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A Review of Christopher Whitcomb's Cold Zero: Inside the FBI Hostage Rescue Team


Friday, Nov. 29, 2001

Christopher Whitcomb, Cold Zero, Inside the FBI Hostage Rescue Team (Little Brown 2001)

Christopher Whitcomb's Cold Zero is a page-turner - at least after the first 110 pages. This initial section describes, rather prosaically, Whitcomb's time in the FBI Academy and his apprentice years as a rookie agent. But the action picks up smartly when he heads for the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team, a small, super-elite group of agents that confront the FBI's most intractable problems, such as Ruby Ridge and Waco. Only 200 have ever served in the unit. Both Whitcomb's writing talent and passion for his work increase, and converge, once he finds a cause - the HRT.

Whitcomb is not your run-of-the-mill FBI agent nor, I imagine, your run-of-the mill member of the HRT. A literature major in college, then a journalist and aide to a Congressman, Whitcomb not only reads a lot of poetry, he writes it. How many agents assigned to two months of surveillance of the Branch Davidian compound would write seventy poems while waiting for something to happen? How many would admit it?

Joining the Hostage Rescue Team

While the book was obviously completed before the September 11 disaster, it nevertheless tells us about the kind of people we're going to have to rely upon in emergencies. A few months ago, Ruby Ridge and Waco were significant, but few thought that they could be a prelude to a broader life-and-death struggle. We're going to see more of people like Whitcomb. Anti-terrorism is one of their specialties.

As Whitcomb's account reveals, the training and physical accomplishments demanded of an HRT sniper are incredible. Consider running 22-mile races with a full pack, taking 75-foot walks under water while weighted down, and climbing a 90-foot rope with a 65-pound ammunition pack, all with acute sleep deprivation.

HRT candidates struggle until they nearly drop with exhaustion. That's before they test their shooting. Then they practice hours in the rain, snow, or amidst an armada of bugs. They curse at being an inch off at 200 yards.

The HRT members insist on perfection, both for its own sake and because of the relentless competition among the members of the team. The overwhelming majority of the troops and team leaders are well trained, both mentally and physically, and highly disciplined. They ooze loyalty.

On Ruby Ridge

Whitcomb vividly evokes the tension of Ruby Ridge. We're with him 289 yards from the cabin (as measured by his scope), while he shivers on the ground in a nearly freezing rain while stalking a group of white supremacists who killed a deputy U.S. Marshal.

The master plan was to play out the drama slowly, with warnings. But the orders conveyed to the snipers were to shoot to kill. A helicopter ferrying supervisors upset the Weavers and Kevin Harris, and they fired shots. Suddenly, Vicki Weaver was dead, killed by one of the HRT snipers. In one of the very few shortcomings of Cold Zero, Whitcomb does not enlighten the reader on the details of what happened, other than to identify the source of the errant shot.

It's hard not to sympathize with Whitcomb when he rails at the posturing of his superiors and the bureaucracy as the rest of the standoff slowly played itself out. In the end, the survivors surrendered without a shot.

Sitting It Out in Waco

Whitcomb's account of Waco is more enlightening. Waco started with four federal agents ambushed and murdered. It ended, as we know, with a conflagration. In between, there was a very long wait by a very large group of people, and Whitcomb tells us what that wait was like.

Whitcomb describes having David Koresh in the crosshairs of his sniper scope. He recounts watching the zealots hold up children as human shields. And with disbelief and a feeling of betrayal, he describes locating the Branch Davidian's powerful .50-caliber gun, their most powerful weapon, only to have the negotiators inform them of the find.

Whitcomb describes the war within the FBI between the negotiators and tactical personnel on how to deal with Koresh. No one had a plan. Lines of communications between the command and front line troops had crumbled. The FBI leadership, from Whitcomb's point of view, was "spineless."

Reading about the denouement is like reading a good action novel. Smoke. Fire. Suicide. You're there when it happens. And you're there for the tragic aftermath and recriminations and self-serving investigations - followed by Whitcomb's nightmares, his depression, and his eventually moving on to new assignments, many of them abroad.

It is not entirely reassuring to the reader when Whitcomb points out that while everyone makes mistakes, at least they learn from them. Well, maybe all but the Washington Bureau brass and the politicians. Perhaps their reading Cold Zero would help.

David M. Dorsen, a Washington attorney, is a former federal prosecutor and Assistant Chief Counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee. He is on the faculty of the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University and of Georgetown Law Center.

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