A Citizen at the Academy

fbi-citizens-academyWhat does a lifelong student do when he needs to learn about something? Why, go back to school, of course. When I wanted to know more about how the FBI operated, I signed up for the 8-week FBI Citizen’s Academy offered at what was then the regional office, in North Miami, Florida. (Mine has since moved to a snazzy new building in Miramar, a suburb on the edge of the Everglades.) You can look yours up here.

It took nearly two years, from the time I applied until my security clearance was approved, for a spot to open up, but it was worth the wait. I learned so much about how the Bureau operates, and about so many wild cases that provided inspiration for THE NEXT ONE WILL KILL YOU and the following books in the series. I didn’t know, for example, that Miami was the center of health care fraud in the United States, and that a large percentage of those involved were of Cuban-American descent, many of them with ties to the island and ways of smuggling money back there.

The Miami office covers Ft. Pierce to the Keys, as well as the Caribbean, South America and Mexico. It’s one of 56 field offices and over 400 satellite offices, along with many legats (legal attaches) at foreign embassies.

One of the first things I learned was that many of the office’s employees are intelligence analysts—they don’t carry guns and haven’t been through agent training. Instead they focus on research to support Bureau operations. And many agents, I discovered, have backgrounds in law and  accounting because so much of the crime they investigate is financial in nature—close to $100 billion in health care fraud, for example.

As I furiously scribbled notes, I started thinking of a character I could write about—a guy with an accounting degree who wanted a more exciting life than sitting behind a desk. Since I also hold an MBA from Columbia University, I felt that I could relate pretty well to a numbers geek.

I learned interesting terms like ‘curtilage,’ which the agent defined as the area immediately around your property. This means that an outdoor area can be legally coupled with the property it surrounds, even though it’s not part of the structure. This is important when it comes to what you need a search warrant for. If an agent sees something in the yard, it may fall within the curtilage. Trash in a bag next to the house, for example, would still be within the curtilage and the agent would need a warrant to search it. But put that trash bag out on the street, and it’s fair game.

In THE NEXT ONE WILL KILL YOU, my protagonist, newly minted FBI Special Agent Angus Green, spots a bicycle he believes was tnowky_coverlargelast used by a murder victim. Because it’s away from the building, and looks like it has been trashed, he doesn’t need a search warrant to take it into evidence.
Another term I learned was ‘elicitation,’ the art of getting information from a suspect or a witness without appearing to. A handout I received listed nearly twenty ways agents could use this technique. For example, people naturally want to correct inaccurate information. So instead of asking “How many employees does your company have?” the agent might make a statement a suspect might refute like “I heard your company was a pretty small one with only a few employees.”

One of my favorite quotes was, “Intelligence is like milk—it’s only good for a few days.” This means that intelligence must be gathered continuously to be worthwhile. I put that very statement in the mouth of one of the characters who mentors Angus.

Good thing that’s not true for fiction!

Neil S. Plakcy