I spy on the FBI

An inside look at the agency, in which our operative gets to fire a gun simulator and take a polygraph test and is denied access to classified information

Hey everyone, it’s the first FBI Media Day, a public-relations stunt put on by the Sacramento FBI for the esteemed press. With an open invitation to the FBI headquarters, what better way to find out how agents and their notorious boss, John Ashcroft, are spying on citizens? Even though it’s always been nearly impossible to get any information from the FBI concerning stories, especially those involving people being detained under the Patriot Act, the agency’s goal is now to convince us that agents are, indeed, human and accessible. Could it be a result of the backlash from those concerned about our civil liberties being violated through the Patriot Act?

My goal, then, will be to act like a counterspy, to infiltrate the FBI’s hardened walls and find out what agents are really doing in these investigations. They, on the other hand, most likely will be watching me. Yes, step forth with me into the world of spy vs. the FBI.

Now, because I’m an esteemed journalist, of course I’m up for Media Day. For the sake of irony, I’m wearing a white shirt and a tie, trying to create my impression of “Special Agent Harmon Leon.” My fellow attendees will be a collection of mainstream media at their mainstream-media best. Yes, a fun-filled day as the FBI lets the press into the inner sanctum to fire neat gun simulators and take wicked polygraph tests, making us forget in reality that the FBI refuses to give out information in most circumstances because the agency deems it classified.

A word of wisdom: Never get mildly baked right before spending a day at the FBI headquarters. Not that I’m saying I did, but you’d really find yourself feeling paranoid pulling up to the gates of the nondescript brick building (across from a fabric store) whose sign reads in bold font, “Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Once inside, I collect an FBI all-access building-clearance pass, get questioned about whether I have a picture phone and then saunter through the metal detector. It goes off.

“Face the 10 most wanted,” says the uniformed security guard, waving a wand that initiates buzzing. I stare straight ahead, focused on a picture of Hopeton Eric Brown within the 10-most-wanted framed picture. A conservatively dressed woman escorts me down the FBI hallways as we pass men with guns and framed pictures of guys in suits who look very serious.

“Nice place you have here,” I say, making small talk.

A very serious-looking man in a suit tells me, “Help yourself to some bagels and coffee,” as I enter the sterile conference room filled with people in Ross Dress For Less bad suits and mandatory ties. Blue is a primary color. This is the mainstream press. Apparently, the esteemed journalists are on holiday. The B-team has been sent, with badges trumpeting such media-suave hotbeds as Redding, Vacaville and Fairfield. But these journalists are prepared. Some have special notebooks that say “Reporter Notebook” and have their names written on the front. Even with the addition of my ironic tie, with my still-scruffy appearance, among the conservative-press B-team, I stand out like a sore thumb with herpes.

FBI fun fact: Did you know that Sacramento’s FBI division is the largest division in square miles in California? Established in 1967, Sacramento actually is the newest division, out of the 56 FBI divisions in the United States, with 118 agents.

Things are kicked off by an introduction from the special agent in charge of the Sacramento field office. He gives us the lowdown on Media Day, which he says will provide an inside look into the structure and operations of the FBI. On one side of the room, in a row of chairs, sit various Special Agents Mulder (no Scullys) sitting under a somber wall dedicated to pictures of FBI martyrs. The FBI is primarily a boys club. The agents’ suits are far superior to the media’s. Sitting along the wall, the agents look like stern father types.

The guy sitting next to me, who writes for a legal newspaper, whispers to me about his prior FBI media experience of not getting much of anything from the agency, even when he’s spotted FBI agents conducting business at a crime scene.

“It’s hard to get information, to confirm or deny, even though I just drove by and saw them,” he says.

“We’re going to have some fun,” the FBI head proclaims before introducing the agents—a varied mix of good-cop and bad-cop types who head each department. They will give a brief presentation at a podium that reads, “Sacramento Division,” about their specialties, with such topics as white-collar and cyber crime, drugs and terrorism.

“If it’s Bubba and Cooter, I’d be investigating them,” explains the dry special agent with really droopy puppy-dog eyes who’s in charge of domestic terrorism and who keeps referring to his boss as “the boss.” He adds, “If it’s Mohammed, then that would be international terrorism.”

His international-terrorism counterpart, the most no-nonsense man I’ve ever seen, explains why, in the past, they haven’t been able to give the press information concerning citizens held under the Patriot Act. “We’ve heard that the FBI doesn’t share information. We can’t, by law. It’s classified,” he states sharply.

It makes me wonder about all those Muslim immigrants and U.S. citizens who disappeared in the night. Don’t they have rights that supercede the FBI’s need to classify everything about them as secret? And what about the esteemed media’s right to ask the detainees how they feel about having no right to a fair trial? So much for getting information on those citizens.

By far, this agent is the worst public speaker of the bunch.

“We have to learn about cultures and language,” he continues stiffly. “We’re always looking for those who can engage us in those cultures.” I see: They want snitches to rat on their fellow immigrants.

The speeches, from agents with various degrees of public-speaking skills, go on and on. Bank robberies, wiretapping (“It’s not just flipping a switch”), surveillance (“We can install devices on vehicles to see where they go”), online wiretaps, agents posing as teenagers attracting pedophiles on the Internet, health-care frauds, and, of course, counterintelligence.

“It’s your traditional ‘spy vs. spy’ scenario,” explains the last dry FBI special agent. “If I tell you more, I probably can’t let you leave the building.”

Everyone chuckles. FBI humor.

I can firmly say I would never, under any damned circumstance, want any of these men breaking down my door, putting their boots on my throat and pointing their guns at my head—and then get a free trip to Guantanamo Bay, all because I happened to surf the wrong Internet site, which sets off an in-house red flag.

But if that scenario did play out, of course, it would be classified.

FBI fun fact: Did you know that 57 is the mandatory retirement age for an FBI agent?

After the lengthy FBI presentation, we take a break. The majority of the room needs to use the restroom. Because it’s the FBI headquarters, we’re escorted to the facilities. You know that phenomenon that happens when you are at football games, and even though you have to pee, you can’t, because there’s a large line behind you? (I call it “stage fright.”) Try peeing with roughly eight FBI agents in suits waiting behind you. (I’m wondering if it’s because they’re waiting to take a sample for a drug test I’ll surely flunk!) There’s nothing more uncomfortable than having to pee with a line of FBI agents standing behind you, waiting. Going to the urinal, I merely fake it, hoping I don’t arouse suspicion.

The polygraph test
The bad-suited media are divided up. My group of journalists in bad suits goes to the FBI interrogation room, designed with a two-way mirror, for a polygraph demonstration. Little do they know, in a mere half-hour, I will leave the FBI agent in charge of the polygraph test with egg on his face.

“Has anyone here taken a polygraph test?” asks the agent in a gray, pinstriped suit (who looks vaguely like Robert De Niro in Meet the Parents). I think he should ask us while we’re hooked up to the damned machine. I get the feeling that this man would really be able to screw with your head in an interrogation scenario; his steely demeanor used to play both good cop and bad cop.

“The goal of the polygraph test is to obtain a confession,” he adds. The threat of getting the truth is the intimidation factor. “Our bread and butter is the terrorist test,” he says. He goes on to explain that the purpose is to get those who disappear in the middle of the night to sign for their tickets straight to Guantanamo Bay.

The other purposes are for job applicants. In the wake of the notorious Robert Hanssen affair—Hanssen was arrested by fellow agents for working as a Russian mole for 15 years)—it is used for counterintelligence. Yes, the organization is testing its own to see if they are DOUBLE SPIES!

“I look at the polygraph as a substitute for evidence,” the agent relays dryly. “Anyone who takes a polygraph does so voluntarily. There’s no reason to take it; 95 percent agree at the spur of the moment. At any time, they can say, ‘I don’t want to talk to this anymore.’”

Then the focus is on us.

Never get baked and enter this building.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“Does anyone want to volunteer to take a polygraph test?”

Wanting to infiltrate their methods further, I immediately shoot up my hand. “I’ll do it!” I bark before he can even finish the word “volunteer.” I follow at his heel as we parade to the interrogation room on the other side of the two-way mirror. I’m face to face with the standard FBI “polygraph multicomponent system” used since 1978.

“You’re not going to keep a file on me, are you?” I ask jokingly (but with actual mild concern). He deadpans, “No.”

Maybe I haven’t thought this through, I think, hoping they don’t ask any questions about drug use, strange sexual encounters or, most importantly, what’s in my sock.

“The test reads three ways: pass, fail and inconclusive,” he states, telling me the machine is 85-percent to 95-percent accurate.

I sit down in the interrogation chair in the small room. The two-way mirror now shows my reflection. I’m already nervous, and I haven’t even done anything wrong. (I prepare an “I WAS FRAMED!”) Fingerplates are hooked onto my left hand to read sweat glands. A chord is strapped around my chest to detect changes in breathing. My blood pressure is monitored for changes in my heart rate. Four pens on the polygraph machine will relay sudden changes when questions are asked and the incorrect response is given. Having that background information, I think I can beat them and their little interrogation toy. BRING IT ON, FBI BITCH!

“Does it make any difference if the person is of sub-par intelligence or mentally delusional?” I ask, making small talk. Dryly, he tells me that mental competency is tested beforehand, once again stating the machine’s accuracy.

“You do come across cases like John and Patsy Ramsey, who passed the polygraph test,” he states, giving insight into his impression of guilt or innocence in that case. “It’s more of an art than a science. If I see them trying to deceive the test, that’s pretty much a fail.”

I ponder this as the rules are explained. I’m told to pick a number between 2 and 8. I tell him my number is 5. He then writes the numbers vertically on a piece of paper and tapes it to the wall in front of me as I stare straight ahead.

“I’m going to go down the list, and you tell me if it’s your number.”

He starts with 2.

“Yes!” I exclaim, wanting to test out the polygraph ASAP.

“We got a smart aleck,” he remarks, dryly, once again explaining the rules.

This time, he reads the numbers, and I’m supposed to say, “No,” to each of them. The polygraph clearly will show I’m lying at “5.”

Relaxing, I go into my own personal cave. It’s warm and safe in my own personal cave, filled with big, lush pillows. I do breathing exercises I learned once in a yoga class. The interrogator reads each number and then pauses 10 seconds to let the anxiety sink in and to let my body register.

“Is 5 your number?” he interrogates.

This book probably has more fiction than </i>Ethan Frome<i>.


I hear giggling from the other room. If an FBI interrogation agent could blush, this one would be blushing. He shows me the results. He seems embarrassed.

“You’re a good liar,” he proclaims, showing me that the polygraph couldn’t register that I was lying, putting me in the same class as John and Patsy Ramsey.

“Nooooo, I’m not,” I lie once again.

The rest of my media group comes bursting through the door.

“You must be really good at lying,” confirms a woman from a newspaper in Redding.

“Nooooooo,” I state again. I just beat the FBI polygraph test!

FBI fun fact: Did you know that, in his book Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, Anthony Summers claims that Hoover did not pursue organized crime because the Mafia had blackmail material on him for being a cross-dresser? The longtime director of the FBI was said to like wearing a fluffy, black dress—very fluffy, with flounces and lace stockings and high heels and a black, curly wig. He also liked to be introduced as “Mary.”

Evidence Response Team
Throughout the morning, I get this paranoid feeling that when the day is over, an agent is going to approach me and say, “Mr. Leon, please step into the room. We’d like to have a word with you!” More evidence mounts against me. Seriously!

In a demonstration from the FBI Evidence Response Team on the use of its tools, the agents “claim” they want to get an impression of my boot print in sand. They “claim” they want to demonstrate how they recover footprints at crime scenes with the assistance of a cast imprint that can collect footprints even in water and in snow.

Then, the fingerprint specialist (who, I’m told, is “the best finger-printer this side of the Mississippi) “claims” he wants my thumbprint on a piece of magnetic paper.

“If I’m not mistaken, I’ve seen these at the post office,” he says with a sinister chuckle (that FBI humor).

As we put on special glasses and dust the print under black light, he “claims” that we’ll be able to determine if my print is the rare plain arch or the more common loop, all of which can be fed into a computer and can garnish an immediate match.

It’s not a coincidence. These FBI agents are singling me out. Hell, yes! They’re doing this because I beat their damned polygraph test. They now have a boot print and a fingerprint on file. Soon my e-mail will be monitored. Some higher-up (watching from a third two-way mirror) now thinks I fit some sort of potential master-criminal profile and should be monitored under the Patriot Act. Soon, a laser-sighted rifle will be beamed right at my aorta, as I’m told to “GET DOWN ON THE GROUND! NOW!”

They’ve got me now! That’s too bad, because I do take a shine to the Evidence Response Team. This would be the department I’d be in if I enlisted in the FBI. (Don’t hold your breath, America.) These agents are just plain goofy, with a nerdy quality of astonishment, compared with the other hard-ass agents. These ones work with gruesome homicides, crime scenes and plane crashes, trying to find evidence among luggage and body parts, taking everything from the scene that could pertain to the case.

“It’s nothing like you see on TV,” states the Evidence Response Team leader with glasses; khaki pants; and a blue, tucked-in, short-sleeved shirt. “A lot of what we do is tedious and time-consuming. There’s a lot of paperwork. It’s not glamorous; you’re there because it’s important. The person’s dead, and you are their only hope.”

J. Edgar Hoover, known by some of his close friends as “Mary.”

They use such fun tools as electrostatic dust lifters, where a silver, electromagnetic sheet can be placed on a door, and through a charge of electromagnetic energy, the FBI is able to take any prints right off—and a super-glue chamber that spins around and attracts the molecules to show fingerprints on an object. They also know such keen facts as that a fingerprint can be taken from a piece of paper after being there for up to 40 years, and that the hardest thing to get a fingerprint from is human skin.

“We go out to these really grisly crime scenes, where people are mutilated. We want to get as much evidence as possible to use in court,” he further explains.

I’d like to go drinking with these guys. They have the stories to tell.

I’m handed a large tennis shoe that has a much smaller, ladies’ tennis shoe bolted to the bottom of it. I’m told it’s a replica of Ted Kaczynski’s (a.k.a. The Unabomber’s) shoe.

“He put a woman’s shoe to the bottom, so when they left prints at a crime scene, people would be looking for someone who wears a size-6, women’s shoe.”

What an insane genius, just like the Riddler. Mr. 27-year-fingerprint-expert tells a similar story while perched under a framed photo of cross-dresser J. Edgar Hoover (or Mary!).

“When they searched Ted Kaczynski’s cabin in Montana, they found a copy of the FBI’s Science of Fingerprinting manual,” he says. “He knew how to handle bombs without leaving fingerprints.”

This guy has great stories about such criminals as Roscoe Pitts, who had skin attached to his fingers surgically for the purpose of not leaving prints (this resulted in hair growing on his fingers). One of this agent’s very first cases was that of mysterious parachuting hijacker D.B. Cooper.

“He probably didn’t make it,” the agent says. “A little boy later found a case of money on a beach with the same serial numbers.”

FBI fun fact: Did you know that Blimpie is the official lunch at the FBI headquarters for Media Day?

At one of two long tables under the FBI-martyrs wall, I eat my lunch among the various Mulders and reporters in bad suits from obscure small-town papers.

“I want to throw out a general question about the Patriot Act,” asks a reporter in a bad suit as we start biting into Blimpie sandwiches. There’s a collective sigh of “here we go again.”

“Before we answer, can we get your last name?” replies the head honcho.

Mild chuckles. More FBI humor.

This is the hot topic, being that the Patriot Act itself is very unpatriotic. As you know, the Patriot Act allows the FBI to monitor everything from your e-mail to your medical records to your library accounts, providing frightening access to once-private information. The FBI now can wiretap phones more easily, break into homes and offices, and access financial records without reviewing probable cause. Also, it broadens terrorism to include domestic terrorism, which means the Patriot Act potentially could be used to target activist groups speaking out against someone like their ultimate boss, President George Bush. Let’s not forget immigrants who can be detained indefinitely based on suspicion alone, at which time, according to the morning FBI speeches, the media can’t get information, by law. It’s classified! Here we are, eating Blimpies inside the very institution that administers investigations under the Patriot Act, bringing about stereotypical nightmare images of the often-mentioned 1984 by George Orwell.

“There are many facets to the Patriot Act,” the head honcho explains. “How much does it affect what we do? I’d say it has minimal effect. One area we utilize it in is our ability to access records. We do that infrequently. I’ve seen every request that comes in through the field, and there wasn’t that many.”

Glock, the official gun of the FBI.

The head honcho claims that it’s mainly used to get into people’s bank records to see if money has been filtered into it for terrorist purposes.

“We use it to find out if Mohammed [who is this Mohammed, or has the name of a prophet become some sort of a racial slur?] has a bank account, then follow it up with the normal subpoena process. Up front, it assists us to get the process started,” he states, telling us it’s only used to confirm suspicions and to let the floodgates open up for the rest of the FBI’s investigation (then the wiretapping and e-mail interception will take place).

The atmosphere quickly changes
Media Day is made to feel similar to a chummy slumber party, like somehow all has changed, and the media and the FBI are now dating, and we can call them at all hours for an all-night bull session. Except, of course, on matters deemed classified or on things they don’t want to tell us. The irony is that the FBI needs the media for their information.

“We scan papers to see what’s happened and if it looks like something we should check into,” the head guy explains. “We’ve opened cases on stories we’ve read. I’m more than happy to talk with any of you. Our switchboard will get in touch with us on the weekend if you call.”

I’m sure they really want the guy in the bad suit from the Oroville newspaper calling at all hours. To test the love of our new relationship, a bad-suited reporter asks about a recent cross-burning incident.

“It is an open case,” explains the agent involved. “It is a priority for the bureau, and we’re moving forward with it.”

So, what he’s saying is that they can’t comment on current cases, which would be deemed “newsworthy,” but they’re more than happy to talk about any of their past cases that have been prosecuted and for which they can pat themselves on the back.

“Didn’t they smell gasoline on a suspect’s clothing?” the bad-suited reporter asks.

“I can’t comment on that part,” he remarks. “But we are taking the case serious and moving forward. We don’t want to be so overt with this because we don’t want to damage anyone’s reputation.”

The honeymoon ends before it has begun.

FBI fun fact: Did you know that the most common FBI handgun is—you guessed it—the Glock? And the most popular machine gun is—yes—the MP5 A2!

Two large men are going to lead us journalists through Deadly Force Decision Making Training with the Firearm Training Simulator System. We’ll learn to make split-second decisions, “that will affect you the rest of your life,” on whether to shoot or not to shoot.

“We’re going to give you tactical scenarios that could be encountered on the street,” explains the larger of the two large FBI men. All I can think to myself is, “All right, BRING IT ON!”

A tiny woman from a newspaper in Redding is first to test her ability to apply deadly force. She approaches the large video simulator with a gun attached, personally having to live, as we’re told, with the consequences. In the back of the room, the head of the FBI legal department stands ready to fill us in on whether our shooting was legally justified. The larger of the large men chooses the tactical scenario of “bad guy in living room.” Not only are we supposed to shoot at the appropriate time, but we’re also supposed to yell commands at both the suspect and our onscreen video FBI partners. Bad generic rock music plays. The screen shows a realistic point-of-view shot, with the video FBI partner entering the suspect’s house.

“What the hell do you want? What are you doing in my damned house?” shouts the bad guy in the living room.

“Drop the weapon, sir,” the reporter says very politely. The bad-guy-in-living-room ends up graphically blowing away her onscreen FBI partner. Game over.

Yes, call me Special Agent Leon.

“I’m going to stick to writing,” she glumly remarks.

“Continue to address the threat until the threat is eliminated,” deadpans the FBI legal adviser in the back of the room.

It’s my turn.

I get a scenario in which a bad guy grabs my FBI partner. They both start rolling around on the ground. “Shoot him! Shoot him!” shouts my onscreen FBI partner. I shoot both of them. But I have addressed the threat until eliminated, for my fictitious FBI partner had been cheating on me with my fictitious wife. Next time, I’d rather have the scenario in which zombies start attacking the FBI agents.

FBI fun fact: Did you know that the FBI admitted to firing flammable canisters at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas?

Before we leave, as we’re walking out, I try to think of a good question that really piques my curiosity, to ask the head of the FBI. Something along the lines of whether the FBI thinks the media are annoying in the way they sensationalize crime stories, such as the Scott Peterson case, when the story is constantly shoved down our throats and the media sometimes play both judge and jury.

I put on my serious-reporter face and ask, “Do you find when the media sensationalizes stories it sometimes hinders an investigation?”

“That’s a loaded question,” interrupts a reporter in a bad suit from Fairfield.

The head honcho takes time to ponder this. For some reason, the question appears to make him uncomfortable. I’m simply curious.

“It doesn’t hinder a case, but it does sometimes make it frustrating,” he says. He points out the matter in Waco and goes off on that tangent, saying they were trying to take a professional standpoint in terms of dealing with the media and maybe not providing them with needed information, when, in retrospect, perhaps it should’ve been dealt with differently. Despite not understanding, I keep nodding vigorously.

On the way out, I once again go (unescorted) into the FBI restroom. Because I couldn’t pee before, now I really have to pee. I enter the men’s room. At the other urinal is an FBI agent who just witnessed the deadly tactical training. He starts talking to me about gun tactics at the urinal, praising my shooting. I look down. Again, for the life of me, I can’t pee next to an FBI agent.

Ironically, I depart the FBI headquarters feeling like the FBI agents have learned a lot more about me than I’ve learned about them, leaving behind my polygraph test, fingerprint and boot print and two near urine samples. Well, I can be sure this story is definitely going to end up going in their files. Bah!

The days pass slowly now in anticipation of my open invitation for an all-night bull session with the FBI, which promised to provide information for my news stories.

Finally, I find the opportunity to have it lavish me with information when I spot: “Programmer’s home in S.F. raided by FBI.” This story in the daily paper prompted me to find out more and also to test my newfound relationship with the FBI, stressed at Media Day. With broad enthusiasm, I phone the FBI representative. My parade is shortly rained upon.

“We do not make comments on cases that are ongoing and really are not going to be able to assist you in this in any matter, actually. We just don’t comment,” the representative says.

What?! Huh?! It’s me, Harmon, from Media Day! It’s not even late Saturday night; why, it’s early Thursday afternoon.

“I don’t know where else you might go, but it certainly won’t come from us.”