July 2004

Christopher Whitcomb

Going back into the cold: Novel draws on author’s FBI tenure
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<B>Going back into the cold: Novel draws on author’s FBI tenure</B> Jeremy Waller plies his trade against a backdrop of moral ambiguities. As a new member of the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), he is sent on killing missions by officials he doesn’t know to work with people he’s never met to achieve political goals he sometimes views as shadowy or downright unfathomable. Without any advance notice to his wife and children, he is routinely spirited away to dangerous assignments around the globe. Despite his nagging misgivings, though, he is devoted to his job. In <B>Black</B>, Christopher Whitcomb’s gripping first novel, Waller is drawn into a lethal chess game that involves ruthless American CEO Jordan Mitchell, whose new encrypted cell phones threaten to enable terrorists to communicate undetected; U.S. Senator Elizabeth Beechum, who opposes Mitchell’s scheme; and Sirad Malneaux, a regal, mysterious beauty who’s willing to swap sex for secrets.

As befits the increasingly busy author, Whitcomb spoke to BookPage by cell phone (presumably an unencrypted one) as he drove to yet another appointment. A former FBI agent and a frequent television commentator on terrorist issues, Whitcomb admits that he based his characters on his own experiences. The pressure Waller feels, Whitcomb says, is the kind he dealt with: "It is an extremely demanding job, day in and day out. You have to be absolutely at the top of your game. All the training you do can be extremely dangerous. It’s all live fire, with regular ammunition. And there are helicopters and diving and things that very easily could kill you. They try to create in training some of the stresses you’d encounter in real life." Although the HRT is a division of the FBI, Whitcomb says that it’s not at all like the face of the agency that the public generally sees. "The idea that the FBI works inside the country, and the CIA works outside, is a myth. Most people don’t know that the FBI has more offices outside the United States than they do inside. The Hostage Rescue Team is given responsibility for a lot of that work outside the United States. Sometimes the host government gives approval, and sometimes it does not." Given Whitcomb’s background in undercover work, BookPage wondered if he was surprised at the brutal interrogation techniques recently exposed in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. "No, I wasn’t," he says. "I can tell you, because I taught interrogation at the FBI academy for two years, that we have techniques we use on paper, and there are techniques people use that are not written on paper. The waterboard [in which a subject is strapped to a board and immersed in water and which crops up in <B>Black</B>] is one of them. It’s been around for a long time. There are many techniques used, and not all of them are physical torture. Most are psychological." In <B>Black</B>, Whitcomb exhibits a fine eye for detail, right down to specifying the brand names of furniture and apparel. He concedes that one reviewer charged him with being "obsessed" with brands. Not so, he counters: "I’m driving down the road right now in a car. If I said, I’m driving next to a truck, you would say, OK, you’re driving next to a truck. But if I said, I’m driving next to an orange Peterbilt with little Playboy mudflaps on the side, you might get a better description. I was a writer before I was an FBI agent, and that’s what I was taught. I want to create the most accurate picture I possibly can." In 2001, Whitcomb released his first book, a nonfiction work titled <I>Cold Zero: Inside the FBI Hostage Rescue Team</I>. It told of his journey from a relatively bucolic New Hampshire childhood to his participation in the much-publicized shootouts at Waco and Ruby Ridge. Since he was still employed by the FBI at the time, the agency had to approve his manuscript. Black required no such vetting.

While the novel may put some HRT practices in a bad light, Whitcomb says he remains close to his former employer and the friends he made there. So why did he leave? "The bottom line is that I had 17 years in government service two years on Capitol Hill [as a speechwriter for a congressman] and 15 years with the FBI. From the time I was a little kid, my life’s ambition was to write fiction. <I>Cold Zero</I> gave me the opportunity to write fiction [in that] I realized I could support myself financially as a writer. It presented itself as a new adventure. And I’ve always been an adventurer." <I>Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.</I>

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