Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent

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In this hard-hitting memoir, Fred Burton, a key figure in international counterterrorism and domestic spycraft, emerges from the shadows to reveal who he is, what he has accomplished, and the threats that lurk unseen except by an experienced, worldly-wise few. Plunging readers into the murky world of violent religious extremism that spans the streets of Middle Eastern cities and the informant-filled alleys of American slums, Burton takes us behind the scenes to reveal how the United States tracked Libya-linked ...

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Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent

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In this hard-hitting memoir, Fred Burton, a key figure in international counterterrorism and domestic spycraft, emerges from the shadows to reveal who he is, what he has accomplished, and the threats that lurk unseen except by an experienced, worldly-wise few. Plunging readers into the murky world of violent religious extremism that spans the streets of Middle Eastern cities and the informant-filled alleys of American slums, Burton takes us behind the scenes to reveal how the United States tracked Libya-linked master terrorist Abu Nidal; captured Ramzi Yusef, architect of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; and pursued the assassins of major figures including Yitzhak Rabin, Meir Kahane, and General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the president of Pakistan-classic cases that have sobering new meaning in the treacherous years since 9/11. Here, too, is Burton's advice on personal safety for today's most powerful CEOs, gleaned from his experience at Stratfor, the private firm Barron's calls "the shadow CIA."

Told in a no-holds-barred, gripping, nuanced style that illuminates a complex and driven man, Ghost is both a riveting read and an illuminating look into the shadows of the most important struggle of our time.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
With spy thriller suspense and the clarity of a police report, former special agent Burton's State Department saga reads like a brewing-storm prequel to the current "war on terror." Working for the tiny, newly created counterterrorism division of the Diplomatic Security Service in the mid-1980s, Burton liaisons among the FBI, the CIA, and a network of covert informants "to find out the how" of terrorist attacks, and prevent repeat events. This snapshot of his career reveals "the foundations for the chaos we face today: a cold war between superpowers overlayed atop a growing struggle between the Christian world and radical Islam." Of obvious interest to anyone with an eye on world affairs, Burton's assets will draw in even casual counterterrorism fans: the spook can actually write. His first hook is a Dashiell Hammett-esque preface about his hand-written list of targeted terrorist masterminds, which he keeps on his person at all times and "as current as today's headlines." From there he takes readers through the crimes and captures of a few, along with the formation and administration of the first State Department unit of its kind. Most striking is the material's relevance twenty years later; Burton's clashes with Hezbollah in Beirut and prickly diplomacy with Iran could almost be pulled from present-day newspapers.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
The retired deputy chief of the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service takes readers behind the scenes of investigations into some notable terrorist attacks of the 1980s and '90s. In a fast-paced narrative that at times reads like a spy novel, Burton describes the methodology for cracking some tough cases. The author, now a private-security consultant, has a keen eye for detail and uses it when discussing incidents including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the crash of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland and the arrest of a man planning to assassinate then-Secretary of State George Schultz. Burton offers interesting factoids, such as why lace-up shoes are preferable to loafers (less likely to come off when kicking someone), and more significant information on how to scope out a crowd for suspects. His passion for his work-and hatred of those who have harmed innocent people-is apparent throughout. Describing his feelings when interrogating a terrorist who is about to become a double agent and betray his colleagues, he writes: "I firmly believe in our system of laws. I believe in justice. Yet reading a piece of filth like Ahmed [last name never disclosed] his Miranda rights makes my stomach do slow rolls." Burton's book contains little introspection, sentimentality or information about his personal life. The literary self-portrait he paints is of a typically hard-charging law-enforcement type with a John Wayne streak who is frustrated by what he sees as bureaucratic obstacles to achieving vital objectives. His prose is descriptive but never flowery, and he rarely wastes words. Burton is critical of officials in both political parties for not being sufficiently proactive, though hedoes not spend enough time explaining the constraints he ran up against. Sparsely written but thorough-a nice complement to policy-laden, big-picture analyses of the war on terror. Agent: Jim Hornfischer/Hornfischer Literary Management
From the Publisher
“Rife with anecdotes of assassinations, nuclear threats and double agents.”—Oklahoma Gazette

“Revealing . . . Burton was there, and you will be as well.”—Bobby R. Inman, former director of the National Security Agency

“The world of counterterrorism is like that old jigsaw puzzle in the back of the closet: Its many missing pieces and extra parts jumbled in from other puzzles make it almost impossible to assemble. But in Ghost, Fred Burton manages to join together enough pieces to give us a discerning look at that world. This is a story, told in human terms, that will help make sense of the great puzzle of our times.” —Eric L. Haney, author of Inside Delta Force and executive producer of The Unit

“Striking . . . With spy thriller suspense and the clarity of a police report, former special agent Burton’s State Department saga reads like a brewing-storm prequel to the current war on terror.”—Publishers Weekly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400065691
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/3/2008
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.07 (d)

Meet the Author

Fred Burton
Fred Burton is one of the world’s foremost experts on security, terrorists, and terrorist organizations. He is vice president for counterterrorism and corporate security at Stratfor, an influential private intelligence company. He is the former deputy chief of the Diplomatic Security Service, the Department of State’s counterterrorism division.
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Read an Excerpt


Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent

By Fred Burton Random House

Copyright © 2008 Fred Burton
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781400065691

Chapter One

The Buried Bodies


February 10, 1986

Bethesda, Maryland

On my morning run through February's chilly darkness, my chocolate Lab, Tyler Beauregard, sets the pace. This is our routine together, though we always vary our route now. At agent training, which I just completed, they drilled into us the notion that in our new lives, routines will get us killed. When you join the Dark World, you must become unpredictable. Erratic. We must strip away all the conventions of our old lives and fade into the background. We've been trained. We've practiced. Today, I begin my life as a ghost.

These morning runs will be my one tip to the old life I'm leaving behind. Still, today I take new precautions, such as the snubby Smith & Wesson Model 60 .38-caliber revolver tucked away under my belt.

I love these morning runs with Tyler. She is a remarkable animal, my familiar, a canine that intuits more about loyalty and honor than most of the people I encountered as a police officer in Montgomery County, Maryland. She pads along, tongue lolling, breathing steady. She's a pro. She could run marathons of her own.

My footfalls echo across the empty Bethesda neighborhood. The tidy brick houses and apartments are dark. In my new life, I'll be spending a lot of time in darkness.I've learned to be paranoid. I've learned to look around corners and watch my back. Our instructors warned us that the KGB opens a file on every one of us new agents as soon as we graduate. Then they probe our lives and backgrounds in search of weaknesses, skeletons, or any sort of leverage by which to exploit or co-opt us. Sooner or later, they will make contact with an offer. Or a threat.

I glance behind me, half expecting to see some Eastern Bloc thug in a trench coat shadowing me. But all I see is a thin layer of fog and an empty suburban block.

I look behind me a lot these days. It goes with the job. Situational awareness is essential if we are to stay alive. I don't run with a Walkman banging out Springsteen's Born to Run anymore. My ears are unbound and tuned to the street. Every little sound, every shuffle or distant downshift of an automobile on MacArthur Boulevard registers with me. I file each new noise away in my mind, cataloging it so I'll notice anything out of the ordinary. I've been trained to be an observer. Since I started my training last November, I hone and refine this skill on every morning run.

Tyler picks up the pace. She's taking me toward Glen Echo, a small town on the Potomac. We reach a little jogging trail that runs along Reservoir Road. Here, we escape the suburbs and plunge into the woods. Just before we enter the tree line, I steal a sidelong glance behind me again. I practice this move every day; it is something we learned in training. The trick is to be unobtrusive, to not reveal that you're clearing your six. It has become automatic for me now.

No tails. We're not being followed.

Today my life changes forever. I have no idea what is in store for us new guys. I just know that a year ago, I was a Maryland cop. I protected my community. I loved law enforcement, but I wanted something more. So I applied for federal service, and the Diplomatic Security Service offered me a job. Until last fall, I'd never even heard of the DSS.

I started my training in November 1985, just a few weeks after terrorists hijacked the cruise liner Achille Lauro and executed Leon Klinghoffer for the crime of being an American citizen-and a Jew. They shot him then dumped him overboard in his wheelchair.

The world needs more cops.

Only three out of every hundred who start the training get to the finish line. I felt lucky just to be there. After the ceremony, we stood in alphabetically arranged lines waiting to receive our first assignments. Our class coordinator, Special Agent Phil Whitney, began reading off our names and telling us what we'd be doing for the next phase of our lives. Some of us picked up overseas assignments in our embassy field offices. Some landed protective security tours, guarding our diplomats and the secretary of state. Whitney told a few they'd be assigned as diplomatic couriers, where they would carry our nation's most-guarded secrets from one place to another all around the globe.

When he got to me, Whitney paused. He stared at his clipboard for a moment before saying, "Burton, Counterterrorism Branch."

I'd had no idea what that was. When Whitney reached the middle of the alphabet he called out, "Mullen, Counterterrorism Branch."

I looked down the rows of agents to John Mullen. His flaming red hair was easy to spot. I could see him searching me out. We were the only two to be sent to this puzzling assignment. We exchanged confused glances. What had we gotten into?

At least I'd be going into it with a rock-steady veteran. Before he joined the DSS, Mullen had been an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, battling the growing narco-criminal element and cocaine cartels on the streets of New York City. Legend had it that he'd been in a nasty shoot-out and had run out of ammunition in the midst of the fray. After that, he always carried two guns. One he tucked away in a shoulder holster. The other he wore strapped to his ankle. He prepared for the worst and trusted in firepower. I swear we all thought he slept with those weapons. They were his pacifiers.

A light rain drizzles down on us now. Tyler shakes her coat in midstride, sending water droplets flying. I wish I could do that. We're still on a course that is taking us away from our little redbrick apartment, a fact that I sense is starting to disappoint my dog. I hurry forward until I'm even with her and bend down to run my hands through her damp fur. She looks up at me with pure love. I've already told my wife that when I die, Tyler's ashes will be buried with me.

Back home, my wife, Sharon, is probably just getting up to face her own Monday. We were high school sweethearts and have known each other most of our lives. Up until now, we've lived an average DINK life (Double Income, No Kids). She's an accountant, a damned good one. She's aggressive and driven and works long hours. Now, I'm a spook. Secrecy is our watchword. I realize with a grin that we'll have nothing to talk about at cocktail parties.

Tyler Beauregard dashes ahead of me again until she reaches a narrow footbridge. She waits for me to catch up. She knows this bridge. We've investigated it before. It is top on the list of Dark World sites to see in Washington, D.C. Of course, there are no plaques or markers noting this piece of spy history. To the average workaday American-guys like me until four months ago-it was just a little bridge over a small creek.

But now I know its dark side. This was Kim Philby's dead-drop point. Philby was the KGB's first true superspy, a British intel operative who embraced Communism while at Oxford in the thirties. He compromised hundreds of agents, destroyed scores of operations, and sold out the lives of countless patriots. When his cover was finally blown in the sixties, he escaped to Moscow and got what he deserved: a hellish life under the regime he had helped sustain. In the dingy concrete apartments he later called home, he devolved into a bitter, broken alcoholic given to frequent bouts of complete incoherence. His conscience became his enemy. He died in shame, his name a byword for treason.

In the late 1940s, Philby was posted to Washington, D.C. It was said that he somehow learned the true size of our atomic stockpile, which was not large at the time. He passed that vital tidbit of national security on to the KGB by taping a tube full of documents under this bridge. Legend has it that the information the Russians retrieved here emboldened Stalin to blockade Berlin in 1948.

This is my world now. The days of chasing speeders, driving drunken high school kids home, and taking down burglars is over. At least for me.

Tyler senses I'm brooding and sets off again. This is her way of telling me it is time to return to the warmth of our apartment. I trail along behind her, my breathing easy. As I watch her galloping for home, it strikes me that she too has a connection to the Dark World. She's from Winchester, Virginia. I bought her from a breeder there in town when she was just a pup. That's John Mosby country. He was a Confederate colonel, a renegade guerrilla nicknamed the "Gray Ghost" who struck terror into the hearts of Union rear-area types during the height of the Civil War.

Now I'm counterterror. Whatever that means. I suppose like every American who watches the evening news, I've seen Americans abroad fall victim to political violence. One terror attack after another has darkened the nightly broadcasts-the Achille Lauro, plane hijackings, car bombings, Beirut. We're a nation still scarred by the Iran hostage crisis and that 444-day nightmare. Will I be fighting against this sort of criminal now? I'm not sure, but I hope so.

Time to find out. We run through the morning, never retracing our steps. Periodically, I check my rear. No KGB agent picks up my tail. When we reach the apartment, we're still alone. A half hour out in the neighborhood and we never saw another soul. It is refreshing to have such privacy.

A quick shower and a hastily downed breakfast soon follow our arrival home. I dress carefully. I toss my Casio watch onto the nightstand. I use it only for running. In its place, I strap on a black-faced Rolex Submariner. There's no way I could afford such a luxury at retail price on my salary. A government special agent makes $22,000. But on our honeymoon to the Virgin Islands a few years ago, I snagged this one for $750.

In the closet, I find my Jos. A. Bank suit. Brown. Standard spook issue. The company gives us agents a discount. I button up a white dress shirt and throw on the one thing that will give me any distinction among my colleagues: a duck-patterned Orvis tie. No sense in totally obliterating my identity with my government threads.

Finally, I reach down to find my Johnston & Murphy lace-up shoes. I used to wear loafers when I wore a suit, but that's a no-no in the Dark World. Our instructors taught us to always wear lace-up shoes. Why? If you have to kick someone while wearing loafers, chances are your shoe will fly off. Lace-ups stay on through hand-to-hand combat.

I wonder who I'll need to kick in the months to come.

I slip a Parker rollerball into my shirt pocket, then check my briefcase. Inside is a small black pouch with the Holy Grail of our business: five little pins designed to be affixed to our left lapels. Each one is color-coded: black, red, blue, green, and gold. Depending on the day and the mission, they denote to other agents that the wearer is on protective security duty. That's basically bodyguard detail, like what the Secret Service does for the president. In agent training, we were told that if we lose these pins, it would automatically trigger an internal affairs investigation.

In the briefcase next to the pouch is my custom-made radio earpiece. It was molded specifically for me and my left ear. When in the field, this will be my lifeline to my fellow agents.

I pull my credentials out of the briefcase. They look like an average wallet until you open them. Inside, they're marked "This special agent holds a Top Secret clearance and is worthy of trust and confidence." Our gold badge sits next to those words. I fold the creds up and tuck them into my left jacket pocket. I'm agent number 192.

Last, I strap on my belt holster. It holds two speed loaders for my Smith & Wesson Model 19 .357 Magnum. I slide the ebony weapon into its sheath and snap the strap in place. With the two speed loaders, I've got eighteen rounds. That should be enough. If you can't get the job done with eighteen shots, you'd better run.

I'm ready for work. Well, almost. It's a cold day and I'll need a jacket. Inside my closet hangs a green Barbour Beaufort. This is a standard-issue piece of cold-weather gear for the British MI5 and several other intelligence services. They're warm and have inner pockets that are perfect for hiding an extra revolver or a small radio. The pockets are lined and keep hands toasty, even on a snowy day. This allows us to forgo gloves, making it easier to draw our weapons.

Or so the veteran spooks have told me.

Back in the day, special agents preferred tweed. Look around D.C. in the sixties and seventies, and the spooks from Langley and the Hooverite FBI agents all wore brown tweed with elbow patches. They looked a bit like college professors, only cooler and in better shape. And well-armed.

That's old-school now. We new guys go with the Barbour Beauforts. One of my instructors told me just before graduation that in a pinch, if you need help while out on the street during an assignment, look for the Barbour Beaufort jackets. Chances are they'll be keeping a spook warm.

But for which side?

By now it's almost six. Sharon's coiffed and ready for work. We kiss and both of us depart, leaving the apartment to Tyler. She'll take good care of it.

My gold Jetta awaits. It is not James Bond's Aston Martin, just the best we could do on our salaries. I climb aboard and head for MacArthur Avenue. I check my rearview mirror every few seconds, memorizing the cars behind me. Are any following? I merge onto Canal Road and pass along the outskirts of the Georgetown University campus.

It seems like such a normal commute in an average part of America. Yet I know that today is going to be different. The life here on the surface, the life 90 percent of us lead, is going to be a mere reflection from now on for me. Already there have been changes. I have a false driver's license. I'm Fred Booth to people in the normal world. We keep our first names so we respond naturally when somebody uses it. I stole my uncle's last name for my pseudonym.

There's another distinction. The plates on my Jetta are standard- looking Maryland issue, but they are blanks in the state's computer system. If anyone runs a trace on them, the Maryland DMV will alert our office. If the KGB wants info on us newbies, our license plates will be a dead end.

Through the predawn darkness, I drive and watch my tail in the light traffic. Seventeen minutes later, I reach the Harry S Truman Building. This is the State Department's home base. Located a short ways off the National Mall, it is an imposing edifice.


Excerpted from Ghost by Fred Burton Copyright © 2008 by Fred Burton. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface The List

Pt. 1 Rookie Year 1

1 The Buried Bodies 3

2 Down the Rabbit Hole 12

3 Night Train 19

4 The Dark World's Redheaded Stepchildren 27

5 Chasing Shadows 36

6 No Space Between Black and White 46

7 The Mad Dog of the Middle East 50

8 Two Hits for El Dorado Canyon 56

9 Human Poker Chips 64

10 One More Gold Star 75

11 The Gray Hell of Wait and Hope 83

12 The Stench of Good Intentions 88

13 Shipwreck 97

14 The Beer Hall Encounter 104

Pt. 2 The Veteran 111

15 Little Italy 113

16 Mice 121

17 Threat Matrix 132

18 The Bronze Star Assassin 144

19 Pak-1 Down 153

20 Night Flight 156

21 In Country 160

22 Pakistani Two7step 165

23 One Hour to Nowheresville 172

24 The Buffet at the End of the World 178

25 Puzzle Pieces 185

26 The Perfect Murder 192

27 Autumn Leaves 198

28 Two-Minute Free Fall 204

Pt. 3 War Weary 217

29 Street Dance 219

30 The Colonel's Revelations 226

31 Watching the Watchers 233

32 The World's Most-Wanted Man 241

33 Deadly Equation 246

34 Money Changes Everything 251

35 Finale in Pakistan 256

36 Lillybrook 261

Epilogue Brotherhood of the Badge 266

Author's note 273

Acknowledgments 275

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 29 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 29 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2008

    One Man's War Against Counterterrorism

    Twenty years ago, the idea of defending the United States against terrorism was relatively new. So new, in fact, that only a three-man Defense Security Service 'DSS' team situated in a windowless, smoke-filled office in the basement of the Harry S. Truman Building in our nation¿s capital was responsible for keeping tabs on the most violent religious extremists in the world.******* Fred Burton, a key figure in international counterterrorism and one of the original three agents, has taken off his Barbour Beaufort spy jacket to give a deeply personal account of the terroristic threats and acts America faced during his years as a DSS agent in ¿GHOST: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent.¿******* Burton, currently vice president for counterterrorism at Stratfor, a private intelligence company, recounts riveting, real world cases of espionage that detail how the U.S. tracked Libya-linked master terrorist Abu Nidal captured Ramzi Yousef, architect of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and pursued the assassins of major political figures including Yitzhak Rabin, Meir Kahane, and General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the president of Pakistan.******* ¿Ghost¿ is a fascinating read, written in a solemn, heartfelt tone that conveys the angst and strife Burton felt as he tried to rid ¿The Dark World¿ of terrorists, while bringing home American hostages safely.******* ¿I carry a list of names with me at all times. It is written in the black ink of a fountain pen in a hardback black Italian moleskin journal, and it travels with me in my weathered Ghurka shoulder bag or, when I¿m on the road, in my small Zero Halliburton aluminum case, right next to my Smith & Wesson Model 637 five shot revolver¿Each name on my list has eluded pursuit and is still out there¿Most of the names have long been forgotten by the public, but not by me.¿****** In a telephone interview during a nationwide book tour in Washington, D.C., Burton provides additional insight into his years with the DSS, and his thoughts on the Texas border serving as a portal for terrorists entering the U.S. ******* Q. Given your former job and current occupation, isn¿t it dangerous to come out with a book and tour that exposes you to people who still reside in ¿The Dark World?¿ A. Having been in this business for as many years as I have, going back to my days as a police officer as well as a special agent, it comes with the territory. I would venture to guess that street cops in San Antonio, and the border agents in Texas, are at more risk than I am. I have no fears of retribution, but I still take safety measures.******* Q. How is ¿The Dark World¿ doing? A. It¿s getting harder for them. The U.S. government has a much more robust capability to analyze threats and to make sense of the puzzle than we ever did. There are now thousands of analysts and thousands of agents assigned to this issue around globe, so they have a much better capability to oversee things. The technology has greatly increased from the days when I first started with 3x5 index cards, so their ability to connect the dots is much better.******* Q. How effective is al-Qaida today? A. al-Qaida is under a tremendous amount of pressure. The Federal Government has done a very good job of hunting down, capturing and killing high valued targets as evident with the recent military tribunal of Khalid Sheilkh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.**** The real concern from a domestic terror prospective is the ¿Lone Wolf Threat.¿ When you start game-boarding possible scenarios, one of the most worrisome is the individual who is inspired by al-Qaida and doesn¿t tell anybody what he¿s doing. Therefore, you don¿t have the capability to have an informant close to him to report on his actions.****** Q. How does religion reach the level of violent extremism in other countries? A. We have extremists in all walks of religion. When you start looking at Islamic fundamentalists, you have indiv

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2010

    more from this reviewer


    I hope there are more Fred Burton's out there! Burton's story is unique in that he was a kid raised in DC and grew up to be a key figure in defending our countries assets overseas while working for the State Department's DSS Counterterrorsim Unit. To work diligently from a grassroots efforts in the 1980's to build a top performing organization capable of identifying, tracking, and eliminating threats from the Dark World, Burton does a great job in detailing some of his biggests successes and failures. I recognized his desire to share what information he can about the greater dangers in our world and anyone wanting to gain knowledge of Burton's terrifying perspective on the world should read this book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 31, 2010

    Horrible book.

    I couldn't even finish it because it was so bad. Not worth the money or the time to read.

    1 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2009

    Insight into US Terrorism Effort

    Interesting and detailed biography of how one agent dealt with the terrorist activities he was faced with.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2014

    Not an interesting read

    There is a number of excellent books about this subject from authors that are able to tell interesting stories. This is not one of them.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 15, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    highly recommended

    highly recommended

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2009

    doubters beware

    Fred Burton spent his career keeping Americans safe around the world. In this memior he takes you into the realm of counterterrorism and the spook world, as he calls it. He became an agent in the DSS, diplomatic secret service,and he reveals the intelligent, motivated and formidable enemy we face. If you ever doubted the premise that these evil people are out there trading in death and violence this book makes it quite clear. Fred Burtons dedication, integrity, and humanity will give you hope for the future.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2009

    Great counter terrorism books!

    Fred Burton, a member of the counter terrorism unit, has written this book about his experience in that group. He writes about what he has previously done in his job and information about the group. From Hezbollah to Al Queda this book depicts the many threats and challenges Burton had to go through and the accomplishes as well. Great thrilling book to read. Didn't want to put it down.

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