Home Visits And Other 'Secrets Of The FBI'

Steve Inskeep talks with author Ronald Kessler about his new book, The Secrets of the FBI."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

When some people go away this summer, they may have no idea that somebody dropped by their house while they were gone. Hundreds of times each year, teams from the Federal Bureau of Investigation slip into houses and office buildings. Armed with a judges warrant, they seek information or plant bugs, and if all goes well, sneak away.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The people who do these jobs work in whats called tactical operations, or tact ops. Some of the agents described their work to the writer Ronald Kessler whose latest book is called "The Secrets of the FBI."

What is tact ops?

Mr. RONALD KESSLER (Author, "The Secrets of the FBI): Tact ops is a unit which breaks into homes and offices to plant bugging devices. They get into mafia hangouts, they go into embassies, they go into terrorist hangouts, and they describe themselves as court sanctioned burglars.

There are about 70 agents on about seven different teams. And these teams spend weeks watching the target to see who goes in, to see if there are any dogs. In the case of dogs, they will show a photograph of the dog to a veterinarian whos on contract. And the veterinarian, based on the weight of the dog and the type of dog, will prescribe just the right amount of tranquilizer and the agents will use a dart gun and shoot the tranquilizer into the dog. And then at the end of the break in...

INSKEEP: I thought you were going to tell me they do a psychological profile of the dog, find out if its you know...

Mr. KESSLER: Im sure that will be next.

INSKEEP: Anyway, theyre doing this.

Mr. KESSLER: Yeah, and at the end they shoot the dog again with another wake up drug because they dont want the occupants to think that, you know, something had happened to the dog and create some kind of suspicion.

INSKEEP: You said seven teams of about 10 on each team.

Mr. KESSLER: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Thats because it takes 10 people weeks of preparation to do a break in?

Mr. KESSLER: Yeah, exactly. They each have a specialty. One will just watch to see if anybodys coming once theyre in. One will take photographs of what the premises is like when they go in. If they have to move a chair, lets say, they put a tape where the chair was and then they move it back.

If they have to disturb, lets say something on a desk and theres some dust on a desk, well they bring their own dust to replace the dust that had been moved. And they bring along a vacuum cleaner - very small, very powerful - to sweep up any saw dust, lets say if they have to put a bug in a wall and do some drilling.

They have a special algorithm to match the paint on the wall in case they have to cut to the wall. And then when it comes to watching the people who might come back, theyre called key holders, people who might have keys to the premises, they will watch them on the night of the break in. If any of them start to come back, they will divert them. They will either have a police officer stop them or they will stage a phony traffic accident or theyll open a fire hydrant in the area so they cant come back - anything to prevent them from coming back.

INSKEEP: Now, I have read books about the FBI, histories of the FBI that refer to these kinds of break ins and call them black bag jobs, which is a far simpler phrase than the kind of elaborate operations that youre talking about. How have these units evolved over time?

Mr. KESSLER: Black bag jobs were generally thought of as being illegal break ins. And back then, you know, there werent any laws that really existed and where there were, J. Edgar Hoover would just disregard them.

INSKEEP: The head of the FBI at the time.

Mr. KESSLER: So but the FBI has been doing this historically. In fact, I have one anecdote about the FBI breaking into an embassy in Washington, and under Hoover they had this sort of ruse whereby they didnt want to recommend a break in that might be a big flap and cause all kinds of problems. So what they did was they would break in first and then they would write a memo saying asking for permission and saying security guaranteed. And that was a code phrase that would tell the higher ups, its OK, weve already done it. And then they would forward that to Hoover and Hoover would approve it.

INSKEEP: Oh man.

Mr. KESSLER: In this one case it turned out that one of the agents who was doing the bugging had a heart attack and died in the ambassadors office. And as a result, his bowels emptied, and unfortunately - and so what do the agents do? They took the Oriental rug that was just soiled to Bergmanns Cleaners, which was an all night cleaner and had it cleaned. But it was still wet, so they put it down on the floor and then they painted above on the ceiling to make it look like there had been some kind of water leak.

INSKEEP: So theyve been creative for a while?

Mr. KESSLER: Yeah, but now, I mean, its so amazing. One thing they do is they create a phony front to a house or a townhouse to cover up what theyre doing picking the locks. They will take a photo, for example, of a townhouse in Baltimore - this actually happened - and replicate it on a huge tarp as large as the front of the house, and put it in front of the house. They go behind the tarp, they pick the locks, this would be at night, so that passersby dont notice that anybodys there.

INSKEEP: So it just gets unrolled from the roof or something like that.

Mr. KESSLER: Yeah, they sort of unfurl it like an umbrella sort of thing. And the same with a phony bush, they created a phony bush and behind the bush the agents would go zip, zip, zip to the door in order to pick the locks. Theyd be hiding behind the bush. The bush would be moving along. You know, it would be very funny on home video TV show.

INSKEEP: Is this job a career choice or an assignment, by which I mean, do you do this for 30 years or is it something you do for a couple of years as you rotate through different jobs at the bureau?

Mr. KESSLER: The people who might be good prospects are approached by agents on tact ops and asked, you know, do you mind being away from home a lot, lead in questions like that, and...

INSKEEP: How do you feel about lying, wearing disguises? Questions like that, basically.

Mr. KESSLER: Thats right. And then its up to the agent if he wants to be on these teams, because it is so dangerous.

INSKEEP: But then how long are they is it something you will do for the rest of your career?

Mr. KESSLER: Some of them do stay on the teams for their whole careers, you know. I interviewed one whos been on there whos done some 5,000 break ins. In some other cases though, you know, the stress is too much, the travel is too much, some of them are on the road, you know, 90 percent of the year.

INSKEEP: I feel like you may be telling me a large slice of what the FBIs job has been for the past decade since 9/11, because from the outside it seems that so much of the job of law enforcement and intelligence agencies has just been monitoring people, waiting, watching, watching, occasionally you hear of an arrest, and you presume that theyve been watching that person for years.

Mr. KESSLER: Yeah, when you think of what it takes to stop a possible terrorist, you do have to conduct this kind of surveillance. Just one terrorist can wreak havoc, and so they will spend weeks doing the surveillance beforehand. Theyll, in some cases, do bugging for years in order to really catch this person.

INSKEEP: Ronald Kessler is the author of "The Secrets of the FBI." Thanks very much.

Mr. KESSLER: My pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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