Review of Burton’s “Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent”

Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent, Random House, 2008.

This book describes Burton’s experiences working in counterterrorism within the U.S. State Department in pre-9/11 days (which is presumably why he is free to talk about it). His working career covered roughly from the Achille Lauro to the first World Trade Center bombing and aftermath. He tells a good story and there are lots of bits of interesting background that I don’t recall making it into the public gaze at the time.

The main thing that struck me is that the U.S. national security apparatus seems too thin at the top; that is, there is somehow an inability to focus on more than a few issues at a time. In the context of this book, it seems as if, given the Soviet threat, there wasn’t enough attention to go around to also focus on the threat from terrorism. As a result, terrorist groups and their state sponsors seemed to have been able to get away with more than they should have. In other words, it doesn’t sound like the problem dealing vigorously with terrorism during the 80s was resources, or even willpower, but simply attention. One gets the same feeling today when the U.S. government seems unable to pay enough attention to Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, al Qaeda; rather it seems to oscillate between them.

This may just be an illusion looking in from the outside. But I can’t help but think that there’s a bottleneck because of the limited attention of the President, National Security Advisor, and maybe Secretaries of Defence and State. Not enough delegation of enough power to get things done — understandable when blowback can escalate issues quickly, and perhaps still the aftermath of Iran-Contra.

The other striking thing is that terrorist movements of the time seemed to have substantial numbers of the psychiatrically troubled among their ranks. This is in sharp contrast to the argument made by Marc Sageman about al Qaeda (and perhaps more broadly). Sageman argues that, for this group at least, members were psychologically stable. The difference is important in the discussion about radicalization. If Islamist groups tend to recruit stable members then the threat will tend to be of one kind; if they tend to recruit less stable members, other kinds of threats may be more important. I haven’t seen more recent research examining this issue; nor have I seen it addressed explicitly in the radicalization literature.

Followup: I just finished “By His Own Rules”, the biography of Rumsfeld, and it supports my contention. It doesn’t sound like anything of importance happening in the DoD without Rumsfeld somehow being in the loop, even if it was only hearing about it. What a bottleneck, and what a waste of a leader’s time! It sounds as if Gates is a little better, but I don’t think the system allows real delegation of actual power.

I wasn’t impressed by the biography. Rumsfeld is obviously a puzzle: toweringly competent in some ways, but flawed in others. This book doesn’t begin to explain the contradictions, and spends far too much time documenting the Iraq invasion, rather than Rumsfeld.

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