December 31, 2006

The FBI is Our Friend

(Well, Mine at Least)

Without getting into some long, boring claptrap about my personal political beliefs (especially given that I have none, though I can fake it for special occasions), let’s just say I’m a big fan of personal privacy.  I try—despite what the existence of this column may imply to the contrary—to live under the radar as much as possible.

     Because of that, I find recent and not so recent developments in the way things are run in this country very disturbing. I don’t like the fact that people can listen to my phone calls, read my emails, know what websites I look at or track my movements.

     It’s not that I’m up to anything illicit—I’m not. But sometimes things can be misinterpreted.

     I’ll cut this off before it slides into a rant, because that’s not my point. Let’s just say that, given the above, I’m generally not a real big fan of America’s domestic intelligence agencies.

     Nevertheless, over the past few months, the research I’ve been doing for a new book has required that I get in touch with the FBI. More than that, even, I needed their cooperation.

     I was writing about a criminal case which had been investigated by FBI agents from New Jersey, so my needs were simple: the case was long closed, so I was hoping to talk to the agents involved, and take a look at their case file. What could be easier?

     So what did I do? I picked up the phone one morning, called the Jersey Headquarters, and asked to speak to the agent I wanted to interview. I’d been in the newspaper business for twenty years, and that technique usually worked. But I guess I never dealt with the FBI before.

     (For the record, all the names that follow have been changed.)

     After the receptionist patched me through, the phone rang twice before a woman’s voice said, “Agent Laughlin’s office.”

     “Hello there, umm,” I said. Then I gave her my name and asked if the agent was available.


     “Okay—ah—do you know when he might be?”


     “Well that’s okay,” I said. “Perhaps if I could just get his voicemail, so I could leave a message and—”

     “We don’t have voicemail.”

     “I see...In that case, might I, ah, be able to get Agent Laughlin’s email address?”

     “We don’t have email.”

     That’s funny, I thought. How are they supposed to read other people’s email if they don’t have email themselves?

     That was a question for another time. This situation in front of me was getting ridiculous.

     “Do you suppose,” I said, “I could leave a message with you?”

     There was a long pause. It sounded like she’d cupped her hand over the phone to ask someone nearby if this was something they would do. A moment later she came back and asked, “What is it?”

     I gave her my name, number, and the case I was interested in talking to the agent about. I knew the message would be in the garbage seconds after she hung up, if she was writing anything at all. I was a receptionist once—I know how these things work.

     When two days passed and I hadn’t received a call, I tried again. This time I was passed to the press office, where I once again pleaded my case. The interview, the file.

     “Ah, well,” the man said, “we’re not just gonna open our files to you—that just ain’t gonna happen.”


     “And as far as the interview goes—you’re gonna have to go through HQ to set that up.”

     “I see.”

     In the end, he was awfully friendly in his rejection, and gave me the name and number of the person in Washington I needed to talk to.

     So I called that number. Halfway through my third sentence, the man on the other end of the line stopped me.

     “Whoa, whoa, whoa—hold on—this is about a book?”


     “Then you’re at the wrong place. We just handle periodicals. Requests for book research are someplace else, but I’m not sure where.”


     But he put me back in touch with the departmental secretary, who, in theory, would know.

     She was an extraordinarily nice woman, and for some reason, I sensed that my luck was about to change. Especially when she told me that I needed to talk to Agent Tamblyn.

     That name had popped up in several of the newspaper stories I’d read about the case. This was perfect. Quite by accident, I was being put in touch with exactly the person I needed, without going through all the bureaucratic nonsense.

     A minute later his phone was ringing.

     “Roger Tamblyn,” a voice said.

     Once again, I’d gotten only a few sentences into my spiel when he cut me off. “I’m not the one you need to talk to,” he said.

     “Really? That’s too bad—’cause, see, this all involves a case you worked.”

     His voice changed. He suddenly sounded human.

     “Okay,” he said, “now you’ve piqued my interest. What case are we talking about?”

     I told him.

     “Ah, see,” he said, almost apologetically. “I didn’t really work that case—I was just a press liaison. I don’t know anything about it.”

     “Well, damn, huh?”

     “Sorry—no, the guy you need to talk to is Tom Swift.”


     “Special Agent Tom Swift.”

     “You’re joking, right?”


     The notepad next to me was quickly filling with names and numbers, none of them I would ever need again. Along the way, I was forgetting that any one of these people could, should they have a hankering to, make me disappear. At least the deeper I got into this thing, the nicer people seemed to be getting. It was like I was passing a series of tests. Or maybe I was just being lulled into a false sense of security as they set me up for one grand, cruel joke.

     I was relieved that (ahem) Agent Swift had an email address. I’m usually better in print than I am on the phone. So after I hung up, I composed an email outlining the case and what I was looking for, and sent it off.

     The next day, Tom Swift wrote me back.


     Dear Mr. Knipfel,

     Your request for FBI assistance was received and you will soon be contacted by an FBI public affairs representative.

     Kindest regards,

     Tom Swift, FBI


     “I’ll be goddamned,” I said aloud to no one. “I just got an email from the FBI.”

     Two days later they called me on the phone in the middle of the afternoon. It wasn’t Tom Swift, but rather another agent, Jake Meyers, who would be handling my request personally.

     We talked about the case, then about deadlines, and newspapers and radio, then about Brooklyn, then the Brooklyn Dodgers, then Schaefer Beer.

     It was as friendly as friendly could be. For it all, though, I was a little on edge, waiting for him to drop the bomb. Bring up some of my old columns or something. But he didn’t.

     In the end, he just asked me to send him a list of some of the questions I thought I might be asking. That was all—he’d take care of the rest.

     Over the next two months, Agent Meyers and I exchanged emails about the progress of the request. He regularly apologized for how long it was taking, and thanked me for my patience. But what choice did I have, really? What, I was supposed to throw a fit?

     Then again, maybe some people do. But this guy had been so kind through the whole process, I couldn’t imagine it, though I did have to admit it was dragging on a bit longer than I’d originally expected.

     Finally, almost four months after I made that first phone call, I received the note I was waiting for:


  Hello Jim...

Finally we made it...the interview is a go.  Please call Special Agent

Henry Abbot in our Newark office.  Please call on

Monday and he will line you up with an Agent for the interview.

  Thank you for your patience.  Henry will take care of you up there.



     The following Monday, I got myself all prepared with my tape recorder and my list of questions. Had an extra cup of coffee and a few extra smokes. Then I picked up the phone.

      I asked for Agent Abbot when the receptionist answered, and a moment later found myself on the line with the same guy who’d blown me off (but friendly-like) all those months earlier. I played it cool, though, hoping he wouldn’t remember.

     “Oh yeah,” he said when I explained the call. “Yeah. Here’s the thing with that. The agent you want to talk to isn’t here. He had a big take down last night, so he’s pretty busy today.”

     Take down?

     “Sure, I understand,” I said.

     “Try tomorrow,” he said.

     But when I tried the next day, the agent was on vacation.

     The next week he wasn’t returning Abbot’s phone calls.

     The week after that, either.

     So this is where they get me. I put the book on hold so I could set up this fucking interview, and everyone plays along until the last minute, when they pull the rug out from under me. Was that their little game?

     Weird thing is, through it all, I had stayed in touch with Jake Meyers, but now we were just chatting. I kept my frustration to myself—he’d done his job.

     Then late one Monday morning, a month after I’d heard that everything was set up, the phone rang again.

     “Jim!” a by-now familiar voice barked onto the answering machine. I picked up the phone.

     It was Henry Abbot and Special Agent Laughlin, who’d been lead investigator on the case I was writing about, and the first man I’d tried to call. Both men were cordial and friendly, and very apologetic about having taken so long to finally do this thing.

     Well, jeepers, I thought. God bless the FBI.

     After the interview, I wrote a note to Agent Meyers, letting him know it had finally happened, and offering to buy him a beer next time he was in Brooklyn. He wrote back, accepting. Then we were talking about the old Schaefer Brewery again.

     Still, though, something in the back of my mind was whispering that I was being set up somehow. But I guess I’ll find out about that later.


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