Brett Forrest, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, has spent years tracking the case of an American working for the FBI, who vanished in Russia. Adding to the intrigue, US and Russian authorities shared an interest in keeping the story from reaching the press.

Following the release of his 2023 book, Lost Son: An American Family Trapped in the FBI’s Secret Wars, Forrest speaks to Kyiv Post.

Firstly, the FBI and Russia’s FSB thwarted your efforts to get this story out. Why?

They were pursuing the same goal. The FBI, the Department of Justice, the State Department, and the Russian security services all wanted to have nothing to do with this story.

Nobody wanted the truth about this to come out.

What is your book, Lost Son, about?

It’s about Billy Reilly, a young man from Michigan. After 9/11, he became interested in global conflicts, world religions, foreign languages, and largely taught himself all these things via computer, as the internet was coming of age. His interests and activities brought him to the attention of the FBI, which recruited him as a confidential human source, something of a freelancer, working initially in counterterrorism.

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The key questions were: Had Billy gone to Russia on his own? Was he sent by the FBI or perhaps by another US agency? Or did the truth lie somewhere in the middle?

These are the questions in the balance throughout the narrative. You want to know who is responsible for his disappearance. Was it simply a case of a young man getting in over his head? Or did the US government, through one of its agencies and its agents and officers, really bear some of the responsibility?

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What caught your interest about the story of Billy going to Russia and falling off the map?

I was immediately interested because I saw great potential in the case. There’s a family searching for their missing son. There’s the FBI that was fighting for its existence under assault from Donald Trump at the time. There’s also the story of a young man coming of age in the wake of 9/11. It was also the beginning of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

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As a writer, why did this story interest you?

There were two things. The possibility to write something that was meaningful about the top-line headlines of our day. Billy was the vehicle that could take us through all that. And, more importantly, there was a chance to solve this mystery and help the family.

Was Billy motivated to travel to Russia to join the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine?

As an adolescent, he had taken a brief trip to Russia with his family. He later taught himself Russian online, so he was predisposed to be interested in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Billy had an urge, as he approached his late 20s, to get off the internet and to go out into the world and to participate. He wanted to see these global conflicts for himself.

What is your take-away, having spent years researching this story?

There are a couple of lessons. One is that American citizens sometimes believe that if something bad happens to us in a foreign country, our government will step in and save the day. That’s a naive view, especially in difficult environments like Russia, Iran, Venezuela, or other countries with an adversarial relationship with the US. You will find that the US government often simply has very little leverage in such places.

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What other new insights did you gain?

What became starkly clear to me in researching this book is that the US government is pursuing what it believes to be the national interest. Sometimes, spending political capital on assisting an American who is in a perilous place is calculated by US officials as outside the national interest.

Finally, what did you learn about the FBI?

The FBI has turned into an intelligence agency that often scoops up people like Billy Reilly and uses them – to a degree abuses them – and those people have no recourse. It was shocking to me that Billy had worked for the FBI for five years and was still working with the agency at the time of his disappearance in Russia. But the Bureau, through its agents, not only did not help search for him but lied to the family – something of which we have incontrovertible proof.

Brett Forrest’s new book, Lost Son: An American Family Trapped in the FBI’s Secret Wars, is now available for purchase.

 

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