ENTRANCE ON DUTY
The only thing the FBI ever promised me was that I'd get the opportunity to prove myself. I was working in Washington, D.C., as speechwriter and press secretary for Congressman Silvio O. Conte of Massachusetts when an FBI applicant coordinator named Wayne called in March 1987 to offer me a job.
"Chris," he said, with the assurance of a man who knew virtually every detail of my twenty-seven-year life, "we have a New Agent class scheduled to start in two weeks. Can you make it?"
My heart stopped in my chest. It had been more than a year since I'd mustered the courage to fill out a preliminary application for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Though I met the basic requirements, the notion that I might have the chops to join the world's most prestigious law enforcement agency seemed just a bit presumptuous.
As Wayne's voice rang in my ear, my mind raced back over the months and months of waiting for this one moment. I drifted to a quiet evening in 1986 when I sat at the dining room table of my basement apartment and started to fill out the initial application. The two-page form asked for basic things like my full name, date and place of birth, Social Security number --- the kind of information most people assume the FBI already knows. It outlined the applicant criteria: All prospective agents had to be U.S. citizens between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-five, with at least a bachelor's degree and three years of work experience, or a graduate degree.
It all sounded simple enough back then, but after more than a year of testing, hoping, interviewing, waiting, and enduring their faceless form letters, I wondered how anyone ever got in.
"I have been given authorization to offer you a position, if you think you can make the time constraint," Wayne said. "If not... well, I can't make any guarantees."
He struck me as a cross between a fraternity rush chairman and the caller at a bingo match. The last time I'd seen him was at the Washington Field Office three weeks earlier, where he handed me an old Smith and Wesson Model 10 revolver with a red pistol grip.
"This is the trigger pull test," he told me. "You have sixty seconds to cycle the hammer as many times as possible. This is designed to predict how well you will perform with an actual weapon."
He showed me how to hold the gun at arm's length and pointed me toward a silhouette target taped to the wall. I didn't really get the part about cycling the hammer, but the drill seemed simple enough. I held the small dark weapon out in front of me and waited for him to hit the stopwatch.
"Go!" he said. And I pulled for all I was worth.
No one ever explained the correlation between finger endurance and accuracy with a live weapon, but I asked no questions. I wanted the job, and if that meant playing shoot-out with the wall, using a fake gun, well, that was okay by me.
"Can you get away in two weeks?" Wayne asked, drawing me back into the job offer.
He sounded impatient with the task, as if it were keeping him from something more important. I could picture him sitting at a steel gray government-issue desk with a No.2 pencil in his hand. I was just another name on an endless list of applicants, and he had slots to fill. If he called enough numbers, he 'd eventually close out his card.
Two weeks? I thought. The room around me started to spin.
I felt ready, in most ways. I had become a zealot for the cause, working out twice a day for the past year, preparing for the worst they could throw at me during New Agent Training. Each day started with a four-mile run through the streets of Southeast Washington. At night, I took my lumps, sparring at Finley's Boxing Gym, up above the 10th Street Body Shop, where the smells of paint solvent and Krylon lacquer cleared my head between beatings.
Every set of push-ups ended with three extras for the F-B-I. Every round of sit-ups included an exhaustion marathon in homage to J. Edgar Hoover. Though the Director's taste for madras sun-dresses and suede pumps hadn't leaked out yet, it wouldn't have mattered. I worked each day with crystalline ambition. I absolutely willed acceptance.
"Can I pencil you in?" Wayne asked, again, unaccustomed to vacillation.
I leaned back in my chair and tried to focus. Overwhelming excitement threatened to boil out of my gut and erupt into a banshee wail. My heart started to beat again, then pound, throbbing so hard I worried that people in the next room might hear.
I started to answer, but the words caught in my throat. The thought of breaking the news to my boss, a senior member of the United States Congress, and giving up my office on Capitol Hill seemed anathema itself. Only one person on the staff knew of my undercover job hunt, and he 'd sworn himself to the kind of secrecy he suspected my new life in the FBI might require. Accepting this offer meant turning my back on a promising writing career built at a California magazine and two of New England's finer unknown newspapers. I could kiss good-bye my hopes of moving over to a speechwriting gig at the White House.
On top of that, my wife, Rose, enjoyed her staffer job with Representative David Dreier of California, we 'd just bought an 1880s brownstone, and our four-month-old son, Jake, was not quite ready for travel. The FBI wanted investigators, not writers. This kind of career move seemed ill-conceived.
"Chris?" Wayne asked. "You still with me?"
What the hell was I doing?
The road to a Special Agent badge runs pretty much the same for everyone. Just about a month after submitting the initial application, you receive a Xeroxed form letter from an applicant coordinator. Mine came from Wayne. It listed a time and date for the entrance examination and stated that I should report to the Washington Metropolitan Field Office if I wanted to continue the process. If I scored high enough in comparison to other applicants from around the country, I would be "afforded the opportunity" to continue the application process.
So, on April 10, 1986, I scheduled a day of annual leave and traveled a little more than a mile from my Capitol Hill apartment to a gray, sagging office building in South East Washington, appropr-ately named Buzzard's Point. Inside, a receptionist greeted me through a wall of bulletproof glass and pointed me to a windowless waiting room full of like-minded applicants. I counted twenty-six other people. None of them said a word.
I looked the room over, trying to assess my chances. The group included men and women of all different sizes, ages, and colors. Some of them held their form letter in their hands as if the document might be checked for authenticity. One man fidgeted in his chair so overtly, I began to feel self-conscious myself. He kept staring up at the ceiling, as if looking for the cameras he assumed they'd use to record our behavior. He crossed and uncrossed his legs half a dozen times, then exhaled deeply, stood up, and left without explanation.
The man sitting next to me tapped me on the arm and said, "He ain't coming back. I seen him in here before." He wore a lime-green leisure suit and white patent leather zipper boots. The pants had hung so long on the hanger, they showed fade lines across his knees. Fashion sense probably wouldn't appear on the exam, I guessed, but basic decorum had to figure in to the equation somewhere.
I just nodded and tried to relax until a repressed-looking GS-6 clerk entered with an armful of examination booklets.
"How many of you have taken this before?" she asked.
Three people raised their hands.
"We have your names on record, and we 'll check," she prodded without expression. "Now, how many of you have taken this test before?"
Twelve more people, including my new pal in the double knit, raised their hands.
I knew very little about the FBI or their admissions procedures, but I figured that lying this early in the process had to be a bit risky.
My instinct proved true. A couple of months after the entrance exam, I received another form letter notifying me that my score had placed me high enough above the guys in leisure suits to warrant an interview. It was written with all the personality of a road sign, but it meant that this whole idea of reaching out to federal law enforcement might not be so preposterous after all.
On June 3, 1986, I took my second of five vacation days and headed back to Buzzard's Point for a little palaver. Two men and a woman, all very professional looking, entered a small conference room overlooking the Potomac and triangulated me.
"I imagine you feel a little nervous," the taller man said. I sat at the business end of a ten-foot conference table surrounded by people who knew more about me than my mother did. "A little nervous" seemed just a bit understated.
I adjusted my posture in the slippery naugahyde chair and tried to breathe normally.
"Let me start out by asking if you remember a November day in the mid-nineteen seventies," one of the men began, "when three agents came to interview your father about a shooting."
Nineteen seventies? I was just a teenager then.
"As I understand it, your father had some involvement in the untimely death of one of Mr. Hoover's top aides. Perhaps you could tell this panel how you think that will affect your chances of becoming an FBI agent."
The room began to spin. This was one of those moments in life when you can feel the current of manifest destiny switching polarity. My mind shot back to a sunny November morning in New Hampshire more than twenty years earlier, when three men dressed in business suits and long faces showed up at my house to share a few words with my old man.
"Hello, I'm Special Agent Michael Donelly with the Federal Bureau of Investigation," one of them said. He carried a cordovan briefcase and a small gold badge worn black around the edges.
The formality of his presentation stood out from everything around our house on Profile Road. FBI agents didn't visit northern New England very often. In fact, other than the official FBI briefcase-machine gun I'd received for my eighth birthday, I knew almost nothing about J. Edgar Hoover's intractable G-men.
Franconia, New Hampshire, is a small mountain village halfway between Boston and Montreal. A steep notch pinches travel to the south with cliff walls that reach 1,000 feet straight up on both sides of the road, offering local boys such as myself a granite security but narrow horizons. The "Great Stone Face," a natural profile strong enough to inspire a poem by Daniel Webster, stands watch over the valley. His eye wanders south with a strange remorse, as if he stopped for a rest and lost his way.
Robert Frost, the town's most famous denizen, had lived out on the Easton Road, in a small meadow overlooking the Kinsman range. He spent several years walking the white birch forests and maple groves, resting on stone walls and marveling at the snows. If I ascribe the place immodest beauty, don't take my word for it. Read "The Road Not Taken" or "Mending Wall." Franconia swelled with meter and grace, from the deep beds of fall foliage to the understated truth of sunrise over a millpond. All a poet ever needed there was a pen and the audacity to call the words his own.
The only things even vaguely federal about the tiny village of 250 people boiled down to the Presidential Mountain Range, which filled the dining room window of our house on the Gale River, and an occasional Farm Bureau inspector. Our sole resource in the way of law enforcement was Police Chief Dunne, a spare, weary man who spent most of his time working a pint bottle of Old Granddad and plinking rats with Eddie Splude at the town dump. Crime -at least the sort of crime worthy of FBI intervention -just didn't roll through very often.
"Nice to meet you, sir," my dad said, reaching for Agent Donelly's hand. He wore that awkward grin he showed around the time report cards came out. "I'm sorry to hear about your boss." Agent Donelly reached into his pocket for a notebook. My father stood firmly at the bottom of our front stairs with both hands in his pockets. If he felt any embarrassment over the fact that a local man had just shot and killed a former Assistant Director of the FBI, he didn't show it. The killing bore no signs of malice. Marty Corliss, the soft-spoken son of a New Hampshire state trooper, simply mistook the Assistant Director for an eight-point buck on the back side of Sugar Hill. Though it was just a tragic accident, Corliss shot him as neatly as any Mob hit man ever could have.
The story made the front page of the Littleton Courier and sent shock waves through the North Country. Marty wasn't the first overzealous hunter to whack a fellow woodsman, but no one else had ever drawn a bead on one of the country's top crime fighters. Washington apparently took the news hard, suspecting everyone from the Luchese family to Russian cold warriors of the hit. Rumor held that the agents sent in to investigate the killing had driven all the way from St. Johnsbury, Vermont, a considerable distance by local standards. The plates on their car said Massachusetts, though, scarring their reputation before they said a word. I felt bad enough for my dad as it was, without thinking about the possibility that he 'd have to undergo interrogation from a carful of marble-mouthed flatlanders.
Whatever their origin, three men showed up dressed for a funeral in dark wool suits and white shirts. The one who took my dad out of sight into our garage looked enough like Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., that I started humming the theme song under my breath. His buddies stood there as I rocked my new Schwinn Stingray back and forth in the driveway. Maybe they'd like to see the new fly rod my Uncle Gary just bought me, I wondered.
One of the men tucked his hands in his pockets and leaned against the car, dissuading me from such intimacies until my dad emerged from the garage unhurt. These guys investigated matters of international intrigue in places I'd never been. They might know torture, too.
I decided to stick around, just for protection.
"Hey, Mister. You ever kill anybody?" I asked the shortest, least intimidating of the three. I guess that question just naturally pops into people 's minds when they meet someone who packs a tommy gun on TV.
The man looked down at me over the tops of his wire-rimmed glasses and squinted. He seemed a little uncomfortable with the question, which surprised me, considering his occupation. I saw it on television all the time -run-and-gun battles between the forces of good and evil. The FBI aired every Tuesday night on Channel 3. But this guy didn't impress me as the television type. He stared back as if he wanted to blab but couldn't hack up the words.
"Nice bike," he said. "Can you ride a wheelie?"
Could I ride a wheelie? A smile exploded across my face as I dropped the stick shift into first gear and jumped up on the right pedal for my patented high-torque takeoff. I could actually get a little rubber if the driveway was dirty enough.
I rode fast down the road, pulling on the handlebars and lifting the front wheel into the air like a seasoned veteran. The agent with the glasses watched me with the discriminating eye of a man who appreciated danger. I cocked the front wheel to the right like all the great motocross riders and concentrated so hard on my stunt that I barely noticed my dad and Agent Donelly emerging a short time later from the garage.
Everything looked all right on the surface, but for one very long moment, I searched in panic for my dad's hands, hoping Efrem Zimbalist hadn't cuffed him. Growing up in a small town left me with plenty of time to guess at how things happened in the outside world, but I'd never contemplated a scene like this. The thought of seeing these men shackle my personal hero and drag him away in shame almost shook the wind out of me.
The panic passed, however, when my dad slapped Agent Donelly on the back and laughed at some remark I couldn't hear. I locked up my brakes and just sat there at the side of the road as all three agents climbed into their blue Plymouth Fury, nodded in unison, and steered the big car past me on their way back to St. Johnsbury or Boston or wherever the hell they came from.
My buddy, the wheelie aficionado, looked up at me as they passed. He tossed out a wink and a smile in acknowledgment of my riding ability. He lifted his right hand, pointed his index finger at me in that universal sign of a fully cocked revolver, and dropped his thumb. I could almost hear the shot going off as he drove away to someplace a whole lot more exciting than Franconia, chasing spies or fugitives or bank robbers.
Every time I tested my balance from that day on, I wondered if the look on that agent's face came from a desire to protect my youthful innocence or a need to make it go away.
My God, they're good, I thought, staring across the table at my interviewer. That day in Franconia swelled up inside me as if I were still standing astride my Stingray, watching my dad emerge from the garage.
How did they know about this? I wondered. I had filled out the comprehensive background questionnaire detailing my life history all the way back to grade school. I had listed everyone I'd ever lived with, every address, every school I'd attended, references, social contacts, foreign travel in twelve countries. I'd admitted to "experimental drug use" in college, conceded a traffic violation, detailed the most intimate secrets of my first twenty-seven years. But how the hell did they know this?
I stared at the man, frozen with self-doubt. Get a grip, I argued with myself. I didn't kill any FBI agent and neither did my dad. Shit, I'd never even met Marty Corliss.
The three members of the blue-suit inquisition stared back stone-faced, waiting for an answer.
"That was a long time ago, sir," I said. "My father had nothing to do with that shooting, and I can't imagine how it would affect my ambitions now."
"Good," he said, "because if you make it through the back-ground check, you're going to be the fourth person from Franconia, New Hampshire, to become an FBI agent."
Suddenly a broad smile cracked his face. He stood up, leaned forward and shook my hand.
"Relax, kid. I'm Bernie Pierce ...grew up on Sugar Hill, about five miles from your old house. Just busting your balls about the shooting thing."
He laughed a good-natured chuckle, introduced me to the other two agents and pulled out a notebook. I tried to regain my composure. Years come back fast with the right suggestion.
"Four agents out of a town of two hundred and fifty people," he said. "Must be something in the water, huh?"
I nodded politely.
"Now, Chris," he said, "why don't you tell us just what it is that makes you want to become an FBI agent."
I just sat there, drifting, as a year's worth of ups and downs filtered through my mind the way life passes before you during a fall. In that one moment, I tried to assess the biggest career move of my young life.
Working in the Nation's Capital brings a certain flavor and excitement you can't find anywhere else. Nationalist pride consumes the place, and you gain a taste for the tremendous complexity and commitment that make this country great. Washington presented a richness of experience that transcended money. It was that twenty-four- hour vibe politicians exude: power, huge power, and that musky, intoxicating smell of cold cash and decaying ideology.
My wife, Rose, and I had come to Washington, D.C., two years earlier, at the invitation of U.S. Representative Silvio O. Conte, an old-school Yankee best known for his colorful well speeches. His administrative assistant had called Rose, and she tracked me down in the Hanover, New Hampshire, public library where I sat writing a freelance piece on something important enough to appear in the Valley News.
Conte's A.A. told me, in an inclusive voice, that a story I'd written a year earlier on the Congressman's trip to Moscow had caught his eye and that he just happened to have an opening for a speech-writer and press secretary. Would I be interested?
I pressed the phone against my ear and wondered for a moment if I was hearing things. Since college I had traipsed around the country working as a bartender, a features freelancer for Orange Coast magazine in Southern California, an English teacher at a boarding school, and a newspaper reporter at the North Adams Transcript in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts. I was two things in 1985: hungry and mobile.
"Sure," I said. "I think this might be an appropriate time for a career move."
That was on a Friday. The following Monday morning, I knocked on the double doors outside room 2300 in the Rayburn House Office Building and introduced myself. A warm and kindly grandmother named Franny McGuire ushered me into the reception area and welcomed me aboard.
"Pat!" she yelled over her shoulder. "Chris is here!" She smelled of Youth Dew and cherry cobbler. It just felt like home.
Silvio Conte served as ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, and after nearly thirty years in office had become one of the most powerful men in Congress. He walked with an endearing limp and had a grip that seemed to fit, in strength and character, the hand of everyone he ever met. His office suite, over-looking the front of the U.S. Capitol, boasted one of the finest views on Independence Avenue. He also kept a Capitol office just off the viewers' gallery above the House floor that was so well located and appointed, first ladies from Mamie Eisenhower to Nancy Reagan used it as a green room prior to their husbands' State of the Union addresses.
That's where the path to the FBI first started to appear before me. One afternoon in January, Mr. Conte took me aside and offered me a ticket, big as a postcard. It read "State of the Union," and promised a front row seat to one of the grandest nights in America.
"Can't buy one of these at Ticketmaster," the Congressman said, waving the green gem in my face. "I want you to go and see how the big boys do it. Maybe you can pick up some new material." He handed it over with one of his grandfatherly winks. "And don't try to scalp this thing, pal. That's a federal offense."
On the evening of February 4, 1986, I closed the door to my Capitol Hill row house and walked ten blocks through a pristine winter chill. Mist rose from my mouth like taffeta curtains at the edges of a frosted window. I walked past the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court and the motorcades and black limousines toward a Capitol building that seemed to pulse with energy.
I walked past news cameras and bomb dogs and SWAT teams and Secret Service snipers on the roof with scoped rifles. I gawked at the ambulances in the parking lot and the helicopters on the east lawn and the satellite dish-topped TV production trucks up and down a barricaded Independence Avenue. The hair on the back of my neck stood straight up. The ticket felt heavy as a Gale River rock in my overcoat pocket.
The viewers' gallery above the House floor is steep and shallow. My seat looked down over the Republican side of the aisle just to the left of where Nancy Reagan would sit among the seats traditionally held for first ladies and their attendants. She was still sip-ping tea in Mr. Conte 's office when I arrived, but she would soon emerge and make an entrance, waving down to Republican friends and savoring her husband's American transformation. There was no talk of "voodoo economics" or the "Teflon president" or of a somewhat befuddled actor playing a role that night. There was just an overwhelming sense of pride and a tangible awe for the pageantry of it all.
I watched with a lump in my throat as the sergeant at arms welcomed the Senate, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, twelve of the thirteen Cabinet secretaries, and the Supreme Court. They walked slowly, nodding and shaking hands as they went. It was all done with great respect and tradition that I'd never read about in civics texts. Chanel No. 5 and Aramis mingled in the air as a thousand voices echoed off the mahogany Speaker's chair, the marble columns and gold-leaf frescoes. Light fell from recessed fixtures in the ceiling near carefully hidden security cameras. Reporters peered down from the press gallery, sharpening their pencils for the sage articles and editorials that would flow out with the applause to editors crowding midnight deadlines.
"Mr. Speaker!" A hush fell over men and women who made their living by flapping their gums.
"The President of the United States!" The House of Representatives erupted in bedlam. And then I saw him: the Great Communicator taking the floor, his right hand raised above that shock of G.I. Joe hair and the little-boy smile.
He walked toward the dais, home triumphantly from his trip to the Soviet Union with an olive branch in one hand and a steel hammer in the other. Vice President George Bush and House Speaker Tip O'Neill rose and clapped. The Joint Chiefs followed suit, as did the entire Senate and the Cabinet and all 435 members of the home team. This was an amazing moment in American history and in my life.
To stand there in that room, with my hands trembling between claps as the entire executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the United States government assembled below me, felt absolutely stunning.
I knew then, as if by epiphany, that what I wanted to do with my life was to help protect it all. Suddenly it wasn't enough to craft speeches that braced its facades or to play knight's second to a man who waged its battles. It no longer interested me to be Holden Caulfield standing quietly among them, waiting to catch the symbolism as it jumped into the rhetorical rye. I wanted to make a difference in society, to wake up in the morning with a cause. Justice.
I wanted jurisdiction.
And so it came down to agency. I had a friend in the Secret Service, but he had burned out on the idea of throwing himself in front of a bullet for a complete stranger. The DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) was still pretty much unknown in those days, and the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) --- well, they were pretty quiet too. That left the FBI. They were the biggest and the best, according to everyone I talked to. And they were hiring. Maybe I had a chance.
After a sleepless night wondering how I could best serve my country, I decided to take a stroll down the road less traveled by. The next day, I pulled out a D.C. phone directory and called the FBI's Washington Field Office for an application.
What the hell? I thought. Who'd ever believe I could have found my way into this never-never land from the wooded slopes of New Hampshire to begin with?
Something in my answer must have struck Bernie Pierce and his interview team as genuine, because a short time after our little talk, another letter arrived in my mailbox.
"Your combined test and interview scores have made you eligible for further consideration for the Special Agent position," it read. "A thorough review will be made of your application and dependent upon the needs of this Bureau, you will be considered for further processing."
If the language seemed dry, I didn't notice. Joining the FBI had become an obsession at that point, and "further processing" sounded like an invitation from the Director himself.
I completed the final steps in the hiring process within a couple of weeks. Wayne drove me from Buzzard's Point to FBI Headquarters in his Bureau car for a physical fitness test, which he held in the basement parking garage. Five other candidates and I ran a mile and a half for time at 4:30 in the afternoon as the car pools emptied out around me. I finished in just under nine minutes, despite the course, which required that I dodge a motorcade of government Chevys while sucking exhaust fumes and weaving my way through a labyrinth of concrete pillars.
After the fitness test came the comprehensive physical examination at Walter Reed Army Hospital. They checked everything from hearing and vision to lung capacity and heart rate. No problems.
"Sure, Wayne," I said, finally finding the words that would change my life forever. "Two weeks will work just fine."
I hung up the phone and stared out at the Capitol as it glowed in the brilliant crimson sunset that old-timers refer to as "red weather." The future seemed absolutely incandescent as I contemplated three months of training at Quantico and thirty years sporting a gold FBI badge. Becoming a G-man had seemed impossible for so long, and now the prospect danced coyly in front of me like a debutante at a spring cotillion.
Excerpted from COLD ZERO © Copyright 2004 by Christopher Whitcomb. Reprinted with permission by Warner Books, an imprint of Time Warner Bookmark. All rights reserved.
Cold Zero: Inside the FBI Hostage Rescue Team
- Genres: Nonfiction
- Mass Market Paperback: 528 pages
- Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
- ISBN-10: 0446611824
- ISBN-13: 9780446611824