Danger, subterfuge, adrenaline — as more agencies use undercover operatives, we take a look at what it's like to take on a false identity professionally.
A recent report out says the agency has made major improvements since Sept. 11, but still needs to boost its ability to collect intelligence.
Those operations can take many forms, but some of the most critical are the undercover missions that require agents to take on new identities and with them, a whole lot of risk. And it's not just the FBI. The New York Times reported last fall that at least 40 federal agencies use undercover agents in some capacity.
This kind of work is glamorized all the time in TV and movies, but behind many of the real life law enforcement success stories are agents who have risked their lives living as someone they aren't.
For the Record this week, we set out for answers: What kind of people are drawn to undercover work? What effect can working undercover have on your psyche? Do men and women approach this work in the same way?
We talked with three people with different views on this topic. (Click on the audio link to hear their full stories.)
Michael Vigil, The Retired Undercover Agent
Vigil is a former undercover agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration who kind of just wants to get back in the game.
"Sometimes you develop these relationships with these traffickers," Vigil says. "You know, they're stone psychopathic killers, but they have great personalities. So, it's very difficult when you have to arrest them and put them in prison for a number of years. ... It is a moral dilemma, because, again sometimes these guys become your family."
Sherrie Moore, The Agent
Moore, senior special agent with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, is still very much in the game.
"When you go in and you purchase drugs and you come out — there used to be an old Toyota commercial and they would jump up in the air and wave their hands around," Moore says. "That is the feeling that you get when pull one over on somebody. You're amazed at yourself, that you were able to do that, and the adrenaline dump is unbelievable sometimes."
Laura Brodie, The Psychiatrist
Brodie, a criminal and forensic psychologist, helps agents like this come to terms with some of the tough stuff they see and do for a living.
"As an undercover, you're basically kind of an independent operator," Brodie explains. "You do a lot of things on your own. You [are] kind of your own boss, and it's very compelling, and it's very addictive."
My Three Takeaways
First, don't think for a second that you know what an undercover agent might look like, sound like or be like. You never know what kind of person would go in for this sort of work. Sure, there are those uber-masculine, ego-driven tough guys who look like they came out of central casting. But then there's someone like Moore. She's a soft-spoken woman from a small town who claims to look like a soccer mom, but can "skank it up" when she needs to take on a certain identity that gives her credibility on the streets.
Second, I went into this thinking that in order to keep the integrity of an operation, an undercover agent would have to live 24/7 in that identity. That's not always the case. In fact, Vigil told us that he kept two apartments, one where he lived in his false identity as a drug dealer and another apartment where he could go to be himself — a necessary touchstone with reality.
Third, it definitely takes a unique kind of person to do this work, someone who doesn't easily succumb to fear but doesn't take unnecessary risks. Someone with a strong sense of empathy, because that's key to assuming another identity. But at the same time, these folks need to be very good at compartmentalizing their lives. They have to spend time with some very dodgy characters working in a very dark world. They have to know how to shut that off and remember who they really are when the operation is finally over.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And this is For The Record. There was good news and bad news for the FBI this past week. A congressionally mandated report says the agency has made major improvements since 9/11 but still needs to boost its ability to collect intelligence. Those operations can take many forms. One of the most critical - the undercover missions that require agents to take on new identities and, with them, a lot of risk. And it's not just the FBI. The New York Times reported last fall that at least 40 federal agencies use undercover agents in some capacity. This kind of work is glamorized all the time in TV and movies.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 1: How would you like to disappear?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 2: Disappear?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 1: Go undercover.
MARTIN: But behind many of the real-life law-enforcement success stories are agents who have risked their lives living as someone they aren't.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Dozens of suspected drug dealers taken off the street today following a five-month long undercover operation.
MARTIN: We're going to take you inside the careers of two undercover agents. You'll hear about the risks, the psychological toll and the adrenaline that keeps pulling them back. For The Record today - life undercover.
MICHAEL VIGIL: My name is Michael. And I selected the DEA because they did a lot of undercover work. And I found that to be fascinating because it's the ultimate chess game.
MARTIN: Vigil is retired now, but Sherrie Moore is still very much in the game. She's a senior special agent with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
SHERRIE MOORE: For the most part I look average soccer mom, so I can skank it up a little bit. And I can go places, and people don't look at me and think, oh, she's a police officer.
MARTIN: Michael Vigil's fascination with undercover work started early.
VIGIL: As a young kid I grew up watching television programs such as "Dragnet," "The Untouchables."
MARTIN: Sherrie Moore says she was drawn to law enforcement because she wanted work that made a difference.
MOORE: In the small realm, I'm hoping that I'm making the world a better, safer place for people.
MARTIN: But it's not enough to have noble intentions. Undercover agents have to have sound judgment, keen instincts. And they have to understand what it takes to become another person.
VIGIL: Number one, you have to know the jargon. You have to know the price of drugs because if you make a mistake, you know, obviously it's going to heighten their suspicions. You have to dress accordingly. If you're dealing with a low-level trafficker, you know, you're going to probably dress down. You're not going to wear Gucci loafers or, you know, George Armani suit. But if you're dealing with really high-level traffickers like Pablo Escobar, you're probably going to dress up.
MOORE: You become somebody else - not in the whole sense of, oh, you have to, you know, totally change everything. But you draw from your real life experiences. You have a backstop and a back story of where you live, and what you do or if you've been in jail.
MARTIN: So sometimes Sherrie would create a back story about being a bartender because she actually did that job when she was younger. Or she would say her kids are in the custody of the state because she used to be a social worker, and she knows that system. A lie that's close to the truth is always easier to work with. Moore got really good at coming up with lies about why she couldn't actually try out the drug she was buying.
MOORE: It's not for me, or I'm picking it up for my old man, so to speak. Or I don't like to drive after I've been using. And they're all very legitimate in the real world and the drug world.
MARTIN: The lies are necessary to nail the targets. Michael Vigil helped to build cases against several big drug runners in Latin America in his time. But he remembers one operation in particular. He was working undercover in Brazil trying to nab a Bolivian drug trafficker. Vigil negotiated a deal with him for half a ton of cocaine. They decided to meet up on a ranch outside of Sao Paulo where the police were waiting.
VIGIL: And that afternoon I heard the drum of the aircraft engine as it was approaching. And at that point in time I knew that the operation was going to be a success. And it was almost like "Mission Impossible" because, you know, the plane lands on the field. The cocaine is stuffed into the back of the aircraft. So you know, the arrest took place. And one of the individuals attempted to detonate a grenade, but guns were pointed at him. That was the biggest seizure of cocaine in the history of Brazil at that point in time.
MARTIN: And after all the months of deception, the stress, all the risks, finally, when the payoff comes, it brings with it a flood of emotions.
VIGIL: Elation, release of tension - it was an adrenaline rush.
MARTIN: Sherrie Moore explains it this way.
MOORE: When you go in, and you purchase drugs, and you come out - there used to be an old Toyota commercial. And they would jump up in the air, and wave their hands around. And say, you know, I got it - that feeling that you get when you pull one over on somebody. You're amazed at yourself, and that you were able to do that. And the adrenaline dump is unbelievable sometimes.
MARTIN: At this point we're going to step out of the experience of these undercover agents and get a different perspective on this work.
LAURA BRODIE: I'm Laura Brodie. I'm a clinical and forensic psychologist.
MARTIN: Brodie says undercover work attracts people who need a certain level of autonomy.
BRODIE: As an undercover, you're basically kind of an independent operator. You do a lot of things on your own. You have kind of your own boss. And it's very compelling, and it's very addictive.
MARTIN: It's addictive because it's dangerous.
VIGIL: When you're working undercover, you have to be very careful because as an undercover agent I found that I would seek that adrenaline rush. And I became addicted to it. And I started to take more and more chances to get a higher adrenaline rush. And I had to curb that very quickly because I knew that, you know, it could have fatal consequences.
MARTIN: But even in those moments when Vigil knew he was putting himself at risk just for the high, even when his life was in danger, he says he wasn't afraid.
VIGIL: The more dangerous the role was, the more dangerous the situation was, I became really calm, very, very calm.
MARTIN: Sherrie Moore responded to high risk situations in a different way. She told us this story.
MOORE: I had gone into a residence to purchase crack. I went in. The house was full of males. They had sheets hanging over the doors so you couldn't see from one room to the next. So you didn't know what was in the other rooms or who was in the other rooms. When I stepped in the door, they shut the front door. They had bolted it. And you just - that sense of fear just overwhelmed me. Fortunately, I was able to complete the transaction in a very quick, timely manner. And I was able to get out. But after the fact, you know, you think of all these things that could've gone wrong.
MARTIN: And she had a very clear idea of what that was.
MOORE: I was most afraid of being sexually assaulted. I think men are probably afraid of being shot - if they would admit it. I would much rather, you know, have to be in a situation where guns were drawn as opposed to being assaulted in a sexual manner.
MARTIN: Not only are undercover agents risking their physical safety, this work can start to tear at their own moral fiber. Here is psychologist Laura Brodie again.
BRODIE: Basically they have to kind of pull their personality apart. And it can become very stressful and very blurred as to starting to question your own values and morals as you get to know the people you're undercover with. You start, sometimes, even making them as friends.
VIGIL: You know, they are stone psychopathic killers, but, you know, they have great personalities. And so it's very difficult when you have to arrest them and put them in prison for a number of years. Sometimes these guys, you know, become your family.
MARTIN: Laura Brodie says all the more reason these undercover officers have to stay grounded in reality.
BRODIE: It's better all around for any kind of law enforcement or first responder to have something other than the job because their job tends to become the identity.
MARTIN: Sherrie Moore has made a conscious effort to separate herself from her job.
MOORE: It's something that I do during the day or in the evening or whenever the deal is set up. And then I turn it off. And I go home, and I do other things.
MARTIN: She does normal stuff.
MOORE: I plant flowers.
MARTIN: She has a cat.
MOORE: His name is Luigi.
MARTIN: So being able to compartmentalize your life is important when doing undercover work for long periods of time. What happens when these officers leave the job altogether and try to go back to doing regular office work? Laura Brodie says without the risk and the extreme highs, they can get depressed.
BRODIE: They are also going to be bored. And undercover officers do not like to be bored. They stir up trouble when they're bored. So they end up looking for other adrenaline fixes.
MARTIN: Michael Vigil has been out of this work for more than a decade. Now he does consulting for security and law enforcement agencies. I asked him what life is like now.
VIGIL: Very boring. (Laughter) I'll tell you, working undercover, it was living the lifestyle of a James Bond. And after you leave that it's like ratcheting it down 100 times. And do I miss it? Tremendously. I could have done that forever.
MARTIN: Sherrie Moore knows that can't happen. And she has started to think about when the adrenaline rush might finally come to an end.
MOORE: I haven't given myself a specific timeline, although, as of late, I noticed that when I first started I was able to throw a baby seat in the back of the car, the undercover vehicle I would drive and say, yeah, that's my kids baby seat. But now I'm going to have to say it' my grandkid's baby seat. So you know, it's one of those, hm, I'm getting a little long around the tooth to be able to do this.
MARTIN: That was Sherrie Moore, a senior special agent with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. We also heard from Michael Vigil, a former undercover agent for the DEA and psychologist Laura Brodie. You can see photos of Michael Vigil at npr.org, although we can't show photos of Sherrie Moore. She is still working undercover. You are listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.