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:
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.