standards. The plates on their car said Massachusetts, though, scarring their reputation before they said a word. I felt bad enough for my dad as it was, without thinking about the possibility that he 'd have to undergo interrogation from a carful of marble-mouthed flatlanders.

Whatever their origin, three men showed up dressed for a funeral in dark wool suits and white shirts. The one who took my dad out of sight into our garage looked enough like Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., that I started humming the theme song under my breath. His buddies stood there as I rocked my new Schwinn Stingray back and forth in the driveway. Maybe they'd like to see the new fly rod my Uncle Gary just bought me, I wondered.

One of the men tucked his hands in his pockets and leaned against the car, dissuading me from such intimacies until my dad emerged from the garage unhurt. These guys investigated matters of international intrigue in places I'd never been. They might know torture, too.

I decided to stick around, just for protection.

"Hey, Mister. You ever kill anybody?" I asked the shortest, least intimidating of the three. I guess that question just naturally pops into people 's minds when they meet someone who packs a tommy gun on TV. The man looked down at me over the tops of his wire-rimmed glasses and squinted. He seemed a little uncomfortable with the question, which surprised me, considering his occupation. I saw it on television all the time -run-and-gun battles between the forces of good and evil. The FBI aired every Tuesday night on Channel 3. But this guy didn't impress me as the television type. He stared back as if he wanted to blab but couldn't hack up the words.

"Nice bike," he said. "Can you ride a wheelie?"

Could I ride a wheelie? A smile exploded across my face as I dropped the stick shift into first gear and jumped up on the right pedal for my patented high-torque takeoff. I could actually get a little rubber if the driveway was dirty enough.

I rode fast down the road, pulling on the handlebars and lifting the front wheel into the air like a seasoned veteran. The agent with the glasses watched me with the discriminating eye of a man who appreciated danger. I cocked the front wheel to the right like all the great motocross riders and concentrated so hard on my stunt that I barely noticed my dad and Agent Donelly emerging a short time later from the garage.

Everything looked all right on the surface, but for one very long moment, I searched in panic for my dad's hands, hoping Efrem Zimbalist hadn't cuffed him. Growing up in a small town left me with plenty of time to guess at how things happened in the outside world, but I'd never contemplated a scene like this. The thought of seeing these men shackle my personal hero and drag him away in shame almost shook the wind out of me.

The panic passed, however, when my dad slapped Agent Donelly on the back and laughed at some remark I couldn't hear. I locked up my brakes and just sat there at the side of the road as all three agents climbed into their blue Plymouth Fury, nodded in unison, and steered the big car past me on their way back to St. Johnsbury or Boston or wherever the hell they came from.

My buddy, the wheelie aficionado, looked up at me as they passed. He tossed out a wink and a smile in acknowledgment of my riding ability. He lifted his right hand, pointed his index finger at me in that universal sign of a fully cocked revolver, and dropped his thumb. I could almost hear the shot going off as he drove away to someplace a whole lot more exciting than Franconia, chasing spies or fugitives or bank robbers.

Every time I tested my balance from that day on, I wondered if the look on that agent's face came from a desire to protect my youthful innocence or a need to make it go away.

My God, they're good, I thought, staring across the table at my interviewer. That day in Franconia swelled up inside me as if I were still standing astride my Stingray, watching my dad emerge from the garage.

How did they know about this? I wondered. I had filled out the comprehensive background questionnaire detailing my life history all the way back to grade school. I had listed everyone I'd ever lived with, every address, every school I'd attended, references, social contacts, foreign travel in twelve countries. I'd admitted to "experimental drug use" in college, conceded a traffic violation, detailed the most intimate secrets of my first twenty-seven years. But how the hell did they know this? I stared at the man, frozen with self-doubt. Get a grip, I argued with myself. I didn't kill any FBI agent and neither did my dad. Shit, I'd never even met Marty Corliss.

The three members of the blue-suit inquisition stared back stone-faced, waiting for an answer. "That was a long time ago, sir," I said. "My father had nothing to do with that shooting, and I can't imagine how it would affect my ambitions now." "Good," he said, "because if you make it through the back-ground check, you're going to be the fourth person from Franconia, New Hampshire, to become an FBI agent."

Suddenly a broad smile cracked his face. He stood up, leaned forward and shook my hand. "Relax, kid. I'm Bernie Pierce ...grew up on Sugar Hill, about five miles from your old house. Just busting your balls about the shooting thing."

He laughed a good-natured chuckle, introduced me to the other two agents and pulled out a notebook. I tried to regain my composure. Years come back fast with the right suggestion.

"Four agents out of a town of two hundred and fifty people," he said. "Must be something in the water, huh?"

I nodded politely.

"Now, Chris," he said, "why don't you tell us just what it is that makes you want to become an FBI agent."

I just sat there, drifting, as a year's worth of ups and downs filtered through my mind the way life passes before you during a fall. In that one moment, I tried to assess the biggest career move of my young life.

Working in the Nation's Capital brings a certain flavor and excitement you can't find anywhere else. Nationalist pride consumes the place, and you gain a taste for the tremendous complexity and commitment that make this country great. Washington presented a richness of experience that transcended money. It was that twenty-four- hour vibe politicians exude: power, huge power, and that musky, intoxicating smell of cold cash and decaying ideology.

My wife, Rose, and I had come to Washington, D.C., two years earlier, at the invitation of U.S. Representative Silvio O. Conte, an old-school Yankee best known for his colorful well speeches. His administrative assistant had called Rose, and she tracked me down in the Hanover, New Hampshire, public library where I sat writing a freelance piece on something important enough to appear in the Valley News. Conte's A.A. told me, in an inclusive voice, that a story I'd written a year earlier on the Congressman's trip to Moscow had caught his eye and that he just happened to have an opening for a speech-writer and press secretary. Would I be interested?

I pressed the phone against my ear and wondered for a moment if I was hearing things. Since college I had traipsed around the country working as a bartender, a features freelancer for Orange Coast magazine in Southern California, an English teacher at a boarding school, and a newspaper reporter at the North Adams Transcript in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts. I was two things in 1985: hungry and mobile. "Sure," I said. "I think this might be an appropriate time for a career move."

That was on a Friday. The following Monday morning, I knocked on the double doors outside room 2300 in the Rayburn House Office Building and introduced myself. A warm and kindly grandmother named Franny McGuire ushered me into the reception area and welcomed me aboard.

"Pat!" she yelled over her shoulder. "Chris is here!" She smelled of Youth Dew and cherry cobbler. It just felt like home.

Silvio Conte served as ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, and after nearly thirty years in office had become one of the most powerful men in Congress. He walked with an endearing limp and had a grip that seemed to fit, in strength and character, the hand of everyone he ever met. His office suite, over-looking the front of the U.S. Capitol, boasted one of the finest views on Independence Avenue. He also kept a Capitol office just off the viewers' gallery above the House floor that was so well located and appointed, first ladies from Mamie Eisenhower to Nancy Reagan used it as a green room prior to their husbands' State of the Union addresses.

That's where the path to the FBI first started to appear before me. One afternoon in January, Mr. Conte took me aside and offered me a ticket, big as a postcard. It read "State of the Union," and promised a front row seat to one of the grandest nights in America.

"Can't buy one of these at Ticketmaster," the Congressman said, waving the green gem in my face. "I want you to go and see how the big boys do it. Maybe you can pick up some new material." He handed it over with one of his grandfatherly winks. "And don't try to scalp this thing, pal. That's a federal offense." On the evening of February 4, 1986, I closed the door to my Capitol Hill row house and walked ten blocks through a pristine winter chill. Mist rose from my mouth like taffeta curtains at the edges of a frosted window. I walked past the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court and the motorcades and black limousines toward a Capitol building that seemed to pulse with energy.

I walked past news cameras and bomb dogs and SWAT teams and Secret Service snipers on the roof with scoped rifles. I gawked at the ambulances in the parking lot and the helicopters on the east lawn and the satellite dish-topped TV production trucks up and down a barricaded Independence Avenue. The hair on the back of my neck stood straight up. The ticket felt heavy as a Gale River rock in my overcoat pocket. The viewers' gallery above the House floor is steep and shallow. My seat looked down over the Republican side of the aisle just to the left of where Nancy Reagan would sit among the seats traditionally held for first ladies and their attendants. She was still sip-ping tea in Mr. Conte 's office when I arrived, but she would soon emerge and make an entrance, waving down to Republican friends and savoring her husband's American transformation. There was no talk of "voodoo economics" or the "Teflon president" or of a somewhat befuddled actor playing a role that night. There was just an overwhelming sense of pride and a tangible awe for the pageantry of it all.

I watched with a lump in my throat as the sergeant at arms welcomed the Senate, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, twelve of the thirteen Cabinet secretaries, and the Supreme Court. They walked slowly, nodding and shaking hands as they went. It was all done with great respect and tradition that I'd never read about in civics texts. Chanel No. 5 and Aramis mingled in the air as a thousand voices echoed off the mahogany Speaker's chair, the marble columns and gold-leaf frescoes. Light fell from recessed fixtures in the ceiling near carefully hidden security cameras. Reporters peered down from the press gallery, sharpening their pencils for the sage articles and editorials that would flow out with the applause to editors crowding midnight deadlines.

"Mr. Speaker!" A hush fell over men and women who made their living by flapping their gums. "The President of the United States!" The House of Representatives erupted in bedlam. And then I saw him: the Great Communicator taking the floor, his right hand raised above that shock of G.I. Joe hair and the little-boy smile.

He walked toward the dais, home triumphantly from his trip to the Soviet Union with an olive branch in one hand and a steel hammer in the other. Vice President George Bush and House Speaker Tip O'Neill rose and clapped. The Joint Chiefs followed suit, as did the entire Senate and the Cabinet and all 435 members of the home team. This was an amazing moment in American history and in my life.

To stand there in that room, with my hands trembling between claps as the entire executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the United States government assembled below me, felt absolutely stunning. I knew then, as if by epiphany, that what I wanted to do with my life was to help protect it all. Suddenly it wasn't enough to craft speeches that braced its facades or to play knight's second to a man who waged its battles. It no longer interested me to be Holden Caulfield standing quietly among them, waiting to catch the symbolism as it jumped into the rhetorical rye. I wanted to make a difference in society, to wake up in the morning with a cause. Justice.

I wanted jurisdiction.

And so it came down to agency. I had a friend in the Secret Service, but he had burned out on the idea of throwing himself in front of a bullet for a complete stranger. The DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) was still pretty much unknown in those days, and the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) - well, they were pretty quiet too. That left the FBI. They were the biggest and the best, according to everyone I talked to. And they were hiring. Maybe I had a chance.

After a sleepless night wondering how I could best serve my country, I decided to take a stroll down the road less traveled by. The next day, I pulled out a D.C. phone directory and called the FBI's Washington Field Office for an application.

What the hell? I thought. Who'd ever believe I could have found my way into this never-never land from the wooded slopes of New Hampshire to begin with?

Something in my answer must have struck Bernie Pierce and his interview team as genuine, because a short time after our little talk, another letter arrived in my mailbox.

"Your combined test and interview scores have made you eligible for further consideration for the Special Agent position," it read. "A thorough review will be made of your application and dependent upon the needs of this Bureau, you will be considered for further processing."

If the language seemed dry, I didn't notice. Joining the FBI had become an obsession at that point, and "further processing" sounded like an invitation from the Director himself.

I completed the final steps in the hiring process within a couple of weeks. Wayne drove me from Buzzard's Point to FBI Headquarters in his Bureau car for a physical fitness test, which he held in the basement parking garage. Five other candidates and I ran a mile and a half for time at 4:30 in the afternoon as the car pools emptied out around me. I finished in just under nine minutes, despite the course, which required that I dodge a motorcade of government Chevys while sucking exhaust fumes and weaving my way through a labyrinth of concrete pillars.

After the fitness test came the comprehensive physical examination at Walter Reed Army Hospital. They checked everything from hearing and vision to lung capacity and heart rate. No problems. "Sure, Wayne," I said, finally finding the words that would change my life forever. "Two weeks will work just fine."

I hung up the phone and stared out at the Capitol as it glowed in the brilliant crimson sunset that old-timers refer to as "red weather." The future seemed absolutely incandescent as I contemplated three months of training at Quantico and thirty years sporting a gold FBI badge. Becoming a G-man had seemed impossible for so long, and now the prospect danced coyly in front of me like a debutante at a spring cotillion.

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 19 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 26, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A Different Look

    Most memoirs by federal agents are written the same way. The voice and tone are somehow similar, and the stories, even when different, end up sounding the same. This book was an exception. An English major and former newspaper writer who also taught writing everywhere from private high school to the FBI Academy, Whitcomb cares about the craft. While Whitcomb may get a little heavy-handed with his writer-isms, it is a welcome change and one that engaged me. The content alone is enough to hook you, but the presentation sets it apart. Real life has to be plotted too, and creative language can enhance a report. As far as the content, this is as interesting a book on federal law enforcement, the FBI, and/or counter-terrorism as I've ever read, and I've read dozens. Definitely one of my favorites and one I recommend to my friends.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 17, 2011

    This is why people read nonfiction

    Best book ever, or at least in my lifetime

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2003

    Captivating Story by a True Hero

    I echo the sentiments of the previous reviewers that this is a book packed with non-stop action and excitement. I didn't want to put it down once I started reading it. The only thing I have to add to the other reviews is that I wish the author would have told us more about his family. What makes his wife Rose unique, or when & why did they get married? His family seems to take a major backseat to his career in this book, although they don't appear to in his life from what he writes about them. The book becomes MUCH better towards the end, when the author becomes more introspective and the book is less of a first-person account on Ruby Ridge and Waco and more of an autobiography. Definitely worth the read if you're interested in law enforcement or more specifically, the FBI.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2003

    Excellent Book, Highly Recomended

    I could not put this book down. I read it in 5 nights. I didn't want it to end. For anyone that has an interest in the FBI or goverment agency, this is a must read. Whitcomb is able to describe the moments as if you are there with him. I loved the book and will read it again!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2002

    Amazing!

    Read this book and you'll find out why it ranks where it does. It pretty much left me speechless, except for the fact that I HIGHLY recommend this book, especially if you're in the military, or aspire to be an F.B.I. agent!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2002

    Great

    A VERY good read!!!! However, the ending was a bit of a bummer...I wish there was more!! Definitely a must-read!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2002

    Thank you Christopher !! For all you do !!

    I read this book before Sept 11th. After Sept 11th I knew this man was out there continuing to do his job. I admire his courage. It was a well written account. I am looking forward to his next book, as I know he involved in the current Twin Towers and terrorism crisis.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 18, 2001

    Candid and full of energy

    It's been a while since I've read a really good book. Whitcomb's book increases my desire to work in law enforcement and as the daughter of a crime scene investigator, I hope to follow in his footsteps. It was an excellent book, easy to read, and full of energy! I admire any individual who has the willingness to sustain that kind of rigorous training.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 12, 2001

    A hero's account

    A hero emerges from the pages of this exquisitely written account of a man who has dedicated his life to making the world a safer place in which to sleep. How many individuals do we come in contact with who possess the potential to accomplish greatness on society's measurement scale yet choose the path that leads instead to missions in the cold wet secret world of anonymity? Could you? How many of life's profound lessons can we learn through the soul of this government-trained killer without having to lie in the snake infested world of the villains that drew him to the scene? How many wives will ever have to make the decision to protect her children from the images of the world their father is operating in for months at a time? Could I? This country needs more people like Chris Whitcomb. This man accepted a calling that required a sacrifice of the 'normal life' the rest of us take for granted. A man who missed out on birthdays and bedtime stories and bicycle rides in an effort to make our world a better and safer place. A hero.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 3, 2001

    Outstanding

    One of the best books I have ever read. I had trouble putting it down. As the son of a retired FBI Agent, I understood many of the situations and thoughts Special Agent Whitcomb describes. He is an excellent writer and does a great job of describing how the Bureau really operates. I highly recommend this book not only to those interested in the FBI, but to anyone interested in law enforcement in general.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2001

    Lucky To Have Gotten An Advance Copy

    The short version: outstanding. This book is well-written, honest, and exciting. You'll learn about the HRT alright. But you'll also get some real insight into why somebody would want to do this and what kind of person is actually qualified to belong to such an elite group. Finally, it was refreshing to read a book that goes beyond bravery or athletics. Special Agent Whitcomb comes across as a mature and conscientious man who worries about his family as much as he does his career or his teammates. It may be a trite thing to say, but Special Agent Whitcomb is a patriot. He wanted to do good and noble things for the country, did them, and then wrote a book about it. It's a great book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 16, 2001

    Whitcomb Right On Target with 'Cold Zero'

    Christopher Whitcomb gives readers a rare look inside both the FBI and the highly elite FBI Hostage Rescue Team. I loved this book because it had all the action and intrigue of a Tom Clancy novel, but was written in the first person by someone who actually lived those stories. Whitcomb does a tremendous job of conveying his thoughts and emotions throughout every stage of his career: the unnerving waiting game that is the FBI application process, being the new guy learning the ropes the hard way in his first office, going through the incredibly grueling physical selection process for the HRT, giving a behind-the-scenes account for such cases as Ruby Ridge and Waco, and finally detailing his current position as director for Strategic Information for the FBI's Critical Incident Response Group. Besides just the action and adventure, Whitcomb describes with literary savvy his childhood, his supportive and loving family, and the type of friendship that is born only in situations that the team members of the HRT find themselves in. He allows us to delve into his emotions and thoughts; and we can see that there is much more in him than just an FBI 'yes-man'-- he stuggles at times with the decisions that are handed down to the street agents and the HRT members from the bureaucratic ladder climbers. Overall, this is a thrilling read that will be thoroughly enjoyed by a variety of people. More than anything, I was inspired by Whitcomb's ability to turn his amazing experiences into one flowing story that entertains from cover to cover.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2001

    Can't Wait

    Mr. Whitcomb-should you read this...Congratulations on your book. Having been your student in Va ('97)-I admire your work, character and integrity. I can't wait to read your book. MIP-W (NY)

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    Posted August 22, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 24, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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    Posted December 18, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 11, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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    Posted November 21, 2012

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    Posted February 2, 2011

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