Q & A about the FBI with writer and former agent Alicia Hilton
Published: November 15, 2003
|We asked readers to send us questions about undercover work and other aspects of an FBI agent's job for Alicia Hilton ("Undercover agents: True lives revealed," The Writer, October 2003), a writer and former FBI special agent. Hilton answered several of the best questions, on being an agent, changing your identity, and more.|
Did you experience any discrimination or friction because you were a woman in what I perceive to be, maybe inaccurately, a male-dominated profession?
-- Jeffrey R. Fenzel, Michigan
I never experienced discrimination when I was an FBI agent. In general, the Bureau is a very egalitarian organization. If you do good work, you will receive positive feedback on your work and will be rewarded with challenging assignments.
Though most FBI agents are men, the FBI has made a strong effort to recruit more women. I do not think female agents have limited career opportunities because they are women. For example, in the New York division, the office where I worked when I was an agent, there are a number of female supervisors. And there are female supervisors at many of the other FBI offices.
Did you find it difficult to establish and keep personal relationships with men because your authoritative job as a federal agent put them off?
-- Jeffrey R. Fenzel
When I became an agent, I was single. I did not have trouble getting dates. I did, however, sometimes find that my work schedule [interfered with my social life]. This was not related to my being a woman. It was just a consequence of my devotion to my job--a dilemma that many agents and other busy professionals experience. Rather than being put off, I think some men were intrigued by the fact that I was an agent. Many men are attracted to strong women. And some people, men and women, are fascinated by the FBI. In social situations, I did not always identify myself as an agent because I did not want to get hounded by intrusive questions about my job.
Related to a novel I'm writing, I sent you a detailed scenario regarding one of my fictional characters, who wishes to disappear because she is being stalked by a man who murdered her husband. How would the average person, with literally no ties to crime, go about changing their identity? How would they even find out how to make the changes?
-- Cathy Walker, Ontario
Before you decide what steps your character should take to change her identity, you should think about several factors, including: how much advance notice she has that she must "disappear," her financial situation, her background and professional/work situation, whether she will break the law, how technologically savvy she is, and whether she possesses street smarts and common sense. If your character is in grave danger, she might not have time to sell her possessions. If she does sell her possessions, an astute observer (her stalker) would realize she intends to flee.
You mentioned that you want her to flee to a small coastal town in New Brunswick. Keep in mind, many people are of the opinion that it is easier to "disappear" in a large city than in a small town. Regardless of where she decides to go, how will she travel? She will not want to leave a paper trail of her movements. So, she would not want to use credit cards or checks under her own name or under another name that could be traced to her. Without the right contacts, money and time, she would also find it difficult to procure false identification. Even if she does try to assume a false identity, some of the old ploys, such as assuming the name of a deceased infant, do not work.
I'm not saying that your scenario is improbable. You just have to give it some thought before you decide how to proceed. Developing a new identity can be a complex process. Many books have been published that describe how to disappear, hide assets, etc. Perhaps your character could consult one of these books. Keep in mind, by the time a book is published, some of the information it provides is likely outdated--especially information of a technical nature.
Is it plausible that an agent would be forced to fake her death in order to protect her family?
-- Ophelia Thomas, Ohio
There are instances where FBI agents and other law enforcement officers have assumed new identities because they are in danger. I have never heard of an incident where an agent faked his or her death and severed all ties with his or her family members and friends in order to protect them. However, if something like that did actually happen, I may very well not have heard of it. If you are writing a novel, you could incorporate a scenario like that in your book. Keep in mind, it is obviously an extreme measure. More likely, the law enforcement officer would be moved to another part of the country and, depending upon the level of danger, might assume a false identity.
How does an individual get started as an FBI agent?
-- Ophelia Thomas
There are currently five Special Agent entry programs: Law, Accounting, Language, Computer Science/Information Technology, and Diversified. If an individual wants to be considered as a candidate for employment as an FBI Special Agent, the first step is to fill out the Application Checklist for the Special Agent Position (FD-869), the short form application titled Preliminary Application for the Special Agent Position (FD-646), the Special Agent Qualifications Questionnaire (SAQQ) (FD-843), and the Applicant Background Survey (FD-804), and return these forms to her local FBI field office. To read more detailed information about the application requirements and the application process, visit www.fbijobs.com/jobdesc.asp?requisitionid=368.
What are the channels to building a career with the FBI?
-- Ophelia Thomas
You might be surprised to learn that the majority of agents do not aspire to become supervisors. These agents thrive on conducting investigations. If an agent does want to become a supervisor, what should he do? Every time an agent writes up a report, his supervisor must review and approve the report. If the SSA is out of the office or occupied in a meeting, a "relief" supervisor who is a member of the squad will take over reviewing paperwork for the SSA. What is a relief supervisor? Relief supervisors are experienced agents who have received extra training on completing FBI paperwork. Becoming a relief supervisor is one way to demonstrate that you are capable of reviewing other agents' paperwork. It is also a way to express that you have ambition to someday work in a supervisory position.
Some SSAs do not supervise squads of agents. They work in administrative, teaching, public relations, or in other capacities for the FBI. For example, many of the instructors at the FBI Academy hold the rank of SSA, and FBI personnel who work as Legats are usually SSAs. In addition to working as a relief supervisor, how can agents advance their careers? These are just a few methods I have seen to be effective: demonstrating that you are an exemplary case agent, recruiting highly valued informants/assets, successfully working undercover in a major case, bringing down a major criminal organization, initiating a program that enhances the FBI's image or enhances the FBI's ability to interact with other law enforcement organizations or the public.
How would an agent's pregnancy affect her career as an undercover agent?
-- Ophelia Thomas
Once an agent discovers she is pregnant, she must fill out the necessary paperwork to go on limited duty. So, if your undercover agent discovers she is pregnant, she would have to go on limited duty. Depending on the nature of her undercover work, she would likely have to stop meeting with subjects and doing other types of hazardous work. For the time being, she would likely be reassigned to more conventional investigative work, but she would not participate in raids/arrests or other hazardous work. She would still carry a weapon while she was pregnant, but she would not participate in firearms qualification until after her baby is born. Why? If she went out on a firing range while weapons were being fired, her fetus would be exposed to lead. After her baby is born, she could request that she resume undercover work.
Do FBI agents typically talk to private investigators working on the same case or related cases? If so, how are they treated, and would they ever share information?
-- Denny Fox
In this day and age of heightened security, it is unlikely that the FBI would divulge information to a private investigator that would not otherwise be divulged to the public. If any information was disseminated, it would first have to be reviewed by counsel for the FBI.
In general, FBI agents do not have very frequent contact with private investigators when they are working cases. It is much more likely that an agent would interact with law enforcement officers from other federal agencies and/or state or local government agencies.
From your questions, I surmise that you are writing a story that features a private investigator who is conducting an investigation, and that you would like this character to interact with an FBI agent or agents. When I was an agent, I never had dealings with private investigators. I passed along your questions to one of my friends who is currently an agent. This friend told me that he has never provided information to a private investigator. On one occasion, however, he received information from a private investigator. The private investigator was employed by a company in a security capacity. He suspected that employees of the company had committed white-collar crimes. My friend followed up on the information provided by the private investigator, and an investigation was opened which led to multiple convictions.
You asked me how your private investigator character would be treated if he interacted with FBI agents. Some retired FBI agents later work as private investigators. If you would like your character to be treated with respect and as less of an "outsider," you could make him/her a retired agent or someone else who worked in law enforcement.
Incidentally, the private investigator who provided information to my friend was a former law enforcement officer. Keep in mind, even if your private investigator character is a former FBI agent, he would not have the security clearance or the "need to know" that would permit him access to information on your hypothetical case. Rather than portraying your character as someone who needs to be "fed" information, you could consider portraying him as a highly skilled investigator who possesses common sense and is a good judge of character. Perhaps your character could uncover evidence that he would turn over to the FBI.
--Posted Nov. 15, 2003