Killing terrorists: Is there a real Mitch Rapp?

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.