Visiting the FBI

290 Broadway - Google Maps-1On July 7, I had the opportunity to visit the FBI field office in New York, the largest field office in the FBI. Members of the ITW (International Thriller Writers) were invited to come to the office to meet with FBI personnel for research purposes. Even though nothing in my immediate future involves writing about the FBI, I figured that this was a great opportunity, one I didn’t want to pass up. And I thought I’d write a little bit about it in case y’all are curious.

That’s the field office over there on the left, located at 290 Broadway in lower Manhattan. I didn’t think to take a picture at the time, so this one was yanked from Google Street View on August of 2013.

Once I arrived (at the unauthorly hour of 8:30am; what am I, a farmer?), I had to go through the usual security rigamarole (metal detector, etc.) and surrender my iPhone for security reasons. No iPad allowed, either. Yes, for note-taking purposes, I had to kick it old school with a reliable (and quite nice) Moleskine notebook I keep for those rare occasions when tech is verboten.

I was a bit amused that the procedure for giving up my phone went like this: I put my phone in a little Ziploc bag, wrote my name on it, and handed it over to the security dude. Hours later, the phone was out on a table with everyone else’s. I mean, I could have taken any phone. Maybe a couple. Weird.

Anyway, there were roughly 100 of us authors. We made our way upstairs to a large presentation room, where NY Field Office ADIC (Assistant Director in Charge) George Venizelos spoke to us about the Bureau and the field office in general terms. He opened up the floor for questions and was flooded with some very specific ones that he handled with good grace until a rep from the Office of Public Affairs stepped in and pointed out that this was the man in charge of the whole office and he had things to do and maybe we could hold our nitty-gritty questions for the folks “on the ground,” so to speak.

Thus began the day in earnest. The FBI’s NY office is divided into six divisions: Administrative, Criminal, Special Operations/Cyber, Intelligence, Counterterrorism, and Counterintelligence. We heard from the SACs (Special Agents in Charge) for each division, each of whom gave us a little background about themselves and then spoke about the mission of the division before taking questions.

I’m not going to regurgitate everything here because, well, there’s only so much time. We were there for several hours, after all! But here’s some basics about the divisions:

Administrative: SAC Ronald Twerskey joked that his division was hardly the most exciting. Administrative, though, is enormously important. There are something like 2500 people working out of the New York office, and Admin is responsible for everything from their desks and computers to their cars and guns. There’s an old saying that an army travels on its stomach. Well, an organization as complicated as the FBI can only function if the lights are on and its equipment works, so coordinating those logistics is enormously important. Someone asked Twerskey if the field office’s complement of agents was a large enough staff. He joked that his colleagues probably wanted more agents, but since he has to find cars, guns, desks, and computers for all of them, he’ll stick with the current roster.

Criminal: This is probably what you think of when you think of the FBI: Catching criminals. SAC Richard Frankel described the FBI’s training program at Quantico as “college, camp…and you have guns. It doesn’t get better than that!” The Criminal Division is the largest FBI division in New York, tasked with white collar crime, public corruption, violent crime, and organized crime.

Special Operations/Cyber: Next up was SAC Leo Taddeo, who talked about hacking and cybercrime. He told us that some of the vilest criminals and some of the most decorated law enforcement officers in history have both walked the halls of the New York field office, describing it as “Valhalla for law enforcement.” He said that the FBI is extremely good at identifying malicious hackers. The problem comes when the hacker is located in a country that won’t cooperate with the U.S. Knowing who the person is and being able to arrest him or her are two different things. He also pointed out that only 56% of corporations report when they’ve been hacked. (Unless it’s the sort of hack that the law requires they report.)

Intelligence: SSIA (Senior Supervisory Intelligence Analyst) Megan Hart started out by telling us that New York is such a target-rich environment for cases that one of the main functions of her unit is triaging them to figure out which ones make the most sense to go after. The function of the Intelligence division is to take a high-level view. Individual case agents are, appropriately, focused on their own cases, so the intelligence analysts look at the big picture and help to direct resources. This requires a lot of juggling, as you can imagine: The threat levels from criminal activity, terrorism, and public corruption are all different, so you can’t measure them on the same scale. But Intelligence has to identify the greatest threats, wherever they come from.

Counterterrorism (CT): SAC William Sweeney ran us through the JTTF, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, an FBI-led group that consists of almost 500 people in the New York area, including 130 NYPD officers and representatives from 52 agencies. There are 103 JTTFs around the country, but New York’s is the largest. You might imagine the JTTF was created recently, in the aftermath of 9/11, but it actually dates back to 1980, when it began with 10 FBI agents and 10 NYPD officers. For the JTTF, the FBI picks up the tab for cars and overtime for the other agencies, receiving in exchange more bodies for its investigations. We received a general overview of threats both foreign and domestic, leading me to ask during Q&A, “What keeps you up at night?” Sweeney immediately replied, “Everything,” before joking, “Well, my Blackberry.”

Counterintelligence (CI): CSSA Matt Laird began by apologizing for not having a Powerpoint presentation like many of his colleagues. “But everything I do is classified, so it would only be two slides: My name and ‘Questions?’ Most of which I can’t answer.” He paused. “I’ve probably said too much already.” Counterintelligence is, of course, the application of spy craft against spies. With the UN in New York, most countries in the world have some kind of espionage presence there via their UN missions, so Laird’s team is pretty busy. Despite his joke that he couldn’t tell us anything, Laird provided a lot of useful information, discussing the infamous Anna Chapman, for example. But, yeah, “everything is classified” and it’s no coincidence that the CI portion of my notes is the most sparse.

Lunch was listed on the schedule as a “working lunch.” Now, I usually hate working lunches, but this one was really more “lunch theater.” Retired FBI agent Dan Desimone walked us through a case of his in the late nineties, when he went undercover in Las Vegas to catch some mobsters. It was a terrific story, and it involved a mobster with the best nickname ever: Vinnie the Aspirin. If you want to know why he’s called “the Aspirin,” click on that link.

The day ended with a trip to the FBI’s private museum, which contained some truly ancient tech from the bad old days, along with memorabilia all the way up through 9/11. After that, we were free to go, and I took my phone (and only my phone) and headed home.

You might be wondering why the FBI would let a bunch of very high-level, senior staff waste a day hanging out with a group of authors. I have to admit, that thought flickered in my head for a moment, too, but ADIC Venizelos explained it right off the bat: He said that people believe what they read…whether it’s true or not. And the FBI’s job is a lot easier if people actually understand it. So it behooves the FBI to make sure writers actually get their facts straight. Weirdly enough, we live in a world where people think paying attention to a fictional account of law enforcement makes them an expert in real life law enforcement. So, yeah, I guess Venizelos is right: In such a world, you want even the people who make things up to get them right.

Thanks to ITW and the FBI for a fun, informative day! If you ever get the chance to visit the New York field office (or, I imagine, any field office), take it. You’ll learn a lot, or at least hear some great stories.

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