It began for me the way it must begin for most people who apply to the FBI. You want to see if you can do it. You have some vague images in your mind of serious looking people wearing blue windbreakers, the big yellow FBI letters on the back, running toward the disaster while everyone else runs away.
I’d just arrived in DC and had been hired in a technical role. Mostly I examined hard drives that had been collected during drug busts. There were no heroics in this job, but I liked my work well enough. Then someone I respected suggested I apply for an 1811 job. Federal Investigator. So I submitted my application. About four weeks later, I was called in for an interview. Three weeks later, I was in an FBI Special Agent class.
The process to becoming an FBI agent, for me, was my first taste of true competitiveness. I liked trying to be better than the others in my class. But there was something about it that felt fake, like I was playacting. I assumed it would go away in time.
I had been working for just a very short time when 9/11 happened. I have talked about a friend I had at the time, Kamie, (here and here). She worked at the CIA and had been on Michael Scheuer’s Bin Laden unit for years – remaining even after her mentor left. On the evening of September 10, 2001 she called me and asked to meet. I said of course, let’s go dancing! She said, no, not that kind of meeting. I said okay, come to the office at 8am.
She arrived with two coworkers. I took her into an interrogation room on the first floor. That was a spontaneous decision. It was the first room beyond the security point, to the immediate left. I had no idea what she wanted to talk about and didn’t want to take her upstairs to my office, which would have attracted attention. As it happened, we emerged just after 9am. There, at the security point, were two tvs. I looked up and saw the second plane hit the Twin Towers. Other agents were standing around watching this.
“Terrorist attack,” somebody said.
Kamie muttered something.
I did something that I am completely ashamed of. I ran. I ran as fast as I could right out the door. On the steps, agents were holding MP-5s, wearing bullet proof vests. I ran. I ran without really knowing where I was going, only sensing I had to get to the safest point in DC. I ran directly to the Secret Service building. Agents were armed outside the building. I badged my way inside, and ran to my boyfriend.
He sent me to his condo. I kept thinking I should go back to work, but something made me hostile to the place. Only later would I realize it was contempt.
I went back later that day, but something had been proved to me: I really was not cut out to be an FBI agent. I didn’t want to comfort people. I wanted one of the agents with the big guns to take me in his arms and protect me.
I didn’t know what else to do, so I kept going to work. The FBI instituted a program after 9/11 to be “proactive”. This is actually kind of funny now since it’s blatantly unconstitutional but at the time, everyone was scared and the higher-ups thought we should seek out the problems before they found us unawares. Basically, for the agents on the ground, that entailed driving around in a G-ride all night. My partner and I would drive around, talking about nothing, trying to find al Qaeda running up Pennsylvania Avenue. Was this it? Was this what being an FBI agent “really was”? If we were going to do this, couldn’t we at least take a Geiger counter and drive by a couple mosques?
When the sniper attacks happened, I was working literally 24/7. I don’t remember sleeping for weeks at a time. But there were a few of those “blue windbreaker” moments and I thought maybe I was getting the hang of it.
During all of this, Enron was in the background. I was puzzled by the investigation, but I was dealing with bigger fish at the time and didn’t invest too much emotional juice in it.
We never caught Bin Laden. And after the anthrax attacks and sniper attacks, the world settled into the squealing-tire-world of kidnappers and bank robbers where most agents make their names. Terror, until this point, had been a very low visibility job. Agents didn’t clamor for slots of terrorism task forces, they wanted the chase of real bad guys who could be caught, flung into prison, and forgotten. That is how you got visibility. But I wasn’t into it. I kept thinking I should be doing something else. I had the nice windbreaker (they actually are quite warm on those chilly DC evenings) but there was nothing about the job I felt like I couldn’t live without.
I became more interested in Enron. I didn’t know anyone working on it, but I could just imagine. An Enron exec that I just adore told me that the FBI were the stupidest people he’d ever worked with because they didn’t know what was important and what wasn’t. I couldn’t agree more. The FBI doesn’t know anything except what their bosses tell them. For the most part, every agent I ever knew – FBI, Secret Service, DEA, whatever – truly was a boy or girl scout. They wanted to do good. But I also know that they sometimes cut corners. I did it myself. You tell a witness they’re free to go, you have nothing to hold them, then you lock them in the interrogation room. There are a million ways to jack over a suspect and there are very few ways to be caught. I remember when I was being interviewed one of the questions was a hypothetical: if your partner told you he was doing something wrong, would you report him? I answered no, because team cohesion was the most important thing when you’re on the wild and woolly streets. It was the correct answer.
As I became more involved in Enron, it was so easy to visualize how these defendants were treated. I wrote about Joe Hirko being questioned by the FBI and the resultant 302 report and I could just see what they were doing. They had been told that he was guilty, and thinking they were being Captain America, wanted to nail him. It’s so very easy to fuck with someone when you think they’re a lowlife. And I think most FBI agents thought that these guys were the lowest of the low.
I’ve done it myself. I remember being utterly irate when a person I was sure was guilty of a crime was let go because we didn’t have “enough” to take to the US Attorney. My thought was we should “find” enough. That’s part of the mindset: everyone is guilty and if you’re smarter than they are, you’ll “find” what they hid. Perhaps you can see why it’s so ego-driven. It’s me, the smarty pants FBI agent, against some common criminal — there is no way I’m going to let them make a fool of me.
I’ve said before that there was no fraud or conspiracy at Enron Corporation. But you can see how a “soft conspiracy” can start to develop on the part of the DOJ. The DOJ has all the power. They can arrest you, take your family away, destroy your belongings, accuse you of horrible crimes, and throw you in prison. They have infinite resources to confirm their suspicions about you are correct.
The men of Enron are not guilty of anything. They went to prison to protect their families and perhaps what was left of their fortunes. These men were in their 40s and 50s – prime money making years. If the DOJ seized their life savings, it would be hard or impossible to build it back. They were at a disadvantage not because of what they did but because who they were. Smart. Accomplished. Maybe a little arrogant. Exactly like the FBI agents investigating them.
Though I wasn’t there, I can just imagine Ken Rice, Rex Shelby, Joe Hirko, Scott Yeager, Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and the others being questioned. I just imagine the tactics the FBI used on them. I can promise that when they left the room, and it was just the two agents together, neither one of them said they’d nail this guy to the wall. But it was probably an independent promise – something the agents had to do to protect the certainty that they were the good guys, sanctioned by the Department of Justice on behalf of the United States of America.