Special education: An examination of the FBI Citizens' Academy
|By Dave Maass|
Is the San Diego field office's program an example of good community outreach or plain old cronyism?One Wednesday night last April, Tony Krvaric sat at the FBI field office in San Diego, listening to an exclusive lecture on how special agents investigate corrupt politicians. When the class took a 10-minute break, the chairman of the San Diego County Republican Party couldn't resist whipping out his Android phone to tell his 1,500-plus Twitter followers about it.
"Wow, I just received a one hour briefing at the FBI Citizens' Academy about the Duke Cunningham bribery scandal. Unbelievable!" Krvaric posted.
His class spent the next hour-and-a-half learning and practicing interrogation techniques.
Over two months, Krvaric posted almost a dozen messages about the FBI Citizens' Academy. He boasted about hearing directly from the special agent who supervised the investigation into the "Escondido Bomb House," where a local man was caught stockpiling homemade explosives in late 2010. One week, Krvaric told followers that he received briefings on the FBI's counter-terrorism program, the next he said he was learning about computer forensics ("fascinating") and child pornography ("absolutely shocking"). He tweeted when he witnessed a simulated SWAT raid and mock trial and when the program culminated in a graduation ceremony and training session at a firing range.
To those who follow the GOP boss, the tweets were outside the norm; the bullish Republican primarily uses Twitter to taunt and degrade labor leaders and Democratic politicians, frequently in childish terms. The anomaly perked our interest enough to ask the question: What is this FBI Citizens' Academy?
Fifty-six FBI field offices throughout the country offer annual courses, usually eight to 10 weeks long one night a a week, for "civic, business and religious leaders" as part of the agency's "Community Outreach Program." Originating with the Phoenix office in the early 1990s, San Diego's version launched in 2002 under the leadership of Special Agent in Charge Bill Gore, who now serves as San Diego County sheriff.
Less clear was what Krvaric was doing there. Technically, he could be considered a civic leader, but his work is more underhanded political maneuvering than genuine public service. Even as he was attending the Citizens' Academy, Krvaric was publicly gloating about how he dispatched a private detective firm to stalk redistricting officials to build a case to discredit San Diego's new City Council map. We wanted to know how Krvaric got into the academy and whether it indicated a political undercurrent in the program.
"Please be aware that the FBI does not comment or report on the private activities of U.S. citizens to the media," Special Agent Darrell Foxworth responded via email. "Thank you for your inquiry."
Yet, within a matter of hours, Krvaric called our office to ask why we were questioning the FBI about him. We told him it was a matter of taxpayer accountability. The San Diego field office would not disclose the cost of the program, except to say that it no longer rewards attendees with pens, notepads and hats due to the federal budget deficit.
The program is overseen by the Community Relations Unit within the FBI's Office of Public Affairs. The division's motto is "Strengthening Diverse Connections," with a logo of four hands of different ethnicities locked in embrace. When the unit chief, Special Agent Brett Hovington, testified before a Congressional subcommittee in 2010, he described the community-outreach program's primary purpose as enhancing "public trust and confidence in the FBI by fostering the FBI's relationship with various communities." He specifically named the Arab, Muslim, Sikh and South Asian populations and explained that the program creates allies in the War on Terror in communities prone to radicalization.
With the Citizens' Academy, Hovington explained that "a strong effort is made to attract a diversity of members that represent the surrounding communities to these classes." He pointed to successes with the Muslim community in Detroit and Turkish-Americans in Knoxville, Tenn. Citizens' Academy snapshots posted to the FBIs Facebook gallery highlight that diversity, from a wheelchair-bound Puerto Rican journalist to a member of Chicago's Muslim community wearing a traditional taqiyah, a kind of skullcap.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, CityBeat obtained lists of enrollees for the last three years. The attendees' names were redacted, but their affiliations were not. The incomplete information makes it difficult to reach conclusions, but through analysis, research and interviews, CityBeat learned that San Diego's program may not be reaching out to communities as advertised.
Instead, the academy has become, in part, a means for the FBI to liaise with military employees and government contractors. A disproportionate number of corporate executives and business interests populate the attendee roll. Republican Party operatives have been invited to the program, but seemingly none from labor or Democratic interests.
April Langwell, the public-affairs specialist who manages the academy in San Diego, claims that citizens can nominate themselves for the academy. However, the FBI website states you can't get in without a referral or invite. Every attendee we contacted confirmed that policy. As a result, the Citizens' Academy functions as a closed system, prone to cronyism.
Even as San Diego's FBI doubled the size of the program in 2011—from about 30 to 60 attendees—religious and ethnic groups have largely been ignored.
More than a quarter of the attendees to the 2011 FBI Citizens' Academy were military personnel or defense contractors, dwarfing the less than 4 percent who were religious leaders and raising the question of whether it's benefitting the Department of Defense more than the communities for which it was intended.
The lists include staff from the Marines, Navy, Coast Guard, SPAWAR (Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command) and representatives from San Diego's major defense corporations: Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, L-3 Communications, Sentek Consulting and Miro Technologies. There are also representatives from smaller vendors, such as Xenonics, which sells night-vision gear; Vanguard Industry, which markets military uniforms and decorations; and WindZero Group, which planned to build a tactical training facility in Imperial County.
Langwell says the military's inclusion is wholly appropriate, even if that means allowing federal employees into a program intended for communities."Understanding that the Department of Defense and defense contractors represent approximately 1/3 of the San Diego economy in terms of both dollars and personnel it is prudent to include them in our program," Langwell says in an email, having requested all questions in writing. "Department of Defense participants in the Citizens' Academy are commensurate with the Department of Defense presence in the San Diego region."
Langwell's numbers aren't accurate. According to the San Diego Military Advisory Council's 2011 study on the local impact of defense dollars, military spending accounts for only about 18 percent of the county's economy.
George Reed, a professor in University of San Diego's School of Leadership and Education Sciences and a 2011 Citizens Academy alumnus, describes the program as a "stroke of genius." A researcher of military organizations, Reed says the armed forces represent a community just like any other.
"I think you're way off base here," Reed says. "Who does the FBI need to reach out to? Who might they need to call? I'd put [the military] at the top of the list."
The attendance roll also includes a contingent of professionals working in the cyber-security and surveillance industries, including Layer 3 Security Services president Dario Santana and Dave Dalton, formerly the security director for the San Diego Natural History Museum. Michael Jones, an investment banker specializing in financing security companies, also attended. All three use their alumni status as a professional badge of honor.
"It is also prudent to include security professionals who share the same mission as we do to protect our nation's and our community's assets and infrastructure," Langwell explains.
While that may be true, the FBI also has a public-private partnership program, the Infragard San Diego Members Alliance, specifi cally designed to share information between businesses and the federal government. However, the program has largely stagnated during the last year.
Sheryl Bilbrey, president of the Better Business Bureau San Diego and a 2011 alumnus, says she initially wasn't interested.
"They pursued me," she says. "They were looking for business leaders that touched a lot of people in the community. I have to give them that. But evening time with my family is very precious to me. To give that up to sit in a classroom setting just wasn't appealing."
Bilbrey signed up anyway. Even though she couldn't attend all the meetings, she says the experience was worthwhile. She remembers that at one point, FBI personnel detonated an explosive device and had the attendees work the crime scene. She was impressed by the evidence-gathering technology, particularly how different lights can reveal blood spatter or footprints.
"I'm not trying to sell the program," she says. "It obviously worked on me because it was not something I was eager to do . I really thought it would bore me, but they clearly try to make it interactive."
About half of the attendees during the last three years represented private business interests, and when the Citizens' Academy doubled in size last year—with academies running on Tuesday and Wednesday nights—most of the new seats went to companies and members of the media. Almost every major corporation in San Diego has had someone attend the academy: Cox Communications, Hewlett Packard, Merrill Lynch, Verizon Wireless, PriceWaterHouseCoopers, Sempra Energy, Bank of America, Anheuser-Busch, Cricket Communications, Delta Airlines, etc. The list includes many biotech firms, from the well-known Ibis Biosciences to the obscure Philometron. At least two companies, Manpower and Safe Harbor Funding, sent multiple employees to the program.
Langwell emphasizes that the program does not target groups or companies, but individuals.
"The FBI investigates over 300 different violations of federal law, and therefore, we look for individuals from a variety of backgrounds," she writes. "For example, mortgage fraud is a big white collar crime problem. We have had participants who are in the real estate and mortgage professions. Threats to our biotech industry are commonly reported, and therefore, we attempt to include individuals from those businesses as well."
Langwell says it's who you are, but it may also be who you know.
For Katherine Kennedy, head of Relocation Coordinates and a 2010 Citizens Academy alumnus, the most memorable part of the program was learning how young FBI agents go after sexual predators, particularly in the John Gardner case, which reached a conclusion during the program."It's a really interesting thing to go through," she says. "I wish it were longer because six weeks are just enough to make you realize we all just have to be on watch all the time, and help when we can, and pay attention."
Kennedy credits her connections for getting her into the program.
"My husband went through, and some of my husband's friends went through it, and they thought it was very interesting ." says Kennedy, the spouse of former San Diego National Bank CEO Robert Horsman.
"I've recommended a lot of people to the program because my circle is mostly executives or human resources."
Kennedy cites her membership in the Rotary Club 33, a powerful social organization representing downtown San Diego, and says "a lot" of Rotary members have attended. Our research identified several. Langwell herself joined Club 33 in 2009 and remained an active member. In 2011, Langwell arranged for a private Rotary Club tour of the FBI offices; attendees were charged $25 for the privilege.
"My participation in the San Diego Rotary Club is consistent with being a Public Affairs Representative of the FBI," Langwell writes. "I am involved in a number of community outreach endeavors including participation in service organizations and other non-profit groups and committees. We are able to serve our community better by developing partnerships with members we have met and worked with through these various organizations."
After business and the military, civic leaders make up the next largest segment of attendees, with representatives from the American Red Cross, the Citizen Diplomacy Council of San Diego and the offices of elected officials such as state Assemblymember Martin Garrick and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Two individuals from U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter's office attended in 2010.
But religious leaders are conspicuously underrepresented. In the last three years, only two religious organizations appear on the list: The Islamic Center of San Diego in 2009 and the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization that fights hate crime, in 2011.
Another member of the Islamic community did attend the program—Shamroze Sayed, who served on the board of the Muslim Community Center of Greater San Diego—but was listed by his company affiliation, Interpreters Limited. His experience may highlight the power of the program when it does reach out to marginalized communities.
"In my opinion, it was of mutual benefit to both sides," Sayed says. "When the discussion came up in the class regarding the religious centers around town and how the FBI monitors them, I had the ability to be part of that discussion."
However, Sayed also tells CityBeat that the imam invited in 2009 had ultimately dropped out. A cleric at the Islamic Center denied knowledge of the program.
"It was a shame he didn't complete it," Sayed says. "He would've really enjoyed it."
Asked about the low religious enrollment—no churches, synagogues or ethnic community associations were listed on the roster—Langwell said, "Many individuals are invited to participate, but may decline if their schedule prevents them from doing so. Additionally, this is a voluntary program and we cannot speculate on the reason anyone chooses not to attend. "
In the end, it wasn't difficult to discern who recommended the county GOP chair for the program in 2011. Krvaric's mentor, Ron Nehring, then-chairman of the California Republican Party, attended the academy the year before.
The FBI's secrecy seems unnecessary. Attendees often post their alumni status on their online bios and LinkedIn pages. Several FBI offices and alumni associations post group photos on their websites. Krvaric himself publicly posted to Twitter, and Nehring uploaded pictures to Flickr of himself and the rest of the class engaged in an evidence-gathering exercise.For many of the attendees, the big payoff is graduation day at a firing range in Otay Mesa. They're presented with certificates, then treated to a sniper demonstration and firearms training. Each alumnus is allowed to bring a guest; Krvaric brought Derrick Roach, the San Diego County Republican Party's secretary and the same private investigator hired to discredit redistricting commissioners.
"I was, like, How do I get into this program?" Roach says. "Just from the glimpse I saw, I thought, Wow, this is phenomenal."
Roach describes how they watched two long-distance snipers fire at a metal plate only to be surprised when a third sniper disguised as a bush suddenly revealed himself. Then, Roach says, they were allowed to try out firearms, from a Prohibition-era Tommy Gun to a modern MP4 assault rifle.
"It just really pulled the curtain back a little bit to let you see what the FBI is about and to know the real-life experiences," he says. "It's not what people think it is or what they've maybe seen in the movies."