City Paper is not for tourists
The shadowy Danny O. Coulson intrigued Elaine Shannon; wherever an FBI hot spot emerged, his name always seemed to pop up as the leader of the bureau’s elite, but strictly off-limits, Hostage Rescue Team (HRT). And he, in turn, could hardly escape her influence: She’d been covering law enforcement—terrorism, kiddie porn, espionage, drug trafficking—for two decades, first at Newsweek and later at Time.
The two were made for each other, but they didn’t meet until April 1993, as the fires at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, burned themselves out. Having pleaded to meet the feds’ decision makers, Shannon went to Quantico, Va., to talk with representatives of the HRT, who wanted their story told; she was eager to hear it. “They were appalled and anguished over the fires, and they wanted to make sure that people knew they did not set them,” Shannon recalls. Their case seemed worth repeating, so Shannon wrote about it.
The afternoon her story appeared, Shannon got a call from Coulson. He told her, “You call me ‘rumpled.’ I don’t mind that. And ‘short’—that’s OK, too. But you call me a lawyer, and I don’t like that.” Shannon pointed out that he was indeed a lawyer, and that she had put that information in because she “‘wanted to show readers that some of you guys are not complete knuckle-draggers,’” she says. “‘I wanted to point out that you all had given thought to the Constitution.’” At that point, Shannon recalls, the two of them began to laugh; the shift in mood helped melt their hard-boiled exteriors.
At the time of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing investigation, Shannon decided not to call Coulson, so as not to ensnare her new soul mate in leak investigations. Later, however, when Coulson found himself censured for his role in the Waco and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, incidents, his interests and Shannon’s once again coincided. He wanted to talk.
That’s when their relationship really flowered, producing a book called No Heroes: Inside the FBI’s Secret Counter-Terror Force (Pocket Books, $24). Shannon didn’t drop all of her journalistic armor for the book; in an unusual move for a collaborative autobiography, she interviewed dozens of people, including Coulson’s enemies, and pored over clippings to seek out inconsistencies in his story. When Shannon started the collaboration, she recalls, “I didn’t care which way the story went, or whether he did right or wrong. I just wanted to know what the story was.”
Eventually, Shannon found that she enjoyed Coulson’s “profane, M*A*S*H-unit sense of humor,” she says. “Some reviewers have criticized the book as too cocky and macho. But at least he’s not dark, not like all of those Hollywood cops who brood about suicide and dive into the bottle. Coulson has nothing but contempt for them. He says, ‘You have to be optimistic to do what I do, because if you think you’ll fail, you’ll never start.’ That’s quite a refreshing change for me. In Washington, people are very jaundiced. They won’t try because they might fail. And they’re usually right.” —Louis Jacobson