A Special Kind of Education; FBI Trainees at Quantico Work hard.(LIFE - SCHOOLS)

Article excerpt

Byline: Ann Geracimos, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The FBI Academy at Quantico, Va., is a police school unlike any other in the world.

"It's the Harvard of law enforcement," says author Ron Kessler, who has written two books about the government's top investigative agency, the most recent being "The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI."

The exclusive training venue for special agents, housed on a sprawling 531-acre campus within the 60,000-acre Marine Corps base, compares with any Ivy League school - but with a difference.

Competition for admission is high and standards are rigorous for the specialized law enforcement training. Prospects must be 23 to 36 years old, have completed at least four years of college and been employed full time for at least three years. Most are on a second or third career.

The admissions process can take two years or more. Preliminary testing involves not only physical and oral exams, but a writing sample and a background security check. Being married is a plus, as it indicates maturity and stability, according to Andrew R. Bland, section chief in charge of new agent training.

Beginning in February, after Congress granted funds for the FBI to hire additional personnel and the agency began a widespread recruiting campaign, some 74,000 people applied for admission. Some 54,000 met the minimal qualifications, and about 25,000 of those seemed to have the critical skills the agency looks for: a background in computer science, information technology, physical science, engineering, foreign languages, accounting or counterintelligence. These days, classes of roughly 50 people begin every two weeks.

Fewer than 20 percent of those initially qualified will be taken. Seven percent will flunk the training or leave voluntarily. Between Oct. 1, 2001, and Sept. 30, the FBI hired 923 agents. They are hoping to hire 862 new recruits to join the bureau's current force of 11,600 agents in fiscal 2003.

"Some think they can get over on the polygraph because it isn't an exact science," says Joe Bross, acting chief of the applicant process section. "We knock out more than one of every two [with the polygraph]."

Diversity is the new byword, but common sense and street smarts count for more. Class time spent on counterterrorism and counterintelligence training has doubled in the last three months, and a seven-hour leadership development course has been added at the instigation of FBI Director Robert Mueller III.

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The recruits generally are alpha types, high energy, competitive people who are accustomed to taking charge. "Leadership and followership are two sides of the same coin," says Mike Ferrence, the leadership unit chief. "They [new agents] are going out to work with multiple agencies and they won't always be in charge."

The leadership promotion material every agent receives reads, "Support an appropriate balance between work and non-work life."

Blond, blue-eyed 28-year-old Ashley is an accountant who has handled firearms since she was a child hunting game with her father in rural Mississippi. "I felt very blessed when I got the letter [of acceptance]," she says, noting that the hardest part of training is "the amount we have to learn." (Last names are withheld at the bureau's request to protect agents who might later go undercover.)

At 5 feet 2 inches and 110 pounds, Cindy, 27, is an epidemiologist who worked for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the anthrax scare. Long interested in bioterrorism, she didn't tell her father - a former agent - about her decision to join the FBI until she was selected.

She does not feel at a disadvantage tackling larger, much heavier men, she says, even though out of her class of nine women and 41 men, two trainees left in the first two weeks and three others have had injuries. …