Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Inside the FBI: RWA Conference Recap

Today my guest is author Grace Kone, who recently attended the Romance Writers of America conference in Washington, DC. (Alas, I couldn't go this year). Each year, the Kiss of Death chapter of RWA has a tour of special interest to its mystery/romance author members. She is sharing a part of that tour with us. Enjoy!

For three days prior to the national conference of the Romance Writers of America in Washington, D.C., I had a very special privilege. On tours arranged by the Mystery/Suspense chapter of RWA I visited the FBI, the State Department, the Postal Inspection Service, and the CIA. Today I’ve chosen just a few FBI highlights.

We were up at five, on the bus by six, our driver taking us south of Washington and far, far into the woods to visit the FBI Training Academy at Quantico, Virginia. Frankly, I was expecting smirks when a group of fifty romance writers descended on the FBI. To my surprise, we were treated like royalty. Not a smirk in sight. We were soon divided into two groups—one section off to the shooting range while the rest of us toured Hogan’s Alley.

Hogan’s Alley was built with the help of Hollywood set experts. It’s a small town, complete with movie theater, stores, apartment buildings, motel, warehouses, and two single-family suburban homes. While we were there, we saw two training scenarios—a street chase, including a shoot-out—and the take-down of a suspect in a car. The trainee had to chase the driver when he made a run for it. The bad guys are played by volunteers, many of whom have been volunteering for years.

When it was our group’s turn for the gun range, we shot handguns, a shotgun, an HK MP-5, and an old-fashioned tommy gun (very heavy). I ended up having to dig powder burns from my arms the next day.

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After lunch, we had three outstanding speakers, who urged us to ask questions any time. (And, believe me, we did.) The agent who spoke on Espionage Investigations (on American soil) emphasized that he believed that espionage by the PRC (People’s Republic of China) was the most serious current threat, that it would continue to increase in size and scope.

John Tanza, who spoke on Undercover Operations, interspersed drama with humor. His ethnic background tailored him to go undercover with the Mafia. (Undercover agents must be able to “fit in”; i.e., be knowledgeable about the sub-culture they are penetrating, including social customs.) He told us about one of his biggest take-downs, which involved something like sixty dirty cops. He and his team were in as much danger from the police as they were from being discovered by the bad guys. He also had us laughing about a personal incident. He and his wife encountered a long line for an event in Las Vegas, and she urged him to do his Mafia impersonation. He put on his undercover attitude, flashed some money, dropped some big names, and they were whisked past everyone else in line. An interesting personal touch to let us know FBI agents are human.

Our third speaker, George Pico, a relatively young agent, earned his place as teacher and speaker at the Academy by being the sole interrogator of Saddam Hussein for eight months (5-7 hours a day) and then by spending another six months writing the Prosecution’s case against him. When asked, “Didn’t Saddam know why you were there?” George replied that he must have, but he was the only person Saddam could talk to, the person he had to ask if he wanted anything; i.e., Saddam’s only contact with the outside world. Saddam was concerned about his “legacy.” He wanted his words recorded, and also, as a human being, he needed to communicate with the only person available.

How was George chosen? He told us that out of 12,000 FBI agents, only twelve were native Arabic speakers. (George came here from Lebanon at age twelve.) He also had ten years’ experience as a homicide investigator before joining the FBI. This gave him plenty of experience in interrogation. He did not ask for the job; he simply received a phone call telling him he was “it.”

Other than George’s name, Saddam did not know who he was. He assumed that George was the head of Intelligence for Iraq and that he was in constant touch with the U. S. President (not so).

George used the “soft” approach, learning everything he could about Saddam and his background. He went back to Saddam’s childhood, accumulated a picture file. He even read the four romance novels Saddam wrote. And, yes, he described Saddam as a romantic, a man who saw himself as the warrior on the white horse, the savior of his people. Saddam adored his mother; he was a ladies’ man. George also described Saddam as likable, with a great sense of humor. When asked how he kept from identifying with Saddam, George replied that he would remember that Saddam had poison-gassed his own people.

At first, George spent a good bit of time just talking to Saddam, finding a “baseline,” which he also described as the “truthline”—ways to determine if Saddam was telling the truth; i.e., body language, etc. George describes Saddam’s hunger strike as the turning point. From his hospital bed he told George he only started to eat again because he could see George was so worried about him.

Among the information that came out: Saddam most feared Iran. Iran was the reason he made a charade of having Weapons of Mass Destruction. But, yes, he would have rebuilt his nuclear program if sanctions were lifted. Also, he had only an arms-length relationship with Al-Queda. He was actually wary of them and opposed to any “power-sharing.”

A personal tidbit: George shared with Saddam cookies his mother sent him. He said his mother was not happy about it when she heard.

George gave Saddam three days warning that he was leaving. Saddam said: “You don’t like me any more.” On the final day George brought in Cuban cigars, which Saddam loved and hadn’t had since his capture. They went outside and smoked and drank coffee. Saddam cried when George left.

All in all, a stunning story. To complete our amazing day at the FBI: as we walked down a glass-walled corridor, two deer came out of the woods and began to graze on the grass across the road from the shooting ranges. Obviously, the guns had shut down for the day, as well as the deer being serenely confident that those guns weren’t going to be turned on them.

Grace Kone writes romance as Blair Bancroft and mystery as Daryn Parke. You can find her at www.blairbancroft.com and www.darynparke.com, where you can read the first chapter of THE ART OF EVIL, a mystery set at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota


lastnerve said...

Wow! That was such a good blog! To actually be with the only person who interrogated Saddam and then to see the human side of him was amazing to read about. I really loved this blog today.


Terry Odell said...

I hear you, Val -- only wish I could have been there. So glad Grace shared it with us.

Stacey Joy Netzel said...

Awesome post! Thank you SO much for sharing. :)

elaine cantrell said...

What a great article. Even if Saddam did gas his own people I bet it was hard not to start seeing him as a human being and not a monster. George must be a very good agent.

Mark E. said...

Fascinating post. Must have been amazing to get those kinds of tours. Do you know if there is a recording of any type of that speech that Piro gave?

Terry Odell said...

Grace should be checking in during the day to respond to your comments. Thanks for your patience.

Terry Odell said...

Note from Grace's daughter:

This is Grace's daughter writing. She has been ill all week due to a stomach virus and was unable to be on the blog today. Due to dehydration she is in the hospital where she is receiving fluids until she is better. Thanks.


Stacey Joy Netzel said...

Feel better, Grace. :( Prayers and hugs for a speedy recovery!

Ray said...

I loved the John Tanza tale. It sound like something a person with enough nerve to work undercover would do.

Did George mention Saddam's eyes? A woman who was forced by Saddam's people to have sex with him in the palace said that the scariest thing she noticed about him was that his eyes looked dead. She knew she could be killed, but what she feared most was felling that there was nothing human behind those eyes.

Great blog.

Emma Sanders said...

Thanks for sharing! I'm sorry I missed that. Oh, to shoot an MP-5 and listen to those speakers. Sounds like a lot of fun (and great research!)

Mark E. said...

Thanks for the updates. Hope Grace feels better soon.