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A special agent is an investigator or detective for a governmental or independent agency, who primarily serves in criminal investigatory positions. Additionally, many federal and state special agents operate in "criminal intelligence" based roles as well. Within the U.S. federal law enforcement system, dozens of federal agencies employ federal law enforcement officers, each with different criteria pertaining to the use of the titles Special Agent and Agent.
In federal/military intelligence usage, "agent" also refers to a human source or human "asset" who is recruited, trained, controlled, and employed to obtain and report information. Within law enforcement agencies, these types of sources are often referred to as informants, confidential informants (CI—not to be confused with counterintelligence) or confidential human sources (CHS).
In general, some agents are federal law enforcement officers and hold either arrest authority or the right to conduct minor criminal/non-criminal investigations. In some agencies, however, a Special Agent may have both criminal and non-criminal investigatory authority but still have no authority to conduct major criminal investigations.
Regardless, most people holding the title of "Special Agent" are law enforcement officers under state or federal law (with some also being dual intelligence operatives such as with the FBI). These law enforcement officers are distinctly empowered to conduct both major and minor criminal investigations, and hold arrest authority.
Additionally, most Special Agents are authorized to carry firearms both on and off duty due to their status as law enforcement officers. In US federal law enforcement, the title of "Special Agent" is used almost exclusively for federal and military criminal investigators only.
Within the U.S. government, the title of Special Agent designates a general investigator in the GS-1810 job series, criminal investigator in the GS-1811 job series or a counterintelligence operations specialist in the GS-0132 job series according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) handbook. Special Agents typically have an undergraduate degree.
- 1810: General Investigator
- 1811: Criminal Investigator
Most federal agencies, including the following, employ some type of Special Agent, investigator or background investigator:
- Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
- Department of Agriculture (USDA)
- Department of Commerce (USDOC)
- Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
- Department of Education (ED)
- Office of Inspector General (ED-OIG)
- Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
- Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS)
- Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS)
- Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
- Federal Protective Service (FPS)
- Immigration and Customs Enforcement / Homeland Security Investigations (ICE/HSI)
- Office of Inspector General (DHS-OIG)
- Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
- United States Secret Service (USSS)
- Department of the Interior (DOI)
- United States Department of Labor Office of Inspector General (DOL-OIG)
- Department of Defense (DOD)
- Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI)
- Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA)
- Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)
- Defense Logistics Agency Office of Inspector General (DLA OIG)
- National Security Agency (NSA)
- Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS)
- Office of Inspector General (DOD-OIG)
- Pentagon Force Protection Agency (PFPA)
- United States Army Counterintelligence (Army CI)
- United States Army Criminal Investigation Command (USACIDC)
- United States Marine Corps Criminal Investigation Division (Marine CID Agent)
- United States Department of Energy (DOE) - National Nuclear Security Administration
- United States Office of Personnel Management
- Office of Inspector General (OPM-OIG)
- Department of Justice (DOJ)
- Department of State
- Department of Transportation (DOT)
- Department of the Treasury
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
- Office of Inspector General
- Office of Protective Services
- Postal Service (USPS)
- United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS – not an Inspector General)
- United States Postal Service Office of Inspector General (USPS-OIG)
- United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- All 64 federal Offices of Inspector General (OIG)
Training for the federal criminal investigator
Federal law enforcement training can be divided into various categories, the most common being basic, agency-specific basic (ASB), advanced/specialized, and agency-advanced/specialized. To operate safely and effectively, U.S. Special Agents and criminal investigators must possess skills and knowledge regarding criminal and civil law and procedure, enforcement operations, physical techniques, and technical equipment, to mention a few. They must also be physically fit. While possession of a college degree can aid in obtaining employment in this profession, only extensive training provided at specialized facilities, combined with on-the-job training, can provide the skills and knowledge needed to perform the duties of a federal criminal investigator. As of 2012, there were 13,913 FBI agents, as of 2016, there were approximately 6,500 ICE-Homeland Security investigations (HSI) agents, and as of 2011, there were 4,890 DEA agents in the United States.
Most U.S. Special Agents and federal criminal investigators receive their basic training at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers (FLETC), including HSI, ATF, IRS-CI, USMS, USSS, DSS, AFOSI, NCIS and OIGs. FLETC has facilities in Brunswick (Glynco), GA, Artesia, NM, Charleston, SC, and Cheltenham, MD.
Only DEA and FBI agents receive their basic training at Quantico. The FBI and DEA operate completely self-contained academies that provide all levels of training to their agents. These academies make no distinction between basic and agency-specific basic training. New FBI and DEA agents train at their academies for approximately five months before they begin their first investigative assignment. Both agencies' academies also provide advanced training in various subjects to other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's FLETC, commonly pronounced "flet-see", is a consolidated training facility that provides basic and advanced training to the vast majority of U.S. Special Agents and other federal law enforcement personnel. The FLETC also provides advanced and specialized training for most federal, state, local, tribal and non-U.S. law enforcement agencies willing to share in the cost. The FLETC's basic training course for Special Agents, the Criminal Investigator Training Program (CITP), lasts about thirteen weeks, and may be given to persons if required for self-protection, depending on changes to program content or holidays. Nevertheless, CITP only represents the beginning or basic training received by U.S. Special Agents not employed by the FBI, federal air marshals, DEA, or USPIS.
After completing the FLETC CITP, most agents immediately transition to training provided by their own agencies (hence the term agency-specific basic, or ASB), lasting another two to sixteen weeks and sometimes longer, depending on the agency. Some smaller agencies, like the 64 offices of inspector general (OIGs), operate consolidated academies, such as the Inspector General Criminal Investigator Academy (IGCIA), through which specialized but common ASB-type skills and knowledge are more economically taught. So agents employed by the OIGs first attend CITP, then attend the IGCIA's IG Investigator Training Program (IGITP), then attend their own agencies' ASB training after completing IGITP, receiving a total of up to sixteen weeks or more of training before conducting their first investigation. Many of the agencies utilizing FLETC maintain their individual academies for providing ASB and agency-specific advanced training on the same grounds as FLETC and share use of the same facilities. Some agencies, such as the U.S. Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service and the U.S. Secret Service, conduct their ASB training in separate agency-owned and operated facilities.
Although a much smaller agency than the FBI or DEA, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service also operates a self-contained federal law enforcement training academy called the Career Development Division (CDD). Like FLETC and Quantico, USPIS CDD has been fully accredited by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Accreditation (FLETA). Like the other academies, CDD provides basic training to postal inspectors in firearms, legal use of force, driving training, crime scene management, controlled deliveries, felony arrests, case management, case development, informant management, and surveillance, but also incorporates agency-specific basic training to help prepare the USPIS candidates in enforcing postal laws and federal mail statutes such as mail fraud, mail theft, and other mail related crimes. In addition to basic training, CDD also provides advanced training for the postal inspectors, the uniformed postal police personnel, and the analysts.
For all U.S. Special Agents, training does not stop after basic and ASB. The career of a federal Special Agent is one of regular training in new legal issues and investigative techniques, and frequently includes quarterly, if not monthly, refresher training in hand-to-hand defensive tactics, the use of weapons of less than lethal force, and regular qualification in the use of firearms.
Criminal investigators and the use of the term Special Agent
Not all federal criminal investigators are called Special Agents. Some federal agencies entitle their investigators as criminal investigators but use the term interchangeably with Special Agent. Other federal agencies use different titles for the same 1811 criminal investigative job series. Series 1811 criminal investigators for the U.S. marshals are entitled deputy marshals. Series 1811 criminal investigators for the U.S Postal Inspection Service are called postal inspectors. These inspectors were originally called surveyors and received a title change in 1801 to Special Agent. In 1880, the U.S. Congress created the position of Chief Postal Inspector and renamed these Special Agents to postal inspectors. The first Special Agents in the United States were appointed in 1791 when the Secretary of the Treasury was authorized to employ "Special Agents" for the purpose of examining the accounts and books of the Collectors of Customs. The position of Special Treasury Agent was created, and until 1860 submitted reports to the Department of Treasury, through the Collectors of Customs in the Customs District in which they were employed.
The titles Special Agent and secret agent are not synonymous. The title Special Agent is commonly the official title assigned to individuals employed in that capacity, especially by the U.S. agencies described above (and for the reasons described below), whereas secret agent is less of an official title, but is used to describe individuals employed or engaged in espionage. Special Agents, like state, county, and municipal law enforcement officers, can, at various times, engage in secret or undercover activities as part of investigative operations, or counter-espionage assignments, during which they might be referred to as undercover agents. They may also be referred to, or refer to themselves, as criminal investigators, federal agents, U.S. Agents, U.S Special Agents, U.S. federal agents, agents, federal authorities, federal officers, or federal investigators.
At the management level, the head of a region or office might be called a Special Agent in charge, abbreviated as an SAC or SAIC. The Deputy Special Agent in Charge (DSAC), acts as the operational manager for investigations and typically supervises Assistant Special Agents in Charge (ASACs). First line supervisors may be called simply Supervisory Special Agent, Assistant to the Special Agent in Charge (ATSAIC) or Group Supervisors. Assistant Special Agent in Charge, abbreviated as ASAC, are second line supervisors. In the FBI, the offices in Washington DC, New York City and Los Angeles are overseen by Assistant Directors in Charge (ADIC) due to their large size.
Exactly which U.S. Special Agents have the broadest authority is a matter of debate. The issue of concurrent jurisdiction (in which multiple agencies have non-exclusive jurisdiction over a given set of the U.S. Code, such as the FBI, HSI and DEA in respect to drug laws) does not make the issue clearer. However, Special Agents of many agencies can often enforce Title 18 (general criminal code) of the US Code included in their agency specific duties. Some U.S. Special Agents have a larger number of titles, or just different titles, to enforce and with those titles sometimes include unique authorities.
The following are some examples of unique authorities that agency-specific Special Agents possess: administrative subpoena powers. Department of Defense and any military Special Agents are authorized to enforce the UCMJ. Title 19 designation authorizes HSI Special Agents, CBP officers, Border Patrol Agents to perform border searches, which require no suspicion or warrant.
Some agencies have been designated lead agency by the Attorney General over particular types of investigations. The FBI usually is the lead in public corruption cases involving elected government officials. In another instance, HSI is normally the lead agency in matters with an articulable nexus to the U.S. border, including weapons and narcotics smuggling; financial crimes, money laundering and bulk cash smuggling; human trafficking or smuggling; counter-terrorism; counter proliferation; cybercrime; transnational gang activity; commercial fraud and intellectual property theft; human rights violations; immigration, document and benefit fraud; international art and antiquity theft; and import/export violations.
Many exclusive jurisdictions also exist. In these cases, only one criminal investigative agency is authorized or assigned jurisdiction over a particular Title or type of investigation.
Special Agents of the ATF, DSS, DEA, FBI, IRS-CI, ICE-Homeland Security Investigations, USSS and USMS not only have the power to enforce the General Criminal Code (Title 18), but also applicable state and local laws if authorized by the state in which they are operating. Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS), United States Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID), United States Army Counterintelligence, Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), and U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) Special Agents not only investigate statutes within the United States Code and state and local laws with a nexus to their branch, but are also tasked with enforcing the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), a jurisdiction not held by most of the larger federal agencies. All DCIS, USACIDC, Army Counterintelligence, NCIS, and AFOSI Special Agents enjoy statutory law enforcement authority, although civilian and military agents derive their principal arrest authority from different federal statutes. Other Special Agents, such as those employed by the National Park Service, have jurisdiction over crimes committed within the boundaries of or have a nexus to the lands managed by their agency or department only. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Special Agents have administrative arrest powers under the Immigration and Nationality Act. They can administratively arrest and detain aliens for violations of United States immigration laws pending federal removal (deportation) proceedings. HSI Special Agents can also seize merchandise and articles introduced into the United States contrary to U.S. laws under Title 19 of the United States Code.
Certain active-duty Special Agents employed by the military have broad authority, when the nexus of the violation they are investigating occurred on military-controlled areas or there is a military connection.
All of the major Class I railroads, most regional carriers, and some local railways employ their own police departments whose officers carry the title Special Agent. Railroad Special Agents are commissioned by the governor or other agency of the state they are employed in, are armed, and carry state arrest powers in all states in which their employing railroad owns property, if authorized by the state. Their primary concern is policing crimes against the railroad, although they sometimes have the authority to police the general public, make arrests on public property, and enforce applicable local, state, or federal laws when necessary.
State, county, municipal, and tribal governments
A state or municipal criminal investigator can also be titled as a "Special Agent" if labeled as such by their employing agency. Most commonly this title is seen within the state bureaus of investigation (SBI) which operate as a state-level detective agency/bureau for one of the 50 U.S. states.
Some examples of SBI's with "Special Agents" include the California Department of Justice / California Bureau of Investigation, Alabama Department of Public Safety's Alabama Bureau of Investigation, Illinois State Police various investigators, Illinois Department of Revenue's Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Ohio Attorney General's Office, Iowa Department of Public Safety, Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Bureau of Law Enforcement, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Additionally, the Virginia State Police has investigators who are Special Agents, which conduct investigations into a broad range of matters and has Special Agents assigned to the Executive Protection unit the protects the sitting Governor. VSP also has Trooper Agents, which are persons who are front line Troopers with marked police vehicles but are also Special Agents. Several Native American tribes also employ what they refer to as "Special Agents" which include criminal investigators, court investigators, or gaming investigators, and some are deputized as special federal officers of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In popular culture
Special Agents, particularly those within the FBI, have been depicted in popular entertainment for years.
The title "assistant Special Agent in charge" and its acronym "ASAC" are stated frequently throughout the TV series Breaking Bad. For example, in Season 1 through Season 4, both Hank Schrader and Gus Fring are shown to be friendly with Hank's boss, ASAC George Merkert, and in Season 4 Episode 12 "End Times", Steve Gomez tells Dennis the "ASAC" is being pressured to search Gus's laundry for drugs. In Season 5, Hank – who is proud to have been promoted to the job vacated by his ousted boss – repeatedly chants "ASAC Schrader" to his baby niece Holly.
In the TV series White Collar, Peter Burke is the "Special Agent in Charge" (promoted from assistant Special Agent in charge at the end of Season 6) and the head of the Manhattan White Collar Division.
In the TV series The X Files, the title "Special Agent" is given to both Fox Mulder and Dana Scully of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The title is referenced by them numerous times throughout each episode.
The main character from the TV series Twin Peaks, is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, and also, other FBI Special Agents make numerous cameos throughout the series, and its prequel movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
"Dick Barton - Special Agent" was the subject of radio programs (in the 1940s) and later TV and film productions.
- List of United States federal law enforcement agencies
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
- Diplomatic Security Service, U.S. Department of State
- Drug Enforcement Administration
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
- Investigator (disambiguation)
- IRS Criminal Investigation
- Law enforcement agency
- Police rank
- Society of Former Special Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation
- State bureau of investigation
- State police
- U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
- United States Marshals Service
- United States Secret Service
- North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO Standardization Agency "AAP-6 - Glossary of terms and definitions", p. 47.
- "DLA Office of the Inspector General". www.dla.mil. Retrieved 25 August 2017.
- "Top Careers for Students of Criminology and Criminal Justice". Portland State University. Retrieved 2015-01-28.
- "Department of Treasury". Retrieved May 16, 2020.