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After 9/11, a Fatal 24/7

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

Doucette, who was born in Minnesota, grew up in Montana and Washington state. He attended the University of Washington, graduated with a law degree from Willamette University in Salem, Ore., and joined the FBI in 1983 at age 26.

An uncle had been in the FBI, and it was the only career that interested Doucette. He was especially drawn to intelligence work.

His first assignment was in the Sacramento field office, where he met Suzane, a divorced agent with two young daughters. In just over a year, they were married.

They were transferred first to New York and then to Phoenix. Suzane quit the FBI in 1993 after settling a sexual harassment lawsuit against the bureau. Brad’s career, meanwhile, was on a steady climb.

By the time the Doucettes arrived in Los Angeles in 1994, he had worked almost all the prestige assignments: drug smuggling, bank robbery, white-collar crime. Then he moved into counter-terrorism.

Part detective work, part divination, the job requires agents and analysts to interpret wisps of information -- a telephone intercept in Pakistan, a suspicious passenger on a Paris-New York flight, a paid informant’s tip -- to see if they foretell an attack.

Doucette seemed to thrive in the assignment. He worked on the investigation of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which killed six people and injured more than 1,000. The bureau’s detective work laid the foundation for the conviction of four Islamic militants.

Doucette also helped supervise the investigation of the 1999 crash of an EgyptAir jet, which plunged into the ocean off New England, killing all 217 people aboard. The disaster was ultimately blamed on the copilot, who investigators said deliberately put the aircraft into a dive.

In 2000, Doucette ran the FBI command post for the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

Even before Sept. 11, he wrestled constantly with how to chase an endless stream of leads. He worried that he might miss something, or pursue the wrong case, or act too late to prevent an attack.

“If he had a fault, it was that he cared too much,” Moore said. “When you are a paramedic and see people die, you shouldn’t dwell on their death and the loss. It’s called building walls.”

Doucette “couldn’t build those walls,” Moore said.

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After Sept. 11, the atmosphere throughout the bureau became taut. Moore was one of three agents who helped Doucette pore over a stack of investigative leads every morning.

“It took four of us just to get through that stack every day by noon,” Moore said.

While agents worked round-the-clock to prevent new attacks, the FBI was bombarded with criticism for having failed to detect the Sept. 11 plot.

It emerged that an agent in Phoenix, two months before the suicide hijackings, had alerted superiors that Muslim extremists were training at U.S. flight schools.

In August 2001, agents in Minnesota detained a French-Moroccan flight student who they suspected was training for a terrorist mission. The agents could not get clearance from FBI higher-ups to search Zacarias Moussaoui’s laptop computer.

Moussaoui was in federal custody when the terrorists struck. According to the Sept. 11 commission, he had been preparing to participate in the hijackings or in a second wave of attacks that never materialized. Last month, he pleaded guilty to conspiring with Al Qaeda and faces the death penalty.

The FBI’s Los Angeles office figured in another missed opportunity. In late August 2001, the CIA told the bureau that two suspected terrorists -- Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar -- were in the U.S. On Sept. 10, agents in New York passed the tip to Los Angeles, believing the men were in Southern California.

By then, it was too late. Hazmi and Mihdhar had left for the East Coast to participate in the hijackings.

The episode underscored how costly even the slightest lapse in vigilance could be.

“Brad shared everybody’s concern: Did we somehow screw up?” Moore said.

Despite the pressure, Doucette found time for family, friends and football. A high school quarterback, he was a devoted fan of his alma mater, the University of Washington.

“He never missed a Huskies game” on television, Suzane said.

The couple lived comfortably in one of the Spanish-style houses that blanketed the suburb of Calabasas. Their next-door neighbors were Scott and Victoria Sterlekar.

“I’m sure, with the job he had, he was very serious at work,” Victoria recalled. “But at home, he was really fun.”

Suzane said her husband never let the stress get the best of him. Years earlier, they’d had occasion to discuss suicide when an agent in Los Angeles killed himself after being charged with public drunkenness and assault.

“We both agreed that suicide is never an option,” Suzane recalled, “that no job is worth it.”

*

Doucette had never given much thought to working at FBI headquarters. But in early 2002, he heard Mueller tell supervisors that the fight against terrorism required more talent and commitment than ever.

Inspired, Doucette applied for a high-level job in Washington -- and got it. He started his new position directing the Iran-Hezbollah unit in September 2002.

Within weeks, the pressure-cooker environment of the seventh floor at headquarters, home to the FBI’s upper management, was consuming him.

Doucette oversaw scores of FBI agents throughout the U.S. and abroad who monitored Iranian agents and Shiite Muslim extremists.

Piernick, his former colleague, said he spoke with Doucette several times about his new job: “I told him you have to be remorseless in the pursuit of terrorists.”

He told Doucette that meant pushing agents beyond what might be considered reasonable, requiring them to chase even the skimpiest leads.

Doucette listened politely, Piernick said. “But when you talk to people, you know when they don’t agree with you,” he said. “I don’t think Brad liked to be the bad cop ever.”

In March 2003, Doucette was given another demanding responsibility -- an FBI command post launched with the start of the Iraq war. Its mission was to oversee interviews with Iraqi exiles in the U.S. and collect intelligence for American troops.

Juggling two jobs left him drained. “He worked seven days a week and even if he was at home, he was constantly on the phone,” Suzane said.

Doucette shed 30 pounds from his sturdy 5-foot-11 frame. His good humor was gone too. An amateur astronomer, he was too exhausted to take time out for his telescopes.

“He didn’t even watch football,” Suzane said.

That Christmas, the Sterlekars flew in from California and found the Doucette home decorated for the holidays. But when they sat down for dinner, something was different.

“He didn’t look the same,” Victoria said. “He had lost a lot of weight. He just didn’t seem like the same old Brad.”

After a few months in Washington, Suzane did something radical for a former agent who had spent years in a world defined by bureau politics, bureau procedures and bureau parties.

“I begged him to leave the FBI,” she recalled.

He refused.

Piernick last saw Doucette in the FBI cafeteria, his shoulders slumped.

“He had folded up like an origami figure,” Piernick said. “I asked him if there was anything I could do to help, and he said he was OK.”

Doucette’s stepdaughters, who live in Los Angeles, last saw him three months before his death.

“He lost his color,” said Cyndi Shope, an actress. “He looked gray.”

Her sister, Kelli Shope, editor in chief of a Pepperdine University law journal, said: “He was not one to complain at all, but you knew the work was incredibly hard. He knew people’s lives were on the line.”

Five days before his death, Suzane said, Brad called her from the office to say he had nearly blacked out. She picked him up and drove him to the hospital. After a series of tests, a doctor told Doucette that he was suffering from exhaustion.

“The next day,” Suzane said, “he was back at work.”

The night before he died, the couple enjoyed a simple dinner of soup and sandwiches at a local restaurant. They talked about the usual things -- family, his job. Doucette was troubled that his boss wanted him to fire two intelligence analysts because they could not handle the assignment. Doucette thought they just needed guidance.

The couple got home late, and Doucette crawled into bed about 2 a.m. He was dead a few hours later.

Suzane has asked the FBI to honor Brad’s memory by issuing a 20-year service pin -- even though he died six months short of the milestone.

She has also petitioned the bureau for death benefits on the grounds that his death was job-related.

“Suicide is a statement and there is a degree of finality associated with that statement,” Piernick said. “You are not just killing yourself; you are punishing someone. I am not sure who Brad was trying to punish. It may have been the bureau.”

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Times research assistant Nona Yates contributed to this report.


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