The Nation | COLUMN ONE

After 9/11, a Fatal 24/7

Brad Doucette was working a relentless FBI counter-terrorism beat when he killed himself. 'It was 100% the job,' his widow says.

May 03, 2005|Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

On a gray morning two years ago, Brad Doucette awoke before dawn after another restless night.

A top FBI counter-terrorism official, Doucette, 45, had gone to bed late after one more long day. Then his sleep had been interrupted by phone calls from agents in the field.

The first came about 4:30 a.m. and lasted so long that his wife, Suzane, grabbed a quilt and went to sleep in an adjacent bedroom in the couple's 1923 Victorian in the Chevy Chase section of Washington.

An hour or so later, Suzane heard Brad on another call. Her normally calm husband was yelling -- about what, she couldn't make out. By then, it was almost dawn and Doucette began his morning ritual. Preparing her coffee. Making himself toast. Placing his slacks in the pants presser. Setting aside two sodas for his drive to the office.

Normally, Doucette's routine next would have taken him to the shower. But Suzane never heard the soothing sound of streaming water. Instead, there was a loud bang, which she mistook for a lamp crashing to the floor.

"Brad? Brad?" she called out. There was no answer. She hurried to their bedroom.

There, she found Doucette lying motionless on the bed, a tiny spot of blood behind his right ear. He had shot himself with his FBI-issue, 9-millimeter pistol. She reached for the nightstand and a phone to call 911. But the line was dead; Brad had yanked it from the wall.

The coroner's office ruled Doucette's death April 29, 2003, a suicide. Those who knew him say the relentless pressure of working counter-terrorism helped push him over the edge.

"It was 100% the job," said Suzane, a former FBI agent. "The extreme exhaustion. The worry. Not being able to sleep. Not being able to leave Washington."

On Sept. 11, 2001, tracking down terrorists and preventing attacks became the FBI's most urgent priority. Three and a half years later, the relentless pace and the pressure to stay a step ahead of an elusive adversary are wearing down even seasoned agents.

"For many people, once they get home, they can leave their work at the office," said FBI chaplain Joe Williams, a Baptist minister. "The problem for federal agents in counter-terrorism is that they can't let it go. They are always thinking, 'Have I really covered everything today?' "

Doucette had spent nearly 20 years at the FBI. At the time of his death, he was head of an elite unit at bureau headquarters that investigates suspected espionage by Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and other Shiite Muslim extremists.

FBI officials declined to comment on whether Doucette's suicide was related to his work. They said there were no statistics on job-related stress among counter-terrorism agents.

But the FBI is studying how those agents have been affected by the war on terrorism. The analysis will examine sick leave, resignations, disciplinary cases, requests for counseling and other factors.

"The people who do this counter-terrorism work literally feel responsible for everybody in the country," said Kathy Thomas, an Oklahoma psychologist who has counseled several hundred law enforcement officers, including FBI agents.

The pressure to anticipate and preempt terrorist acts, rather than investigate them after the fact, creates a special psychological burden, current and former agents say.

Ken Piernick, a colleague of Doucette's who preceded him as head of the Iran-Hezbollah unit, suffered a heart attack on the job and retired in December 2003 after 22 years with the FBI.

"The job -- not just for me, but for everybody -- is a meat grinder," he said.

After Sept. 11, "nobody was under the pressure the FBI was under," said Larry Mefford, who retired as the bureau's head of counter-terrorism two years after the attacks.

"I heard over and over again that if the CIA didn't catch the terrorists overseas or the Pentagon didn't capture or kill them, it was up to us," said Mefford, now head of global security for Wynn Resorts in Las Vegas.

Steve Moore, an agent in Los Angeles, spent nearly three years supervising investigations into Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Brad Doucette was once his supervisor. A year ago, Moore, a 21-year bureau veteran, asked for a new assignment. He is now an FBI pilot.

"People come to counter-terrorism wanting to make a difference," he said, "and three years later, you come out gasping for breath."


Aside from a paid obituary in his hometown newspaper in Little Falls, Minn., Doucette's death did not make the news. But it was all the talk inside the FBI, from Los Angeles to bureau headquarters in Washington.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III visited the Doucette home three times, once to hand-deliver letters from President Bush and then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft.

Doucette's family, friends and co-workers had been aware for months that he wasn't coping well with the pressure. To hear them tell it, it was as if his life had slipped away in slow motion. And they were helpless to stop it.

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