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Interview: May 28, 2004

May 28, 2004

Carol Fitzgerald and Joe Hartlaub of talk to Christopher Whitcomb about his debut novel BLACK, a thriller that delves into the world of counter-terrorism. Whitcomb, a former member of the FBI Hostage Rescue Team, speaks candidly about how aspects of the book parallel his experiences, the role that black operations play in combating terrorism and the significance of the title.

BRC: What does "black" mean? And what specifically does it refer to?

CW: "Black" is slang for counter-terror operations that fall outside traditional government oversight. As President Bush said shortly after 9/11, the United States is fighting a "shadow war" that extends far beyond traditional law enforcement, intelligence gathering and military operations. Although you see a great deal of activity on the news every night, there is a very complex world behind the headlines. Black operations, also known as the "wet side," do not appear in any budget, they are not discussed in Congressional hearings and they are not open to public debate.

The world of black operations covers everything from sophisticated technologies to overseas "renditions" (top secret terrorist snatches) and what sometimes falls within "military operations other than war." Its players include military special operations warriors, CIA non-official cover officers, FBI HRT agents, business people, "special interest" scientists and many other brave professionals you will never hear about in Pentagon news conferences. It is a confusing, obtuse world where identities, rules and allegiances sometimes seem like a big confusing game.

BRC: The narration in BLACK notes that there is a sign bearing the Spartan motto EXO TES THYRAS OUDEN --- "Out of these doors, nothing" --- above the classroom door within the Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) headquarters. A number of the operations described in BLACK appears to be based, at least in part, on "real world" occurrences. Did your separation from the FBI require that you had to have BLACK vetted before publication?

CW: The FBI vetted my first book, COLD ZERO, because it was a nonfiction memoir and I was still a government employee. BLACK is different. Though the FBI can investigate unlawful disclosure of classified information, they have very limited means of censoring publications by private citizens. Particularly with fiction. BLACK is a novel that contains almost nothing that I couldn't reference on the Internet.

Ultimately, my years in government service gave me extraordinary insights into how black operations actually work, but I know the line between what is classified and what is not. I present ideas and situations and relationships in BLACK, hoping to create a sense of the "wet side" without actually divulging classified information.

I want to point out that the FBI has been extremely generous and helpful with all my publications as well as with my television and radio commentary. Secrecy has its place, but there is also benefit in a fair representation of the people, agencies and events wrapped up in it.

BRC: How much of Jeremy Waller is you?

CW: Most of Jeremy's experiences are based on my own, but he is a fictional character built out of fascinating people I have worked with over the years. I borrowed the name from a good friend of mine, but the HRT sniper in BLACK is simply my nod to a dozen heroes you will never know.

BRC: There is a scene in the book where Waller is coaching his daughter's softball team when his beeper goes off and he immediately must leave on an assignment. Your writing in this scene suggests that you are familiar with it. How often did something like this happen to you when you were on FBI Hostage Rescue Team (HRT)?

CW: That scene has happened many, many times to me and everyone else who works in that world. Birthday parties, school plays, Christmas morning, anniversaries --- when the bell sounds, you go. No questions, no regrets. Your family and friends usually don't know where you are going (sometimes you don't either!) or when you will get back, but they accept it as part of the job.

And then there are those whose families don't even know what they really do for a living. That's when it gets really complicated.

BRC: You allude to the strains that a job like HRT will put on Waller's spouse and family. How tough was it to balance work and family when you were part of a unit like this?

CW: Very tough. You have to compartmentalize the two. When I was home, I was home. When I was gone, I was gone. It sounds odd, but assignments can put you in life or death situations. In order to do your job and survive, you have to focus completely on the mission. Same thing for time at home --- I tried my best to enjoy my family when I was with them; to keep work a long ways away.

BRC: Is it tough to return to the "real world" after being in a situation where adrenaline is running as high as what you see on a mission?

CW: Yes. Lots of things can happen during missions, including loss of life. It's not like what you see in the movies. Killing someone --- even in the line of duty --- has lasting repercussions.

Also, when you add several layers of secrecy, the whole process gets very confusing. Classifications limit who you can talk to and what you can say. Remember that black operations are extremely closely held. Even players on the same assignment often don't know what your job is or who you really work for.

I remember standing in the Camp Peary cafeteria line one day. Camp Peary, also known as the Farm, is a CIA training facility in Virginia but many different agencies use its facilities. HRT was training there and we were wearing green Nomex flight suits, which stood out among a large number of academic types. So this woman turns around and asks my buddy who we were. Not daring to state the truth, he told her we were with the Justice Department. She nodded and winked, then said, "Right. Good cover."

That's what I mean. Even among friends you don't always know what to say or who to trust.

BRC: Writing about these moments as fiction, do you see them differently than you did when you were going through them? Has writing helped you work through them?

CW: Yes. Very much so. Like most people who step into that world, I didn't know what to expect. You have grand ideals and a burning desire to do the right thing, but you don't always know what the right thing is, exactly. We used to joke that we would give anything to understand the "big picture." Well, it's a pretty brutal day when you figure out that there is no big picture. It's just politicians and bureaucrats trying to push various policies. Unfortunately, every time one of them changes his mind, the mission changes too. It's the brave, faceless operators who have to pick up the pieces and deal with the consequences.

Writing helps me understand that you can't read too much into the process. You do what you are told to do and pray that the people calling the shots have noble intentions. In my experience, that wasn't often the case.

BRC: Have you known covert agents who would place themselves in sexual roles like Sirad?

CW: Tough question. I never met anyone who would admit that they signed up to use sex as a weapon. On the other hand, motivations are personal. People I worked with used lots of personal assets to accomplish their goals. Men and women use sex to get what they want in the real world. It's not really a stretch to imagine that they use it "over there."

BRC: Do you think the media does a good job of presenting the current political situation to us?

CW: No, but that's not a slap against them. The primary reason is that you simply can't boil events of enormous complexity into a 90-second news item on the evening news. And that's what we demand. We want a paragraph, a photo, a sound bite to inform us on the way from our flight to the next meeting. We want something we can use --- evidence that backs up what we already believe.

Also, the people who generate the stories better understand the process. Media reps and flacks know how to manipulate news cycles and how to spin. I remember how disillusioned I was the first time I heard a national television correspondent refer to a White House press officer as "a high ranking government official." The reporter didn't want to admit that his source was the government mouthpiece and the press officer wanted to get his point across. It's not the Fourth Estate any more. There's a great deal of room for improvement.

BRC: Do you find the media to be biased?

CW: Of course. Who argues that Fox and the New York Times don't have opposite points of view? Look at the success of conservative talk show hosts, the sudden appearance of a liberal alternative, the ratings wars. It's what we want in America today: a choice in perspective. Pick up the remote, point it at the TV and get the news we trust. Having lived overseas, I know that news is treated very differently (for better or worse) in other parts of the world.

BRC: Turning to the conflict in Iraq, do you think the war that we are seeing is the war that really is going on? Or are the Black Ops much more of what the "real" story is?

CW: Black ops are a very big part of both wars: Iraq and Afghanistan. Seymour Hersh has written a good deal about black operations. He's mined a lot of information from a dark hole of secrets.

The "real story," if there is such a thing, is that war is ugly. Don't fool yourself into thinking we fight it any more nobly than anyone else.

BRC: How much are we really told? Do you think more should be told?

CW: Black ops don't officially exist. In the parallel universe of covert operations, that means you don't have to disclose information even to most formal inquiries. To protect those involved, off-line projects are usually "compartmented," meaning very few people know what's really going on. Ultimately, it is very difficult to reconstruct events, authorizations and funding.

As to what most people should know, I see two perspectives. One: war is a brutal, ugly affair that seldom follows war room strategies or administrative protocols. The military has an operations manual for everything imaginable, but when bullets fly and blood flows, there's no time for reading. You need a capacity for dirty work and you need a layer of insulation between the warriors and the second guessers. That's not the politically correct answer, but it is the truth. There are no white hats in combat.

Two: America is a country founded on justice, freedom and equality. The only way to protect against abuse is to give everyone a window on the process. Contrary to what many argue, government is not perfect; it is nothing more than a bunch of people and a whole lot of rules. Both are prone to failure. The best system of checks and balances is accountability of the government to the governed.

Somewhere between these two perspectives falls the answer. I don't know where the line of disclosure lies, exactly, but I'm glad we live in a country that still wants to find it.

BRC: What do you think of the photos of Iraqi prisoners that are all over the media? Should these have been shared with the American people?

CW: I don't like the photos, but I'm glad we saw them. War is a costly business, not just in terms of dollars and human lives, but also in terms of what it does to the people who sit back and watch. I think we'd have less war if we had more photos.

BRC: In war meetings where policy is determined, do you think that politics cloud too much of what goes on?

CW: Of course. Who could argue that Defense Secretary William Cohen would have handled things the way Donald Rumsfeld has? The president is the commander in chief. He is also a politician. Warriors do the dirty work, but politicians will always determine where and when.

BRC: You describe a covert operation in BLACK. Have you ever been on a mission like that, or do you know people who have?

CW: A college professor once told me to write about what I knew. I'll leave it at that.

BRC: You once told me that you were more afraid going to Afghanistan without a gun than you were being there as an FBI agent. Can you share the story of your return to the Middle East as a civilian, in what I think was a piece for GQ?

CW: I went to Pakistan and Afghanistan in November 2001 for GQ magazine. I knew going in that I would face a dilemma. Should I buy an AK in-country (they cost $40 with two magazines full of ammo: bayonet extra) and arm myself against well-known threats? Or should I stand behind a press pass and hope that it alone would shield me? That doesn't seem like a tough question for a former HRT sniper, but in the end I decided not to carry a gun. The reason is that war zones define roles very quickly and those carrying guns are targets. I tried to use my head, and that proved to be the right decision.

BRC: In the Middle East, how much are Americans hated?

CW: In my experience, and I've been to most countries in the Middle East, Americans are hated a lot. There are many obvious reasons, including the widespread belief that our culture threatens Islam. What I have found in most situations, however, is that people get along anywhere, just as soon as you take dogma out of the conversation. I have made friends in places I never suspected, but only after we sat down over a meal and got to know each other.

It's human nature. Think about how a Red Sox fan hates a Yankees fan, how Ford drivers ridicule Chevy types and Democrats fight with Republicans. We all have a tendency to group ourselves and alienate those who don't share our immediate beliefs. Right now, Middle Eastern Arabs feel threatened by the United States. They don't like that.

BRC: Do you think that working at the Agency is a lot different in a post 9/11 world?

CW: No question about it. From the Counter Terrorism Center to the Directorate of Science and Technology; from analysts and translators to non-official cover operatives, everything has changed. The political winds have shifted and many of the restrictions placed on the CIA during the Carter administration have been thrown away. Blown away. They are gone.

I see that as a good thing. You can't tell an intelligence agency to protect you and then tie its hands behind its back. The CIA is better able to do its job today than any time in the past 30 years.

BRC: How do you feel when you hear people coming down on how the FBI "performed" leading up to and after 9/11?

CW: I usually get angry. People think they can read Time magazine or listen to "Hardball With Chris Matthews" and get all the answers. They can't.

John O'Neal, head of the FBI's New York joint terrorism task force, was the U.S. government's foremost authority on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in the years prior to 2001. After leading several investigations, including the U.S.S. Cole bombing, he left the Bureau to take a job as director of security for the World Trade Centers. September 11th was his second day on the job, and he died at the hands of his old enemy. If anyone could have known about those attacks, it would have been him. I think that speaks volumes.

BRC: You actually wrote your nonfiction book, COLD ZERO, about your life on the HRT and contracted to write a novel before you resigned from the FBI. COLD ZERO came out the week of 9/11. When did you decide to begin a career as a writer?

CW: I decided on a career as a writer in the 6th grade. That is my life's ambition. Prior to joining the FBI I worked for a magazine, as a newspaper reporter and as a speechwriter on Capitol Hill. I have written plays, screenplays, books, poems, short stories, musicals... just about anything I could get somebody to read.

My career in the FBI came out of nowhere. It was an unexpected gift that ironically gave me the experiences I needed to land a book. Ain't life grand?

BRC: Did your role as a television commentator about terrorist issues happen after 9/11 or were you already planning to pursue this route?

CW: Little Brown had already lined up a publicity tour in anticipation of COLD ZERO's release, which was scheduled for September 14th, 2001. In fact, my first book signing was scheduled for the Borders in the World Trade Centers. Once the tragedy occurred, everyone wanted terrorism "experts" to help sort things out. I just fell into that fire storm. NBC gave me a contract and I have been with them for nearly three years.

BRC: What has it been like making the transition from HRT Special Agent to author and broadcaster?

CW: It's been very easy for me. Anyone who knows me will tell you that the hardest thing to do is shut me up! I love to write and I love to discuss the issues that drive our lives. I have to say that I much prefer writing to the "talking head" game, but both serve important purposes. I feel very fortunate and flattered to have the opportunity to talk in a national forum about some of the most important issues of our day.

BRC: Do you ever miss your old world? Have there been any incidents that made you want to move back into it?

CW: I miss the people. But then again, I still spend a good deal of time with my old colleagues. I feel like I still do my part, though in a different arena. They know what I mean.

BRC: Are there any thriller or military writers, of either fiction or nonfiction, who have influenced your written work? And of the current crop of thriller writers, who (besides yourself, of course!) do you feel presents the most realistic scenarios in their novels?

CW: I've always been a huge fan of the genre. And there are so many great authors. On the fiction side, I love Robert Littell. THE COMPANY is one of the most realistic portrayals of the Cold War spy trade I have read. I also love Frederick Forsythe, Ludlum, le Carre and the great spymasters. I read everything David Baldacci, James Patterson and Nelson DeMille write. I also devour nonfiction by Mark Bowden, James Bamford, Sebastian Junger, Ed Belfour and anyone who captures the essence of the people behind the events. I read voraciously; these are just a few of many writers I look up to.

BRC: Will we see Jeremy Waller in another book?

CW: Absolutely. BLACK's sequel is called NEW WHITE. I've already completed the manuscript and I can tell you that Jeremy's adventures (as well as those of Sirad, Jordan Mitchell and Senator Beechum) have barely begun.

BRC: What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it?

CW: I'm already on my fourth book, believe it or not. I hope to see NEW WHITE hit bookstores next spring. The book I'm writing now (RUMNEY COMMON) has nothing to do with Jeremy Waller but is a suspense thriller that keeps me awake at night. For better or worse, I've accumulated a few voices in my head over the years. Some are friendly and some are not, but they provide no shortage of compelling stories.