My cheek is pressed against the cold, hard butt end of a 9 mm submachine gun that can fire 800 rounds a minute. I've only recently fired my first shots with a handgun, so I shouldn't be surprised that, at the rural, ramshackle shooting range in Clark County, Wash., I can't seem to aim the submachine gun at a paper target 10 yards away. The instructor from the FBI shows me how to hold the submachine gun and aim. I look through the sights, wincing with my eyes almost completely shut, and fire.
This is the FBI Citizens' Academy, and this was my last session in a four-week course offered to emergency responders, media personnel, bank employees, private security agents and anyone else who might have a working relationship with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Participants must be nominated to apply for the course by either an FBI employee or a Citizens' Academy graduate. I was nominated by Dan Nielsen, the 49-year-old assistant special agent in charge for Oregon, whom I met when he agreed earlier this year to let me interview him for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News.
"Sometimes people have the perception of, 'It's the FBI,'" Nielsen said, leaning in to my microphone to make his voice sound like he was narrating an espionage-thriller preview. "Well, who is that? It's Dan. It's me. You know, I'm your neighbor. My kids play soccer with your kids, and we cross paths down at the grocery store and other places."
Maybe Dan thought that, as a member of Portland's alternative press corps, I could help make the bureau's work more palatable to the citizens of "Little Beirut." Perhaps he detected my deep-seated skepticism toward authority figures and made it his business to kill it with kindness. I got a letter a few months later, inviting me to fill out an application for the Citizens' Academy. (In a follow-up email, Nielsen referred to me as a "critical partner.") I applied and was accepted.
My first session was far from the excitement of a shooting range. I began at Computer 17 under fluorescent lights at the FBI's Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory while All Classical 89.9-FM played over the classroom speakers, drowning out the sounds of the MAX rumbling by on Lloyd Boulevard. For four weeks in November, I spent my Wednesday evenings at the laboratory, a very secure building where digital media seized from crime scenes around the Northwest comes to be examined.
There, we heard about the FBI's role in investigating international terrorism, white-collar crime and public corruption (the FBI's No. 1 criminal priority). We viewed surveillance footage of an undercover agent buying drugs, and heard about cyber crimes.
The agents told us everything they wanted us to know, but didn't bite at some of the more specific questions from the class.
When Robert Jordan, special agent in charge (SAC) for Oregon, said the number of agents working in the state is classified, I asked him to explain why. His answer: "I can [explain], but it actually goes to why it's classified, so I'm not going to get into that."
The agents did their best to make the presentations interesting and accessible, but they often couldn't help lapsing into acronym-speak: JTTF (Joint Terrorism Task Force), SAN (Storage Area Network), IED (Improvised Explosive Device), CEXC (Combined Explosive Exploitation Cell, pronounced "sexy"). I never did find out what SFODA stands for, but before shooting any actual guns, I did learn that FATS stands for Firearms Training System. That's where I got to experience computer-simulated shoot/don't shoot scenarios while standing in front of a screen that took up the entire far wall of the small building.
Holding a surprisingly heavy handgun connected to the computer, I had to decide whether to fire based on the onscreen scenario in front of me. When the lights went out and the scenario began, I was with other agents on the screen in a lifelike dramatization, going to arrest a possible bank robber. We approached the house. My partner knocked on the door and I watched the suspect through the window. The agent at the door identified himself as FBI and asked the suspect to open the door. "Hang on, let me get my pants," said the guy inside. I could see that he had his pants on and was instead reaching for a shotgun. Before I could do anything, the man inside shot my partner through the door. The sound echoed through the FATS House. The agent lay dead in the grass, blood seeping out of his abdomen. "Whoops," I couldn't help but say sheepishly to my now-dead computer compadre. "Sorry, dude." I know I should have shot my gun.
I had never shot a gun before, but my firearms virginity went out with a bang on the Camp Bonneville shooting range in Clark County, as I learned to hold, aim and fire a Glock model 17 (a handgun), a Heckler & Koch MP5 (a 9 mm submachine gun) and a Remington 870 shotgun.
My favorite by far was the submachine gun. The kickback wasn't as bad as I thought. When the instructor switched the gun from single-fire to automatic, I fired off two or three rounds in rapid succession, feeling an incredible rush as bullets ripped through the paper target. This thrill of power made me immediately uncomfortable, so I took my finger off the trigger, pointed the gun up and handed it back to the instructor. "I'm done, thanks," I said.
After the academy, my perception of the FBI honestly hasn't changed all that much from when I went in thinking of the FBI as a homogeneous, humorless, straitlaced group of people. Four weeks later, I realized that they are very committed, overworked women and men charged with making critical, daily choices that could affect the security of the entire nation. But they still seem rather cryptic.
One thing I can say for the agents I met: They displayed a kind of studious geekiness. To that I can relate.
To contact the program, go to portland.fbi.gov/outreach.htm.