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Special agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are employees of the federal government. The FBI, a part of the U.S. Department of Justice, investigates violations of many different federal laws. The agency’s jurisdiction covers over 270 violations of federal law in the areas of criminal and civil law and government intelligence. To carry out its mission, the FBI needs men and women who can fill a variety of demanding positions. There are approximately 11,000 FBI agents employed in the United States.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation was founded in 1908 as the investigative branch of the U.S. Department of Justice. In its earliest years, the FBI’s responsibilities were limited. However, the creation of new federal laws gave the FBI jurisdiction over criminal matters that had previously been regulated by the individual states, such as those involving the interstate transportation of stolen vehicles. By the 1920s, the FBI was also used for political purposes, such as tracking down alleged subversive elements and spying on political enemies.
Early in its history, the FBI developed a reputation for corruption. In 1924, J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) was appointed as director of the bureau and charged with the twin goals of cleaning up the agency and making the agency’s work independent from politics. Hoover established stricter professional standards, eliminating corruption, and, partly because of Hoover’s own ambitions, the FBI’s responsibilities increased. Soon the FBI was the most powerful law enforcement agency in the country
The FBI established its Identification Division in 1924 and the Bureau’s scientific laboratory in 1932. Then, in 1934, the FBI was given the general authority to handle federal crime investigation. Within three years, more than 11,000 federal criminals were convicted through the FBI’s efforts. As its prestige grew, the FBI was further designated, in 1939, as the central clearinghouse for all matters pertaining to the internal security of the United States. During World War II, FBI agents rendered many security services for plants involved in war production and worked to gather evidence on espionage activities within the plants.
Since its inception in 1932, the FBI Laboratory has become one of the largest and most comprehensive crime laboratories in the world, providing leadership and service in the scientific solution and prosecution of crimes. It is the only full-service federal forensic laboratory in the United States. As a result, today the FBI is involved in a wide variety of law enforcement activities using the latest scientific methods and forms of analysis available.
The FBI’s Identification Division serves as the nation’s repository and clearinghouse for fingerprint records. The fingerprint section of the FBI Laboratory is the largest in the world, containing millions of sets of finger prints. In this capacity the division provides the following services: identifying and maintaining fingerprint records for arrested criminal suspects and for applicants to sensitive jobs; posting notices for people wanted for crimes and for parole or probation violations; examining physical evidence for finger prints and providing occasional court testimony on the results of examinations; training in fingerprint science; maintaining fingerprint records of people currently reported missing; and identifying amnesia victims and unknown deceased people.
In addition to its own activities, the FBI provides support and cooperation for many other criminal justice agencies in the United States and around the world.
The headquarters of the FBI is located in Washington, DC, and from this location the work of 56 field offices is supervised. FBI agents can be assigned to investigate any case, irrespective of its nature, unless they have specialized skills in some particular field. In such situations they are most likely assigned to work on those cases that demand their specialized talents.
For any case, the responsibility of the FBJ agent is to investigate violations of federal laws. Violations may include such crimes as bank robbery extortion, kidnapping, fraud and theft against the federal government, espionage, interstate transportation of stolen property mail fraud, sabotage, and infractions of the Atomic Energy Act. FBI special agents are responsible for protecting the security of the United States and for investigating any subversive acts that might threaten that security. In performing investigative work, agents have at their disposal a vast network of communication systems and the crime detection laboratory in Washington, DC. When cases are completed, agents submit full reports to the bureau’s headquarters.
FBI agents usually carry special identification to identify themselves as employees of the bureau. They wear ordinary business suits almost all the time, not special uniforms such as police wear. Agents are required to carry firearms while on duty FBI agents usually work on their own unless there is potential danger or the nature of the case demands two or more people. An agent’s work is always confidential and may not be discussed except among other authorized bureau members. This prevents any discussion of work assignments even with immediate family or friends. The bureau and its agents work in close cooperation with law enforcement agencies from all over the country and around the world, although the FBI does not function as a law enforcement agency FBI agents function strictly as investigators.
Agents perform their work in various ways, depending upon the nature of the case. They may need to travel for extended periods or live in various cities. Agents may interview people to gather information, spend time searching various types of records, and observe people, especially those who are suspected of criminal intentions or acts. FBI agents take part in arrests and may participate in or lead raids of various kinds. On occasion, they are summoned to testify in court cases regarding their investigative work and findings. It is not the agent’s role, however, to express judgments or opinions regarding the innocence or guilt of those people being tried in court. The agent’s work is to gather facts and report them.
A high school diploma, or its equivalent, is required. The FBI does not recommend specific courses for high school students. Rather, the bureau encourages students to do the best work they can. Since FBI agents perform a variety of work, numerous academic disciplines are needed.
All special agent candidates must hold a four-year degree from a college or university that is accredited by one of the six regional accrediting bodies of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education. Candidates must fulfill additional requirements of one of four entry programs: Law, Accounting, Language, and Diversified. Entry through the law program requires a JD degree from an accredited resident law school. The accounting program requires a BS degree in accounting or related discipline, such as economics, business, or finance. Applicants for the accounting program must have passed the Uniform Certified Accountant Examination or at least show eligibility to take this exam. Language program applicants may hold a BA or BS degree in any discipline but must demonstrate fluency in one or more foreign languages meeting the current needs of the FBI. In recent years, these languages have included Spanish, Russian, Arabic, and Chinese. The diversified program accepts applicants with a BS or BA degree in any discipline plus three years of full-time work experience or an advanced degree accompanied by two years of full-time work experience.
All candidates must complete a rigorous application process. For those who successfully complete the written tests and interview, the Bureau con ducts a thorough background investigation that includes credit and criminal record checks; interviews with associates; contact with personal and business references; interviews with past employers and neighbors; and verification of educational achievements. Drug testing and a physical examination are required. A polygraph examination is also required. The completed back ground investigation is then considered when the final hiring decision is made.
All newly appointed special agents must complete 16 weeks of intensive training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Classroom hours are spent studying a variety of academic and investigative subjects, accompanied by training in physical fitness, defensive tactics, and the proper use of firearms. Trainees must pass several exams with a minimum passing grade of 85 percent. Trainees may he disqualified and dismissed for falling two exams; for failing to demonstrate proficiency in defensive tactics, firearms use and handling, or simulated arrest exercises; or for violating the agency rules and regulations for conduct.
After graduation from the FBI Academy, new agents are assigned to an FBI field office for a probationary period lasting one year, after which they become permanent special agents. During the first months of employment, the novice agent is guided by a veteran special agent who will help show how the lessons learned at the academy can be applied on the job. Assignments are determined by the individual’s special skills and the current needs of the FBI. As a part of their duties, special agents may be required to relocate during their careers.
The education and training of FBI agents continues throughout their career. FBI agents are always expected to learn new techniques and better methods in criminal investigation, either through experience on the job, advanced study courses, in-service training, or special conferences.
To qualify for training as an FBI agent, candidates must be U.S. citizens between the ages of 23 and 36. They must possess a valid driver license, be available for assignment anywhere in the areas of the bureau’s jurisdiction, which includes Puerto Rico, and be in excellent physical condition. Their vision must not be worse than 20/200 uncorrected and correctable to 20/20 in one eye and no worse than 20/40 in the other eye. Applicants must also pass a color vision test. Applicants may not have physical disabilities that would interfere with the performance of their duties, including use of firearms and defensive tactics and taking part in raids. All applicants must be able to withstand rigorous physical strain and exertion.
FBI agents assume grave responsibilities as a normal part of their jobs. Their reputation, integrity and character must be above reproach, and they must be dependable and courageous. Agents must be able to accept continual challenges in their jobs, realizing that no two days of work assignments may be exactly alike. FBI agents need to be stable and personally secure and able to work daily with challenge, change, and danger. For most agents, the FBI is a lifelong career.
The best method of exploring a career with the FBI is to participate in the three-month FBI Honors lnternship Program, which is held every summer in Washington, DC. Participation is open to undergraduate and graduate students selected by the FBI. This program is designed to give interns experience and insight into the inner workings of, and career opportunities avail able at, the FBI. Students are assigned to various divisions of the agency according to their academic disciplines, and they work alongside special agents under the supervision of assistant directors. Interns may work at FBI headquarters or other agency locations in the Washington, DC, area. Acceptance into the internship program is highly competitive. Applicants must be full-time students intending to return to school after the internship program. They must achieve a cumulative grade-point average of 3.0 or higher. Undergraduate applicants must be in their junior year at the time of application. In addition, applicants must submit letters of recommendation and complete a 500-word essay. Undergraduate interns are paid at the GS-6 level, which was approximately $22,948 per year in 1999—and graduate interns are paid at the GS-7 level of about $25,501 in 1999. Transportation to and from Washington, DC, is also provided as part of the internship program.
If you are interested in a career with the FBI, you may apply for intern- ships and other programs offered through your local police departments, which will give you experience and insight into aspects of law enforcement in general. Good grades throughout high school and college will give you the best chance of winning a place in the Honors Internship Program.
If you are interested in the occupation of FBI special agent, you should con tact the Applicant Coordinator at your local FBI field office. The bureau will send information on existing vacancies, requirements for the positions, how to file applications, and locations where examinations will be given. Examinations are scored by computer at FBI headquarters. Interviews are arranged based on the applicants score and overall qualifications and the agency’s current needs.
Although FBI Special Agents are not appointed under the Federal Civil Service Regulations like other federal workers, they are eligible to receive salary raises periodically within the grade set for their positions. These with in-grade increases depend, of course, upon a satisfactory job performance. Grade advancements may be earned as the agent gains experience through satisfactory job performance. Promotions within the FBI are usually given on the basis of performance rather than seniority
Higher-grade administrative and supervisory positions in the FBI are filled by those advancing within the ranks. Positions open to advancement may include special agent in charge of a field office, inspector, field supervisor, and assistant director.
Special agent trainees at the Quantico training facility are paid at the GS-10 level, which was $34,353 in 1999. Graduates assigned to field offices receive $42,000 per year, although this may be higher in locations such as New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston, and other areas where the cost of living is higher. Experienced special agents averaged $53,793 (GS-13 level) per year in 1999, and the most experienced agents earn $63,567 (GS-14 level) per year. Supervisory positions begin at $74,773 (GS-15 level). Some agents then move into a different employment category called the Senior Executive Service, where they make more than $100,000 annually working for the FBI. Special agents may also earn as much as $6,000 per year in overtime pay. They are also eligible for cash awards under the federal employee Incentive Awards Program for outstanding achievement or suggestions for improving function and service.
As federal employees, FBI special agents enjoy generous benefits, including health and life insurance, and 13 days of paid sick leave. Vacation pay begins at 13 days for each of the first three years of service and rises to 20 to 26 days for each year after that. All special agents are required to retire at the age of 57; they may choose to retire at 50 if they have put in 20 years of service.
Special agents arc assigned to one of the 56 field offices or at FBI headquarters and other locations around Washington, DC. An agent may also be assigned to a resident agency, which is a smaller office reporting to one of the field offices. In addition, the FBI operates 32 offices around the world. Agents are assigned to an office according to the agency’s needs and may be reassigned many times in their career.
Depending on their case assignments, FBI agents may work a very strenuous and variable schedule, frequently more hours than the customary 40- hour week. They are on call for possible assignment 24 hours a day Assignments may be given for any location at any time. Every aspect of the agent’s work is of a confidential nature. As a result, agents may work under potentially dangerous circumstances in carrying out their assignments, and they may be confronted with unpleasant and even horrifying parts of life. Because of the confidential nature of their work, they must refrain from speaking about their case work even with relatives or spouses. In addition, agents may be required to travel and perform their duties under many conditions, including severe weather. Nevertheless, a career with the FBI offers a great deal of respect, responsibility, and the possibility of adventure. No two days are ever the same for a special agent.
In 1999, the FBI employed approximately 11,000 special agents. Most job vacancies are expected to come as agents retire, advance, or resign. Turnover, however, has traditionally been lo as most agents remain with the FBI throughout their working lives.
The numbers of FBI special agents are linked to the scope of the FBI’s responsibilities. Increases in organized crimes and in white-collar crimes have led the FBI to increase the number of agents in recent years. As the bureau’s responsibilities expand, it will create new positions to meet them. However, growth in the numbers of new agency hires is expected to remain somewhat limited. Because of this, competition for openings is extremely high.
For More Information
For additional information on FBI jobs and the Honors Internship Program, please contact your local FBI field office, as listed in the telephone directory. The national office in Washington, DC, is not set up to field requests for this information.
U.S. Department of Justice
The Federal Bureau of Investigation
J. Edgar Hoover Building
935 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20535-0001