The FBI in the Age of the War on Terror: An Interview with Dr. Ellen Glasser

On March 25th of 2016 I was invited to do an early morning live interview for WJXT Channel 4 in Jacksonville. The topic, as usual, was a sobering one, as we were to discuss the terrorist attack that had taken place in Brussels a few days earlier on March 22nd. Three coordinated bombings by a ISIS affiliated terror cell had resulted in 35 deaths and over 300 wounded in Brussels, and the attackers had connections with the same cell that had carried out attacks in Paris four months earlier, which had resulted in 130 killed and 368 wounded. As I headed in to do the interview, I learned that I would not be doing it alone, as was usually the case, but this time the station had lined up another guest I had never met before, Dr. Ellen Glasser. As we did the joint interview, I did not really know anything about Ellen, as we had only briefly introduced ourselves beforehand, but I was very impressed with her commentary and felt considerably out of my league when I learned more fully of her background.

Ellen not only teaches in the University of North Florida’s Criminology and Criminal Justice Program, but more significantly she is also a retired Special Agent and Supervisor for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). She spent twenty-four years working for the FBI (from 1982 to 2006), participating first hand in counter-terrorism efforts in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, when around 3000 Americans were slaughtered by Al-Qaeda in Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon. She also served as the Inaugural Coordinator for the North Florida Joint Terrorism Task Force, as past President of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, and as a board member on numerous non-profit and government boards.

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Above Image: Ellen Making a Speech as President of Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI.

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Above Image: Ellen as Inaugural Coordinator of the North Florida Joint Terrorism Task Force

Ellen’s resume is really quite extraordinary, as she has won numerous awards from the FBI, the U.S. Attorney, the University of North Florida, and other organizations. She has also made numerous appearances in national media, often cited as an expert on terrorism or FBI-related issues, and has written many essays or editorials on the same topics for numerous publications. Beyond her work on numerous high profile cases for the FBI, some additional highlights from her career would include, for example, her service as a Case Agent for the Iran-Contra Public Corruption Investigation from 1986-1990 and her time as a Congressional Liaison Supervisor/National Spokesman at FBI Headquarters from 1990-1993.

After the interview at WJXT, I had the chance to speak with Ellen for a little bit, only then really getting a sense of her impressive background. She kindly suggested that I might give a talk for her Terrorism class on history and religion in the Middle East, and how it related to the rise of the ISIS (particularly how the terrorist group uses the past as propaganda for the present). I was quite happy to do so, of course, and so we kept in touch over the summer, eventually arranging my talk for the Fall of 2016.

The talk went well, as Ellen was a gracious host and her students were engaged and thoughtful. One of them, interestingly, was a Syrian Christian who came up to speak with me after the event. In addition to telling me how much he enjoyed Ellen’s class, he also spoke about the hardships of Christians in Syria, particularly since the rise of ISIS, and we have remained in touch until the present. Moreover, later that night when I posted on Facebook about the day’s experience, noting how I had lectured for a “retired FBI Agent’s class,” I had a talented former student of mine who is now studying at UNF know immediately that I was referring to Ellen. She enthusiastically responded, “I love Professor Glasser!!! Her Serial Killers class is awesome!”

Ellen is such a wonderful local resource and many seem to know of her and her background, yet I had been completely unaware of her until we met at that interview, fortunately.

Naturally, considering the range and nature of material I consider on this blog, I asked Ellen if she might be willing to answer some questions related to her career and U.S. efforts to combat terrorism. She kindly agreed.

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Question 1: Ellen, how and why did you come to work for the FBI?  Can you describe whether your experiences were positive or negative?  And, why did you finally decide to retire?

            I am fortunate to have lived a fascinating life with a great family and a meaningful career.  I am proud to have served my country as an FBI Special Agent.  Today, as a faculty member teaching in the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department at UNF, I call on my FBI experiences every day.  I try to “pass it on” by being the best mentor and teacher that I can possibly be.

            I grew up in a large family in the beautiful Southern city of Savannah, Georgia.  My parents were very clear that I could be whatever I wanted to be in life, whether my choice was  to be a Miss America or an FBI Agent.  It is worth noting that my father was not really an advocate for women’s equality in the workplace, but he had high expectations for his five daughters that extended beyond traditional gender roles.  He made it clear that we would be educated and have professions.   

            After earning a couple of degrees from Duke University, I thought about a career in social work but instead caught the criminal justice bug.  My first real job was as a probation-parole officer.  That experience taught me how to interact with people from diverse walks in life.  I worked at this job for several years until a colleague introduced me to an FBI friend who was on the lookout for “a few good women.”   My interest in the FBI was immediate.  The idea of an FBI career engaged my curiosity, my experiences in the criminal justice system, my call to public service, and my desire for adventure and travel.    

             Opportunities really opened up for women in nontraditional careers like the FBI in the 1970s, after the passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act.   In its modern era, women were hired to work as FBI Agents in 1972 after the death of FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover.  Mr. Hoover strongly resisted allowing women to be Agents.  I was among the first 500 women Agents.  I qualified under a program that combined my degrees and work experience, and, after a three-year wait, I was hired in 1982.  The process was lengthy and intimidating with testing, interviews, a background investigation, and a strong emphasis on fitness and shooting proficiency.  I understood the job would require physical and mental toughness, attention to detail, long hours, and the willingness to use deadly force if necessary.  Being an FBI Agent is not a career for everyone. 

            My FBI career spanned 24 amazing years with my positive experiences far outweighing my negative ones.  I clashed with a few of my bosses, but most were incredibly supportive.  After a few years, I met and then married a fellow Agent, and together we had four children.  Not many female Agents had children in those days, and I had more than anyone I know.  My coworkers called me “Agent Mom.”  Both then, few institutional accommodations were made for Agents dealing with family issues.  No accommodations were made for female Agents to reduce the number of transfers required for career advancement.  I had five transfers, and moving with my family was very challenging.  I was stationed in the Charlotte, San Diego, Washington, Seattle, and — finally — Jacksonville FBI offices.

             I was probably best known for being a Case Agent on the Iran-Contra investigation where I had a reputation for being a competent and patient interviewer.   I worked on many high profile bank robbery, extortion, terrorism, kidnapping, and homicide cases.  As a supervisor at FBI Headquarters, I was a liaison to Congress and a national press spokesperson.  As a supervisor in Seattle, I supervised violent crime cases and managed gang, fugitive, and bank robbery/cold case task forces.  Luckily, I was involved in only one shootout in my career!

            In 1999, I transferred to Jacksonville after deciding I needed to put more focus on my family and children.  That worked for a few years until 9/11 happened, and the work of the FBI changed dramatically.  Shortly after those terrorist attacks, I was tapped to be the coordinator of the North Florida Joint Terrorism Task Force and we were very busy!  Later, I was stationed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for a short time.  In 2006, I retired on my 50th birthday.   I felt that I had accomplished enough, and it was time to try my hand at other endeavors.

             Since retiring, I have been very active in the Jacksonville and Atlantic Beach communities, but I have remained close to the FBI.  I have been very active in a national organization of current, former, and retired agents, known as the Society of Former Special Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (Society).   From 2013-2015, I was the first woman to serve as national president of the Society.  I attained national visibility in that role, speak for experienced law enforcement professionals on a variety of law enforcement issues and challenges.  For several years now, I have responded to media requests on topics including terrorism, hostage-taking, encryption, law enforcement accountability, prosecutorial accountability, and women in law enforcement.

            As you know,  I am now on the faculty of Criminology and Criminal Justice Department at UNF where I have been teaching for several years and where I completed my doctorate.  My dissertation was a qualitative study on female leadership in nontraditional occupations.  My students know me as Dr. Glasser, which is quite a shift from Special Agent Glasser or Agent Mom.  I have taught a variety of graduate and undergraduates courses that include Crime in America, Elite Crime, Women and the Legal System, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Serial Killers.  I also have worked closely with the Criminal Justice at UNF.

            I am trying something new right now.   I am running to be the Mayor of Atlantic Beach, Florida.  If elected, I hope I can bring greater integrity and trust to the office, and needed  stability to my city.   This is a local, nonpartisan race, the only kind I would even consider.

Question 2: From your point of view, how well has the FBI adapted in the post-9/11 world to the challenge of international terrorism?  

            After 9/11, the role and ability of the FBI to operate as both a national security and law enforcement agency was questioned.   In the years since then, the FBI has reordered its priorities and demonstrated the value of having the FBI maintain these dual responsibilities.   Within the FBI, the most significant change after 9/11 came with the revisioning of the FBI’s mission to identify and prevent, rather than just react and investigate, acts of terror.  Terrorism is now the highest priority of the FBI.

            Put simply, the United States was not on a war footing at the time of the 9/11 attacks in 2001.  Al Qaeda was clearly at war with us.  The 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, and oversea attacks on the USS Cole and our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were clear evidence of Osama bin Laden’s declaration of war on the US.   The failure of terrorists since then to commit terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11 in the United States can be attributed in part to FBI vigilance, but it is also, in large part, the result of our military efforts overseas.  The aggressive military effort handicapped the ability of al Qaeda and other groups to carry out terrorist acts here at home.  In hindsight, as we assess decisions and actions in the Middle East, we have learned that every action has a consequence.  Many now suggest that our actions and policies may have promoted anti- US sentiment that fueled the growth of al Qaeda affiliates and led to the creation new jihadi groups, like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

            We must acknowledge that it is impossible to prevent all terrorist acts.  The threats against America have grown stronger and more brutal since 2001.   Al Qaeda, ISIL, and groups like al Shabaab and AQAP all seek to do deadly harm to us.  Inside the US, foreign fighters, homegrown violent extremists (HVEs), and anti-government domestic terrorists present an extraordinary and growing dynamic threat. 

            I believe the FBI has been effective in addressing and preventing terrorism since 9/11, in that many attacks have been thwarted both domestically and overseas, and countless criminal cases have been prosecuted.  The FBI emphasizes the role of the National Joint Terrorism Task Force to manage more than 100 FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) around the country.  In these task forces, agencies work together to combat terrorism by collecting and sharing intelligence and working joint investigations. Our capabilities and partnerships with other agencies have greatly improved.

Question 3:  I noticed that in May of 2015 you published an essay promoting the view of the Society of Former Agents of the FBI urging Congress to reauthorize the controversial U.S.A. Patriot Act. Could you explain why you see it as so essential to efforts to combat terrorism?  

            The USA Patriot Act was passed in 2001 after the attacks of 9/11 to provide law enforcement with critical tools needed in the urgent fight against terrorism.  Critics of the Act consistently argued that provisions on data collection, tracking of “lone wolf” attackers, and the use of surveillance orders were too intrusive.  Support for special provisions like these waned when by former NSA employee Edward Snowden made unauthorized disclosures about NSA data collection programs.  His disclosures may have highlighted issues that deserved greater oversight and accountability, but in my view they also did great harm.  I believe that his disclosures jeopardized U.S. assets and created a flawed narrative to the public about the tools that are necessary in order to prevent terrorism.  The public needs to remember that government agencies strive to act within their lawful authority, and FBI investigations are intended to protect citizens, not violate their rights to privacy.  Oversight of intelligence programs is critical, as the relationship between privacy and security is a very hard balance to strike. 

            The Patriot Act was renewed many times, but in 2015, Congress voted to let the Act expire under its sunset provision.  In its place, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act that imposed limits on the bulk collection of telecommunication metadata on U.S. citizens by intelligence agencies.  The Freedom Act did restore authorization for two necessary provisions I consider essential to preventing acts of terrorism — roving wiretaps and the tracking of lone wolf terrorists.

            The war on terror is no less urgent today than it was fifteen years ago.  Based on my experience, I know that the FBI is committed to the rule of law and to the rights of our citizens to privacy.  When people are afraid, they are willing to sacrifice more privacy for greater security; when they are less afraid, they point fingers, often and mostly at the FBI, for being too intrusive.  It is a balancing act.   It will always be a challenge to balance our constitutionally guaranteed rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but I should be clear.  Unless we can successfully address imminent threats to safety, our American way of life cannot be preserved. Without the necessary tools and without trust in the FBI, our nation will be weaker and our citizens will be less safe.

Question 4:  How significant of a threat is ISIS, or ISIL, to U.S. citizens?  Some of the major attacks on U.S. soil in recent years have been connected to ISIS, as so-called “lone wolves,” radicalized online by ISIS propaganda, have carried out attacks in the name of ISIS, such as was the case in San Bernardino, the Pulse Night Club in Orlando, and in other instances. In light of all of this, should Americans be cautious in leading their day-to-day lives?  How does social media fit in to the current threat?

            Most Americans are familiar with the acronym ISIS, which stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, but government officials usually use the acronym ISIL, which stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.  The reference to the Levant is a regional one that denotes a broader reference to the region in the Middle East without borders.  Typically, U.S. Government officials do not want to acknowledge that ISIS or ISIL has territorial control, as that acknowledgement might play into the narrative of ISIL to establish a Caliphate.  The term Caliphate denotes control of an actual, physical Islamic state under a political and religious leader known as a Caliph.

             ISIL does represent a threat to Americans, as evidenced by attacks like those in San Bernardino and Orlando.  We have seen a spike in FBI investigations over the last few years and the media attention afforded to ISIL-inspired attacks is intense and constant.  Still, most law enforcement and intelligence officials remind us that Americans should not live in fear because the number of ISIL-inspired attacks is still very small.

            The terrorist threats that we face today, and particularly those within our own borders, should alarm every citizen in America. FBI Director James Comey has addressed the use of social media to recruit increasing numbers of people to ISIL within the United States.  With the widespread use of social media, and private messaging platforms, terrorists can identify, assess, and recruit vulnerable individuals of all ages in the United States either to travel abroad to join ISIL or to conduct a homeland attack.  The foreign terrorist now has direct access into the United States like never before.

             ISIL now has “soldiers” in several states. This is not the time to let down America’s guard.  It is imperative the FBI and all law enforcement organizations understand the latest communication tools and are positioned to identify and prevent terror attacks. Unfortunately, changing forms of Internet communication are quickly outpacing laws and technology designed to allow for lawful access to communication content. Whereas traditional voice telephone companies have been required for years to develop and maintain capabilities to intercept communications when law enforcement has lawful authority, that requirement does not extend to most Internet communications services.  The FBI refers to this growing gap the FBI as “Going Dark.”  Finding ways to bridge this gap lawfully, through legislation and partnerships with telecommunications and service providers is essential to mitigate grave risks for both traditional criminal matters and national security matters.

Question 5:  I know a lot of former Marines and other members of the military who would be honored to serve in the FBI.  I assume you have a number of students who feel the same way. In either scenario, what sort of advice might you offer either a UNF student or an enlisted infantry Marine to help make their dreams a reality? What are the skills the FBI is looking for in the people they hire to work in sensitive positions like a Special Agent?  Alternatively, what sort of background or lack of skills is absolutely disqualifying?

            FBI Director Comey often remarks that a career as an FBI Special is less about “what we do” as Agents, but “who we are.” For anyone fortunate enough to be an Agent, it is an honor for life.  It certainly has been my great honor.

            As a college professor, I consider it my duty and great privilege to be involved in shaping the lives of future criminal justice practitioners and criminologists.  As a college professor who is also a retired FBI Agent, I am blessed to be in a position to be an unofficial FBI recruiter! 

I meet with a great number of students who are very interested in working for the FBI.  Many of my former students have earned internships and some now work for the FBI! 

            The FBI has been positions that include professional support positions and Special Agents.  To be hired as an Agent, an applicant must meet the following requirements (wwws.fbijobs.gov).

  • Be 23 to 36 1/2 years old
  • Meet stringent physical fitness standards
  • Possess a minimum of a U.S.-accredited bachelor’s degree
  • Have three years of full-time, complex work experience (work experience requirement is waived with a J.D., CPA, or other advanced degree)
  • Have a valid U.S. driver’s license
  • Be available for assignment anywhere in the FBI’s jurisdiction

The FBI hires amazing people, and I frequently comment that each FBI Agent I meet has an individual and interesting story.  It very competitive to be hired with many steps included in the process.  For applicants who meet the basic requirements and are competitive, some of the most frequent disqualifiers are illegal drug use or legal drug abuse outside of the FBI’s policy, lack of candor, derogatory information developed in the background investigation, criminal histories, and major credit problems. 

Currently, the FBI has a need for new Agents with these skills, although others are still encouraged to apply (wwws.fbijobs.gov).:

  • Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)
  • Foreign Languages
  • Law
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Certified Public Accountants (CPAs)
  • Attorneys
  • Engineers
  • Detectives
  • Military (specifically Special Forces, Explosives, WMD and Intelligence Experts)
  • Scientists (lab experience)
  • Foreign Language(s) speakers
  • Pilots (helicopter, fixed-wing)

The FBI seeks to have a diverse workforce that is representative of the population.   More information is available at www.fbijobs.gov .

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If you would like to reach out to Ellen with questions or comments, you can email her at e.glasser@unf.edu

If you would like to get involved in her campaign for Mayor of Atlantic Beach, Fl., please visit her campaign Facebook page.

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