Ghost by Fred BurtonOne of the great joys of my work is that I get to meet some truly extraordinary people. Fred Burton got wind of my upcoming book on DARPA and sent me a copy of his Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent.

Ghost is one of the best books I’ve read in some time, a brilliant work of riveting you-are-there reporting, full of heart, humor, and unflinching telling details of our country’s war on terror.

Burton was a counterterrorism agent working for the State Department in the 1980s and 1990s, and investigated many of the chilling events that foreshadowed 9/11. His and his colleagues investigations of such events as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing revealed a widespread, well-funded terror network well in advance of 9/11 that kept them awake at night worrying about not if the next strike would occur, but when.

A book that focuses so intently on such nerve-jangling material would be a bitter pill to swallow without the emotional depth Burton brings to the table, not the least of which is his well-developed sense of humor. Here he describes opening a file folder on his first day on the job:

I lift it up and examine its contents. Whatever is inside looks like a dried-up mushroom.

“What is this?” I ask myself softly.

Gleason overhers me and replies, “An ear.”

First day on the job, and I’m holding a human body part. The Alice in Wonderland experience is complete. I’ve gone down the rabbit hole.

I continue to hold the ear. Miss Manners doesn’t cover this sort of scenario. What should I say? How should I react? I’ll wing it.

“So, did you cut this off a suspect?” I ask Gleason.

He is not amused.

In recent years, Burton’s been working for STRATFOR, a group Burton calls the world’s finest private intelligence firm. He’s on sabbatical now, serving as the Assistant Director of Intelligence and Counterterrorism for the Texas state police.

I asked him whether we’re any safer now than before 9/11. “Depends upon how you look at the threat,” he told me. “We are battling transnational criminal gangs from Mexico, border violence, orchestrated ‘hits’ on US government informants on U.S. soil, violent street crime, lone wolf concerns (jihadist and white hate) and terrorist organizations in countries like Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Indonesia and Afghanistan.” Great.

However, he says, “I believe we are better today then before 9-11 in certain areas, such as strategic analysis. However, human intelligence collection (HUMINT) and tactical analysis remain problematic.”