Home Visits And Other 'Secrets Of The FBI'
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 judge's warrant, they seek information or plant bugs and if all goes well, sneak away.
STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
What is tac-ops?
MONTAGNE: 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 who's 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 it's, you know...
MONTAGNE: I'm sure that will be next.
INSKEEP: Anyway, they're doing this.
MONTAGNE: Yeah. At the end, they shoot the dog again, with another - wake-up drug because they don't 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.
INSKEEP: That's because it takes 10 people weeks of preparation to do a break- in?
MONTAGNE: They have a special algorithm to match the paint on the wall in case they have to cut through the wall. And then when it comes to watching the people who might come back - they're 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 they'll open a fire hydrant in the area so they can't 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 you're talking about. How have these units evolved over time?
MONTAGNE: Black-bag jobs were generally thought of as being illegal break- ins. And back then, you know, there weren't 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.
MONTAGNE: 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 didn't 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, it's OK, we've already done it. And then they would forward that to Hoover, and Hoover would approve it.
INSKEEP: Oh, man.
MONTAGNE: 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 ambassador's 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 Bergmann's 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 they've been creative for a while?
MONTAGNE: Yeah, but now, I mean, it's so amazing. One thing they do is, they create a phony front to a house or a townhouse to cover up what they're 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 don't notice that anybody's there.
INSKEEP: So it just gets unrolled from the roof, or something like that.
MONTAGNE: 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. They'd 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?
MONTAGNE: The people who might be good prospects are approached by agents on tac-ops and asked, you know, do you mind being away from home a lot, leading questions like that, and...
INSKEEP: How do you feel about lying, wearing disguises? Questions like that, basically.
MONTAGNE: That's right. And then it's 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?
MONTAGNE: Some of them do stay on the teams for their whole careers, you know. I interviewed one who's been on there - who's 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 FBI's 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 they've been watching that person for years.
MONTAGNE: 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. They'll - 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.
MONTAGNE: My pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.