Academy offers people glimpse of the real FBI

FREDERICK — FREDERICK -- Helene Kass -- coalition builder and promoter of nonviolence -- isn't much of a gun enthusiast. It turns out, though, that she is a pretty good shot.

Taking a turn with an FBI-issued 40 mm Glock one cold morning, Kass blasted through a paper target with dead-on precision. Nearby, federal agents raised their eyebrows, impressed. But no one was more stunned than Kass.


"I was blown away with my own accuracy," said Kass, a Columbia resident who is a regional director for the nonprofit National Coalition Building Institute. "I had never been -- thank God -- that close to gunfire."

Her reaction, a mix of surprise and respect, is exactly what local FBI officials hope for when they pull back the curtain each year for Citizens' Academy and show business and civic leaders the agency's inner workings, right down to its weaponry.


At first glance, the six-week program, which is by invitation only, hardly seems in keeping with the closed-door, no-comment FBI world made famous under the legendary J. Edgar Hoover

In the Citizens' Academy, investigators talk at length about how they build cases and track down bad guys. Firearms instructors explain how agents are trained to shoot to kill. And mild-mannered, mostly middle-age civilians test out MP-5 rifles and pump-action shotguns at the firing range in Frederick.

It is all decidedly un-Hooverish. And that, in part, is the point.

"I know there's kind of a mystique about the FBI. Let's face it, we've milked it for years," Special Agent Lynne A. Hunt, who heads the bureau's Baltimore office, told this year's citizen recruits at their first meeting.

But, Hunt said, "The FBI isn't the Lone Ranger anymore. We can't do our jobs efficiently without help from other law enforcement agencies, and without help from you."

For years, police departments across the country have sponsored similar programs as a way to promote better community relations. But FBI citizen academies still are a novelty. Only about a dozen of the bureau's 57 field offices hold some version. Agents at the Baltimore office in Woodlawn cracked open their doors for the first time four years ago; the most recent class graduated last week.

Once inside, participants discover some of the ordinary truths about an agency at once glamorized by movies like "The Silence of the Lambs" and demonized by critics of the raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, or the flawed espionage case against Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee.

This year's 15 recruits learned from Special Agent Bridget Bigham, head of Baltimore's evidence response team, about the painstaking process of combing crime scenes for clues.(Bigham's advice: Get everything you need the first time, because you might need a warrant to go back. "I guess that's just common sense," said Jeffrey Reid, a real estate appraiser from Timonium. "But I never would have thought of that.")


Following the rules

At another meeting, Division Counsel Robert Chamberlain detailed the mundane legal steps required before agents can use wiretaps, and the strict rules that apply to what they can and cannot listen to once the surveillance is in place.

Among the less-than-flashy discoveries about life in the FBI, academy recruits also learned that many special agents are trained accountants who spend their days poring over financial documents, not tracking down dangerous fugitives.

"When I look at movies now or TV or read books, I'll have a better sense of what's real and what's not," said Louis M. Tutt, president of the Maryland School for the Blind and a participant in this year's class.

Still, the G-man image dies hard, a fact that doesn't entirely disappoint either side.

Academy recruits heard a first-hand account of last year's standoff with Joseph C. Palczynski from an FBI hostage negotiator who was on the scene. In the days after the arrest of Kofi Apea Orleans-Lindsay, charged with killing state Trooper Edward M. Toatley, one supervisor gave a detailed account of how agents used a mix of street intelligence, wiretaps and even telephone calling cards to track the suspect in New York.


'Like Alice in Wonderland'

At last week's graduation dinner in Catonsville, former FBI Deputy Director William J. Esposito told the class about working undercover as a groom at a Detroit racetrack and, decades later, helping orchestrate the arrest in Pakistan of the suspected killer of two CIA officers.

"I've been like Alice in Wonderland," Claudia L. Brown, a Baltimore liquor board commissioner, said at the group's final meeting. "You know about the mystique of the FBI. But to see it up close and personal, it really has been incredible."

Kass was struck by the frankness of many of the agents who shared war stories.

"It was fascinating," she said. "I read lots of mystery novels and [about] forensic sciences, and it was interesting to learn it from the source."

Learning about her own aptitude for shooting was just one more surprise, said Kass, who acknowledged having to take a few breaks at the range because her body was shaking. When the shooting was over, the agents took down the bottle-shaped target she blasted through from 10 yards back. Kass folded it up and took it home.