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FBI Agent Surfs the Dark Side of the Internet

Working undercover through child-porn Web sites in an effort to catch predators is draining, but it has its rewards.


When a former Infoseek Corp. executive pleaded guilty in federal court this month to trying to seduce a 13-year-old girl over the Internet, the object of his illicit affections was seated at the prosecutors' table just a few feet away.

"She" is Bruce Applin, a strapping, 6-foot, 2-inch, special agent with the FBI whose primary job is to pose online as a teenage girl or boy, trolling through seedy chat rooms for sexual predators.

Sitting at a keyboard up to 20 hours a week and typing "kewl" to the pathetic come-ons of cyberspace pedophiles is not how most people envision FBI agents spending their time.

But Applin is one of dozens of agents around the country--including six in Los Angeles--taking part in such Internet stings. They aim to catch offenders when they cross the line of legality from chatting about their fantasies to acting on them. The agents also scour the Net for pornographic pictures of children.

For agents, it can be a draining and sometimes sickening job. Applin, a 30-year-old ex-Marine, admits it is an assignment he didn't even know existed when he applied for a job with the FBI three years ago. If the bureau had asked him then whether he'd be up for such a task, he said, "I would have said no."

He has come to appreciate the job's importance and rewards. But he chuckles when asked about the disparity between people's perception of FBI work and the daily reality of his job. "Most people," he said, "have an idealized version of what being an FBI agent is like."

Indeed, no employer in law enforcement--let alone government--has so routinely basked in such positive publicity. Hollywood always has been enamored of the bureau, making FBI agents the heroic leads of such films as "Silence of the Lambs." And the long-running ABC television series "The FBI," which aired from 1965 to 1974, portrayed the bureau in such a glowing light that some TV buffs still suspect J. Edgar Hoover had a hand in the scripts.

The FBI has taken some lumps in recent years, embarrassed by the release of its secret files on such innocuous celebrities as John Lennon, as well as its role in the 1993 Waco debacle.

But the prestige and power of the FBI continue to attract legions of would-be agents every year. More than 8,840 people applied for jobs with the bureau last year, and just 730 new agents were hired.

The selection process is daunting. Competitive candidates typically have college degrees, plus training in a specialty such as accounting or technology, or a background in the military or law enforcement. Applicants undergo a battery of tests before they even get to the interview stage. Then come exhaustive background investigations that can take a year or more and poke into every nook of an applicant's past. After that come drug tests and polygraph exams.

Applin said he wanted to be an FBI agent ever since he was a teenager in Alabama and his father took him to meet a friend who worked at the bureau's field office in Mobile. He earned a degree in history at the Citadel, then served four years in the Marine Corps as a signals intelligence officer, intercepting the communications of foreign governments.

As his Marine stint came to a close, he took a position as a software development consultant with Andersen Consulting. A year later, he left for the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. He was assigned to the Los Angeles field office, where officials were looking to expand their Crimes Against Children task force.

Randy Aden, the special agent in charge of the task force, said he has to make careful hiring decisions because the work can be so disturbing. He probes candidates not only on their work ethic, but also their support system outside the job, their home life, how they relieve stress.

"We see a lot of things most people never see," Aden said. One agent working a child porn case recently spent days poring over thousands of pictures seized by U.S. customs agents.

"He told me he went to sleep at night seeing those pictures over and over again," Aden said. "This work can subconsciously impact the way you think and feel. We don't want people to become so calloused and hardened that they leave this job different from when we brought them in."

Applin, who makes about $67,000 a year, said he didn't relish the prospect of chatting with sexual predators or viewing child porn. But he was drawn to the job by other aspects that he said are quite rewarding.

He gets to do far more undercover work, for instance, than most agents with his experience. The job entails late-night stakeouts, choreographed raids and tense manhunts--all of the adrenaline-fueled duties that attracted him to the FBI in the first place. Even the chat room work poses unique challenges.

"It's a mental game of cat and mouse," Applin said. "Chatting with 12 or 13 people at a time can be exhausting, and you're afraid the one guy you ignore is the one who's going to do something."

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