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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Pretender

My Life Undercover for the FBI

Marc Ruskin

Thomas Dunne Books



At any given time, the FBI has about one hundred full-time undercover agents (or UCs, as we referred to ourselves) in the field. In the 1990s and 2000s, I was proud, very proud, to be one of them. Thanks to the three languages I speak as a native (English, Spanish, and French), prior experience as a prosecutor, all-purpose physiognomy, and the luck of the draw, I had the most diverse case list, the most notorious cases, the broadest experience within the FBI bureaucracy, including overseas, and the most pertinent outside experience.

Before I signed with the Bureau in 1985, I was a staffer for New York senator Pat Moynihan and an assistant DA in Brooklyn; today, I practice law. I know that of all the tools available to the FBI or any other government agency—no matter the nature of the target (counterfeiter, banker, racketeer, car thief, terrorist), the reams of Big Data at the various agencies’ disposal, the number of drones (armed or unarmed) in their warehouses (stateside or overseas)—the living, breathing undercover operative remains the gold standard for actionable information. It’s true on 24 and Homeland, and it also happens to be true in the real world—and it will be even truer in the future, as criminals and terrorists become ever less likely to trust any kind of recordable or traceable medium. Their expectation of privacy is already approaching zero (and ours isn’t much higher). The National Security Agency (NSA) could announce that it is unilaterally shutting down its entire electronic surveillance operation, or the debate over the constitutional legality of such snooping could be settled in favor of privacy (a political impossibility, at the time of this writing), and the bad guys would still scoff. They know which way the wind’s blowing—and they also know how to employ the newest commercially available encryption technology.

As the effectiveness of the traditional methods of electronic investigation decreases, the importance of UC work necessarily increases. Even if the NSA does collect every single communication generated in every corner of the globe, where’s the value without evaluation and corroboration? I’m not going to pass judgment on the various drone campaigns, but I know that intelligence developed and directed by people on the ground in the target area is vital for their effectiveness. The absence of that direction is exactly why innocent people are killed.

One reason legal cases against terrorists are so hard to prosecute is the difficulty of planting undercover agents in those environments. As the FBI’s ill-fated Detroit Sleeper Cell case confirmed following 9/11, reliance on information provided by informants is not and never will be enough. Eager, perhaps too eager to provide a frightened public with successes in the war on terror, the Bureau had relied on a source who may have provided the inspiration and means for the subjects’ plans. Plans to commit violent acts of jihad that may have remained dormant, if they had ever existed, but for the timely (for the Bu) intervention of the source. Informants may not be trustworthy; their information has to be confirmed. In the end, the judge in that notorious case overturned the jury’s conviction because the prosecution failed to turn over to the defense key evidence, including facts casting doubt on the informant’s reliability.

The bottom line: In the era of electronic surveillance, undercover work is not passé. It is not obsolete. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It enforces accountability. It prevents mistakes. I want readers (and policy makers) to understand why undercover agents are often the most valuable of all the boots on the ground.

During my long career, I worked many long-term, short-term, and cameo cases: financial fraud, insurance fraud, health-care fraud, public corruption, corporate espionage, La Cosa Nostra, narcotics, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, international stolen car rings, counterfeit documents, terrorism, espionage, the Brooklyn rabbis kidnapping and torture case of recent fame, and many more. About a dozen of these operations were major Group I (long-term) initiatives lasting a year or longer, with large budgets and resources, including teams of special agents and analysts, and requiring approval from Washington. Another dozen or so were Group IIs, also large-scale and expensive but not requiring approval from the very top. I’d have a hard time counting all the cameo jobs, some of which were only one-night stands. Often I had three or four cases going at the same time, switching identities as required, making certain I walked out the door with the correct ID, bling—and frame of mind. Years ago, a clerk in the ELSUR (Electronic Surveillance) unit (which maintains every taped—now digitally recorded—conversation, no matter how brief, and creates official logs for “chain of custody” purposes) told me that he had thousands of entries under my name.

For four years, I also managed the UC bureaucracy from our covert headquarters in Northern Virginia. Three years were spent working the legal attaché desks in Buenos Aires, Paris, and Madrid. I speak Spanish and French fluently, and have a working knowledge of Mandarin (one reason I was asked to take on so many one-off cameo UC roles). I’ve seen a lot—not everything, but a lot. I want this book to give readers what none of the others in UC work have even tried to do: perspective on the scope and scale of undercover work domestically and around the world; the bureaucratic inefficiencies spawned by the denizens of remote offices and conference rooms that can undermine the best work in the field (after all, we’re dealing with three distinct cultures: management, analyst, and field agent); the increasing importance of UC work in this brave new electronic world. My narrative focuses on just ten or so of the dozens of cases I worked, while referencing others, as necessary. And I’ll allude to cases that did not involve me directly.

I want readers to understand the kind of men and women who make good UC agents; the training received; the dangers and stresses faced. I have laid out in detail how UC cases are brainstormed, then painstakingly designed and presented for approval, assembled over many months before the first encounter with a target; how a bogus identity is carefully “backstopped” to withstand scrutiny; the ins and outs of working targets; how investigations succeed, and how they fail. I hope this book will prove to be the definitive narrative of undercover operations.

Can I reveal everything I know? Almost. Most of the investigative material for these cases is in the public record (as court documents, usually). A few of the “False Flag” cases are still classified. (This book has been vetted by the Bureau, as required by the contract of my employment.) Obviously, I won’t betray active or possibly active sources or operations, but that’s not really a problem, because my cases are closed. I have changed some names and telltale details. I do not reveal any techniques or trade secrets that really are secret. In fact,there aren’t many of them: the perpetrators know and use the same tricks as the investigators. In the burgeoning field of digital and online crime, almost all of the tools are available. The crooks and some of the terrorists are almost as sophisticated as the agencies.

I indulge in no long rants against Bureau management. Nor is there uncritical praise of the institution. I have no axes to grind. I’m critical when necessary, but I’m not going to shake the FBI establishment to its foundations with revelations of incompetence and recommendations for change. That’s not my agenda. On the contrary, I want to illustrate those attributes that make the FBI the world’s premier law enforcement agency, while simultaneously shedding light on those characteristics that hinder a monolithic bureaucracy’s capacity for change.

In the foreground throughout is my story, that of a lone undercover agent who served four FBI directors serving at the pleasure of five presidents, first as an eager rookie carrying a pistol and badge, then prime-of-career veteran, then seasoned éminence grise. I was part and parcel of both the “Old Bu” with its G-men and the New-Era FBI, the one born on September 11, 2001: same agency, expanded mission; always a work in progress. I wish it the best, because we need its best.

Copyright © 2017 by Marc Ruskin