An inside look at FBI headquarters in DC reveals how agency is stronger since 9/11

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Never had I expected my adventures would take me inside FBI headquarters.

I flew into Washington D.C. the day after the Presidential election. In fact, I had been up all night, covering the election results for “Good Morning Cleveland.”

I wondered, what would D.C. and the intelligence community be like after such an occasion? Honestly, if you didn’t know the election were the prior day, you couldn’t tell by walking the streets of D.C. It was business as usual for such a political city.

I was traveling with the FBI Citizens’ Academy of Cleveland and it was in the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building that we met up with members of the Citizens’ Academy from Tampa.

It is a building you have probably seen on the news or in movies and TV shows. It’s a brown building several blocks down from the White House. What you probably haven’t seen, though, is inside the building. As you can imagine, the security inside was rather thorough. Nothing puts you more at ease than having an adorable bomb dog sniff you down. In fact, the only time we could take any photos was in the courtyard.

One cannot walk down a hallway in the Headquarters without passing pictures of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List. Catching these perpetrators is high on its list of priorities.

One room is something of an exhibit. It features pictures, articles, and memorabilia from some of the more notorious crimes the FBI investigated, including hate crimes, homegrown terrorism, and biological weapons guides.

I noticed some of those crimes involved the bureau itself. There were pictures of agents who had turned against the U.S. and had been secretly helping other countries. But their secrets did not stay kept, and their pictures now serve as a reminder to every agent the importance of integrity.

The lesson is rather straightforward: anyone who could turn against the U.S. should not even bother to apply to the FBI in the first place.

One wing of one floor features an exhibit dedicated to the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001. The most moving part of the display featured pieces of the twin towers. But the exhibit also tells the story of the FBI’s role in investigating 9/11, and how that day changed the bureau.

Before 9/11, the FBI was actually two parts. One half investigated criminal cases, while the other half investigated threats to national security.

And, believe it or not, the two halves could not share information with each other. It was setups like that which came under heavy scrutiny after 9/11. Some believe, had the U.S. intelligence agencies shared more information, those attacks could have been prevented.

Then came 9/11. Due to the attacks, the question arose that the FBI should be split into two different agencies. But the argument could be made that 9/11 made the FBI stronger.

The 9/11 Commission looked into the question and determined the FBI should remain one organization that shares information. In that time, the number of intelligence analysts in the bureau has tripled.

As we walked past the pictures and memorabilia, the 9/11 exhibit suddenly revealed an indoor gun range, nestled in the building.

Six agents were lined up and firing live rounds. A gun qualification test was going on right before us. Well, behind a large, bulletproof window, actually. It was so thick, the gunshots twenty feet in front of us, sounded like someone knocking on a door at the other end of the house.

The FBI’s Assistant Director of Public Affairs, Michael Koartan, stepped out. He told us that J. Edgar Hoover, the man who founded the FBI, felt the range should be part of the tour. Hoover was proud of how well-trained agents were with firearms. It’s also the only interior range in the country with 150 seats.

Koartan said that the FBI of today is keeping up with the times. It’s taking a bigger shift to cyber crimes, as those threats become more insidious and pervasive. In fact, if you’re reading this article on a netbook right now, there’s a decent chance it’s carrying a virus.

For reasons like that, Koartan explained, the bureau now relies more on getting information out with the help of citizens and Citizens’ Academy members. Today’s FBI looks to form strong relationships with anyone or any group that shares its view of defending the United States of America.

The glass to the gun range then frosted over and served as a backdrop for a projector. Quite impressive. “Mad Men” actor Jon Hamm appeared and hosted a movie about the FBI’s history in training agents and the types of gun it has used over the years. Apparently, Hamm made this movie while filming “The Town” in Boston. He played an FBI agent in it, and the bureau consulted on that film for accuracy.

One of the guns featured in the movie was the Thomson submachine gun, or the Tommy Gun you associate with “Dick Tracy.” The Tampa special agent sitting next to me commented, “I love those.”

I smiled, picturing the chipper, 5’2” agent firing a powerful Tommy Gun. But I knew just what she meant. As a member of the Citizens’ Academy, the bureau let me fire one at Camp Perry. There’s nothing like it.

The frosted glass turned clear again and two marksmen stood before us, one dressed in the traditional G-Man look, the other in today’s SWAT gear. They demonstrated how to use different guns and, afterwards, we looked at their targets. Both had tight grouping.

“That’s what happens when you practice a lot,” the instructor noted.

But agents are not just trained how to fire guns. They are also trained to know when to use them. The FBI teaches agents how to make judgments and to use deadly force only when necessary.

I saw several other parts of the HQ. I can’t really go into much detail about the rest - especially the perplexing room numbering system - but I can make one observation. If someone were to ask me what it’s like inside the FBI headquarters, I would tell them, if you’ve seen one office, you’ve seen them all.

But most offices don't have such a fascinating gift shop.

As for the country’s premier investigative agency, I found its atmosphere rather casual. Everyone I met there was friendly and had a good sense of humor, all true stewards of the bureau's mission. It was quite a privilege to be welcomed into its halls and meet its representatives.

But our tour was not over. We would soon see how the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children worked with the bureau, before venturing into the heart of the FBI – Quantico.

[ Look for further updates from Colin McDermott’s experience with the FBI Citizens’ Academy in the coming days]

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