FBI Agent Tutorial, What Do They Do? Pete Klismet

What do FBI Agents really do?
by Pete Klismet
One question I’ve been asked by more people than I can count is, “What do FBI Agents do?”  Another frequent one has been, “What is (or was) it like to be an FBI agent?”  
As I recount in the first chapter of my recent book, “FBI Diary: Profiles of Evil,” there is really no set or pat answer to that question.  I’d like to make the answer simple, but I really can’t.  When I received my appointment as a Special Agent in 1979, we had about 183 federal crimes to investigate.  When I retired in 1999, that list was over 270.  I have no clue how long the list is now.

In FBI Diary, I try to answer that question by saying “it depended on which of 59 field divisions you worked in, and to which squad you were assigned. In Los Angeles in the 1980s, I was assigned to an Organized Crime squad. Back then, it meant my squad investigated the Sicilian and Italian Mafia. It was all about gambling, prostitution, labor racketeering and control of the pornography industry, as well as a variety of other criminal activities they engaged in to make a living. We had several undercover operations going, one of which was setting up a pornography distribution business in the San Fernando Valley. Much to our surprise, five Mafia members showed up one day to muscle in on our operation, and we wound up taking out the entire Mafia family in Los Angeles. Eventually dubbed the ‘Mickey Mouse Mafia,’ these characters certainly were prime candidates for ‘Stupid Criminal’ recognition. It’s not usually a good idea to threaten to extort the FBI.”

Other squads in Los Angeles were dedicated to bank robberies, truck hijackings, interstate transportation of stolen property, foreign counterintelligence, white collar crime, and a myriad of other federal violations. Bank robberies in Los Angeles were a plague in the ‘80s, and continue to be. On Christmas Eve of the first year I was in Los Angeles, we had twenty-four, which was then a national record. It’s probably been long-since eclipsed.

As we progressed into the 80’s and 90’s, violent crime and drugs surged to the forefront, and priorities again changed.  The murder rate skyrocketed to over 20,000 in the mid-80’s, with drug gangs fighting for turf and simply because someone happened to be wearing the wrong color shirt or tennis shoes.  Agents were taken off other duties and dedicated to drug task forces, as well as working with local, state and federal officers to stem the tide of violent crime.

And then came the turn of the century.  Priorities changed again.  With the attacks of 9-11, the priorities of the FBI were drastically rearranged.  Agents who had worked criminal cases most of their careers suddenly found themselves trying to adapt to working terrorism.  The transition was difficult, to say the least.  Terrorism cases are an entirely different ball of wax, and I never worked one in over 20 years in the FBI.  We had no training in terrorism when I went through the FBI Academy, because realistically there was only a minimal threat back then.  Suddenly, terrorism became far more than a blip on the radar screen.  I don’t know this for sure, but I’d suspect that about half of all 10,000 FBI agents in the world are dedicated to terrorism full-time.

I did some research to see what the current priorities are now.  They’ve been switched around to where there are now two general categories, which are:

National Security
Many of these areas are specialties unto themselves.  Let’s say an agent is trained to work Cyber Crime.  He or she is going to need some very specific training to understand the federal statutes, and exactly how to conduct an investigation involving computer crimes.  Working and being trained in one of the many areas of White Collar Crime does not translate into a successful transition to Violent Crime, for example.  Everything about the crimes and federal statutes is different.  A former accountant would be more comfortable with White Collar Crime, while an ex-cop like me would transition well into the Violent Crime classifications.  And that’s exactly what I tried to do during my career, with some success.  However, I just happened to be named the 1999 Law Enforcement officer of the year by an international organization for both solving and convicting a group of people who were responsible for over $60 million in fraud.  Fraud?  Me.  Somehow I managed to figure it out, all the time while working in a two man Resident Agency.  Don’t ask me how!

Since this all seems fairly simple, cut and dried, let me throw a wrinkle at you.  There are 56 FBI field offices across the country.  Each has a headquarters city where most agents are assigned.  But, each field office has Resident Agencies, smaller satellite offices which, depending on the size of the area they cover, or the city they are in, can be manned by two to forty agents.  All of the violations you see in the list above can be the responsibility of the agents in those Resident Agencies.  You literally become a jack-of-all-trades, or what’s called a generalist.  You spend a lot of time flying by the seat of your pants, trying to figure out violations you’ve never dealt with before, and aren’t trained to investigate.  How do I know this?  I spent about fifteen of my twenty years in the FBI in RA’s.    If you wonder what I did, and how I survived, that is covered in the first third of FBI Diary.  And then they threw a new wrinkle at me.  If I didn’t have enough to do, and I certainly did, they wanted me to go through profiling training.  And that’s the rest of the story.  If you read the book, you’ll discover how I survived.  Barely!

Pete Klismet served two tours in Vietnam on submarines, attended college in Denver, then was a police officer in Ventura, California for ten years.  He was appointed a Special Agent in 1979 and retired from the FBI in 1999 after 30 total years of law enforcement service.  He was one of the original ‘profilers’ in the FBI, serving in four FBI offices.  He was named the 1999 Law Enforcement Officer of the Year by a national organization.

Having recently retired as a college professor, Pete and his wife Nancy live in Colorado Springs, CO.

Pete Klismet ~ Writing Authentic Characters, Part 1

Pete Klismet served two tours in Vietnam on submarines, attended college in Denver, then was a police officer in Ventura, California for ten years. He was appointed a Special Agent in 1979 and retired from the FBI in 1999 after 30 total years of law enforcement service. He was one of the original ‘profilers’ in the FBI, serving in four FBI offices. He was named the 1999 Law Enforcement Officer of the Year by a national organization.Having recently retired as a college professor, Pete and his wife Nancy live in Colorado Springs, CO.

As many of our readers are novelists I want to pick your expertise a bit and ask you some questions that will help us authentically write in the areas of criminals and profiling.  If a novelist wanted to write a criminal profiler as a main character what major things would be important to include in the characters abilities or tendencies to make the character realistic?
There is one common thread I’ve seen in the best criminal profilers I’ve ever worked with, including two of my mentors – Robert Ressler and Roy Hazelwood.  Bob was one of the brightest and quickest people I’ve ever known.  Bob was a brilliant guy who had the foresight to see into the future and understand the potential of criminal profiling.  Bob’s approach was somewhat ‘shoot from the hip,’ but the neurons in his brain operated at a speed unlike anyone I’ve ever seen.  

Roy, on the other hand, was like a pit bull, doggedly determined, patient, methodical and thorough, almost to a fault.  They were two of the best ever, yet completely different personalities.  The one thing I saw as being common to both Bob and Roy was ‘common sense.’  John Douglas completed the triangle of what I still call the ‘Top Three.’  Douglas was probably the best ever, but was not someone who was personable, perhaps even a little aloof, not an instructor as I recall.  

John, however, possessed an ability to see things very few could see, and using great common sense, could determine the ‘why’ of a crime better than anyone.  He’s still called the “Modern Sherlock Holmes.”  Deservedly so.  The character Jack Crawford in “Silence of the Lambs,” was based on John, who himself has authored quite an impressive number of books. 

Having said that, let me illustrate what I mean:  In Atlanta in the 1980’s, young black boys were being killed at an alarming rate.  Ultimately the death toll reached 33.  During the investigation, Roy Hazelwood was brought down in an effort to provide a profile of this prolific serial killer.  The common belief was the killer was white, probably a member of the KKK.  Roy was with 3 detectives, looking around the area where most of the kidnappings occurred.  All of the detectives happened to be black.  

Suddenly, Roy noticed that all activity stopped and people were looking at the four of them.  He asked a detective what that was about, and the reply was “There’s a white guy (Roy) in the area.”  From that, Roy concluded the killer had to be black, a person who could move around freely without being noticed.  This was not a popular opinion, but it turned out to be correct when one Wayne Williams was arrested and ultimately convicted for the murders.

During the investigation, John Douglas came to Atlanta to help Roy.  After the coroner made a public statement that they were getting good forensic evidence off the bodies which had been found, John made a prediction to investigators.  He said, “The next body will be found in a body of water.”  So, surveillances were established in likely places.  Sure enough, about a week later, an officer on surveillance under a bridge over the Chattahoochee River, heard a big splash.  He then saw a car leaving and stopped the driver.  

With no further evidence to go on, the officer took the driver’s information and description of the car.  A day or so later, the body of Nathaniel Cater was pulled from the river.  Sure enough, the person who threw the body over the side of the bridge was Wayne Williams.  This was the critical link in breaking the case, and all because of a criminal profiler’s experience, knowledge, and the common sense involved in his assessment of the overall situation.