Maybe you enjoy those gangster movies of the 1930s and 1940s where “G-Men” ride into town in a blaze of dust and glory to save the day. Or maybe you want to know if “the truth is out there.” Heck, maybe you want to infiltrate a group of surfing bank robbers. There are plenty of reasons to become an Agent of the FBI (and some of them don’t even include movie references), but whatever your motivations, it’s important to know what you’re getting into first. Other than a pretty slick suit: you’ll dress like The Men in Black.
Despite how the FBI is portrayed in the media, though, it’s not all Johnny Utah shootouts and undercover work. There are two main areas of focus that you can embrace within the FBI: Special Agent and Professional Staff. We’re mostly going to focus on becoming a Special Agent, but that doesn’t mean if you become Professional Staff you won’t get a chance to save the world on a regular basis. (Ok, maybe not a regular basis, but you’ll sure help out.)
Being an FBI Professional Staff member isn’t just one job; you could work with Intelligence Analysis (spy stuff), Information Technology (computer stuff), Applied Science, Engineering & Technology (evidence stuff), Linguistics (linguistical stuff), Business Management (money stuff), FBI Police (protection stuff), or Investigative Support & Surveillance (more spy stuff). There are even normal, everyday jobs like nursing, public relations, and automotive maintenance—or firearms training, if you want a normal, everyday job that’s still ridiculously cool and exciting. As we said, though: this here Shmoop page is for the big guns, the FBI Special Agents. If you’re a’lookin’ fer one of them Professional Staff gigs, you should mosey on over to the FBI’s website.
Being an FBI Special Agent is where the real action is. Dale Cooper? FBI Special Agent. Fox Mulder and Dana Scully? FBI Special Agents. Clarice Starling? Well, she was just a trainee at first, but eventually she became a full-fledged FBI Special Agent. Special Agents are the ones who man the field offices and go out on assignments to solve cases and enforce federal laws. They get to do exciting stuff like gather evidence and intelligence, make arrests, and testify in court.
Like rookie quarterbacks, trainees and newly promoted Special Agents are usually only active in certain ways, and they’re always under the watchful eyes of their veteran counterparts. Unless the starting quarterback gets hurt. Or traded. Or becomes a Free Agent. Ok, so maybe this isn’t a perfect analogy. Anyway, once you’ve been an FBI Special Agent for a few years, there are more specific areas that you can move into. The five main career paths that Special Agents can choose from are Intelligence, Counterintelligence, Counterterrorism, Criminal, or Cyber.
That eagle gets top security clearance.
Intelligence is not a top-secret government program implemented to make federal employees smarter. It’s all about gathering information—wire taps, surveillance, undercover work. Have you ever seen a plain white van parked on the street? There are FBI Agents with tech equipment monitoring people from those vans. Don’t believe us? Go knock on one and check. On the opposite end of things, Counterintelligence has to do with keeping other countries from gaining too much information. There’s a bit more to it than that, though; Counterintelligence also covers preventing foreign countries from acquiring equipment or technologies that would be dangerous to the United States. Why do you think all of their communications self-destruct?
Counterterrorism involves the identity and prevention of terrorist cells domestically and internationally, and understanding the various groups and individuals around the world with terroristic goals. Criminal investigation involves fighting crime, Batman-style. Special Agents working in this area routinely work on cases involving financial crimes, public corruption, drug-related investigations, and organized crime, among other things. The Cyber Division does battle on the Internet, like in Tron.
There are probably also several esoteric divisions of the FBI that deal with things like aliens, zombies, vampires, dark wizards, time travel, and killer Nazi robots (pssh, as if there’s any other kind of Nazi robot), but we’re not going to tell you about those, because then we’d have to kill you. And then the FBI would probably come and kill us.
So there’s a lot of different ways to go if you want to become an FBI Special Agent. Don’t just assume that knowing which area of the FBI you’d enjoy working in means that you’re set to go, though. There are super strict requirements involved, and your background needs to be squeaky clean. Why all the fuss? Most of the paranoia is due to National Security concerns, but really we have J. Edgar Hoover to thank.
Good ol’ J. Edgar was Director of the FBI from 1924-1972, and he essentially turned the FBI into what it is today, which is important to know if you’re planning on joining their ranks. Oh, and have you read the FBI’s mission statement? You probably should:
“As an intelligence-driven and a threat-focused national security and law enforcement organization, the mission of the FBI is to protect and defend the United States against terrorist and foreign intelligence threats, to uphold and enforce the criminal laws of the United States, and to provide leadership and criminal justice services to federal, state, municipal, and international agencies and partners.”
It gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling in the action movie area of your brain, doesn’t it? Makes you wanna go all Keanu on the world. You also might want to know a bit of Feds history before you apply, because you’ll definitely be tested on this information later. You might also be water-boarded, so bring a snorkel to your interview.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, was formed as the plain ol’ Bureau of Investigation back in 1908. It was created as a response to the problem that state law enforcement had no jurisdiction regarding crimes involving interstate commerce—ya know, companies or individuals in one state selling goods or services to people in another state. Prior to 1908 and the formation of the BOI, there was no real way for the Department of Justice to investigate interstate crimes on its own. Attorney General Charles Bonaparte (no relation to the French guy) would have to hire Secret Service Agents to help with investigations, which was less than ideal. Not only did the Secret Service Agents report to another Department, if they worked on their days off, they’d probably be exhausted while trying to keep tabs on the President. No good. When the BOI was finally formed, its first members were some of those same Secret Service Agents, but they began working directly for the Department of Justice and were able to more completely investigate the crimes involving banking, naturalization, antitrust, and fraud that the DOJ was focused on. And in a roundabout way, they were still protecting the President, so it all worked out.
Over the course of the next decade, the Bureau grew exponentially. When the US entered World War I in 1917, the BOI became responsible for the Espionage, Selective Service, and Sabotage Acts, although they continued to investigate crimes that crossed state lines as well. If you happened to be a draft-dodging immigrant spying for the Germans so that you could implement a plan to blow up munitions factories in Pennsylvania and Ohio, you were basically number one on their Top Ten Most Wanted list. (Or at least you would’ve been; the now-famous Top Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List wasn’t created until 1950.)
All kinds of creepy.
Despite some of the Bureau’s early successes, it began to lose power during Prohibition. No, not because they were fueled by beer. Gangsters who made, sold, or imported illegal alcoholic beverages were under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Treasury, not the Department of Justice, so the BOI had to find interesting ways to put interstate rum runners and moonshine sellers behind bars. It wasn’t until J. Edgar Hoover became the Bureau’s Director in 1924 that things began to really turn around.
Hoover implemented a number of changes that began to turn the Bureau into the Justice League-esque crime-fighting juggernaut it is today. He revamped the BOI’s internal structure and introduced performance appraisals as the uniform method of promotion (as opposed to, “Oh, he has pretty good aim!”). He established a training course for new agents and implemented new rules regarding who could become an agent, nicknamed The Robin Program* (*not actual name). In 1935, he officially changed the BOI’s name to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to further separate it from the Prohibition-specific agencies and Bureaus that had begun to pop up, and the newly-styled FBI began to take an increased role in international and domestic intelligence gathering. (Hoover didn’t just have to gather information on individuals like Hitler and Stalin; he also kept files on singers, actors, and athletes such as Frank Sinatra, Charlie Chaplin, and Mickey Mantle.)
Well there you go. Now you should do just fine on the written portion of your FBI entrance exam. Good luck on the oral, physical, psychological, and looks-good-in-a-tie-ical areas. Oh, and if you ever find out what happened to Samantha Mulder, let us know.