UniCourt Influencer Q&A with Fred Burton of Ontic
Fred Burton has dedicated his career to protection and security in one way or another: first as a counterterrorism special agent for the U.S. State Department and now as the Executive Director of the Ontic Center for Protective Intelligence. Fred is also a New York Times best-selling author for his four written works and has appeared and participated in a number of documentaries and films.
We were excited to catch a glimpse of Fred’s expertise while learning more about his background and discussing his work in protective intelligence with Ontic.
UniCourt: Tell us your story. What is your background, and what led you to what you are doing now?
Fred Burton: Before my career in corporate America, I served as a counterterrorism special agent with the U.S. State Department from 1985 to 1999. I was deputy chief of counterterrorism at the Diplomatic Security Service, where I was in charge of preventing and investigating attacks against diplomatic personnel and facilities. I was involved in many high-profile investigations including the search for and arrest of Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing; the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin; the killing of Rabbi Meir Kahane and al Qaeda’s New York City bombing plots before 9/11; and the deaths of U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Raphel, and Pakistani President, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. I also served with the U.S. Secret Service and as a police officer in Montgomery County, Maryland.
I now spend my time consulting with Fortune 500 companies on physical security developments and how to keep their personnel and business safe as the Executive Director of the Ontic Center for Protective Intelligence. I am the author of four books, including my best-selling memoir, GHOST: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent (Random House, 2008). Community is also important to me, and I have been involved with several councils and committees, including the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad, the Border Security Council, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Greater Austin Crime Commission, and the National Police Foundation’s Center for Mass Violence Response Studies (CMVRS).
UC: How did your experience in law enforcement and your work in counterterrorism influence your current work?
FB: The work I do today wouldn’t be possible without my experiences as a law enforcement officer and special agent. As noted in my book, Chasing Shadows: A Special Agent’s Lifelong Hunt to Bring a Cold War Assassin to Justice, in 1973, the murder of a neighbor, Colonel Joe Alon, of the Israeli Air Force, haunted me for years. I was fortunate to have reopened the investigation when I became an agent and hunted down the threat actors responsible many years later. I’m also proud that the book was also published in Hebrew.
This experience helped me to understand that international events resonate inside the United States, and failures of imagination can leave you unprepared for reality. In my work today, I aim to help others understand how failures of imagination can lead to disasters of all kinds. COVID-19 has been a significant reminder of the benefit of contingency planning and emergency action plans. Even companies with the best laid plans and forecasts are subject to derailment by unforeseen external drivers.
My job is to keep past lessons top of mind so that businesses and individuals can mitigate the danger of violent threats and bad actors and to understand the strategic risks they may be missing before worst case scenarios can unfold.
UC: What is Ontic, and more specifically, what is the Center for Protective Intelligence?
FB: Ontic is the first protective intelligence software company to digitally transform how Fortune 500 and emerging enterprises proactively address physical threat management to protect employees, customers, and assets. Ontic’s SaaS-based platform collects and connects threat indicators to provide a comprehensive view of potential threats while surfacing critical knowledge so companies can assess and take action to maintain business continuity and reduce financial impact.
The Ontic Center for Protective Intelligence provides strategic consulting, services, and resources for safety and security professionals at major corporations across industry sectors like financial services, technology, retail, entertainment, and consumer products. The Center leverages global industry experts and authorities in protective intelligence to share best practices, insights on current and historical trends, and explore lessons learned from physical security peers. It also provides more direct resources, such as Ontic research, whitepapers, webinars, and podcasts. A great example of the work Ontic and the Center for Protective Intelligence do is the 2021 State of Protective Intelligence Report.
UC: How is Ontic working with UniCourt to provide real-time access to court data and automated intelligence gathering?
FB: The partnership with UniCourt enables Ontic clients to access state and federal court records, including the full Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) criminal, bankruptcy, and civil datasets as part of a comprehensive protective intelligence solution. Through the integration, Ontic clients can now utilize UniCourt’s full dataset of over 150 million federal and state records, continuously monitor cases, and receive automatic alerts as cases are updated.
This is a massively helpful tool for corporate security teams to have when conducting investigations, as it provides the data and context needed to understand the situation fully. Access to the data will also allow for efficiency, modernizing and eliminating the need for manual legal record retrieval so that corporate security teams can do their job more easily.
UC: Let’s back up a bit. What is protective intelligence? Why should corporate law firms and businesses understand it?
FB: In simple terms, protective intelligence is an investigative and analytical process used by protectors to proactively identify, assess, and mitigate threats to protectees. A well-designed protective intelligence program will have a number of distinct and crucial components or functions, but the most important of these are countersurveillance, investigations, and analysis.
I’ve spent the majority of my life coordinating protective intelligence in the private and public sectors, yet it still surprises me when I see companies that have thousands of employees and dozens of offices and facilities, yet have just a few physical security professionals using legacy tools and processes to try to keep the business harm-free.
In these times of increased workplace and mass violence, protective intelligence gives security stakeholders the intelligence they need to address vulnerabilities and take appropriate action to mitigate threats. By fully understanding the legal and compliance implications of physical security and adopting a comprehensive system to meet the changing environment, legal teams can be confident they are fulfilling their ever-growing and changing responsibilities.
UC: What are some of your favorite sayings? Do you have any real-world examples of how you’ve seen those sayings come to life?
FB: Follow your dreams. Most people quit before they start.
My father grew up in a West Virginia coal camp without in-door plumbing. After his service as part of The Greatest Generation in WWII, he chose to build a small business and not to return to the coal mines. He had a dream of a better life. I think about what he had to overcome to give me a better life.
UC: What are your goals for the rest of the year? What projects are you working on? Are there any events in the legal tech and protective intelligence space we should be aware of?
FB: I’m currently working on my fifth book and film development options for my last book Beirut Rules.
I would suggest following our podcast series at the Center for Protective Intelligence for thought-provoking trends and topics in the industry.
Where can we learn more about you and your work?
If you want to know more about me, I discuss my career path in great detail in my memoir GHOST: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent (Random House, 2008).
Leveraging Knowledge and Accessibility to Increase Security
Fred’s work with Ontic to modernize physical threat management for Fortune 500 companies is the perfect example of what it means to be proactive and prepared when it comes to corporate security. There is no better time to be in the business of protective intelligence than right now.
We can’t wait to read Fred’s next book as soon as it is published, and we look forward to following his career in the coming years!