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What Is Wrong and Right With the FBI

A special review of Christopher Whitcomb's Cold Zero: Inside the FBI Hostage Rescue Team.

By 5.30.02

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With the FBI in the media crosshairs recently, Christopher Whitcomb's memoir, Cold Zero: Inside the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team (Little, Brown, 448 pages, $25.95; click here to order) may be read for information alone about the agency's history during a critical period. Whitcomb was there throughout the nineties, and present at the infamous encounters at Ruby Ridge and Waco. Indeed, he watched those screwups through the sights of a sniper rifle. Information alone, however, doesn't begin to represent the value of this book. It's a rattling great story written by a real-life Tom Clancy hero.

If Whitcomb does not question policy at the political level, even with big targets like Bill Clinton and Janet Reno looming over the action, it must be remembered that Whitcomb is a company man. The manuscript was vetted by the Bureau. Perhaps that's why Cold Zero has not been reviewed in the conservative press the way it might have been. That's too bad. It's one of the best accounts ever of patriotic ambition and military training. The chapters on Whitcomb's experience at the Marine sniper school are incomparable. (The first shooting test, with .22s, has the recruits firing at fanned decks of cards, picking out poker hands. Whitcomb confidently punches himself a straight flush.) And his account of breaking in as a callow young Special Agent in rural Springfield, Missouri, is deadpan hilarious.

Christopher Whitcomb grew up in rural New Hampshire, living the outdoor life. He skied, he hunted, he played daredevil games on railroad trestles with his friends. He stands a lean six-four, and he's obviously as tough as a combat boot. He worked for the late Massachusetts Republican Congressman Silvio Conte, and in that capacity got to attend Ronald Reagan's 1986 State of the Union address.

Awestruck, Whitcomb writes of that experience, "I knew then, as if by epiphany, that what I wanted to do with my life was to help protect it all…I wanted to make a difference in society, to wake up in the morning with a cause. Justice. I wanted jurisdiction."

This inspiration inevitably bangs straight up against the realities of the day-to-day business of law enforcement, against the incorrigibility of numskull criminals, and against the notorious revolving doors of the justice system. Frustrated with the life of a line agent, Whitcomb tries out for the toughest unit in the Bureau, the Hostage Rescue Team, a challenge on a par with the Navy Seals or the Army's Delta unit.

But here things begin to go wrong, at first subtly, then dramatically. Waco and Ruby Ridge, of course, have become ideological touchstones for government abuse of power. At least at the start, Whitcomb simply does not buy that:

"We were not some Zionist Occupational Government, coming in to strip all Americans of their constitutional right to bear arms," Whitcomb writes, describing himself standing in Randy Weaver's gravel driveway. "Why anyone would assume I wanted to march in and take away their guns and their rights to do anything absolutely baffled me. I grew up in the same woods with the same guns reading the same Bible all these guys did…No one told me I could walk away from a valid arrest warrant because I didn't consider myself legally bound by federal law. Nobody ever told me I could stop paying taxes because I don't like abortion…or that I could shoot law officers when they came to do the same job they perform a thousand times a day…"

By the time Whitcomb finds himself standing in another gravel plot, watching fire consume David Koresh's Mount Carmel, his thoughts have turned to utter despair: "I see my shadow dancing in the coals. I hear the voice of evil. It's me."

What happened?

It is all too easy for agencies -- even for whole branches -- of the government to forget what they are supposed to do. Since the start of the war on terrorism, many people have reminded us that the military's job is to break things and kill bad guys. But we need to remember something else, too. The job of a law enforcement agency is to gather, analyze, and preserve evidence in support of criminal prosecution. Since the late 1960s, when John Ehrlichman put together the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, the militarization of police forces has metastasized at an ever quickening pace. Under Bill Clinton, even park rangers and agents of the Environmental Protection Agency started carrying guns.

All too often today, law enforcement agencies break things and kill -- and not always bad guys. Of course police do confront lawbreakers and make arrests, but the mission remains the same: gather evidence in support of criminal prosecution. Sometimes that evidence is a person, a witness or a perpetrator. But the job is not destruction. It is the relentless tilling of society's fields in support of the cultivation of law.

Maybe the FBI started to get lost with the fall of the Soviet Union, since so much of its original evidence-gathering charter involved Communist subversion in the U.S. (a now-established fact to all but those who are not ignorant, or worse). Maybe the FBI, like many law enforcement agencies, fell under the siren sway of SWAT and high technology.

America's warriors, like Chris Whitcomb, are defined first and best by their loyalty, to their unit, to their service, and to their country. Whitcomb simply cannot understand -- and cannot countenance -- betrayal. That is both his finest quality and his most pronounced weakness.

In that, he stands clearly for the FBI as a whole. In the curve of his career, Christopher Whitcomb was transcendentally inspired, rigorously trained, overarmed, then slowly and systematically betrayed and undermined by twitchy management and panicky politics.

After that, he moved into the Bureau's upper echelons and became a bureaucrat.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.