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Ghost Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent by Stratfor’s Fred Burton

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In this episode, Jason Hartman welcomes Fred Burton, former counterterrorism agent for the State Department, Chief Security Officer, and VP of Intelligence and Counterterrorism at Stratfor. They talk about Fred’s new book, Beirut Rules, which is about the evolution of terrorism in our times. They also stress the importance of an individual to be prepared to react at all times.

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Announcer 0:11
Welcome to the holistic survival show with Jason Hartman. The economic storm brewing around the world is set to spill into all aspects of our lives. Are you prepared? Where are you going to turn for the critical life skills necessary to survive and prosper? The holistic survival show is your family’s insurance for a better life. Jason will teach you to think independently to understand threats and how to create the ultimate action plan. sudden change or worst case scenario. You’ll be ready. Welcome to ballistic survival, your key resource for protecting the people, places and profits you care about in uncertain times. Ladies and gentlemen, your host, Jason Hartman.

Jason Hartman 0:59
It’s my pleasure to welcome Fred Burton to the show. He’s a former counterterrorism agent with the US State Department chief security officer and vice president of intelligence and counterterrorism at strat for which is a company you may be familiar with New York Times best selling author of several books, including under fire ghost in Beirut rules. We’re going to talk about his days as the very first counterterrorism agent. Fred, welcome. How are you?

Fred Burton 1:28
I’m good. Thank you for having me on.

Jason Hartman 1:30
You’re coming to us from Austin, Texas. Is that correct?

Fred Burton 1:32
That’s correct. Greg strat for corporate headquarters is here in Austin.

Jason Hartman 1:36
Good stuff. So explain to our listeners what is strat for and how many people work there. For example,

Fred Burton 1:42
we are a geopolitical intelligence company in in essence, we try to make sense of the world. We have approximately 100 employees, the bulk are headquartered here in Austin, our founder decided that Austin would be a good place to be, because it was outside of the Beltway outside of the group, think kind of atmosphere. So that’s why we’re here.

Jason Hartman 2:05
Good stuff. So are you mainly like a government contractor providing analysis and intelligence to the US government mostly,

Fred Burton 2:14
that’s really one of the more interesting perceptions that people have of us. But although we do have government clients that read our analysis on a routine and daily basis, the bulk of our readership is really multinational corporations, as they try to make sense of the world. And then we also have individual subscribers that subscribe to our daily website kind of content.

Jason Hartman 2:40
Right, right. I used to listen to your podcast, I don’t even know if you guys are still running that. But years ago, I used to listen to it. So counterterrorism back in the days of the show, 24 and CTU, the counterterrorism unit, I’m sure it’s nothing like it is on TV. But that’s really kind of the first time I heard that term widely used. And it’s really not that old, because you were right at the beginning of the counterterrorism, I guess, industry, for lack of a better word back in the 80s. Right.

Fred Burton 3:12
I was I was one of the first three us counterterrorism agents assigned to the State Department. And I chuckled when you when you talked about homeland, I was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart once and, and he made that reference that I somehow was jack Bauer. And anybody that’s looked at me certainly knows that I’m not. But we had a very dysfunctional approach to terrorism in the 80s. And of course, this is when we had all the horrific US embassy bombings in Beirut, two times, Kuwait. And then we had a whole smattering of hijackings from around the world, as well as aircraft bombings. So in the 80s, we were always playing catch up, or we were always picking up the body bags, or we were very reactive, just going to the next explosion or the next threat in the world.

Jason Hartman 4:07
You say it was dysfunctional. But actually, before we get into that, how long has terrorism been around? I mean, it’s kind of surprising to me, and I think maybe the listeners that in the 80s, as far as a US thing began, I mean, I guess the first instance that I would think of is the Munich Olympic Games, early 70s. I believe that was, but really, I mean, you know, you have to define terrorism. Right. But it’s been around for forever, maybe. I don’t know, what do you think?

Fred Burton 4:39
Well, I think you’re a good student of history. You’re absolutely right, the 1972 Munich massacre by a group called the Black September organization, really put terrorism on the map. It was the first time that I’m old enough to remember where you have this global news broadcast underway of the Olympics. All of a sudden you see this footage terrorist standing on a balcony after the murder of the 11 Olympic athletes. And when you go back to the early 70s, that’s when Black September in such a short period of time was very successful at carrying out the spectacular terrorist attacks. And that resulted in the Israeli Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, deciding that they were going to go after, and hunt down and kill the terrorists involved with the Munich massacre. So that really started the counterterrorism kind of offensive kind of response capability, where they actually tried to infiltrate the organizations hunt down the people responsible for killing their citizens, wherever they might be. So that’s when it really began, and the US was late to the game. Remember, the US intelligence community as a product of the Cold War, and our arch enemy, the evil enemy behind everything was Russia at the time, quite frankly, not much has changed. But if you fast forward into the 80s, what we came to realize through our investigations and our intelligence analysis is that most of these terrorist groups from the 70s had actually been funded and trained by the Soviet Union. And they were utilizing all of these terrorist groups like the Italian red brigades, the Red Army Faction, the Japanese Red Army, to destabilize the West. So it was a tool of foreign policy by the Soviet Union, in many ways, early on in the game,

Jason Hartman 6:39
but the Soviets didn’t create the muslim terrorist element today. I mean, they don’t they’re not tolerant of that at all in their country boy, no,

Fred Burton 6:49
no, no, no, that was the new phenomena that simply caught up on aware in Beirut, first in 1983, when the first embassy bombing occurred, and that’s when the radical Islamic terrorism started attacking us interest, predominantly due to the Iranian backing. And again, you had a nation state actor in play. So from a modeling perspective was very unique. In that, here, you have the Iranians that, in many ways, were following the Soviet playbook of utilizing groups like Hezbollah, to attack us interest to try to drive us out of Lebanon, which quite frankly, they did.

Jason Hartman 7:31
Okay, so Gosh, what do I want to ask you? There are so many questions. So the Munich games sort of put things on the map, if you will, you know, I think we should probably kind of cut to something that’s breaking news, Julian Assange was just arrested. As Ecuador withdrew his asylum, you probably know that. It’s all over Twitter and such. What do you think What does strat for think of Assange?

Fred Burton 7:55
Well, it’s an interesting question, when you look at an individual like that, and the day of the information space, the global information space, certainly, when you think of it in context of foreign actors, and potential involvement with other entities and so forth. I think the verdicts still out. I mean, I saw where the Eastern District of Virginia unsealed an indictment this morning, regarding his association with Manning, Chelsea Manning Bradley Manning, right. Yeah, correct. So I think the devil will be in the details with that I think the Department of Justice is pretty good at connecting those dots, at least from a legality perspective,

Jason Hartman 8:37
I think, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just naive. But it seems to me Julian Assange is an important person to expose a lot of bad dealings. And I sort of wonder if my own country isn’t just being well, selfish. You know, I mean, I know he did some things, obviously, that the US is very bothered about. But is there any good Julian Assange?

Fred Burton 9:00
I probably am the wrong person to ask that question. Because I don’t know him personally. I think when you look back, and you look at the allegations that perhaps he and his organization are associated with other kinds of nation state actors. That’s the kind of thing that the intelligence community looks at very closely. And I know from working behind the firewall, so to speak, in those kinds of scenes, that they’re pretty good at connecting those dots, you know, utilizing all the tools that the intelligence community have at their disposal. So I know indictments and so forth. The threshold is pretty darn high in any us judicial kind of process before they any US attorney will will even accept the case.

Jason Hartman 9:47
Okay, I think it was maybe your first book about the that’s the confessions book, talking about your life in counterterrorism. What are some of those confessions if you will, such an interesting behind the scenes world you know, we all love watching spy movies and so forth. So, so teach us something.

Fred Burton 10:06
One of the things that Random House wanted to do with the story is, we kind of made the plane crash, which killed president Zia of Pakistan in 1988 is the center of the book. It has more chapters than any other story in the book. It was a case that I personally investigated, and it also killed our United States ambassador Arnie rayful, as well as the entire Pakistani equivalent of our cabinet when pack one crashed in the desert in 1988. So that’s the kind of story that’s behind the scenes that I tried to write about my involvement, trying to figure out how the plane crashed, try to figure out the actors that might have been involved. And that’s one of the reasons why when the terrorist attack took place, and Ben Ghazi I wanted to tell that story because when Ambassador Stevens was killed in Benghazi, he actually was the last US Ambassador killed in the line of duty, before Ambassador rifle was killed in Pakistan in 1988. So there was kind of a personal arc for me there. Since I had investigated the previous one, I wanted to also look into what happened in Benghazi. And tell that story from the eyes of the young special agents that were there saddled to try to protect Ambassador Stevens, when the terrorists came over the walls there,

Jason Hartman 11:28
Hillary Clinton, I mean, she’s been implicated widely in the Benghazi fiasco, or tragedy, I guess I should call it that’s really what it is. It’s a terrible tragedy. Where do you stand on Hillary Clinton? I, it seems like she just ignored, it’s just mind boggling to me what happened there, and I’ve done some interviews on on this incident, but it’s been a few years. So give us your perspective.

Fred Burton 11:53
Well, I think governments are reactive, they’re not proactive. That’s the first thing I learned when I was an agent. And then in many ways, you’re on your own at times, and that everything’s fine. And so things go south, per se. And then there’s always, you know, your Accountability Review Boards, there’s always the witch hunts that follow. Now, I can say this, and any government agency that I’ve ever worked in, that it’s rare for a cabinet level official to make any real tactical decisions on any given day. And I think had been Ghazi, the mistake was made with the US Ambassador being in Benghazi on the anniversary of 911 to begin with. And then from a practical level, the agents did not have in the safe room, smoke hoods, which is a device that you put over your head from a survival perspective. And that was a human error failure, that if they had had smoke hoods there, they might have been able to wait out the fire, and they might have been able to try to keep Ambassador Stevens alive. So but it really backs up with Stephens decision to go to Benghazi that day is the chief of mission and the President’s rep to any nation. It’s very difficult to override him. And there wasn’t a lot of oversight in Washington, nor is there ever on the activities or travels of any specific US ambassador.

Jason Hartman 13:18
That’s just such a tragic, terrible story. But it just seems like our government just abandon those people.

Fred Burton 13:25
Well, I think that, you know, there certainly, were some poor choices made, beginning with the US Ambassador deciding to go there that day. And it’s like anything else in this business? Things are fine and to things go south. And then everybody wants to know how the heck did this happen. But when you also look at the organization that I came from, and I’m very sympathetic to the plight of the poor agents that were there, because I was one of those poor agents, many years ago, sent to investigate these kinds of horrific events. And I can tell you that for the most part, you’re, you don’t have enough resources. You’re doing the best you can, and you’re kind of flying by the seat seat of your pants. Yeah,

Jason Hartman 14:09
what else would you like people to know about counterterrorism?

Fred Burton 14:12
Or,

Jason Hartman 14:13
you know, anything that Stratfor is up to?

Fred Burton 14:15
Well, I’ve got a new book out called Beirut rules, which is the story of the only CIA station chief ever to be kidnapped and murdered. And I’ve been working a lot with doing book talks and so forth and media surrounding it. I spent a great deal of time piecing together the event involving the kidnapping and, in, in essence, Iran, support for the organization that kidnapped the station chief and in the 1980s. And, you know, the one thing about this business is is you have so well laid out is the arc here that, in many ways, everything that we were dealing with in the 1980s we’re still dealing with today, whether that be nation state sponsored espionage, nation state They sponsored terrorism. And it certainly resonates today. Yeah, it sure does.

Jason Hartman 15:05
Where do we go from here? Like, what does the future hold? And in, by the way? And I know, that’s a loaded question, of course. But I also just want to raise one other issue, and it seems to have been forgotten. And I used to talk about it with guests all the time, everybody was so outraged. Whatever happened to if we just accepted that the NSA is gonna do what they do and listen in and eavesdrop on all of us all the time. Is that just Okay, now, that’s the new normal, that just sort of evaporated. It’s it’s mind boggling. I’ll come to you. And I think, no,

Fred Burton 15:43
I think you raise a very good point. I mean, I can remember a day as an agent, actually trying to get some NSA help on an American citizen, that I was convinced that was involved in terrorism. And literally, I was kicked out of the building. They said, We can’t help you. We can’t collect on American citizens. There’s nothing we can do. We can’t collect data. You mean, right? Yeah, we can’t collect data. We can’t help you with this problem. Fred, you’re on your own. And I have seen this pendulum swing so far in the other direction, to the point that I think you’re right. People just kind of expect this today. But I can remember a day. And it wasn’t that long ago. But I guess it was in hindsight, when this was something that the NSA stayed away from. And they never collected meishan on Americans in any capacity. And, of course, the strategic strike by Al Qaeda on 911 changed things drastically. And so the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. Yeah,

Jason Hartman 16:45
really has it? Where do we go? What’s the future of terrorism and counterterrorism? I mean, how concerned should we be? You know, are there any new terrorism fighting techniques that, you know, maybe the general public doesn’t know about yet, I mean, I’m sure there’s lots of them that you can’t talk about. But whatever you can share?

Fred Burton 17:04
Well, I think these incidents of mass violence, like we saw in Las Vegas are certainly going to continue, I think it’s impossible to stop some of these events. It’s so easy today, when you don’t need to know how to make a bomb, you don’t need to even acquire a firearm, you can just use a car, you could use a truck or a van, just to drive into a crowd. I think the public in the media have unrealistic expectations, on the part of the ability of law enforcement or the intelligence community to stop those, I’m here to tell you, they’re practically impossible to stop without a human source to report what that person is doing. Those are the kinds of things that I think are going to continue your active shooter events, I think are going to continue inside your usual soft targets, whether that be churches or schools, I’m sad to say,

Jason Hartman 17:53
well, sadly, you know, they’ve basically the government has said, you know, these places can’t protect themselves, you know, schools, you know, they know, they’re just open game, there’s no security,

Fred Burton 18:02
yes, without a doubt. And I think that there’s a copycat factor there where they just feed on each other, like we’ve seen happen, whether it be the horrific attack on the mosque in New Zealand to some of the church shootings that we’ve had here in the United States. By just good police work. On occasion, the FBI is able to circumvent some of these attacks, but we’re not going to be able to stop these. And therefore, it’s incumbent upon all of us to make sure you have a plan, you have a personal plan, you maintain a degree of situational awareness to know where you’re at how to get out of a movie theater, how to get out of a school, do you know how to stop the bleed? Do you have a tourniquet those are the kinds of things that I think people have to realize that they’re not going to be able to rely upon the government to be able to stop these and it takes forever, at times to get help to you. God forbid if one of these events breaks out while you’re in the midst of it.

Jason Hartman 18:57
Yeah, you know, good point. I mean, you know, maybe we just have to learn to live more like the Israelis have been living for many years. When I was in Israel, I remember it, you know, db in a restaurant and my backpack would be under the table and someone will come by every few minutes and says that your backpack very concerned, all the trash cans were clear, you know, so you could see what’s inside them. There are just a multitude of Prevention’s and extra efforts that have to be taken to combat this terrible thing that we that we have to live with nowadays. So a lot of effort you know, you look at every government building probably people don’t even notice I was just saying this to my girlfriend the other day, you know, as we were walking by a government building I think we were where we Phoenix I think, and I said look at that building see all the barricades You don’t even know those bus benches or barricades Do you? And they’re just concrete, you know, heavy, really heavy things. So you can’t drive a truck into it. There’s no parking around the building like there used to be you know, it’s, it’s all just a different world, isn’t

Fred Burton 19:56
it? Most certainly is. And I’ve seen this evolution. And the interesting part here And you touched on something that I do want to mention, because US government entities and military bases and embassies have headed up to the point, from a physical security perspective that it’s very difficult to attack them. The threat has been pushed on to the public sector, the threat has been pushed into the public arena and into the multinational corporation got a workspace, because the government’s have monies to be able to put these physical security barriers around. A lot of companies don’t. And a lot of retail establishments can’t. So there is that kind of blowback, when you start looking at that, too, from what’s happened with our homeland security efforts?

Jason Hartman 20:40
Yeah, that’s a good point, you know, and that’s I talk a lot about identity theft. It’s really the kind of the crime of our time, you know, because everyone is much more secure. Now, every house has an alarm system nowadays, not everyone, but obviously, a lot of them do. You know, everything has been beefed up, you know, we’re all much more aware and careful, we walking down the street, we’re not as dumb as we used to be, because society is not as peaceful as it used to be. You know, everybody wised up. So now, the criminals got into identity theft, you know, that’s all different kind of thing. And we’re all learning about that now. And then they’ll go to something else. You know, it’s wherever the easiest opportunity is, if, if your house is protected and lighted and alarm, you know, they’re going to go to your neighbor’s house. It’s the same idea, right?

Fred Burton 21:21
Absolutely. A long time ago, before I was a special agent, I was a cop. And I never remember taking a police report of a burglary of a house where someone added a dog because the dog barked, therefore, the burglar would go to a house that doesn’t have a dog. Right? So your example with the cyberspace is absolutely correct. And a very good analogy.

Jason Hartman 21:43
Yeah, yeah. So so a lot more people have a dog now in other words, rights

Fred Burton 21:48
are secure. Should have

Jason Hartman 21:50
a good point. Good point. All right. give out your website and tell people where they can find out more.

Fred Burton 21:55
Absolutely. Anybody interested in strapped for can go to www.stratfor.com or visit my website, which is official Fred burton.com.

Jason Hartman 22:04
Fred, thanks for joining us.

Fred Burton 22:05
Thank you for having me.

Jason Hartman 22:11
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