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Cristopher Whitcomb, FBI agent
Cristopher Whitcomb, FBI agent

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: Now as Stella Rimmingston's memoirs caused such a stir this weekend the issue of secret missions and what should and shouldn't end up being revealed has been thrust back into the limelight. Across the Atlantic it's a slightly different story but we're going to hear it, one of America's own elite FBI agents has told the full story for the first time about life behind the scenes, particularly in the HRT, HRT meaning something different. Our guest today is one of the Federal Bureau's select team of Hostage Rescuers whose work is to diffuse volatile situations like the Waco siege or Ruby Ridge. The FBI is sent in to save lives, inevitably in these missions sometimes lives are lost. Christopher Whitcomb has participated in many of these high-profile Federal investigations in the last 15 years and he's, he's with me now, Christopher, welcome┐the, the fuss you see in the papers about Stella Rimmington, it would, it would be a bit different in the States, wouldn't it?

CHRISTOPHER WHITCOMB: Yeah very different in the States, I think in the States we cling to freedom of speech as one of our founding rights and I can't think of a single example where we've censored or prohibited the release of a book, they tend to come after you afterwards if you've divulged some sort of secret, but we have very different.

DAVID FROST: Yes so they come after you afterwards?


DAVID FROST: But they haven't come after you yet?

CHRISTOPHER WHITCOMB: They have not come after me, in fact they've seen this, they being the FBI have seen this and have been very cordial, they've been wonderful about the whole thing in the process┐

DAVID FROST: And now the, the very phrase that it's called Cold Zero, that is a specific reference, is it not, to do with sniping?

CHRISTOPHER WHITCOMB: Yeah it is, it's a metaphor in a sense but I use it because it's a sniper term which refers to the cold bore shot which is pulling a rifle out of the case and using it if, God forbid, you have to and the Zero which is making sure that the bullet hits where you're aiming. So we call the, the Cold Zero the first round you take in an actual situation.

DAVID FROST: And when you get chosen for this, pardon me, elite team, as it were, what's the training like?

CHRISTOPHER WHITCOMB: Well we start with a two week selection which is very, very rigorous once a year and they usually bring on four or five people a year because of the typical attrition. Then you come back for about a five month basic training programme, then you go through

DAVID FROST: Is that tough?

CHRISTOPHER WHITCOMB: Oh yes, it's gruelling, it's very, very difficult.

DAVID FROST: How is it gruelling?

CHRISTOPHER WHITCOMB: Well it's gruelling not just in terms of hours, you start at about five o'clock in the morning and go 'til ten or eleven o'clock at night most days. But also in terms of what you have to do, you have to pull a great deal of training into a short period of time and firearms and hand-to-hand combat in helicopter operations, in diving, you know they're all dive certified, explosives, ┐, first aid, land navigation, patrolling, it goes on and on and on.

DAVID FROST: And when, as you say, attrition takes place and people, how many, how many agents do, do get killed?

CHRISTOPHER WHITCOMB: Actually we've only had one, we've been very, very fortunate, we've had just one, terrible tragedy but just one in the last 17 years.

DAVID FROST: Just one in the last 17 years. And how many times have you had to kill someone else?

CHRISTOPHER WHITCOMB: Well I've been asked that question many times and I, and I stay away from that question and I'll tell you why, in the United States we're a violent society, I don't think there's any question about that, but that's glorified to a certain extent, I've seen many of these books where people come out and say 97 confirmed kills and things like that. Law enforcement's very different than military operations and I remember when I first went to the FBI Academy an instructor came out and said 'look here's a gun, we're going to teach you how to shoot it, we're going to teach you how to clean it, how to wear it, all of these things, but we can't teach you what it's going to be like after you actually use the thing'. And he talked to us in very personal terms about what happened the first time he shot someone, and it was, it was a very traumatic thing, it was a very traumatic thing from him and though I try to be open in this book Cold Zero I really stay away from that because of the personal toll, it's a very, very different thing than most people think it is.

DAVID FROST: But you've many times been in a situation, I guess, which was kill or be killed?

CHRISTOPHER WHITCOMB: Yes many times, yes.

DAVID FROST: Under that pressure and so on. Now what, what is your abiding feelings about Waco, Texas. I mean it's been a great controversy and then there was a huge report on it and so on, people like Gore Vidal are still complaining bitterly about it and so on, how much of a botched operation was it?

CHRISTOPHER WHITCOMB: I think the primary thing I'd like to say about Waco is that there is an enormous amount of misunderstanding. If you say the same thing over and over again for years it becomes the truth and the truth in Waco was not the truth as I or many, many people remember it. I think it's wonderful to have a great deal of scrutiny and all kinds of investigations, that's all wonderful but what happened in Waco, Texas is that David Koresh killed approximately 80 people. They lit the fire, they shot each other, they slit those babies throats, they killed each other with all different types of means, it was enormously frustrating for us, it was enormously difficult for us but when it comes down to it I don't know that we could have done anything more. We had a situation where these people were holed up in a building, we waited for 52 days, we negotiated, we offered them virtually absolutely anything you can imagine to come out of there and did get quite a number of people out. But when it came down to it David Koresh would rather have died than give up and when it came down to that I don't think it ever would have made a difference, it would have happened one day sometime.

DAVID FROST: What's been the most terrifying moment of your career so far?

CHRISTOPHER WHITCOMB: Oh boy, the most terrifying moment of my career, you know that's, that's a fascinating question but I don't really have a good answer for that because I think in terms of my time on the Hostage Rescue Team, this HRT, that you train day in and day out for this so that it become second nature and I think it's much more terrifying coming on this show and speaking with you than running into those buildings because I'm conditioned to it, because those people work and feel very, very comfortable at doing that day after day after day.

DAVID FROST: Ruby Ridge was another very controversial mission, could that have gone any other way, do you think?

CHRISTOPHER WHITCOMB: Well you know I think that is, rightfully, is more controversial than Waco, I think Waco is an instance where we can blame, not blame but I think David Koresh is certainly responsible for what happened there. But Ruby Ridge is a slightly different story, Ruby Ridge was a situation where we had information, we being the FBI, that a Deputy Marshal and his colleagues had been pinned down and shot up in a remote part of Northern Idaho. We responded to that crisis, we went up there thinking we were dealing with these heavily armed militia types, went up there and went to provide intelligence and within a very short period of time we ended up in a shooting. So that is a, is a situation where you could closely scrutinise what the FBI did, more so, I think, than Waco.

DAVID FROST: And you've written a book but you've not done that, not because you've left the FBI, you're still in the FBI, are you going back to these sort of missions again, what's next?

CHRISTOPHER WHITCOMB: Well I work in a group now that oversees the Hostage Rescue Team of which I was a part for so many years and we now have in light of Waco and Ruby Ridge and some other investigations, we now have a consolidated team which goes with negotiators, profilers and the Hostage Rescue Team to resolve crises, so I now work for that large organisation.

DAVID FROST: Well thank you very much for being with us, you've given, as we said, a whole new meaning to the words HRT and we're delighted you're here, thank you very much indeed.


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