LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Coming up, advertising when times are tough. But first, the FBI has an entire army of people whose only job is to do surveillance, whether tracking a terrorist suspect or a mobster or a potential spy. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston found out that the secret is all about blending in.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Surveillance in cop shows is generally pretty straightforward. There are always a couple of guys in a van and maybe another two in a car outside some apartment building. But real surveillance is much more subtle. The agent in charge of the Special Operations Division of the FBI in New York is Todd Letcher. He says if his team is doing the job right, you won't even know they are there.
Mr. TODD LETCHER (Agent in Charge, Special Operations Division, FBI, New York): When they come out of the bodega with their cup of coffee, they don't see where we are. They don't see our people or our people look so ordinary that basically they just look over them.
TEMPLE-RASTON: So that guy with the flat-top haircut who looks like a cop? Well, he might indeed be following you and the FBI might want you to think he's following you, but what you probably won't see is the roster of other people who are with him. Those people, the members of the FBI's Special Surveillance Group or SSGs, don't want you to know their names. That ghostliness is part of their job. So in this case, they adopted code names.
Unidentified Woman (Member, Special Surveillance Group, FBI): He is going to be Poppa, he is going to be Bravo, and I'm going to be Tango.
TEMPLE-RASTON: They would allow me to talk to them only if I promised not to use their names or even describe them. They said that might compromise their mission. And their mission is to gather intelligence for the FBI. The trio and their supervisor in charge, Charlie Muldoon, agreed to teach me how to follow someone in lower Manhattan.
Mr. CHARLIE MULDOON (Supervisor in Charge, Special Surveillance Group, FBI): First of all, you would spread out. You wouldn't stand in a parade behind the guy. So you would spread your team out.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And you'd have a team dressed for the occasion. SSGs carry entire wardrobes in their cars: a business suit in case they need to go to Wall Street, gym shorts in case surveillance required them to go for a jog through Central Park, and others travel with a bicycle in their trunk so that at a moment's notice they could ride through the streets of New York pretending to be a messenger. I pick out an unsuspecting Manhattanite(ph) and asked Bravo how they would start.
Unidentified Man #1 (Member, Special Surveillance Group, FBI): (As Bravo) We usually key on something, whether it's a bright color she has on or a particular item that might be unique. That's so we can relay that to other team members so if they were to see her when she comes to the next corner, so they would be able to identify her.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Then Poppa chimed in.
Unidentified Man #2 (Member, Special Surveillance Group, FBI): (As Poppa) Initially the team would set up some sort of picket surveillance in the surrounding area.
TEMPLE-RASTON: A picket surveillance would have the team covering all the subway entrances. They would be stationed at various corners. Bravo, who has been doing this for about seven years, said they'd radio ahead with information. SSGs have all kinds of techniques with names like "Picket" and "Web" and "Leapfrop." "Leapfrog" is kind of what it sounds like: SSGs will follow a target up to a certain point and then pass him off to another group ahead, and then they'd leapfrog to pick up the surveillance further down the street.
Unidentified Woman: (As Tango) Through radio techniques that we have I will be telling the people up ahead, that's coming to you. And they should be telling us the next movement so that you don't have to run and pull back and run and pull back. That's kind of obvious, especially if there is a possibility that someone could be watching you from the rear.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And during the Cold War, surveillance teams were followed all the time. Tango was a member of one of the first SSG teams. They started as an FBI experiment in New York City in the 1970s. And the pilot project was so successful it went nationwide. Back then, it was all spy-craft, like out of the movies.
Unidentified Woman: (As Tango) Some days it was really like war. Push them off the road if you have to. Don't let them through the tollbooth. And other days you would be right in their shoes, practically, making sure they don't meet the person that they're handling.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Remember Robert Hanssen, the former FBI official who spied for the Soviet Union and Russia against the U.S. for more than 20 years? An SSG helped bring him to justice. Letcher said that case ended up kind of outing the SSG program.
Mr. LETCHER: I think the Hanssen case probably, and the movie "Breach," really, for the first time that I recall, highlighted what the special surveillance group does.
(Soundbite of movie "Breach")
Ms. LAURA LINNEY: (As Kate Burroughs) You're being tasked to headquarters where you will be riding the dust of an agent named Robert Hanssen, considered our most knowledgeable analyst on Russian intel. You're going to keep an eye on him for us.
TEMPLE-RASTON: In the movie, a young, wanna-be FBI agent begins following Hanssen around. He had no idea that Hanssen was a spy.
Ms. LINNEY: (As Kate Burroughs): He is a traitor, Eric. He started spying for the Russians in 1985. The good news is you are in the middle of the biggest case we've ever run.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The SSGs are often in the middle of the FBI's biggest cases. And Tango says that's what's really changed since the Cold War. Now their surveillance requires more political savvy, more finesse.
Unidentified Woman: (as Tango) Every day you just need to get a little piece of the puzzle. You don't have to get the puzzle all in one day. Everything builds up to a very long story, if you will, like a soap opera more so, as opposed to just a cut-and-dry short story. And you build on it every single day.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And because it is a drip, drip, drip information operation, the SSGs end up learning a lot about the people they are following. Before Charlie Muldoon was supervising the SSGs in New York, he was doing surveillance on mobster John Gotti. He says he could read him like a book.
Mr. MULDOON: And you could just tell after following him for a long time, you can just tell by his body language whether he was surveillance conscious. You could just tell by his body language and how other people related to him whether he was in the middle of a crisis.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's an important piece of information if you're working with the FBI, trying to avert a future bank robbery or even a terrorist attack.
Mr. MULDOON: John Gotti's tell was, he used to - it's hard, this is radio. I'm sorry. And I'm Italian so you have to forgive. When he used to get mad, he used to talk a lot more with his hands. He used to be very, very physical with his hands.
TEMPLE-RASTON: I was determined to keep an eye on Poppa, Bravo and Tango as long as I could after our interview. I even followed them for a bit, trying to use what I had learned. Within minutes, I'd lost them in the crowd. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.