Six weeks offer peek inside FBI
In a bid to connect with communities, the Minneapolis office invites
select citizens to see how the secretive agency operates.
By AMY FORLITI
January 3, 2010
From tracking down terrorists and Internet predators to keeping
national secrets from falling into the wrong hands, the FBI conducts
much of its daily work on a strictly need-to-know basis.
But twice each year, a select group of community, civic and business
leaders gets a peek inside the FBI's operations during a six-week
Citizens' Academy class, an effort aimed at showing members of the
public at least some of what the secretive agency does and how it works.
"The whole goal of this outreach is to connect with the community,"
said Ralph Boelter, special agent in charge of the FBI office in
Minneapolis. "The more we do that, the more we build confidence in
the public that we serve. I think that's important. For us to be
effective in what we do, people have to have confidence in us."
All 56 FBI field offices have citizens' academies. In Minnesota, 150
people have completed the class, said FBI spokesman E.K. Wilson. Many
have gone on to share what they've learned with others.
In the most recent class, which took place over six weeks in October
and November, 18 students from a variety of backgrounds learned about
cybercrime, counterterrorism, weapons of mass destruction, civil
rights, white collar crime and more. Special agents talked about
everything from the dangers of hostage negotiations to the arrests of
three men who planned to attack the 2008 Republican National Convention.
They also addressed some of the agency's mistakes, such as the
now-defunct COINTELPRO, an operation that began in the 1950s to
monitor groups with communist ties but was expanded to civil rights
groups, antiwar activists and others before it was shut down.
Students also learned the art of dusting for fingerprints and how the
FBI tracked down Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent caught in 2001 selling
secrets to Russia. In June, students will go to the shooting range
and find out what it's like to fire a weapon.
The information shared in class was unclassified and dealt with cases
already resolved. Even so, Jim Randall, a retired Minnesota Court of
Appeals judge, said he learned more than he thought he would.
"I thought it had a lot of substance," Randall said. "It was not just
all shadow. It has some meat to it."
Another student was Nimco Ahmed, a young woman active in the Twin
Cities' large Somali community. She took the class because of the
FBI's investigation into young Somali men who traveled from
Minneapolis to join a jihad in Somalia. Many Somalis mistrust
government and fear the FBI, and she wanted to learn more about how
the agents work.
"I'm actually a different person than who I was before, as far as my
perception of how these guys work," Ahmed said. "I didn't know
anything. I kind of thought, 'Shoot, if they want you, they can get you.'
"But they can't just get anybody. They can't just take somebody's
passport," she said.
Ahmed said dialogue is important and she plans to use what she
learned to help educate others in the Somali community. She has
already spoken with one man who she said has been contacted by local agents.
"He's just an innocent young man. But he's so scared. He thought they
could get him," she said. "I told him, 'Look, if you are innocent,
you are innocent. ... Nobody can get you. But you can get yourself
for not telling the truth.'"
Hopeful participants can contact their local FBI office and request
an application, but class size is limited. An applicant has a better
chance if nominated by an FBI agent or former Citizens' Academy
student. Participants also must pass a background check. Many
students are people whom Boelter calls "connectors" -- those who are
active in their communities and who can help explain the FBI's
mission to others.