Interview: What's it REALLY Like to be a Federal Investigator?

If you’ve watched Homeland, The Night Manager, Killing Eve, or any other spy / investigative / true crime show, you might’ve wondered what exactly a federal investigator does day-to-day and what it takes to actually be a detective.

It can’t be all chase-the-bad-guy, decipher-secret-codes thrilling right?

To find out, we interviewed Adam, who has spent the last eight years working on various security and insider threat violations and has conducted investigations both in the U.S. and abroad.

We aren’t using his last name in order to maintain anonymity. If you want to read the complete transcripts, which are extensive, they’re available in three parts:

  1. Part 1: Investigation (5,320 words)

  2. Part 2: Organization (4,833 words)

  3. Part 3: Interrogation (7,227 words)

These excerpts have been edited for clarity and readability.

Q: Do you find that cases are solved by hitting the streets, tracking down leads and evidence, and doing the hands-on work, or is it more talking with people, analysis from behind a desk, and taking notes.

A: There is definitely no “best” way to solve a case. There are cases where you've been running with something for a long time and then an interview with a witness sparks the whole thing off. Maybe they tell you who did it and you go from there or they give you information that leads to a suspect. Or maybe it's a computer forensics analyst who's able to identify something that you couldn't have, or a person in the lab. It can depend on anything, which is one of the reasons why as the investigator, you collect information to make sure the other people who work the investigation get what they need.

Q: Is there a type of evidence that is most useful to an investigation? For example, DNA might be the gold standard for catching somebody, or at least knowing that they were at the scene of a crime. What else is important?

A: I think whatever evidence that helps point the finger at a specific individual, who beyond a reasonable doubt committed the crime you're investigating, that's the best. And if that means it's DNA evidence, great. If that means it's a nosy neighbor who took a picture of them breaking into the house, great. Whatever it is, whatever piece of evidence, they're all, as far as I'm concerned, good. They can all break the case for you.

Q: How do you construct a timeline of events for a case you’re working on?

A: There's software that helps input data to form a timeline and then you can see the chronology from start to finish. You could do the same thing on a whiteboard if you had a whiteboard, too. I’m very basic when it comes to that sort of thing, so I would just start a blank document on my computer where I can jot out the events in order and then maybe go from there to try and identify if there's any connections in that timeline.

Q: What personality trait should you have to be a good investigator?

A: Investigations are hard. They can be slow, they can be monotonous, you can work several of them that look very similar over the course of a career. And you just have to have the determination or the drive to keep moving forward. So you hit a wall, you took one avenue for the investigation, and it didn't pan out. You thought you had the suspect and it turns out you were wrong. You can either give up or you can just turn back and try and find another way. So if you’re the type of person who is determined and has that drive, even if you aren't the smartest investigator, you'll still keep moving, you'll still keep trying. And that, I think, is a very important trait to have. That's the type of person I would want on my team.

Q: Do you feel that your training adequately prepared you for your job? Or is it more learning from the veterans, getting out there and actually doing it?

A: You can learn from your training⁠—whether you went to an academy or majored in criminology in college. But doing the job itself⁠—there's just nothing that equates to on-the-job training. I know when I first started, it was just nonsense in my head until somebody actually took me away from the classroom and let me have a go at it in real life. And then you learn a lot more, in my opinion, once you're actually out doing it. And I think that's probably the case for every type of job⁠—a mechanic, pilot, everybody, you get training on how to do it and then when you go do it for real, that's when it all starts to sink in and you understand how to put that into practice.

If you’re ready to try your hand at being an investigator, subscribe to Hunt a Killer now!