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FBI 101: A Guide for Writers

Ever wonder how writers know how to depict the FBI in films? Well, apparently they hold seminars to make sure they are portrayed in the best light.
 
 
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"LOCK UP THE DATE!" the invitation commanded -- clear evidence that at least someone in the bowels of the federal bureaucracy has a sneaky sense of humor. The event in question -- "FBI 101" -- promised "Essentials for Writers," an "exciting and informative" interactive workshop for writers being offered to members of my union -- the Writers Guild of America, East - by the FBI Office of Public Affairs and FBI New York.

In addition to the usual motley assemblage of scruffy WGAE ne'er-do-wells, attendees from the Bureau included experts in evidence response, crisis management, counterterrorism, and weapons of mass destruction, among other disciplines. The seminar's stated purpose was to "learn how to accurately depict today's FBI and how we can help you with your script or screenplay."

Since my screenplay (much like my life) is currently in something called "turnaround," I went as a mere blogger, albeit one with an avowed and continuing interest in such topics as "Who does what? in post-9/11 national security," how does "the FBI investigate international terrorism?" and even "How and when FBI special teams are activated." Topics of lesser interest were still intriguing, including "What are the latest and greatest crime scene tools and gear?" and "What assistance can FBI give film and television writers?"

Nevertheless, as it isn't everyday the Feds offer to have "your questions answered whether you are checking facts, running a show, writing, or researching," I hauled myself down to the Federal Building in Lower Manhattan, persuaded, as the invitation opined, that "if you need a better understanding of the FBI, this workshop is for you!"

The session started with a greeting from the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI New York field office -- generally considered to be pre-eminent among the fifty-six such offices scattered around the country. He put things in perspective, bluntly stating, "We hope today to impress you with the high purpose of our efforts here at the FBI."

FBI Assistant Director of Public Affairs John Miller followed. Miller's presence was an indication of how much firepower the Bureau was investing in this PR effort. It was also a shrewd choice because of his legendary status in New York media circles. He knows the game, how to play it at a high level, and precisely what red meat will motivate this crowd.

Miller, whose journalistic awards include two Peabodys, a DuPont-Columbia Award, and nine Emmys, began working as a journalist decades ago at WNEW and later WNBC. In 1994 he quit to take a "dream job" as chief spokesman for Police Commissioner William Bratton, but left a year later when Bratton was forced out by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, jealous of the acclaim Bratton and his team received for plummeting crime rates.

Miller then crossed back over to the media, working first as an ABC News correspondent and later as 20/20 co-anchor with Barbara Walters. (While at ABC, he conducted a famous May 1998 interview with Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan.) But after Bratton took over the Los Angeles police force, Miller went back into public service, as head of the LAPD Counter-Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau. In 2005, he left to become the Assistant Director of the FBI.

Miller played to his crowd expertly. First he confirmed what they already think they know -- that New York is supreme in all things! "It all happens here," said Miller. "With the UN, there are more spies in New York than anywhere else; there are more members of La Cosa Nostra and other organized crime groups here than anywhere else; there's more industrial espionage..." At least when it comes to crime stopping, New York is "the center of the Earth."

Next he told us "why we're here." Not because there is a dearth of television programs (Criminal Minds, Numbers, Without A Trace) or films (Breach, Shooter, the forthcoming A Mighty Heart) that present a positive image of the FBI - but because "they just aren't real," as Miller explained. "We're not asking for good shows about the FBI," he continued, "But we would like to see films and programs that are more like the real FBI. After all - perception equals reality in our day and age."

Moreover, "our reality actually exceeds our fiction," Miller fed the writers. "Look at just the past few weeks -- a plot to blow up Kennedy Airport, another to attack Fort Dix...you cannot make events like these up! There's all kinds of stuff about the FBI that nobody knows."

Like what, you may ask? Like the fact that the Bureau is no longer "all white men," as Miller not so delicately phrased it. "And we're not all just Special Agents any longer either." Instead there are more and more female agents, and more and more specialists -- from intelligence analysts to surveillance specialists to hostage rescuers to legal attaches working abroad. In short, this is no longer your father's FBI -- much less that of Efrem Zimbalist Jr..

Miller was followed by a range of specialists, from the head of the SWAT team (along with two members in full ceramic Kevlar regalia, weighing in at seventy plus pounds, complete with sledge hammer, battering ram, Glocks and M-4 carbines - all thankfully unloaded!) to the chief of the WMD Squad to an Evidence Recovery (think CSI) expert to a female agent who has served overseas as a legal attaché. Here's some of what I learned from them:

  • SWAT Teams practice a technique called 'room dominance' as their basic tactic in close-quarter battle
  • The New York SWAT Team has 'never fired a shot in anger' • Its current head has "no doubt" that the day is coming when "we will face someone who is highly trained, well-equipped and highly motivated" and force will be required. "That day is coming - and we are ready for it." • The WMD Squad is the "tip of the spear" of a Joint Terrorism Task Force interdisciplinary team drawn from literally dozens of different federal, state, regional and local agencies
  • Real female agents working the CSI beat "don't wear pushup bras and don't solve everything before the commercial break!" • In fact, it normally takes 6-18 months for DNA analysis to be turned around

Finally, you may be wondering what can the new FBI do for you, the writer. Betsy Glick from the D.C. Office of Public Affairs, ticked it off: "We can fact check, we can offer guidance, we can give logistical help, facilitate with field offices, help with locations, check sets for accuracy -- you name it, we are there to help. The only question we have for you is 'Will it show us in a good light?'"

Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor writes the Media Is A Plural blog.

 
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