The microwave

Law enforcement is mostly serious business, but sometimes it can give you a laugh or two….

One of the nag jobs one had to do at DEA was Duty Agent. The Duty Agent mostly handled incoming calls from tipsters for a week from generally unbalanced people while attempting to keep his or her own sanity. Duty Agent calls, however, were not without their moments of levity.  Like the call I took one hot summer night right while I was assigned to the DC office from a man who was convinced that the statue of the Virgin Mary was talking to him and telling him about a big drug stash located on a boat in the Chesapeake Bay.

One other duty call I took some years ago while assigned to a small office in Virginia stands out as well. “Am I speaking with an agent?” The caller asked. “Yes,” I replied, how can I help you?”   “Listen, my name is Billy Ray, and I have to tell you, I am a convicted felon, but I am not a liar!” “Okay” I answered, “good to know.” He continued. “Your DEA airplane (I had no idea how he had surmised that this “plane” he was seeing was ours) keeps circling over the corn field at Larry’s farm.   I have to tell you something; your guys are missing the drugs! Larry has them right in his shed by his house, and your guy can’t see them!   How can your pilots be so incompetent? They need to fix this right away! I have tried to wave to the guys in the plane to direct them to the right spot, but they seem to be ignoring me (go figure)”

“ Sir, I will get right on that” I answered, “but I have a couple of questions. Do you have any aluminum foil in your house?”   “Sure” the caller said. “What about a microwave?” I continued, “do you have one of those?”   Billy Ray hesitated a bit “Err, yes, I have one of those too. Use it at least once a day”   “Is the microwave close to the aluminum foil?” I asked. “Yep” he answered, “I keep the foil right above the microwave.”   I sighed for a second “well, there you have it, the problem is not our pilots. It’s you. Your using that microwave close to the foil; and this is generating waves that are jamming our reconnaissance equipment. Would you please do your country a favor and stop doing that?” Billy Ray was apologetic “wow, I am so sorry. I will throw out all of the foil right away!” I thanked him for calling and let him know that while he could call back anytime (preferably when some one else was duty agent). A few days later, I came in from the street and found a phone message on my desk from our group assistant “Billy Ray called. He said he has thrown out all of the aluminum foil in his house, but he just can’t part with the microwave!”

Bomb Squad

One of the great things about being a DEA Special Agent was the opportunity to interact with specialized units from a broad spectrum of agencies. You frequently worked with state police SWAT Teams,  local Homicide Detectives, federal Polygraph Examiners, and even the occasional intelligence agency. Sometimes these interactions produced their fair share of humor. One such occasion was a clandestine lab that I handled in Lynchburg a few years ago. On one perfect summer afternoon, I received a call from one of my partners from the Lynchburg Police Department’s narcotics unit. “Don, one of our uniforms has a vehicle stopped just outside town, looks like there is a mobile meth lab inside the car. Can you bring the Lab Response Truck over here ASAP?” “Sure”, I replied, “on the way.” “Oh, and one more thing” he continued, “the Virginia State Police bomb squad might be there too.” “Uh, bomb squad?” I asked. “Yeah, its no big deal” my partner said “just get here as fast as you can.” As I headed toward the scene the words “bomb squad” and “no big deal” kept bouncing around in my head. Like most agents and cops, things that go “boom” usually make me a little nervous. Okay, maybe a better answer is that things that go “boom” usually scare me to death!

We had recently had the bomb squad on a meth lab call a few months before. We had stumbled upon a device in a residence not far from Lynchburg. On that call, when the bomb tech yelled “get down ” as he remotely blew up the bomb from our command post, I hugged the turf vigorously as a shock wave passed over my head; and then quietly went back to our lab truck to change my underwear.

My outlook got a little worse as I arrived at the scene of this call. The Lynchburg PD had cordoned off several city blocks around the vehicle, and most of the apartments in the area had been evacuated. Every media outlet, fire department and police agency within a 25 mile radius seemed to be on the scene. An officer waved me into a parking spot near the command post. I got out of the lab truck and approached one of the media guys. “Please do me favor” I began “don’t show my face on camera.” “Sure” the newscaster responded “are you working undercover?” “No” I answered, “I would just prefer that none of my friends and family see me being blown across town on YouTube.” I then approached my partner from the PD. “Um, ‘no big deal?” I asked. “Well, okay, maybe this thing is kind of spun out of control a bit” he answered. Apparently, when the road officer had located the lab in the suspect’s car, he also had noticed several unusual looking wires emanating from the dash. Remembering the intelligence reports we had broadcast statewide from our previous lab, the officer asked the suspect  “what are those wires coming from your dash?” “I want a lawyer!” the bad guy replied, hence the bomb squad and the cast of thousands.

My attitude got a little worse as when I remembered that, in my haste to leave the office, I had failed to file an operational plan with my supervisor. In essence, no one at DEA knew where I was. Hopefully, when I was blown up examining the real cool mobile lab inside this car that looked like something out of Wayne’s World, someone at the Lynchburg Police Department would remember where to mail my remains. Wait a sec, I thought, this is going to be easy. We would approach the vehicle, remove and make safe any toxic chemicals, and then inventory same as evidence. I had done this dozens of times before. The bomb tech will can handle clearing the car, or so I thought.

We donned our Tyvex suits, booties and gloves. After checking that the seals on our suits were good, we grabbed a couple of air packs from the truck and headed over to the command post. I noticed that the Virginia State Police bomb squad had already unpacked their robot. Curiously, the robot was sitting at the CP and not near the crook’s car. I found the bomb tech and asked him for a status report. “Uh, we have a problem” the trooper said. Okay, two words that really don’t go together well are problem and bomb. “I am concerned about the trunk of the car” he continued. There is it again, two bad words in the same sentence. “The robot has already cleared most of the vehicle, but it can’t get inside the trunk of car. I am going need one of you lab guys to walk up to the car, place this heavy tool bag on the trunk of the car, unlock the trunk, and then get back here fast. The robot will then roll up, pull the bag off of the trunk, it will fly open, and the robot will clear the trunk.”

Okay, sounds like a great plan, except for the part where Don gets real close to the thing that goes boom, I love it! Hum, maybe we can just skip the first two things and go right to the running fast part? My partner from the LPD looked at me and chimed in “hey, you do the bag and the key , and I will walk up there with you.” Really? Wow, what a guy. Next he will volunteer to scrape me up from the pavement after the explosion. Looking at the bomb tech, I said “I have a better idea. Isn’t there a robot in say, Richmond, that we can bring over here that knows how to open the trunk of a car? Or does the ATF or the FBI have one? We are all on overtime, why don’t we have a few cold drinks until the other robot shows up? In fact, we are in luck, I have the FBI’s number right here in my phone. ” The trooper screwed up his face. Not only had I shown cowardice in the face of death, I had just insulted the man’s robot. “Nope” he said, “afraid you guys are it.” Well, at least he said “guys” and not “you.”

I donned my air pack, picked up the tool bag, and headed for the car. The air packs (called SCBAs) are the same ones used by firefighters. You can hear yourself breathing while you are wearing them. Talking to someone while you have the suit on is almost impossible. Think of a claustrophobic Darth Vader with the threat of death or serious bodily injury thrown in, and you get the idea. To complicate things a little, I noticed that my partner had stopped a few yards short of the vehicle. I turned and walked over to him. I became vaguely aware of the news helicopter circling overhead as I shouted at him through my mask “hey, why are you stopping?” “I think it’s a good idea that I stay here” he answered. “If you go down, I will be close by in case you need somebody to haul you out of there.” Great, wish I had thought of that first. I considered arguing with him, then I remembered the media nearby. The scene already looked a little ridiculous. Two guys, one very tall (him) and the other short (me) standing in the middle of the road in white moon suits shouting at each other. We looked like Rourke and Tattoo from Fantasy Island minus the nice tuxedos.  I turned around and got on with the job. Approaching the car, I tried to remember what the trooper had told me. Hum, let me see, was it turn key and then put heavy thing on trunk and then run like hell? No, that’s not it. Luckily, my career at DEA had prepared me for following simple instructions. Gingerly, I placed the bag on the trunk of the car and drew a deep breath. So far so good. I then eased the key into the keyhole and released the lock. Now for the part I was waiting for. Made it back to the CP in record time. We looked like two Michelin men at a track meet. Despite my earlier disparaging remarks, the VSP’s robot was able to quickly clear the rest of the car. We all breathed sigh of relief. No bomb. We regrouped and easily dismantled the mobile lab. No more drama. Our luck improved further when we found documents inside the car that led us to executing two more search warrants that night. All is well that ends well. Until I ran into my boss the next morning “hey, did I see you on TV last night?”….

A Victory for Human Rights

I was proud to be a part of team of military, intelligence and law enforcement professionals who successfully lobbied the United States Senate last June to pass a bipartisan amendment to outlaw the use of torture in interrogations.   The group was assembled by the staff at Human Rights First. Members included former FBI and NCIS agents, two and three star generals and admirals, senior case officers from the Central Intelligence Agency and professional interrogators from U.S. military.  Additional information is available by clicking here: Senate Passes Bipartisan Amendment

Fifty and fit to fight

You noticed yesterday that you lost your car in the Wal-Mart parking lot for third time this month. This morning you looked through you address book and saw that most of the names for your entries end in M.D. You disregard this and head out to breakfast. Woops, you can’t read the menu at the local Perkins Pancake House. Hum, must be the lighting, right? Nope, you guessed it, you have hit 50, and you are officially middle aged. But what to do if you are still active in a profession where fitness is not just an optional accessory, but essential to your survival? Clearly, you have some choices. On the one hand, you could take it easy and go hang out at the local Panera with the other retired or soon to be retired agents and cops. This is tempting. There are plenty of other people your age there, the food is good, and you can read the newspaper free of charge if you play your cards right. If on the other hand, you are like me and you want to maintain your level of fitness the question arises, how to do it?

After 25 years with the Drug Enforcement Administration, I learned a few things. One of those skills was learning to do things “the DEA way.” The DEA way is best described as keeping it simple, stupid. I once had a wise old agent tell me “Don, if you can’t fit your operational plan on the back of a paper bag, its too darn complicated!” I think that sums up the culture of my former organization nicely. And the DEA way works well. Our people got the job done and always punched above their weight in terms of results obtained verses resources available. Okay, so how does this work with respect to fitness? Certainly, there are a couple more pieces to the puzzle than just working out. Nutrition, for example, plays into it too, as does quality medical care. However on the workout side of the house, all you need is 30 minutes, something heavy, a pair of walking or running shoes and a timer. On days you want to work your cardio, walk briskly or run for a max of 30 minutes. On days you want to strength train, grab a sandbag, dumbbells or a weight plate, find a place to train, set your timer for 30 minutes, and do circuits of upper body exercises followed by lower body exercise with little or no rest in between movements. These moves can be push ups, squatting with a weight, burpees, pressing a weight over your head, etc. Push yourself as hard you can. When the timer goes off, you are done.

I witnessed the effectiveness of this system firsthand the last time I went on temporary duty to DEA’s Tactical Safety and Survival Unit at our academy. Taking a break from my desk and the chore of editing our agency’s defensive tactics manual, I sat down for a talk with one of the instructor cadre. How, I asked, when every one of you is over 40, do you guys stay in such great shape? Especially when you have to set an example for young agents half your age? Do you take anything special? Is there some secret piece of equipment hidden in the bowels of the academy that only you can use? Nope, the instructor answered, we don’t have any of that. We just circuit train for 30 minutes a day, three times a week and do cardio the other three days. Uh? That’s it? Apparently it was.  Enough said.

Zero Dark Thirty

I think the recent debate regarding the release of the report on “enhanced interrogation” makes my original post all the more relevant.  See below:

In the film, Dark Zero Thirty, the use of “enhanced interrogation”—also known as torture—compels a detainee to reveal information that eventually leads the United States to Osama bin Laden. This should come as a surprise to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Senators Diane Feinstein, John McCain, and Carl Levin. They all have access to classified information, and they all have reported that torture did not play a key role in the hunt for Bin Laden.

Of course, the movie is not a documentary, and the director Katherine Bigelow is free to use her creative license. However, in our media-driven “they wouldn’t show it if it weren’t true” culture, it will no doubt re-enforce the false notion that torture works.

As a former professional interrogator, I doubt the accuracy of any information obtained through the use of coercion. I have performed numerous rapport- based interrogations and can attest to their effectiveness.

I once interrogated a hardened gang member suspected of involvement in drug trafficking.  At the time of the arrest, we had little to go on save a bit of physical evidence and a sketchy set of facts from a questionable witness.  The subsequent questioning included the tension-filled verbal sparring depicted in crime dramas, all within the legal framework. After what seemed an eternity, the suspect broke. We were able to use his confession to secure a conviction.

After the interrogation, I felt an incredible sense of satisfaction at having successfully taken a dangerous criminal off the streets. Had I used any form of torture or abuse, that win would have come with an asterisk. In the world of law enforcement professionals, using coercion to obtain a confession is akin to winning a championship after testing positive for steroids.

You can hardly consider yourself a law enforcement officer after you’ve broken the law. Likewise, how can you effectively defend the United States when you’re trample on its ideals and its laws?

Every day, thousands of members of the U.S. military, intelligence officials, and law enforcement officers interrogate suspects using legal, moral, and effective methods. They wouldn’t think of using torture, and if asked to do so, they would refuse.

Although you wouldn’t know this from watching Zero Dark Thirty, people within the United States government objected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program. They included the director of the FBI, who was so opposed to the use of torture he removed his agents from the investigation so that they wouldn’t be complicit.

Following the 9-11 attacks, Ali Soufan was the only FBI agent in New York who spoke Arabic. He drank tea with suspects, winning their trust and drawing out information. Later, he elicited actionable intelligence from Al Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah, but then the CIA took over. A Department of Justice Inspector General Memo explains what happened: “Zubaydah was responding to the FBI’s rapport-based approach before the CIA assumed control over the interrogation, but became uncooperative after being subjected to the CIA’s techniques.”

Interrogators who follow the law are the true professionals, and they should be celebrated on the bigscreen instead of a bunch of cowboys who use torture. I wonder, however, if Hollywood would tell their story, since real detective work consists of seven hours and forty five minutes of boredom interrupted by fifteen minutes of sheer panic.

On the other hand, I’ve got some pretty good stories. Ms. Bigelow, call me maybe?