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Want to Go Undercover? You Must Be Sly, Good With Gun, Computer and Figures

November 19, 1987|KAREN LOWE | United Press International

WANTED: Quick thinker, smooth talker with a chameleon-like ability to slip into the criminal underground and to ease out of dangerous situations. Acting ability helpful. Degree in accounting preferred. Starting salary $29,000.

This is an abstract job description for an undercover agent for the FBI, one of a score of law enforcement agencies that offer careers as undercover agents to those who are equally comfortable with a gun or a calculator.

As criminal activity becomes more sophisticated, an undercover agent is less likely to look like James Bond and more like an accountant. Shoot-em-up drug busts make headlines, but a well-audited tax return can be equally effective.

"Most clandestine work is nothing but good hard work. If there is anything that characterizes it, it is that it is sometimes dull because it involves waiting and waiting for something to happen. And hoping that it doesn't happen," said David Atlee Phillips, former CIA agent and author.

Still, the danger is the attraction, said Gilbert Avila, a supervisor for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.

"Every time you go under(cover), it's fun," said Avila. "It's exciting. You have to like that. But if someone starts hoping for danger, that's when you pull him off the case."

That glamour of danger "went down the toilet" for Avila after one of his best friends and colleagues was shot during a drug bust.

"In the movies, it ends with the guy going like this," Avila said, flopping his head to the side and rolling his eyes. "He dies. There is a fade shot and then the music comes up."

In real life, his friend, then 25, was paralyzed for life from the waist down.

Special agents who work undercover have backgrounds in foreign languages, chemistry, law and accounting, Avila said, adding that the DEA gets its best response from advertising in New Accountant magazine.

The CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Treasury Department, Secret Service, Customs, the DEA and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms all employ undercover agents. The requirements and salaries vary.

An FBI applicant with a master's degree or equivalent field experience can start at $29,000 a year and be earning $35,000 five years later, FBI spokeswoman Sue Schnitzer said.

Money is not the big draw into government undercover work, Phillips said, because salaries usually are higher in the private sector.

"Some go into it because they are looking for James Bond," he said. "But a lot of them do it for the public service."

Exploding technology has prompted growth in the intelligence-gathering field, with the ratio of employees to computers reportedly approaching one-to-one.

Some high-growth areas are electronic surveillance, overhead photography, and the use of computers for making, breaking and protecting codes used by the National Security Agency, Phillips said.

President Reagan's declared "war on drugs" has created more openings for both special and undercover agents. The DEA has created about 481 new positions and the FBI has about 800 new slots.

Each applicant must pass a personal background check and lie-detector test, be drug-free and not be a known homosexual, Phillips said, adding that one of the seldom-mentioned but most prized qualities sought is guile.

"I don't want to say that all of them are ex-used car salesmen, but it does help when you are in a dark alley kind of situation to be able to muster some guile," he said.

An FBI undercover agent usually investigates the drug world, organized crime, labor racketeering, gambling, labor unions and various business scams. He has to be able to impersonate anything, from con man to business executive, Schnitzer said.

"The best undercover agent is going to be able to assume the role of what he is trying to be," Avila said. "In most cases, he is going to have to become a crook."

Agents must make sacrifices. Social and home lives can be strained by odd hours. Agents must be willing to transfer anywhere and at any time, sometimes hampering a spouse's career. Most agencies now seek ways to accommodate both.

Many CIA agents have to be willing to lie constantly to friends and family about the nature of their work, Phillips said, and the nature of that work is sometimes illegal.

"There are circumstances in which the intelligence officer must resort to tactics (bribery for instance) which he would never consider attempting at home," Phillips said in his book "Careers in Secret Operations, How to Be a Federal Intelligence Officer."

"Unless the operative can accommodate the double standards, which espionage activity sometimes requires, the job simply will not get done. You have to make hard moral decisions," he said.

"For the CIA, you can always say 'no' once, but after that you have to make a decision on whether you are suited to be in the business. If not, get out."

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