Is Big Brother watching you? How the FBI really operates may surprise you

CLEVELAND - Doctors and nurses take an oath. "First do no harm." The same could be said of the FBI.

Many of us play into the tongue-in-cheek notion that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is all-knowing, keeping tabs on us, and out to get you if you don't watch your step and stay on the straight and narrow. But my second week in the FBI Citizens' Academy put those paranoid fantasies to rest.

Special Agent in Charge of the Cleveland Bureau, Stephen Anthony, said that the FBI operates on rules, regulations and processes. And all of that is done with your civil liberties in mind.

Chief Division Counsel Paul Keppler is in charge of all the legal issues the Cleveland bureau faces. He held up a phone book that resembled the White Pages.

"This is our policy guide," Keppler said, doing an arm curl to hold up the book. It was not a phone book, rather a giant book of bureau policies. Gulp. To think agents have to not only read that, but know it.

Here's how the counsel works at the FBI offices. Agents investigate. They determine how they plan to gather evidence. They submit that plan to the counsel, who decides if it is legal or not. They then work to find the best legal route to get the job done.

"My job is basically to ensure the way we conduct our business in the FBI is done in a lawful manner," Keppler said. "What I tell them to do could have impact on someone's liberty or Constitutional rights."

The counsel has a solemn job with the FBI: to follow the Constitution and rules of the Department of Justice, and all to not only ensure your rights are protected, but to protect you so you can enjoy those rights.

When we think of the FBI, we often think of wiretaps, right?

"Hollywood has us throwing up that wire right away," Keppler said. In reality, electronic surveillance is one of the last things the bureau does.

Something else Hollywood has wrong: the terminology. Current agents don't say "informant." They say "confidential human sources." But informant has a much catchier ring, doesn't it?

When it comes to investigating, the FBI is always mindful of three particular amendments in the Constitution. Fourth: unreasonable search and seizure. Fifth: the unlawfulness of compelled self-incrimination. Sixth: the right to counsel.

The bureau also avoids conducting any investigation based solely on religion, country of origin, ethnicity, or race.

"We are to use the least intrusive investigation technique to reach investigative ends," Keppler added. Simply enough, FBI investigations gather information. For that, it has lots of intelligence analysts, who work directly with the special agents that work in the field.

These analysts determine what they don't know about threats and what they need to know. They connect the dots between all the sheer information flowing at them.

Before the 9/11 terror attacks, the FBI had two halves that could not share information: criminal and national security. If the criminal division had information on a terrorist, it could not share it with the other side.

After 9/11, the two halves could talk. In fact, there are 17 intelligence agencies in the U.S. who all communicate with each other. For perspective, the bureau had 1,023 intelligence analysts in 2001. Today, it has 3,100.

One analyst said, while they sift through all this information, their top priority is the privacy and civil liberties of U.S. citizens. A large part of the information the bureau collects falls under the category of counterintelligence. Foreign competitors are constantly trying to undermine the U.S. or get their hands on our resources for their own benefit.

For example, we may be allies with Russia. They don't spy on our military, and we don't spy on theirs. But when it comes to economics, there are no allies. Russia wants our money, and so does every other country out there. Every country out there with the means to do it, is trying to find a way to get a piece of the U.S. economic pie.

The spy business is big business. Last year alone, U.S. business lost $250 billion. In the last decade, it's been $1.2 trillion. This is the area where Hollywood is onto something.

Supervisory Special Agent Brad Beman said that foreign interests have a whole bag of tricks to steal our economic secrets. We're talking front companies, hidden recording devices, corporate insiders, spies posing as American business people for long periods of time, even recruiting U.S. citizens.

If you've ever watched "White Collar" or "Covert Affairs," you get the idea.

Foreign competitors have lots of ways to get to you. You may know they are doing it. For instance, they could bribe you. Or you may not know they are doing it. People with economic information can be compromised in many ways.

What I then learned made me hesitant to ever travel outside the country again.

Beman said you have no expectation of privacy when traveling overseas. All other countries are not like the U.S.

I watched a hidden camera video of a hotel room in China. Five cleaning maids entered the U.S. citizen's room and started sifting through it. But they weren't maids. They were five Chinese agents, costumed as cleaning staff. Any digital devices can be copied. And if you use an electronic device, all the information can be intercepted.

But next time my adventures do take me overseas, I now know what to do.

Avoid black markets; if you pick up a burned DVD, for instance, you could be detained in many countries. Don't go to public demonstrations; if you appear associated with people unhappy with their government, it could make you a target. I know it fights your instincts as a tourist, but even taking pictures of sensitive sites could make you stand out for the wrong reasons.

And if you travel overseas for business, you face specific dangers. Don't disclose too much personal information to strangers. Don't indulge in too much alcohol, especially if strangers are pushing drinks on you. Beware of sexual overtures; many foreign competitors regularly hire prostitutes to lure their targets. By the time you realize what's happening, it's too late.

Foreign spies also come to our country. "Illegals" are on a long-term mission to get access to people with economic information. Many of them are on deep cover assignments, assuming false identities with cover professions, and they pass along secrets in ways straight out of the movies.

The FBI has gotten pretty good at nabbing illegals. When it does, it has lots of ways to get information, and one of the most reliable methods is the lie detector. And it's not just suspects. All prospective FBI agents must sit down, get strapped up, and face the tough questions about all the shameful things they've done in their past.

Just the thought of having to own up to and account for your bad decisions, with those sensors stuck on you, is enough to make anyone nervous.

"I try to make you feel good," said polygrapher Lance Fragomelli. The bottom line is this: the more comfortable you feel, the more willing you are to be honest.

Some people don't like being questioned. If they are angry or upset, a polygraph is unlikely to have accurate results. But most polygraphers know that, and they are willing to spend the better part of the day with you, until you don't mind the breath-measuring chest straps, the heart rate monitor, or the hand sweat sensor, and you're comfortable enough to spill the beans.

Hollywood, listen up: you cannot fool a lie detector. Fragomelli said people can try some breathing tricks or whatnot to mess up the results, but no one can actually have no reaction to telling a lie. The Cleveland FBI often uses polygraphs for child porn cases or instances where a perpetrator sexually abused a child.

Fragomelli said many of these people convince themselves what they are doing is perfectly alright. He said he's listened to child molesters tell him stories where they believed that the child seduced them.

I asked Fragomelli how he could stand being around these perpetrators and calmly listen while they described their heinous acts.

"Whatever I do, I was involved in a team that lead to 31 children no longer being offended in that manner," he explained.

[Look for Colin McDermott's weekly write-up on his experience at the FBI Citizens’ Academy over the next two months.]

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