The Baltimore Post-Examiner is pleased to present an excerpt from former FBI Special Agent Barbara Van Driel’s book,’It Never Happened: FBI Negligence and Duplicity Revealed from the Inside Out.’
ForeWord Clarion Reviews describes the book as “a thrilling takedown of an elite institution that should be read by anyone puzzled about why distrust in the American government and its agencies is on the rise; it is so readable and relatable that it will speak to the average US citizen.”
Purchase it at Amazon.
I WAS born to be an FBI agent. From as far back as I can remember, my desire was to find something greater than myself, something to be devoted to. It took years to form my character and personality, but I consistently always strove for excellence in my academics and honesty in my personal dealings.
I learned my work ethic from my dad. Of Dutch and Irish descent, he worked forty-five years as a lithographer. He took pride in his craft, and his level of devotion made a tremendous impression on me. I am my father’s daughter.
When I first began my college education, I studied economics, philosophy, and music. I played the piano, sang contemporary and classical songs, and composed piano music. Some of the lyrics I wrote seem corny now, but I enjoyed the challenge of writing music. I’ve always loved challenges.
After a brief stop out in order to earn some money for school, I transferred to a college in the Midwest and soon found what I thought I’d be truly suited to: an academic program to prepare me for a career in law. Although I quickly acclimated to my studies, I was still uncertain what my actual career path would be.
And then I met Louie Lee Barney. He was an attorney, one of my adjunct professors, who soon became my mentor and friend. Eventually, he strongly urged me to apply to the FBI. He saw in me something that I could not see in myself. Much to my surprise, one day he took the opportunity to speak to me very seriously about my future: “You are exactly what the FBI is looking for—patriotic and honest to a fault.”
I was in shock. Perhaps I could get a job as a cop …but the FBI? … right out of college? … with no previous law enforcement experience? What?
But I trusted Louie Lee, and if he believed that I was what the Bureau wanted, then I was going to go for it one-thousand percent. And that’s what I did. I would try to realize a dream that I had first expressed at the age of seven: an older cousin asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up; leaning on the handlebars of my blue Royce Union, without hesitation I said: an FBI agent.
So, this is my story, a true story of dedication, sacrifice, fidelity, courage—and tremendous heartbreak. That’s what happens to a person who truly believes and puts her all into her dream. It was a thrill, it was an honor, and it was a cruel thing.
Would I change anything? Not really. As my career unfolded, as you will see, the path became littered with abuse, deception, and tremendous pressure to compromise the ethics that I could not compromise. But I was never prepared to live a falsehood, on any level, for any person or organization, even when it cost me personally.
If you ever wondered what it would be like to be an FBI Special Agent, this book is for you. If you want to know what life was like for a female agent, you’ve come to the right place. When I joined in early 1983, I became part of a distinguished group: only about 420 women had ever been Special Agents. An honor, and a bit of a burden.
A particular psychological seduction makes one feel as if one belongs to a family. Becoming a Special Agent with the FBI had all the feel of just such a seduction, wielding a palpable power over every facet of one’s life. The painful truth was that many members of this “family” could not be trusted. Why? As I came to learn, powerful bureaucracies ultimately serve themselves.
My motivation for joining the Bureau was to serve my country, but for the reasons evident in this book, I could not successfully fulfill my calling. Not only did the Bureau fail to provide crucial support but, in many cases, fellow agents actively discouraged or prevented me from doing my work. To this point, you will meet Robert Hanssen, my first supervisor in New York and the most notorious traitor in the history of the United States. You will see how the Bureau’s counterintelligence culture fostered indolence, ultimately enabling him to hide his acts of espionage.
I debated over when to write this book—or even whether to write it at all. For years, friends urged me to do so, but I agonized over the decision. I waited this long because I needed time to free myself from judgments clouded by emotion. Leaving the Bureau felt like getting a divorce, and I didn’t want to disparage my “spouse” out of spite.
Some of the events described in this book are so preposterous that, if they hadn’t happened to me, I would have difficulty believing them. My style of writing is in the form of free-flowing “vignettes” as I attempt to capture through the totality of specific experiences the ethos of the FBI’s counterintelligence culture. And I would emphasize that I am specifically referring to that work, those agents, not the agents who worked criminal cases.
However, I promise that every word is true—every incident of sexual harassment/assault, every single betrayal, every threat. They all undermined my efforts to serve. As the title of this book appropriately suggests, with respect to the career that I had hoped for as a Special Agent with the FBI—“it never happened.”
You’re Killing Me
I REMEMBER it was a blue-sky day, late August 1981. As I walked into the small interview room on my college campus, Pittsburg State University (Pittsburg, Kansas), his piercing blue eyes caught my attention. It was obvious that Clint Matthews, the Special Agent (SA) who handled new agent recruiting in the Kansas City, Missouri Division (KCMO), was someone not to be toyed with. It was all in those eyes.
But what threw me was his nearly bald head and beige turtleneck. What was going on! My stereotypical idea of an agent made me wonder: where’s the full head of hair? The starched white shirt and tie? I was reeling after only twenty seconds.
And then he spoke: “You’re killing me.”
My pretty pink seersucker outfit suddenly felt like a cement suit. I had merely handed him my one-page resume, and the interview was over already? I hadn’t even taken a seat yet.
I later learned that his incredible skills of discernment along with his tough work ethic found him ranked number two Bureau-wide as a new agent recruiter, in spite of the fact that KCMO was one of the smaller divisions.
A moment later he looked me in the eyes and asked if I had ever broken the law.
“No.” Those blue eyes were really cutting into me now.
“Well, if that’s the case, you will be an agent.”
He went on to explain that I had “ruined his day” because he had never before found even one eligible candidate in the nearly ten years he had been coming to the Pittsburg campus. What he meant was that, because I had selected the first time slot in the morning, there was no way that the rest of his day would be productive— losers and wannabees until quitting time. What was the chance of finding another candidate on the same day?
“Wow,” I thought, “he sure is direct.”
I readily admitted to Clint that I had tried pot twice— when I was sixteen. No problem. The Bureau standard regarding illegal drug use in the 80s was using marijuana fewer than five times before the age of twenty-one.
As the thirty-minute interview came to an end, Clint offered to return to campus in early October. He was willing to bring the two exams I had to take, even though those exams were not supposed to leave Division headquarters.
My friends began to tease me with juvenile comments, such as “he’s just trying to get in your pants.” The vetting process was quite involved: I had to prepare a thorough application that included every job I had ever had, every residence, detailed information on three acquaintances and three references of my choice, educational history, any drug use, any health issues, and a whole lot more.
When Clint brought the exams to my campus, I noted the academic exam contained two sections: antonyms and synonyms; analogies. It was intentionally designed to see whether or not a candidate could follow instructions: answer only the questions you knew, and you would do well; attempt to answer all the questions, and you were sure to flunk. No “educated guesses,” thank you very much.
In the midst of the exam, I wondered to myself if even William F. Buckley, Jr. would know these words. In the analogies (A is to B as C is to D), I rarely knew more than one of the four words. I walked out of the first exam, my eyes wide as saucers.
“What’s the problem?” Clint asked.
“Well, I just failed. No need to continue with the psychological
“How many questions did you answer?”
“Oh, about forty to forty-five.”
“Yeah, I know. There were one hundred and ten questions
and I only knew forty or so.”
“You knew forty? You didn’t guess? Barb, the average candidate usually only knows about twenty questions.”
The psychological portion was geared to assess one’s competitive attitude. Clint was not allowed to coach me in any way. He merely told me to be aggressive, very aggressive. And those blue eyes flashed.
I remember one question:
If I misplace my keys, I will
- a) absolutely find them within five minutes.
- b) find them after a thirty-minute search.
- c) come across them by accident two days later.
- d) happen upon them one month hence.
- e) never find them.
Of course, I chose “a” because it was true—until one month later when, in real life, my house keys “hid” from me in a school binder. I was mystified. I shook the binder repeatedly but no keys. One week later, they fell out of that very binder! I guess those keys just about made a liar out of me.
Oddly enough, on the same day that Clint showed up with the exams, he later made a surprise appearance somewhere else on campus. During my singing performance of “Caro Mio Bien,” I spotted a familiar bald head in my line of sight. What was Clint doing there!
Admittedly, I felt honored. He had gone out of his way to be supportive.
I still remember the day I received my first letter from the FBI, the results of the two exams. The magic number was “32” for women and minorities, and “35” for white males. I hated what I perceived as a double standard.
Wanting to enter the Bureau with my head held high, I had already told Clint I would not accept an appointment as Special Agent if I did not receive a “white-male score.” He had argued with me, but I was adamant. I was not going to put up with any crap about getting in as an “EEO stat.”
Standing in the kitchen of my basement apartment there in Pittsburg, I held the thin, long business envelope. My hands were literally shaking. Taking a deep breath, carefully tore the edge. My eyes could barely take in the words—they scurried to locate the magic number. Was it… was it … it was: 35.12. I had made the second cut!
In the spring of 1982, I was invited to KCMO for the“big interview”: three senior FBI agents from the Division and me.
Clint greeted me warmly, trying to assure me that this interview was going to go smoothly: “The guys are great.”
“No one-word answers. And if the interview ends before ninety minutes, that’s bad. If it goes past the two-hour mark, you’re in.”
I sat down in the only empty chair in the rather large interview room. Two agents sat to my right: one close, on a diagonal to me and staring in my direction; the other, immediately to my right, looking off. The third agent, the power suit, sat behind a desk across the room. It was soon obvious that he was in charge of the interview.
The questions ranged from politics to sports to literature to personal interests and hobbies. Even philosophical ideas were on the table. I soon felt quite comfortable. The interview had subtly metamorphosed into a real conversation.
And at about the one-hour mark, I noted the language had changed: the “ifs” had turned to “whens.” I was slowly entering their world. That invisible threshold was just before me. I could feel it.
The agent to my immediate right sat forward in his chair, elbows on his knees, scrutinizing me out of the corner of his eye. He never shifted position. I tried not to look at him too often as I was beginning to become unnerved by his presence.
“He must be the guy who does the profile of me,”
I attempted to comfort myself. The other two agents engaged me readily. Then, the Scrutinizer finally spoke: “Are you going through this applicant process just to see if you can become an agent?”
I replied that I had only prepared one copy of my resume: I was in—all the way. But I wondered how I could convince him of my sincerity. The question implied that I was playing a game, was not serious about accepting the appointment if offered.
A whole other hour went by before he spoke again! And he asked the same question—verbatim.
What was with this guy?
Same answer. I felt helpless to convince him of my sincerity. Maybe it wasn’t even possible.
At the two-hour mark, I didn’t move. I was elated.
The interview was a success!
We were all still talking—except the Scrutinizer, who had already asked his one question, twice. Strangely enough, the Power Suit had indulged himself with a protracted story of his personal struggle to quit smoking.
Although it seemed a bit inappropriate for the time and place, I was able to respond in like kind by describing my father’s own process of quitting. We were bonding, even if it was a bit unorthodox.
Much to my surprise, Clint later told me that the Scrutinizer had wanted to award me a perfect interview score. The Suit had taken exception to the fact that
I didn’t know who had won the NCAA Championship that year (boo-hoo!), so he knocked me down a couple of points in the “Range of Interests” category.
All in all, however, I received a viable score. I had made the third cut and was on “The List.” Now, I just had to wait for the call when a training slot came open.
That call came the following January.
Barbara Van Driel was a Special Agent in the FBI from February 1983 to May 1991. She worked primarily in the area of Counterintelligence, electing to study the Russian language in order to focus on investigative matters pertaining to the former Soviet Union. Subsequent to her time with the Bureau, she traveled extensively to Russia and Ukraine where she enjoyed the various peoples and cultures of that vast region.
After a somewhat protracted, self-directed sabbatical of sorts, Barbara embarked on a ten-year career in medicine: managing a medical practice; working in critical care in a hospital setting; and caring for the chronically and critically ill in their homes. This work was immensely fulfilling, allowing her to express her ethic of care and compassion for others.
Over the past ten years, Barbara has become an entrepreneur and has returned to studying classical piano. She travels widely, both domestically and overseas, but always appreciates coming home to her quiet life in rural Wyoming. For more info visit: barbaravandriel.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.