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An Inside Look at the FBI
USC Gould School of Law

Thursday, March 10, 2011

FBI Assistant Director Speaks At Lunchtime Event

By Steffi Lau

Students were treated to an inside look at the FBI on March 7 with a talk by Steven Martinez, an assistant director in charge of the FBI. Martinez, who heads the bureau’s Los Angeles division, discussed everything from the unrest in Libya and the FBI’s counterterrorism priorities to what the FBI looks for in job applicants.

Martinez has been with the FBI since 1987, when he started as a special agent. He was the FBI’s first on-scene commander at Central Command in Doha, Qatar and in Baghdad, Iraq, where he managed the FBI’s counterterrorism and counterintelligence efforts during the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

During the lunchtime talk, he offered an inside perspective on the FBI. Lecturer Josh Lockman, who teaches a course on U.S. foreign policy and international law, moderated the talk. He opened the conversation with Martinez before inviting students to ask questions.

One student asked about the controversial interrogation techniques used by the military that have come under scrutiny in recent years.

Martinez responded, “One thing we’re proud about as agents is that we don’t engage in harsh interrogation techniques as perhaps some other agencies were authorized to use. We’re trained in a rapport interview style.”

Martinez talked of the difficulty of reconciling the different agendas of the FBI and the military when working together, drawing on his experience in Iraq.

“It’s a difficult dance,” Martinez said. “We have different interests and priorities, we speak different languages. To them, the priorities were ‘force protection’ and ‘find the WMD.’  For the FBI, the priority was to determine if there were any plots or plans on the part of the Iraqis to attack or commit terrorist acts within the U.S.  We have to integrate and educate the military as to what we’re looking for. We had to learn what their priorities were, as well, in order to work well as a team. "

He spoke of the FBI’s international expansion. Though the FBI has traditionally been domestically oriented, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the organization has rapidly expanded its presence overseas, opening more attaché offices.

“It’s been critical for us as globalization marches on, especially since many of our ‘bad guys’ are overseas,” Martinez said. “Before, with cyber crimes, for instance, we could resolve the scam to the very computer in the very country, but if we didn’t have a presence there or good law enforcement liaison, there was no way we could pursue it further. So we’ve expanded our international presence and helped build capacity in many countries to address international criminal activities.”

As head of the Los Angeles division, Martinez is responsible for investigations throughout the Pacific Rim. For example, if an American citizen is killed in a bombing in Indonesia, he will send what he refers to as an “office in a box,” deploying up to 60 people on a plane with every investigative and forensic skill set necessary to work with local police.

One question from a student regarded the FBI’s use of informants to reveal intended acts of terrorism and crime, which has brought up legal issues of entrapment. Martinez defended the techniques, using murder for hire as an example.

“In my mind, these individuals are going to find some way to do it regardless. If we can build the case to get a good solid count on the individual through an undercover scenario and deliver them to the judicial system, that’s a good way to resolve it,” he said. 

He said that, since 9/11, he is unaware of any instance where an entrapment defense has been successfully invoked in a terrorism case investigated by the FBI.

Martinez also spoke of the increasing importance of obtaining intelligence from people, particularly since the FBI regularly encounters challenges investigating new online forms of communication.

“Burgeoning technology brings with it new challenges and may require an alternate approach to our traditional investigative techniques.  These new media, including Facebook and other social networking avenues, are constantly changing the game for us in that they present investigative or legal nuances,” Martinez said. “Some individuals interested in doing harm may communicate in new ways that can temporarily handcuff our ability to lawfully intercept or obtain communications or content.  It brings to light the importance of human intelligence.”

One student asked about the controversial upcoming congressional hearing on Islamic radicalism to be chaired by New York Republican Peter King. The hearing has been criticized for unfairly singling out the Muslim community.

“We rely heavily on community relations, on human intelligence. With the Muslim community, we’ve got the added burden of people who maybe emigrated from places where they had no trust in the government or police forces,” Martinez said. “We are sensitive to the fact that the hearings could potentially alienate the Muslim community.”

Martinez cautioned against stereotyping any one community.

“It’s a mixed bag—we’ve got people in the Muslim community who are very concerned and wouldn’t hesitate to call if they saw something, but there are some who are less so,” Martinez said. “But that’s true across the board, in every community. We’ve got Fortune 500 companies who are reluctant to call if their networks have been hacked because they don’t want to admit publicly they’ve been compromised.”

For students looking to work for the FBI, a law degree won’t necessarily give them a leg up, but it can be helpful.

“It won’t necessarily plus you up, but if we’re looking at a pool of 70,000 applicants, having an advanced degree is helpful. The beauty of our organization is that we hire people of all backgrounds, from nuclear physicists to former schoolteachers, and everything in between,” Martinez said.

With rapid globalization, the FBI is increasingly looking for applicants with foreign language ability. Often, those with these skills are native speakers, but recruiting in ethnic communities can be hard since most don’t have the tradition of sending people into law enforcement careers, and because Fortune 500 companies looking for diversity often have more to dangle in front of good candidates in the way of compensation, Martinez said.  

Though he admitted the FBI’s demographics could better reflect the country’s population, Martinez hopes the FBI will expand its diversity.

“I can speak to it myself, coming from a Hispanic background, it’s still surprising to me to look around the room and often, I am the only Hispanic in the room,” he said.

He emphasized the importance of diversity for the FBI.

“We are more effective when we are more diverse,” he said. “When someone has an insight into a community, that’s helpful to us.”


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