He Hunted Osama bin Laden, He Breaks Into Nuclear-Power Plants

The unlikely career of Dalton Fury

John Cuneo

Delta Force lore has it that when the Army is filling its elite Special Operations unit, it looks not just to those who are the best, but to those who are the best at blending in. As the onetime Delta Force commander Dalton Fury puts it in his new counterterrorism thriller, Full Assault Mode, the ideal Delta operator is “a chameleon”—someone who looks “as normal as the next guy on the street corner.”

It’s a clear February evening, and I’m scanning the parking lot of a chain barbecue restaurant, looking for Fury. We are supposed to have dinner, if I can just find him—or rather, the person who goes by that name. Dalton Fury is my subject’s pen name; he has asked me not to use his real one in this article. Nor am I to identify the midsize southern town where we are meeting. The man is more than a little shy of attention: when Fury appeared on 60 Minutes in 2008 to discuss his part in the battle of Tora Bora—he commanded the Delta Force team charged at the time with hunting down Osama bin Laden—he was concealed by full special-effects makeup, complete with a Duck Dynasty–style beard.

Given all this, I didn’t bother to ask Fury in advance of our meeting what he looks like. He volunteered that he’s driving a silver Jeep, so I pull up to one in the parking lot. It turns out not to be his. Even his car is hiding in plain sight.

When he arrives he is, in fact, average-looking: Neither short nor tall. Fit, but not in a conspicuous way—not too big, not too thin. White, but again, not notably so; his skin is neither pale nor tan. Middle-aged, in a T-shirt and khaki pants. His voice has the soft imprint of a somewhat southern accent, one that’s impossible to place. If it weren’t for his slightly gray high-and-tight hairstyle, there’d be nothing notable about him at all. I later find myself wondering how I’d describe him to a police sketch artist: Draw a generic man. Yep—that’s him.

“The pulled chicken is supposed to be good,” Fury says as we look over the menu on the wall. The restaurant comes highly recommended, he adds. It’s a big place, with big portions and big smiles and very few patrons. We head for a secluded booth in an empty room. The second we sit down, he starts talking at a rapid-fire pace in a series of military acronyms. When he says “Delta Force,” he mouths the phrase like it’s a celebrity name he doesn’t want the next table over to hear.

Fury has previously published two novels about Kolt Raynor, a maverick Delta Force commander turned maverick mercenary; Full Assault Mode, his third Kolt Raynor book, comes out in May. He is also the author of a best-selling nonfiction book about his experience at Tora Bora, Kill Bin Laden. Unlike your average best-selling author with a book to hawk, Fury is not particularly keen on doing book publicity. He has agreed to talk to me mostly because I e‑mailed him requesting an interview on a topic near and dear to his heart: the security of America’s critical infrastructure—in particular, facilities such as power plants (the plot of Full Assault Mode involves a terrorist attack on a nuclear-power plant). “The threat is real. FYI,” he replied to my e‑mail, by way of granting my request.

Over dinner, we quickly dispense with his backstory: Born in Kentucky, Fury was a military brat, and moved around frequently. He enlisted in the Army at age 19 and spent 15 years in the Rangers, before making Special Ops. He left six years later, in 2005, after a run that included deployments in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Iraq; he wanted to spend more time with his daughters, he explained. Upon retiring, he returned to his family and fell into “consulting,” which has included everything from advising the makers of video games like Call of Duty, to working for a federal contractor charged with testing and improving the security of the nation’s nuclear-power facilities.

This testing involves breaking into the plants for the purpose of finding security holes. He explains to me that the United States has 61 nuclear-power facilities that house a total of 100 reactors. He’s visited every one, he says, some of them more than once. “We got into the protected area of 65 percent,” he continues, taking a last pull off his iced tea. Furthermore, he tells me, he and his colleagues were able to access a sensitive target inside the protected area of 40 percent of the country’s facilities—something crucial to preventing a meltdown (a key water or power source, say). They achieved their final objective—being in a position to perform radiological sabotage—16 times.

Think of this testing as a sort of counterterrorism scrimmage. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission identifies possible threats to nuclear plants based on what Fury calls “real-world intelligence from overseas,” then works with the Nuclear Energy Institute to hire a private contractor. The contractor, in turn, hires people like Fury (retired Special Ops guys, mostly—Delta Force alums, former Army Rangers, and the like) to mimic said threats. It’s your basic war game, just with the objective of causing an imagined nuclear meltdown. (The group playing the enemy in such an exercise is typically known as the “red team.” Red-teaming is not a new concept, but it gained popularity throughout government and private industry as a counterterrorism tactic after the 9/11 attacks.)

Which power plants had the worst security? Fury smiles and stiffly bats his eyes—this is his “can’t comment on that” look. The word meltdown bounces around in my head. I must look alarmed, because he quickly tries to reassure me. “Of all the critical infrastructure in the U.S., the most protected by far is the commercial nuclear industry,” he says. Fury insists that exercises like the ones he participated in have led to real improvements: “I have to give them credit.” He then tells me to imagine a chemical plant right next to one of our nuclear-power facilities. “I’m a terrorist: I can look over here”—at the nuclear plant—“to all the razor wire, the bulletproof towers with guys with guns, and think My god, it’s suicide. Or I can come right here”—to the chemical plant. “When the chemicals get out of that tank, they’re going to kill. But the government doesn’t tell these chemical plants they have to protect crap.”

I mention a recent story in The Wall Street Journal detailing a previously unreported 2013 terrorist attack on a Silicon Valley power station, in which an unidentified group of snipers cut nearby telephone cables in the middle of the night, then opened fire on a substation, taking out 17 transformers in 19 minutes. Jon Wellinghoff, who was the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at the time, told The Journal that the attack represented “the most significant incident of domestic terrorism involving the grid that has ever occurred.” The strike did not result in a blackout—officials were able to reroute power around the substation—but some observers have speculated that it might have been a mere training run for a broad-scale attack on the U.S. electrical grid. I ask Fury what he makes of the story. “It confirms the threat is real,” he says. As I prod for more details, it becomes clear that he’s been studying the attack. He refers to it as “professional.” “Professional?,” I ask. “It incorporated obvious detailed planning,” he replies. “Close target reconnaissance, killing the facility’s communication line, full understanding of authorities’ response time.”

So how exactly does someone—a retired Special Ops guy in this case—go about penetrating a hard target professionally? Simple, Fury says. He employs the same tools he used in Delta Force: disguise, diversion, and deception.

Once, around Christmas, one of the guys on his team dressed up like Santa Claus and was let inside a plant, presents and all. Another time, the team used the ruse of a hunting accident. “Human nature says they will open that ballistic glass because you’re bleeding. Because you’re a fellow American, right?” Even posing as a pizza-delivery guy worked. Apparently our nuclear-power infrastructure has been breached by unsolicited pepperoni. This must be where looking so very normal comes in handy.

When it comes to security, Fury explains, as long as other humans are involved, there will be human vulnerabilities to exploit. “The weakest link in the security is the mind-set of the officer with a gun in his hand,” he says, pushing away his untouched sandwich. “I can have the biggest fence in the world, but if I can get you to look away for five minutes, I’ll cut through that fence and you’ll never know it.”