Cold Zero: Inside the FBI Hostage Rescue Team

by Christopher Whitcomb

What a difference September 11th has made. "Fortunately, for
America, terrorism has not yet invaded our borders the way most
experts predicted it would," writes Whitcomb in COLD ZERO, his
memoir of a still-unfolding career with the FBI. And while the
observation was written well before the tragedies in New York,
Washington, and Pennsylvania, its author and the nation will never
make such a comment again, making this book all the more timely and

Whitcomb traces the peaks and valleys of his 15-year career with
the FBI, shedding much light, from his early days as an "FNG"
(F---ing New Guy) with the Bureau investigating trailer park trash
crimes to his six years as a sniper with the ultra-elite HRT
(Hostage Rescue Team) and current status as an Academy teacher and
Special Agent called in for emergency situations. He often carries
his most useful professional tool, a rifle he dubs "The Truth"
along for the often bumpy ride.

The fact that Whitcomb's pre-FBI career included stints as a
newspaper journalist and political speechwriter/press liaison on
Capitol Hill serves him well, as his writing flows well, mixing
storytelling and polemics that would wobble a lesser scribe. His
recollections range from the humorous (interviewing a woman who
insists that she was sexually assaulted by Martians and remains
consistently aroused) to the deadly serious (taking up close
photographs of the dead body of Kathy Weaver at Ruby Ridge and the
charred and fleshy remains of Branch Davidians in Waco). As the
bulk of the narrative concerns his time with the HRT, the reader
gets a fascinating glimpse into a very small, very elite group of
men. One gets exhausted simply reading about the intense,
unrelenting and difficult training that the team endures. Whitcomb
is not above a bit of cock-crowing in his ultra-macho recounting,
but it is certainly understood that one must be an extra-alpha male
to even consider this job.

Perhaps the most interesting revelation, though, is that a sniper's
job actually consists of long periods of boredom and inactivity
speckled with brief, adrenaline-pumping episodes. The movies and
television have conditioned us to believe a certain way about
hostage rescuers --- all action, all the time. But in fact,
Whitcomb and the rest of his team were required to literally lay in
wait for weeks just for the possible chance of getting off one
shot. And if that means he's not allowed to move for 12 hours,
covered in slime and muck and dodging snakes and heavy rain, so be
it. That's the job, and that's what has to be done.

After the Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents --- neither one of the
Bureau's finer moments --- the FBI and its practices came under
huge investigation with Congressional inquiries and testimony, and
Whitcomb became disillusioned with some leaders (Director William
Sessions, President Clinton) and admiring of others (Attorney
General Janet Reno) for the Monday Morning finger-pointing and
blame game that inevitably occurred. But if anything, Whitcomb
shows that there is no one person or one leader who gets the

Although occasionally filled with a little too much military and
weaponry detail for the casual reader, COLD ZERO (the name given to
the point where what a sniper sees in their scope matches exactly
where the bullet hits) is a fascinating look into a rarely-seen
side of law enforcement. Since Whitcomb is still an active agent
the FBI, who also vetted the text, it might be even more
interesting to find out what Whitcomb doesn't or can't say about
his job --- although what does make it on the page seems freer of
opinion than one might expect.

The tragedies of September 11th also unintentionally weigh heavy on
the book's last chapter, in which Whitcomb imagines an attack of
biological terrorism on New York City. Although it's plainly meant
to illustrate and sum-up what law enforcement's response would be,
in light of recent events it does not read like a fanciful training
scenario as much as a blueprint for reality. We can only hope that
at least this chapter never becomes fact.


Reviewed by Bob Ruggiero on December 28, 2010

Cold Zero: Inside the FBI Hostage Rescue Team
by Christopher Whitcomb

  • Publication Date: October 1, 2002
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Mass Market Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 0446611824
  • ISBN-13: 9780446611824