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ALBUQUERQUE — Curious residents are getting an interesting glimpse into the mostly clandestine world of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) through the New Mexico bureau’s Citizens’ Academy.“I’m impressed by this agency and the people in it,” said one participant after interacting with a number of agents and support staff during the first two sessions of the eight-week program. “I wish everyone could experience this academy. It leaves no doubt as to the dedication these people feel in their mission to protect us, our communities and our country.”The physically fit, alert demeanor of the agents was generally expected, but their open, humorous personalities surprised many.“I didn’t realize FBI agents are so much like the rest of us,” said another participant, who confessed to prejudging agents as being seriously withdrawn individuals. “They like to talk about many of the same things we do and they’re a lot of fun to be around.”The Albuquerque bureau has been conducting citizens’ academies annually since moving into its new facility four years ago. Some 200 agents and support personnel work in the three-story brick building, which houses 98,000 square feet of work, meeting and storage space at 4200 Luecking Park Avenue NE. New Mexico’s Special Agent In Charge (SAC) Thomas C. McClenaghan, his two assistant special agents in charge (ASAC), Terry Wade and Robert Evans, and a host of agents and staff welcomed participants to the citizen academy’s first session March 18.“It’s really refreshing for us to meet upstanding, productive citizens,” said Evans, who presides over the criminal division. He joked that most of the people they encounter run the other way.Like most everyone, the agents have families and do the kinds of activities with their children that everybody else does, he said, adding, “We work for the FBI because we want to provide a safe environment for your families and ours.”
Since 9/11, the FBI has gone through a dramatic change.“Before, we were primarily a reactive agency and now our number-one priority is the prevention of terrorist acts,” said Wade, who presides over the national security division.The FBI’s budget has grown to $6.7 billion from roughly $3 billion prior to 9/11.“A lot of that money is going to technology,” McClenaghan said. “Our primary priority is counter intelligence.”Chief Division Counsel Stephan Marshall is an FBI historian. His presentation highlighted the historical events that have driven the bureau’s evolution during the last 100 years.In comparing the FBI to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and National Security Agency (NSA) capabilities, Marshall described CIA as having the “best spy toys” for surveillance activities and the FBI with having the better “weaponry toys.”McClenaghan weighed in saying the NSA “has the coolest toys of all.”When answering questions about invasion of privacy issues, Marshall explained that the bureau’s limiting factor, “above all else,” is the Constitution, adding that agents take an oath to uphold the Constitution at all costs.Marshall maintains a personnel library of books and DVDs about the FBI, and loans them out to academy participants.“The FBI Story” starring James Stewart ranks at the top of his list followed by “Man Hunter,” the psychological thriller and prequel to “Silence of the Lambs.”Interagency collaboration is another post 9/11 modification discussed during session one. Some 16 intelligence organizations now meet on a regular basis.Evans told the group he recently returned from a 100-day assignment in Afghanistan.“We were in the same compound as CIA and the NSA and we shared information with each other,” he said.The FBI Citizens’ Academy is designed to foster mutual understanding and future relationships. The presentations are followed by interactive discussions regarding the program and corresponding current events.The first citizens’ academy was held by the Phoenix FBI in 1993 and was so popular, McClenaghan said, that similar programs are now held in all 56 field offices nationwide. In New Mexico, citizens’ academies are held in Albuquerque and Las Cruces.McClenaghan is friendly and quick with a joke. He transferred to New Mexico from Alaska four years ago. McClenaghan’s wife is happy with the move because she was born in Albuquerque, he said, adding that she makes much of the food provided to citizen academy participants.The participants are chosen from a group of candidates nominated by FBI employees, community partners and Citizens’ Academy alumni. After graduation, participants are informed about current law enforcement issues and can remain involved through special events.In the future, alumni will be qualified to join Albuquerque’s Citizens’ Academy Foundation for additional training and networking activities.The New Mexico FBI has resident agencies in Gallup, Farmington, Roswell, Las Cruces and Santa Fe, which covers the northeastern portion of the state including Los Alamos County.For information access, www.albuquerque.fbi.gov.
Carol A. Clark is a current participant in the Citizens’ Academy.