A Writer Investigates the FBI

FOUR months have passed since author Ronald Kessler helped bring down William Sessions, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with damaging information unearthed while he researched his book on the FBI.

But the fruit of Kessler's labor, ``The FBI: Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency,'' contains more than just a blow-by-blow account of the improprieties of Mr. Sessions, his wife, and his assistant.

It is also a must-read for anyone who has ever wondered how FBI agents do their job and how they have, with total confidence, been able to find the proverbial needle in a haystack in such cases as last February's World Trade Center bombing in New York and the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing in Scotland. Kessler has also, through access to agents and FBI officials, brought to light some of the agency's unfortunate moments, such as the time a Boston agent insisted on taking the footprint of a black lawyer who was about to be nominated for a federal judgeship, even though it was not required.

For anyone considering a career in the FBI, the book provides a multidimensional portrayal of life in the agency. Kessler devotes serious attention to the subject of female agents, though annoyingly, he tends to identify them by physical attributes.

Perhaps most interesting are descriptions of the little tricks of the trade that at times give the FBI an aura of invincibility. When the FBI took on the case of the killings of Atlanta schoolchildren that began in 1979, the FBI's top ``profiler'' said that the killer would be black, single, and between the ages of 25 and 29.

Conventional wisdom had it that the killer must be a white man who hated blacks. But FBI profiler John Douglas, immortalized in the film ``The Silence of the Lambs,'' concluded that a white couldn't have gone into black areas unnoticed. Douglas also surmised that the killer sometimes posed as a policeman and was extremely interested in media coverage of the case.

The killer turned out to be Wayne Williams, a black 23-year-old who drove cars that looked like police cars and ordered children around by showing a badge. In one FBI agent's first encounter with Williams, the agent noted that he spoke incessantly about the media coverage of the case. Ultimately, it was carpet-fiber analysis that sealed the case on Williams, but the profiling work had helped narrow the search.

Another FBI trick: Notice what direction someone looks in when asked a question. When a right-handed person looks to the left, it may mean he is trying to remember the answer and tell the truth. If the person looks to the right, he may be trying to invent information. Left-handed people supposedly look to the left when they are lying.

A rather James Bond-esque anecdote of FBI ingenuity centers on the bugging of a KGB officer's car in Washington. While the officer slept, FBI agents snuck into the garage where his car sat, disabled the speedometer, drove it away, and put an exact double of his car (with the odometer rigged to show the same mileage) in the spot temporarily while they wired his real car for sound.

The agents rigged the KGB man's car seat so that when he sat down, a tiny tape recorder would be activated in the tail light. Wires connected the recorder to a microphone on the passenger side. Three hours later, the car was put back. Every few days, agents changed the tape in the tail light. The bug didn't prove useful, but, Kessler points out, bugs do sometimes provide critical evidence.

Many newsworthy events have involved the FBI - from the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas, to the White House travel-office flap - and Kessler chronicles the FBI role in all of them. His journalistic prose is clear and detailed, and leaves a reader feeling as if she's had a pretty good tour of the place without leaving her armchair.

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