A treatment for a feature film, based on the national bestseller
GHOST: CONFESSIONS OF A COUNTERTERRORISM AGENT by Fred Burton (Random House hardcover, 2008)
An espionage thriller based on true events from the summer of 1988.
On August 18, 1988, at a clandestine airstrip outside Islamabad, Pakistan, amid minarets and long expanses of dust, a black CIA van arrives near a safe house and rumbles to a halt. The smoke-glass door slides open and a U.S. State Department counterterrorism agent, FRED BURTON, emerges. Dispatched from Washington to lead the investigation, Burton is a member of the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service.
He is here to investigate a plane crash. The Pakistani Air Force C-130 designated PAK-1 (the Pakistani equivalent of Air Force One), carrying Pakistani President Zia, the U.S. ambassador, a U.S. Army brigadier general, the former head of the Pakistani intelligence services, and the entire Pakistani cabinet, falls from the sky, taking all to their deaths in a remote part of Pakistan.
Receiving a FLASH message from CIA headquarters, Burton receives word that things may spiral out of control in the region. There is saber rattling between India and Pakistan. He is instructed to exercise all prudent care to solve the mystery of PAK-1’s crash.
Joined by a Pakistani intelligence agent, KAMRAN, a modern man who carries the history of his proud Muslim faith, Burton begins exploring the forensics of the wreckage in this forlorn desert.
But Pakistan is Kamran’s country, and Burton doesn’t know how far he can trust him. Just 25 years old, the Georgetown-educated Pakistani (think Naveen Andrews from “Lost”) is part of the new breed of Muslim intelligence agent, adept with modern technology and highly skilled in what American spooks call “the Dark World.” Slight in stature with a close-cropped beard, his dark hair parted in the middle like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, Kamran favors Ralph Lauren polo shirts and a blue Omega watch. With his boss dead on the doomed flight, he has been elevated to the improbable position of his country’s lead investigator. Burton sits in the same role on the American side.
As the two confront the mystery of the plane’s bizarre crash, they will be propelled toward truths that leave them both deeply unsettled and newly acquainted with the labyrinth of mirrors they live in.
The agents break the ice talking Georgetown Hoya basketball. They learn they carry the same pistol beneath their black leather jackets: a Sig Sauer .226. Their banter reveals that Kamran has been designated as Burton’s minder on the case. Burton, a keen interrogator, is a quick judge of people. Both he and Kamran, unsure as they are about each other, understand, each for his own reasons, that there is no time to waste investigating the crash.
Kamran has advanced through Pakistani intelligence, the vaunted ISI, because he learned not ask questions. Certainly he never asked questions about the secret CIA money being laundered through the system. Exactly what the money was for—to supply Afghani warriors fighting the Soviets, right next door—was a mystery that no one was supposed to look into. Now, with the death of his beloved boss, and the loss of his nation’s powerful president, it is no longer possible to look away while the Americans fight their proxy war against the Red Bear. Alliances always come with a fearful cost. Kamran is suspicious of this newcomer Burton.
A “rat patrol” convoy begins Burton’s journey to the crash site under heavy police and intelligence service guard. It’s like a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. As he watches the remote villages and desert roll by, Burton wishes he was back in the Maryland police force, where he got his start, chasing burglars. Service as a federal agent is a new a dangerous game.
In the Pakistani desert now, he is alone in the world. Once a day, the satellites in low-earth orbit overhead offer Burton a once-a-day secure phone link to his Washington headquarters — provided the cloud cover doesn’t block his signal. Suspensefully waiting for a cloud break to form so he can call, a call comes through to him the other way. The word he receives from headquarters is troubling: nuclear war could break out and DC had no ability to extract him.
Burton is instructed that it’s imperative that he get to the bottom of the crash to remove the disturbing ambiguity and defuse international tensions. Burton is a stranger in a strange land as the world teeters on the brink of Armageddon.
Flying to the crash site in a C-130 aircraft, Burton and Kamran are greeted by an ominous entourage of Pakistani officers and spooks. For Burton, the mood is leaden with tension. Mistrustful of Kamran, and fearful he’s being set up himself for assassination—his presence in country is entirely deniable—Burton looks for possible exits should shooting start. An expect in tactical anlysis, he sees none. Studying the threatening figures around him, he decides his best way through is to summon his courage and do his work.
An intensive forensic debate plays out as the American and his Pakistanis inspect the crash site. Gathering evidence amidst the ghastly landscape of aircraft wreckage and charred bodies, Burton is able to rule out a variety of possible causes of the crash: weather, mechanical, electrical and engine failure, fuel contamination and pilot error.
A witness to the crash, an old goat shepherd, tells Kamran and Burton that the plane was veering up and down violently for many seconds, as if on a roller coaster. Burton establishes to his suspicious hosts that the pilots therefore had no control of the aircraft in the seconds before its plunge. The story the shepherd tells makes little sense to either him or Kamran. Was someone wrestling for control of the plane from within? How could that be when everyone on the plane was carefully vetted, a proven regime loyalist or ally?
The Pakistanis declare their own theory at this point—very prematurely, Burton thinks—that a missile shot down the plane. Burton takes a pencil from his pocket, holds up some classified papers given him by one of the Pakistani agents, and thrusts the pencil through. He then makes a show of demonstrating how the paper’s edges around the pencil hole bend outward at the point of impact—just like the metal in the torn section of aircraft fuselage they’re inspecting. The kinetic force that made the hole in the plane, in other words, came from inside. It wasn’t a missile. Debunking the Pakistani theory, he begins to think that a bomb destroyed the plane from inside.
But who did it and why? These questions will drive the story forward as Burton, a devout Christian and American patriot, navigates a dangerous path through the largest Muslim nation on earth and the minaret-topped intrigues that threaten to engulf the world in fire.
Kamran, privately horrified by Burton’s persuasive findings, whisks Burton away before he can be detained and removed from the investigation for this potentially damaging revelation.
Burton, with his “Jack Bauer” phone in his hand, stares overhead at the clouds, then finds himself surrounded in a swarm of dust devils twisting and smoke whizzing by like the smoke monster in LOST. He feels like the loneliest man in the world.
Back in Islamabad, Burton learns that the ISI has obtained a scratchy, muffled radio call from the doomed flight, but the transmission is not from either pilot, and there is no evidence of crisis. No mayday calls were made; no panic alerts were activated. Why? Big C-130 aircraft don’t simply fall from the sky. But nor do they veer through the sky like the shepherd said without some horrible drama taking place within.
A light bulb goes off in Burton’s head: the pilots must have been incapacitated. How else to explain both the lack of communication and the loss of control of the aircraft?
Burton and Kamran live in separate worlds, but this tradecraft they have in common. For Kamran, the crash was like the JFK assassination and 9/11 rolled into one. For Burton, it’s a far-flung adventure that may mean the end of the world—and it’s a test of his skills. In solving it, Burton gets past his American-centeredness and appreciates the talents of his partner.
As the two agents interrogate a series of witnesses, they wonder whether the pilots could have been killed by a gunman aboard the flight. But that made no sense. All were trusted passengers.
Burton visits the Embassy to interview the CIA’s Deputy Chief of Station. The Big Cheese – the Chief of Station -- has been recalled to DC for unknown reasons. Burton grows suspicious of the way the Deputy talks about the crash and begins feeling that the CIA boss knows more than he’s saying. Finally, pressed by Burton, the Deputy tells Burton, “Why the plane crashed is of no interest to the CIA.” Frustrated, jet-lagged and on edge, Burton grabs him by his tie and screams, “It is to me.”
Meanwhile, Kamran learns through a Pakistani informant that, two months before the attack, an Indian intelligence officer met with the Russian KGB at the Marriott Islamabad. Information was exchanged, along with a Zero briefcase. What was in the case? The black & white surveillance pictures aren’t clear. No audio of the event occurred. Should he tell Burton?
Burton gets confirmation, meanwhile, that there is evidence of PETN and chemicals used in VX nerve gas. Bingo. VX nerve gas causes near instant paralysis and death. Someone planted the gas in the cockpit. The pilots were not wearing their oxygen masks due to the altitude.
Who did it?
On a Land Rover ride away from prying eyes, Kamran shows Burton the surveillance pictures of the Indian and Russian meeting at the Marriott. As Burton studies the photographs, he has a major revelation: there off to the side stands the CIA Deputy Chief of Station, holding a similar Zero briefcase. Was the CIA involved? Could there be a covert conspiracy between the Indians, KGB and CIA? But why?
Kamran and Burton decide to follow the Deputy to determine the actors involved. It must be linked to the plane crash. At a safehouse in Pindi, the Deputy is seen entering a gated white brick compound in Islamabad. A Russian diplomatic-plated vehicle enters the same location a few minutes later. Astonished, the two agents decide to hop the brick wall from a rear alley for a better look. A KGB surveillance team member gets the drop on Burton and places a silenced Russian Markarov 9mm to the back of his head.
Kamran shoots the Russian in the back of the head causing the KGB member to pull the trigger firing a round into the safehouse. Inside the house, the Deputy and another Russian drop to the ground. Burton and Kamran hop the fence and flee the scene.
A Russian team is in hot pursuit firing rounds from an M4. Burton is slinging lead from his Sig Sauer .226 while Kamran drives like a madman through donkey carts, street vendors and the gridlocked Pindi traffic handing Burton 9mm magazines to reload. The Russians crash into a telephone poll killing the driver. Burton bails out of the passenger seat and finds one Russian still alive. He sticks his 9mm into the Russians ear and takes his KGB credentials from his pocket. The Russian reaches into his pocket for a serrated knife while Burton is studying the KGB agent’s credentials. As the Russian lunges towards Burton, rounds fly by Burton's head. Burton, blinded by the muzzle flashes, looks to see Kamran in a picure perfect shooting stance, barrel smoking. The KGB agent is dead.
Kamran: "Fred, how many times am I going to save your ass?" Burton responds: "Good thing you shoot better than the Hoya point guards."
Both men realize things are spiraling out of control.
They soon learn that packages -- not screened by security -- were allowed to come aboard PAK-1 prior to take-off. They also learn that no security personnel were on the tarmac during its workup prior to take off. Basically the plane was unsecured for many hours.
Perhaps a bomb was placed?
Burton and Kamran are left alone with this theory. With the possibility that the CIA participated in a Russian and Indian conspiracy to bring down the aircraft carrying President Zia and his entourage, Burton realizes there is nobody he can trust at the U.S. embassy. He no longer views Kamran as the enemy, but his trusted partner. Both are street cops keeping each other alive. Now Burton must weigh the consequences his own government may have been witting to PAK-1 dropping out of the sky.
Whose side are we on? Burton wonders. Would we kill our own people for the sake of geopolitics? Suspicious of his government, Burton no longer views the calls back to DC on his Jack Bauer satellite phone as a life line, because who could be “in play” at that end, and what might be their agendas? He shows Kamran his special agent credentials in a fit of rage, [CLARIFY THIS: DID KAMRAN NOT KNOW BURTON WAS A SPECIAL AGENT? WHY IS THIS SIGNIFICANT?] screaming about being set up for the fall. It’s a classic case of burned trust (a term those in the Dark World use when they can no longer believe the orders they’re getting.) Burton gets the message that his government wants the investigation to show that the crash was an accident, and not an assassination. The truth will be whatever the U.S. government says it will be.
The truth is far messier than the governments would wish. Kamran has killed two Russian diplomats. H e knows there will be hell to pay. The Russians will demand an investigation. Kamran can't tell his bosses in the ISI that he pulled the trigger on a rogue operation with an American secret agent. Both men known they’re operating without a license.
The story evolves toward a new revelation. Burton, waiting to leave Pakistan and return to Washington from a clandestine air base, watches as a giant C-5 Galaxy aircraft arrives. He learns that it’s carrying wounded Afghan fighters from Frankfurt. It’s shocking news. Burton didn’t know the U.S. was flying the anti-Soviet fighters to Germany for medical treatment. Here they are now, patched up and returning home to fight the Soviets. The American involvement in the region is deeper than he knew.
With this comes the logical conclusion: The Soviet KGB has about 15,000 reasons for killing Pakistani President Zia. That’s the number of Soviet soldiers killed in Afghanistan, a number boosted by U.S. and Pakistani support to the Afghan mujahideen. A few weeks before the crash, the Soviet foreign minister publicly stated that Zia would pay dearly for his support.
A few weeks later, the official Pakistani report discloses that unknown assassins killed Zia using a chemical agent planted in the cockpit. Burton and Kamran know that the KGB has a history of using arcane explosives in assassinations, such as the poison-tipped umbrella. It’s clear to them now that President Zia’s death was a KGB hit.
For Kamran, this is a devastating revelation. He contemplates his duties as a Muslim, and resolves it is his obligation to undertake a personal jihad against the Soviets. For Burton, the notion that the CIA took down its own asset, Zia, provokes a deep crisis as well. Zia outlived his usefulness to the Agency. Pakistani aid was a grievous blow to the Soviets. Now, apparently, the blowback from Moscow was becoming too great for the Americans to bear.
Buy low, sell high. It was time to sell out Zia. He was of greater value dead than alive. His death will appease the Russians, angry over their losses in Afghanistan. Burton, who was raised to have faith in his government, realizes he’s been sold out as well. The U.S. government has no comment on the events in Islamabad.
On the flight home to Washington, Burton receives a FLASH message reporting that a Pakistani agent’s bullet-riddled body is found at a safe house belonging to Pakistani intelligence.
It is Kamran.
Arriving in the U.S. capital, Burton stares out at the Washington Monument.
Returning to his office, he learns that his original case files on his investigative work on PAK-1 are missing and presumed destroyed.
On the TV, CNN is showing the Russian president arriving at the White House for a state visit.
In light snow at Arlington National Cemetery, as the Soviet helicopter lands on the White House lawn, Burton kneels down next to the graves of those killed on the aircraft known as PAK-1 and says a quiet prayer for the world.