Book Reviews   




Cold Zero

By Chris Whitcomb 

Review by Richard Sheppard 


The FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) is probably the elite (non-military) law enforcement outfit in the United States, if not the world. Comprised of approximately 50-60 “operators” the HRT drill constantly in Close Quarters Battle (handgun fights in tight spaces) and long range interdiction and observation (sniping). Called into situations too far gone for local and state SWAT teams, the HRT has been involved in such high profile events as the Ruby Ridge standoff in Idaho and the Branch Davidian conflagration in Waco, Texas. The phrase “Cold Zero” is a sniping term used for the title by author Chris Whitcomb, who tells his story of joining the HRT during its most tumultuous era.

Whitcomb, a strapping outdoorsman from New Hampshire, has an epiphany during a live viewing of a presidential State of the Union address: he wants to protect the majesty and goodness of the American Way. And so he resigns his job as a congressional speechwriter to join the storied ranks of J. Edgar Hoover’s G-men. Throughout Cold Zero, the readers senses directly and indirectly the author’s overarching belief in the goodness and justice within the Bureau, even as the agency (and several agents including Whitcomb) comes under severe criticsim in the aftermath of Ruby Ridge and Waco.

"..The Close Combat Team is the group you see in full combat gear, M-5 machine pistols at the ready. They storm the building, usually blowing down the door.  Once inside, they do an immediate threat assessment and rapidly kill all the bad guys with precision shots to the head.."


Whitcomb’s selection to the FBI is by no means guaranteed, but through persistence and talent he passes the rigorous requirements and is duly installed as an FBI agent, beginning his initial assignment in rural Missouri. Whitcomb’s ground-floor law enforcement experiences and “personal- and respectful-style” law enforcement would doubtless make for informative and useful reading among law officers and police buffs; this book is well-recommended for them.

After several successful years in the FBI field office, Whitcomb takes the next step, undergoing the daunting training and comradely abuse to become an FBI Hostage Rescue Team operator.

Kill All the Bad Guys with Precision Shots to the Head

There are two sub-units within the HRT. The Close Combat Team is the group you see in full combat gear, M-5 machine pistols at the ready. They storm the building, usually blowing down the door.  Once inside, they do an immediate threat assessment and rapidly kill all the bad guys with precision shots to the head. This is the “fighter jock” wing of the HRT and Whitcomb – who comes across through Cold Zero as assured and confident - was slightly disappointed that he wasn’t assigned to this unit. Instead, he was assigned to the Sniper team, which members don’t blast through the front door. Instead they “sneak-up” on an objective, find suitable positions, and set up their specialized rifles for observation, and if necessary, taking out criminals with a long-range shot to the base of the brain. During advanced sniper training at which he excels, Whitcomb learns to love being a sniper.

It is his role as an HRT sniper that brings Chris Whitcomb to the front lines of two of the most controversial incidents in the Bureau’s history.  Here, one senses that despite useful and detailed information about both of these deadly operations, Whitcomb purposefully obscures certain critical aspects of these events both to protect himself and his beloved Agency. One does not however get the sense that Whitcomb is “hiding” anything and it seems he did not directly shoot anyone at either location. And it’s understandable given the extremely probing Ruby Ridge and Waco investigations that one surmised may never truly “close,” Whitcomb recognizes that anything he reveals beyond the so-called “record” will be taken out of context and possibly generate entirely new investigatory episodes.  The criticism the FBI endures for its actions during these incidents do take a personal toll on Whitcomb, who in his despondence over the Bureaus’s actions, takes life-risking chances in his HRT training.  Eventually he burns out altogether, but his solid Bureau record takes him in new directions within the Bureau.

Although published in 2001, the final portions of Cold Zero have relevance in light of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Whitcomb describes how he became a communications liaison within the Bureau’s newly formed “Critical Incident Response Group” (CIRG). CIRG hopes to implement the lessons learned from such operations as Ruby Ridge and Waco, in addition to unsnarling the inter-agency tangles that inevitably accompany a major operation involving several local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.  A friend who is a Port Authority NY/NJ Detective Sergeant confirms that on 9/11/01 and immediately following, the speed with which the FBI was able to set up a fully operational command post, practically overnight, and the mission-focused operation it almost instantly became. Though the detective is not certain of author Whitcomb’s direct participation during the WTC attacks (Whitcomb remains an FBI agent as of this review) he can attest that the FBI CIRG which Whitcomb helped create continues to play a vital if unsung role in helping bring the terrorist network to justice, and keeping the investigation moving forward.

-- Rich Sheppard