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Thursday, March 20, 2008

The FBI – Knowing the Facts for Better Fiction (Part I)

Ever since the events of 9-11, the FBI has been brought to the forefront of the American stage in a way it hasn’t since the death of J. Edgar Hoover. The public’s growing fascination with the Bureau is further fed with news articles, television reports, and non-fiction books that often have their facts wrong and show little regard for the truth. Facts not withstanding, the Bureau is finding itself at the center of a great deal of mystery and suspense fiction, often in roles that the FBI does not fill and in ways that are …well, purely fiction. But even fiction has its basis in fact. Research that is well done – and by that I mean, accurate – can give added verisimilitude that will take the reader to a deeper level of understanding and be entertaining at the same time. Having been employed with the FBI, I often cringe at the inaccurate perceptions most authors have of the Bureau and how little time it would have taken to get the facts straight.

So let’s take a look at the FBI. Your FBI. Lets see how it’s organized, how it operates, and what it takes to become an FBI Special Agent.

The FBI began as the BI (Bureau of Investigation) in 1908, and its agents were not authorized to make arrests or carry weapons. In essence, it served as little more than a political arm of the party that was in power, and was used to bring the full might of the government to bear on its enemies. Ultimately, the Bureau (as it is still known today) was so corrupt that the Department of Justice became known as the Department of Injustice. The press picked up on that, and in one story, reported the testimony of a BI agent who told a congressional committee that he had broken into the offices of U.S. Senators and rifled through their desks so that he could find “anything that could embarrass them”. That testimony, and the resultant media exposure, led President Coolidge to fire the Attorney General and hire a new person for the job. The new Attorney General was Harlan Fiske Stone, former Dean of the Columbia University Law School. Stone, in turn, hired assistant BI director J. Edgar Hoover, a twenty-nine year old lawyer, to direct the BI.

For all of his faults, alleged or otherwise, Hoover did a tremendous job in restructuring the FBI and elevating it into the agency it is today. He insisted on upgrading the techniques of investigation, incorporating the “new” technology of fingerprint science, along with building and developing a laboratory and criminal database. In 1933, President Roosevelt reorganized the Department of Justice and increased the responsibility of the BI At that point, the name Federal Bureau of Investigation came into being and the BI was hence known as the FBI. But Hoover wanted more. He insisted that his agents be known as Special Agents, and that they be allowed to make arrests and carry firearms. It took an act of Congress to authorize the latter, but when it was completed in 1934, the FBI stepped into the modern age.

Today, the FBI is headquartered in Washington D.C. in the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building. To those in the bureau, this location is referred to as SOG (the Seat of Government). In fact, even today, if a message is sent to a field office with the closing caption, “Secure Bureau interests,” it is known to mean that SOG sees this as more than a typical investigation and that a great deal is at stake.

Headquarters is home to the FBI Director and a number of Assistant Directors. Each Assistant Director heads a special division. In addition to SOG, the Bureau currently has 56 field offices which are typically located in larger cities. Some of these offices, like the New York City office, for example, are lead by an Assistant Director. But most are lead by a Special Agent who acts in the role of SAC (Special Agent in Charge). Lets look at this level more closely.

The typical field office is located in a federal building, or in some cases, a free-standing building, and will usually house a hundred or more Special Agents. The SAC is the boss – no question about it. But under the SAC there is an Assistant Special Agent (ASAC), who typically oversees the Squad Supervisors. Each squad within a field office is assigned a certain type of case to investigate and those agents within that squad will usually work those kinds of federal violations to the exclusion of all others. There are exceptions to this however, particularly in smaller field offices. For example, in the office where I worked, the Security Squad was assigned matters of national security. This included such items as espionage, terrorism, etc. But other federal crimes, such as the misuse of the Smokey the Bear emblem (yep, that’s right. I kid you not), had to end up on a squad too, so the Security Squad at my particular field office took those cases. (I can’t think of a single instance when we investigated that particular “crime”.) Other squads handled their own matters such as violent crimes (unlawful flights, bank robberies, etc.), while others handled softer, yet no less criminal acts, such as embezzlement, ID theft, bank fraud, etc.

Each field office has a Legal Advisor, an agent who is also an attorney, to advise the SAC and ASAC on relevant matters. Additionally, there are secretaries, clerks, and Investigative Clerks. If you’ve read about the espionage of FBI Special Agent Robert Hansen, or have seen the movie, you will recall that it was a clerk who investigated him and ultimately brought him down. In my particular field office, we even had a full-time mechanic who maintained Bureau cars, and other individuals who maintained our electronic equipment. It takes a lot of support to run a field office because a lot goes on there.

Most field offices also have sub-divisions, known as Resident Agencies (RA), which are located within the smaller towns of a particular region and that report to the Field Office. Typically, an RA will have anywhere from 1 to 30 Special Agents. This structure allows the FBI to extend its reach and be nearly anywhere in the U.S. at the same time. But regardless of how accessible the FBI is, none of this can be successful without the Special Agent.

An FBI Special Agent must be 23-36 years of age at the time of appointment, have a degree in accounting, law, the physical sciences, or a foreign language for which the Bureau has a need. If the applicant has another type of degree and can show three or more years of experience in that field, they will also be invited to apply.

The application process is onerous. It begins with the completion of a twelve page form that touches on nearly every part of the applicant’s life. After this is completed, a written test is administered, followed by a physical test, then a “specialty” test in accounting, law or language, to document that the applicant has what it takes to succeed in those areas. After this, an oral interview is given. If all of this is passed, a thorough background investigation is conducted. This can be disconcerting. Just before I was hired, I had people I hadn’t seen for a long time contact me to say “the FBI was asking about you”.

Once the applicant is hired he/she must complete 16 weeks at the F.B.I. academy at Quantico, Virginia. During this time, the new agent is taught the basics of investigation, photography, fingerprinting, report writing, and suspect and witness interviewing. After all, you can never get two witnesses to agree on anything. In addition, training in all types of firearms and hand-to-hand self-defense is given. During their time at the academy, the new agents will also participate in practical testing at Hogan’s Alley, a Hollywood-type set that depicts a typical town. Arrests and raids will be conducted there, as well as shoot-don’t-shoot scenarios. A new agent must qualify (shoot a minimum score) with their weapon three times before they can graduate. But when they’ve completed the course, they are awarded their badge and credentials and sworn into office. After that, they are assigned to their first field office for a one year probationary period. During this time, they will be mentored by a senior agent, and will have the opportunity to put their academic training into use.

Next Time … a typical day with an FBI Special Agent
Article thanks to Brandt Dodson: www.brandtdodson.com
Check out his new book. . .White Soul


Blogger Beth Goddard said...


What about Computer Science? Years ago I had an FBI interview my senior year of college and actually went to the next step with them. I decided that wasn't the direction I wanted to go so didn't pursue it further. Is that still a degree that you can go into the FBI with? I mean right out of school without experience? It wasn't one you listed. . .but I was in college long ago, things change:)


2:42 PM  
Blogger Lynette Sowell said...

This was really interesting! I'd like to know, when does the FBI handle a case versus the CIA? Does CIA do international cases, and the FBI cover domestic? Thanks for sharing this articl

5:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Lynette, Beth,

You both ask some very good questions.
First, Lynette, lets take a look at yours.
The FBI is an investigative agency that works under the auspices of The Department of Justice. FBI agents are charge with the investigation of over 200 federal violations and serve as "fact gatherers". When the "facts" are gathered, they are presented to the United States Attorney (USA) who decides whether to prosecute.
The FBI's jurisdiction is confined to the United States. (Although, FBI agents will travel to foreign countries on fact finding missions or to serve as liasons to the host nation's law enforcement community.)
The CIA, on the other hand, is an intelligence gatherer and analyzer and is forbidden from "spying" on U.S. citizens within the borders of the United States. If the CIA were to uncover a terrorist plot, for example, involving a U.S. citizen, it would be the FBI who would handle the investigation.

So, in short, you are on target when you say the CIA handles foreign situations and the FBI handles domestic. But there are overlaps.

Now, Beth, lets take a look at your question.
The FBI does indeed hire computer programers, analysts, etc. but I've never known them to hire this degree as a Special Agent without having at least 3 yrs experience. (This is referred to as the "Modified" program.)
However, in a clerical capacity, or lab capacity, which is not a position of Special Agent, you can be hired without the 3 yr. requirement.
For more information on the bureau's hiring requirements and the various positions offered, check out: www.fbi.gov
The bureau's needs change frequently as do their requirements so this website will serve as an updated source.

I hope this helps.

Brandt Dodson

9:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Brandt,

I'm a high school sophomore and for the past two years I've had an interest in the Bureau that only keeps growing and growing. It started several years back when I first began to write crime fiction (because I failed at fantasy and fanfiction and high school chic stuff bored me to death), and ever since I can't stop thinking about the Bureau and I've decided I really want to become an FBI agent.

I've done a lot of research, over half of it directly related to my writing projects, and I work very hard to maintain a 4.0 GPA. I plan to attend a four year university with a major in Islamic Studies and a minor in Creative Writing (my two great passions in life) and pursue a graduate degree.

I'm wondering if you have any advice for me, because the FBI is my dream. I want to be a part of the Bureau, and I want to make a difference in the world.

7:07 PM  

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