Week #1 was all about introductions. After dining on pizza and salad, all 52 of us took turns standing and telling about ourselves and why we were there. The attendees were a diverse group of civic leaders, from government officials to bankers, teachers, religious leaders, and business owners. All had noble reasons to participate, hoping to take information back to their neighborhoods, schools, and synagogues to make their communities safer.
And then there was me. The mystery author. I felt totally outclassed. Thankfully, no one else contributed to my lack of self-value. In fact, I’ve had several people say to me, “Oh, you’re the writer!” Suffice it to say, I totally understand why it took three tries to get into this academy, and I appreciate the powers that be who squeezed me in this time.
We also met the special agents (no, there are no “just-plain” agents. They all carry the title SPECIAL agent) and intelligence analysts who will be our speakers and instructors for the next eight weeks. There were a lot of them.
While electronic devices are forbidden (no photos), we did get a three-ring binder filled with bios and history…and a list of acronyms, of which there are many. HOPE? Heroin Outreach Prevention and Education. JTTF? Joint Terrorism Task Force. Just to name two.
With a tease of what was to come, I couldn’t wait until…
Dinner was salad, fried chicken, and pasta alfredo. And cookies. Yeah. They feed us well!
The program was jam-packed. Private Sector Coordination, Violent Crimes Against Children, Countering Violent Extremism (Hate Crimes/Civil Rights), and Health Care Fraud.
Needless to say, I can’t possibly share all of it, but here are a few of the things that stood out. And a few things that kept me awake the next night.
There really is no such thing as a coincidence.
You’re not paranoid if they’re actually coming after you.
Don’t carry your everyday laptop if you’re traveling overseas, especially to China. They will access every bit of data you have on your electronics. The special agent recommended businessmen rig a special laptop containing only the information needed for that business trip.
The part about crimes against children left me haunted and disturbed. I don’t have kids, but now I’m worried about every child in my family as well as every child out there. When asked what was the most dangerous thing a kid could do, the special agent stated plainly, “Be on the internet.” You may think you know what your kids are doing online, but they’ll open additional accounts you know nothing about. He suggested Googling your kids and then Google all and any nicknames they might use. Predators are out there, posing as friends, gathering seemingly innocuous information such as fights with parents, grades, all notable events. They use this, sometimes weeks later (“Hey, are things any better with your folks?”), to earn trust and to “groom” their potential victims. Since most of our kids’ online activity is done on phones, the bad guys are able to geotrack them.
Words of advice: Keep a dialogue going with your kids. Know what’s on their phones. If you don’t know what an app is, find out. Only allow your kids to friend people you know face-to-face. “Friends of friends are NOT friends.”
This isn’t solely about pedophiles, although they’re bad enough. Religious extremists groom kids the same way.
I’m serious. I did not sleep the next night.
The discussion of hate crimes was led by two intelligence analysts and was fascinating. As analysts, they don’t go out and make arrests. They collect puzzle pieces and try to fill intelligence gaps. And the public is often their best source of those pieces.
We all hear about extremists standing on the first amendment and free speech. And a lot of what we consider sick or disgusting does indeed fall under “free speech.” However, the first amendment does not protect threats. If you feel threatened, report it. The analysts use those reports as puzzle pieces. If they learn it’s just someone spouting off, they’ll determine whether to let it drop. But if further investigation leads them to discover links to radical groups online, then they can pass the information on to be delved into deeper.
“Hate crimes may not rise to the level of a federal crime, but they still have intelligence value AKA a piece to the puzzle.”
The speakers also reminded us that while hate mongers might be protected by the first amendment when holding a protest and shouting hateful rhetoric, we’re also protected by the first amendment in telling them “NOT HERE. NOT IN MY TOWN.”
Finally, if you overhear threats, feel threatened, or believe you have one of these puzzle pieces, report it to www.fbi.gov/tips.
Oh, and I got this cool hat.
Have you ever encountered rhetoric or threats that frightened you or made you feel threatened? If so, did you do anything about it?