Unspeakable Times

What It's Actually Like To Be An FBI Agent  

Jacob Shelton
2.1k views 14 items

The people who commit their lives to the FBI not only have to go through rigorous scrutiny into their personal lives, but they have to give up any semblance of having a normal life once they enter the bureau. 

The FBI job description includes doing a ton of research, traveling at least a quarter of the year, and even teaching other members of law enforcement how to research properly. No day is the same for special agents. They can spend long hours analyzing evidence in a solitary space one day and work to defuse a hostage situation the next. 

Requirements for FBI jobs are stringent, to say the least. Higher-ups in the bureau look at everything their agents do, even monitoring their social media activity and their diets. Rather than go through a major background check of your own, it'll be easier just to read about what it’s like to be an FBI agent.

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Photo:  IrishSpook/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0
They Must Coax Information Out Of Suspects And Sources

Even though TV shows and films about federal agents portray them as tough guys who kick down doors and take names, that's not really how agents get information. They have to be smart about how they deal with informants and the people they're investigating. Usually, agents have to get their information on a one-on-one basis. According to former agent William Larsh: 

The most interesting and by far the most important case I ever worked involved my recruitment of a foreign official from a hostile foreign embassy who spied for the United States government. I, alone, convinced this individual to cooperate, befriended him, met with him weekly, collected the secret information he provided, and disseminated it to the appropriate agencies in the intelligence community. The Secretary of State in the Clinton administration was briefed twice on information I collected from him.

They Spend Hours Monitoring Court-Authorized Wiretaps

One of the most crucial aspects of FBI work is the sheer volume of wiretap monitoring. Agents aren't taking to the streets to track down criminals. Instead, the legwork is done largely through wiretaps - which is a grueling process in its own right. In order to get a wiretap, an agent must go through a federal judge, which takes quite a bit of time. 

In order to attain the necessary order from a federal judge, agents have to provide probable cause to demonstrate the need for a wiretap, and why it's essential to getting the information they're looking for. That means agents might work on a case for a long time before ever getting permission to listen in on someone's phone calls.

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Photo: Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Barresi/Coast Guard
They Have To Prioritize High-Tech And Cyber-Based Cases

In the modern era, one of the most important arms of the FBI is its cyber crime task force. This unit investigates everyone from “computer geeks looking for bragging rights,” to “businesses trying to gain an upper hand in the marketplace by hacking competitor websites,” and “spies and terrorists looking to rob our nation of vital information or launch cyber strikes.”

The task force spends its days attempting to prevent cyber crime and investigating organized crime groups. Cyber crime is more important in the 21st century; even if the agents aren't tracking down hackers, most of their research is still done online.

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Photo: FBI/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
They Work A Minimum Of 50 Hours A Week

Because the crimes the FBI investigates are of such high importance, agents spend a considerable amount of time on the job. As a baseline, agents are scheduled to work 50 hours a week, but that's just for starters. If a case requires special attention, an agent will be on the clock as long as it takes to get the job done. 

There's really not a standard workweek for agents. They're on call 24 hours a day, even holidays, so there's not a lot of time for a normal social life. Whether they're in the office or out in the field, burnout is a real concern with many agents - not to mention other interpersonal difficulties. 

Gary Noesner, the chief of the FBI's Crisis Negotiation Unit, told Business Insider

My wife didn't mind when I said, 'I'm leaving Monday and I'm going to be in Germany for two weeks.' No problem. But when I'd call and say, 'I'm sorry I can't pick up the kids tonight,' she wasn't happy.