Grace's Mosaic Moments

Saturday, February 5, 2011

An Inside Peek at the FBI & State Department

Right after I returned from the RWA Conference in Washington, D.C., in July 2009, I wrote a guest blog for Terry’s Place that included all four federal agencies we toured, thanks to arrangements made by RWA’s Mystery/Suspense chapter, Kiss of Death. The four agencies were the FBI at Quantico, the State Department, the U. S. Postal Inspection Service, and the CIA at Langley. Today I’m going to share with you the FBI and State Department tours, saving the Postal Inspection Service and the CIA for next week. These tours were one of the great experiences of my life. I came away completely awed by the opportunity to glimpses behind the scenes of these four powerhouse federal agencies. I’m glad to be able to share a bit of that here.

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As our bus drove toward the FBI Academy at Quantico at the ghastly hour of 6:00 AM, I could only imagine the smirks on feds’ faces as a group of fifty romance writers climbed down from the bus. Yes, we were mystery/suspense writers, but . . . Instead, we were treated like royalty from the moment we left the bus until we dragged ourselves back on at after five that afternoon. Among the highlights: a visit to Hogan’s Alley, a complete small town set up in the Virginia woods, which has everything from a movie theater and stores to apartment buildings, warehouses, and trailers (manufactured homes). All built with help from Hollywood scenery makers. When crime started moving into suburbia, they added two classic single-family homes. While we were in Hogan’s Alley we witnessed a highly authentic-looking chase scene and shoot-out and a street stop that almost went wrong. These scenarios are part of recruit training, and the bad guys are played by volunteers, many of whom have been doing it for years.
We then went to the shooting range (there are several ranges with giant berms between them). (Behind the berms on both sides trainees were shooting shotguns - the noise was incredible.) Four tables had been laid out - one each for handguns, shotguns, tommy guns, and HK MP-5s. We were allowed to go from table to table, shooting whatever we liked (with lots of help from the instructors at each table!) I was quite good with the Glock, caught the target in the shoulder with the shotgun, but not so good with the rifle as I’m unable to close my left eye by itself. Frankly, I didn’t try the tommy gun, but the girls who did said it was very heavy. The next day, I had a slight shoulder bruise from the shotgun, and I had to pick gunshot residue out of two places on my arms. Wow!

After lunch several agents spoke with us about their experiences. One had been undercover for most of eighteen years of service, mostly as a Mafia soldier since he had the correct ethnic background. He had us in hysterics when he described how he’d resurrected his character (at his wife’s urging) when they found a long line for some event they wanted to attend in Vegas. The Mafia attitude, a flash of money, a bit of name dropping, and they were ushered straight in. Naturally, he also told us about some of his most harrowing take-downs when they were in as much danger from the local police as they were from the bad guys.

The most striking experience, however, was that of the agent who was the sole interrogator of Saddam Hussein for eight months. He described the “soft” methods he used, the dependency he built up as Saddam’s only contact with the outside world. This relatively young agent also, in a suitably deprecating manner, explained how he was chosen for this amazing role. As he put it, there might be 12,000 FBI agents, but only 12 were native Arabic speakers. (He came here from Lebanon when he was twelve.) He’d also had ten years’ experience as a homicide detective and, hence, a good deal of experience as an interrogator. He did not apply for this Number One interrogation. He simply got a phone call telling him he’d been chosen.

Saddam eventually talked a great deal. When one girl in our group asked, “Didn’t he know why you were there?” the agent responded that he must have, but Saddam’s need to communicate his side as a “legacy” - plus, of course, his need as a human to communicate with the only person available - led him to speak. When the agent was asked how he avoided identifying with Saddam, he said he only had to remember how the dictator poison-gassed his own people.

Among the small bits of info - the FBI agent mentioned that he shared cookies sent by his mother with Saddam, and that his mother was angry about it when she found out. On the last day of interrogation, he brought in Cuban cigars and he and Saddam sat outside and smoked and drank coffee. Saddam cried when he left.

The FBI agent then spent several more months writing the prosecution’s case against Saddam (at the request of the Iraqi government). We all know how that turned out. No doubt why the agent is now a showpiece on FBI tours.

A marvelous contrast to end our day: as we walked down a glass-sided hallway toward yet another part of the building, we saw two deer happily grazing across the road from the gun ranges (which had obviously gone silent in the late afternoon). I doubt anyone on our tour will ever again be able to refer to an FBI Special Agent as a Feeb. Yes, they probably set out to dazzle us, and they surely succeeded.

The State Department
After our experiences with the FBI, I think most of us figured the State Department would be pretty tame. Far from it. To start with, they must not have checked us out ahead of time as the FBI and CIA did. There were one hundred of us on this tour, and we had to go through airport-style security checks, through just one station. (We’d been warned to allow enough time for security, which wasn’t a burden as a 8:00 AM start was infinitely better than 6:00 AM the day before!) We were then ushered downstairs to an auditorium they use for general meetings, many with foreign diplomats. It was set up with the glass-fronted translation booths in back and built-in speakers at each seat. The speakers arranged for us were not only interesting but spoke with both great sincerity and humor. And seemed delighted to be addressing a group of female authors. Like the FBI speakers, they urged us to interrupt with questions at any time - which our group certainly did.

Our male speaker described how his family had been evacuated under fire three times during their years in Africa. The first time he was out of town while his wife threw herself over their nine-month-old baby while gunfire ripped through their kitchen. He described the various alert levels, how warnings go out to families, etc. It is all right for both husband and wife to work for an embassy as long as they are in different departments; i.e., one is not the boss of the other. Why did he do it? Because he was serving his country. This is the attitude we saw everywhere - FBI, State, Postal, CIA. These people were here, as opposed to the private sector where they could get more money, because they wanted to be. Because they felt they were doing something that mattered.

Our female speaker, a career diplomat now high up in the consular service, started by saying she loved our kind of books. Now there’s a way to warm up a crowd! She explained her portion of the State Department as the people whose sole job is to help Americans in trouble abroad. For example, they help those who have been robbed. They replace passports, contact relatives, even give out small loans if no relatives or friends can be found to help out. In one case where a young man had his car and all personal items stolen when he was wearing nothing but a bathing suit, they even found him interim clothes. And our speaker actually teared up when describing what they’d gone through to identify a skeleton found on a Scottish mountainside and finally track down a long-lost relative. And if you’re traveling in a country known to be dangerous, you should register with the embassy. They can’t evacuate you if they don’t know you’re there!
Needless to say, both speakers were constantly interrupted by questions, to which they gave patient and excellent answers. I believe I can say that we all came away with a much greater understanding and respect for the State Department.

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Thanks for stopping by. Please come back next week for an overview of the Postal Inspection Service and the CIA.

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