Killing terrorists: Is there a real Mitch Rapp?

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In Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars, he reveals highly classified and sensitive information about lethal CIA clandestine counterterrorism operations, including drone attacks and secret CIA-run “counterterrorism pursuit teams” to kill terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Woodward does not reveal the identities of CIA covert operatives, but his and other revelations, including that President Barack Obama has authorized the killing of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, suggest that one or more “assassins” not unlike Vince Flynn’s fictional Mitch Rapp are out there.

For those of you who haven’t read any of the 11 popular Mitch Rapp novels, Rapp is the terrorist’s worst nightmare. They can’t hide from him, they can’t kill him, and they can’t outwit him; and when he catches up to them, their fate is sealed.

The most recent novel, American Assassin, is a prequel that tells the story of Rapp’s recruitment, training, and first missions. A former all-American captain of the Syracuse University lacrosse team, Rapp seeks retribution for the death of his first love on Pan Am 103 over Lockerby, Scotland. CIA covert operative and future CIA director Irene Kennedy recruits Rapp into the CIA’s Orion Team. It’s so secret that only a handful of people in the agency know about it; and it’s outside the CIA’s official structure and Congressional oversight. Its purpose is to kill the most dangerous terrorists and make the others live in fear for their lives.

As you might expect, over the first 10 books, Congress and the media learn Rapp’s identity and about his exploits, forcing him to battle the terrorists and those in Washington, D.C., who disapprove of his methods. The first three books in the series predated 9/11, President George W. Bush’s aggressive approach to the war on terror, and the covert operations revealed in Woodward’s book. They gave readers a glimpse, however, into what the terrorist threat was to become and the controversy it would cause. The books before and after 9/11 explore the political, moral, and practical dilemmas America must confront as it defends itself against Islamic terrorists.

Mitch Rapp, the protagonist Flynn uses to delve into these issues, is compelling and realistic; and the political conflict over interrogating and killing terrorists that Rapp confronts is hardly fiction. Flynn captures precisely the debate between those who believe CIA covert operatives were or are out of control and don’t reflect American values and those who are willing to push the envelope to protect American lives. He portrays through Rapp the frustration Americans in the covert counterterrorism world feel when they are attacked for putting their lives on the line for their country.

Flynn also nails the internal conflicts among presidential advisors, intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and Congress that we watch play out in the media and that Woodward talks about in his book. As Rapp stalks terrorists, he and Kennedy must contend with self-aggrandizing politicians, political appointees bent on garnering power, and liberals concerned about terrorists’ rights and ridding the CIA of its covert operations capabilities. Only the support of a grateful president protects them.

When we read books like Flynn’s or movies based on them — a Mitch Rapp film is in the works — we tell ourselves it’s only fiction; there is no real Mitch Rapp. His exploits are too far fetched, and real assassins aren’t patriotic characters like Rapp.

As for what’s far fetched, recall that covert assassination by the CIA was precisely what the Church Committee revealed in the 1970s. “Among the matters investigated were attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, including Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, the Diem brothers of Vietnam, Gen. René Schneider of Chile, and President John F. Kennedy’s plan to use the Mafia to kill Fidel Castro of Cuba.”

Of course, that was then and this is now. The rules for the CIA and the White House have changed, at least when it comes to killing foreign leaders, and, under President Barack Obama, how we interrogate terrorist detainees. President Obama certainly would not approve of Rapp’s harsh interrogation techniques. The rules for killing enemy combatants are another matter; and those rules have not fundamentally changed. Rules of engagement, notwithstanding, the principal objective is still to kill them.

To do that, President Obama has dramatically escalated the use of drones and Special Forces to kill terrorists on the Afghanistan-Pakistan battlefield, and he authorized the killing of al-Awlaki in Yemen. And there is little difference, in time of war, between killing a terrorist with a missile fired from a drone or a covert operative putting a bullet in a terrorist at close range.

We are more likely to kill terrorists with a drone these days because we have the technology to do so and doing so doesn’t risk American lives. There are, nonetheless, terrorist targets that are better eliminated by people on the ground than by missiles fired from drones. It’s where the battlefield begins and ends and how you define it that determines where we draw the line between what’s acceptable and what’s not.

As for the difference between Mitch Rapp and real American covert operatives, like all fictional heroes based on people, Rapp is a composite character. He reflects the best of today’s real-life covert operatives and those throughout American history that have taken on the most dangerous and important missions in defense of our way of life. We can differ over what they should or should not do in defending us against terrorists, but we should sleep better at night knowing they are out there.

Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.

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