Charles Berger is the Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, both in its New York field office as well as its New York based translation center. He supervises linguists and squads of special agents who collect human intelligence. Berger is currently on sabbatical and serving as a National Intelligence Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He studied at the U.S. Naval Academy, University of Maryland University College, and U.S. Naval War College. Berger spoke with The Politic about his career with the FBI, just after the Bureau has changed its mission from “law enforcement” to “national security.”
The Politic: What led you to the FBI and where you are today?
I was hired as prior military, as a naval officer in 1998. I was at a point in my career where I was either going to stay in the Navy or get out and pursue an alternative. I met an FBI agent from New York who was a former Coast Guard officer, and he came from a family where he had four brothers who were either Naval officers or Coast Guard officers. He explained that the Bureau was a balance in his life in terms of national security and [civilian] lifestyle, in terms of between being able to pursue the mission but yet be closer to home. I was married at the time and I had two kids, and it was that good balance that I was looking for. I applied and never looked back; it was the best decision I ever made.
The Politic: What have you done with the Bureau in the time you have been with the group?
Primarily, I did national security, with some criminal [investigations] along the way. I started out in counterterrorism and counterintelligence. I have had various assignments in New York at FBI headquarters and have deployed to Iraq for counterintelligence and counterterrorism assignments. Now, I am working on foreign intelligence with the FBI.
The Politic: What does that entail? What is your day-to-day life like?
Right now, I am in an unusual position because I am actually in a think tank, on a sabbatical for a year. But I have had a series of increasing responsibilities: first as a street agent, which involves running investigations which could involve wiretaps, handling human sources, [or] undercover operations. I went to headquarters and had a counterterrorism position where I had program management responsibilities for counterterrorism and oversaw operations going on in the New York office. I returned to New York and I ran a squad, which is about twenty investigators — half FBI, half task force officers from other agencies — where we did counterterrorism investigations down in Long Island. [For] my most recent assignment I had a branch, approximately 150 employees and contractors including FBI agents, and [I] had about 100 linguists that spoke about 50 different languages and dialects. I also have intelligence analysts who do the analytical work for the operations.
The Politic: Obviously you have held a gamut of different positions. Which position has challenged you the most?
I think the squad supervisor position is probably the most challenging because it’s a front line supervisory position where you actually have twenty different investigators who each have their own responsibilities and their own investigations, and to them each is the most important responsibility in the world. So you [only] have so many hours in the day, and you completely lose control over your own time. So what happened — forty direct reports — I thought was the most challenging assignment in my career.
Since I became an ASAC, that’s Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge, I [work with] five really sound front line supervisors who directly report to me. And that makes it a whole lot easier, being in middle management as opposed to front line manager positions, because I had five high quality supervisors I was able to lean on.
The Politic: Which position excited you the most?
Every position I was in with the Bureau is like the military, in the sense that if you are willing to accept more responsibility, we’ll give it to you as you learned the job. That takes about a year, maybe a little bit longer to really get good at what you are doing. Then, you start looking for the next challenge, which is truly rewarding. When I was a street agent, I felt like I learned a lot to hit that point where I was able to give something back and spread that knowledge to people who were a little bit junior to me. I did that for about five years, and then I took the next step and went into a management position and ran the branch. So every job was better than the last, and I can honestly say I look forward to more responsibility.
The Politic: You have interacted with the Bureau in different ways and have been with the organization for a long time. In the political situation we are in now, [where we are] withdrawing militarily — as we already have in Iraq, and as we are now coming out of Afghanistan—but obviously we are trying to maintain a strong presence in the Middle East, and strong ties there. What do you think the role of the FBI will be in the future American policies of counterterrorism?
If anything, it’s going to grow. As you mentioned, we are out of Iraq, pulling out of Afghanistan, either [fully] or [mostly] by the end of 2014. It’s hit the point in time where the FBI needs to [ask itself], “What is our current counterterrorism strategy?” There are actually seven pillars to that: its intelligence, its strategic messaging, its diplomacy, its financial sanctions, its law enforcement, covert operations, and military force. Some of those seven levers can be applied to some groups, but not all. There is a role for military force, and there is a role for covert operations. That law enforcement piece becomes very important, I think you’ll concur, because it gives the National Security Council more options.
Just to give you an example, you can have an armed combat going on in Afghanistan. You know you have someone who commits an act of terrorism [there]. But if we are able to forensically tie that person to a bombing, should they cross into an international airport twenty years from now, we can easily pull an INTERPOL arrest warrant on them and arrest them and bring them back to the United States for justice. I think that is a very powerful disincentive for people to engage in terrorism. It’s not going to end with this war.
The Politic: Moving forward, do you think the FBI is going to grow into these different areas or ramp up cooperation with other groups to tackle some of these pillars?
We’re already closely integrated. Just in terms of counterterrorism, it’s not something we can do alone. We have to work with the local police, the state police. We have to work with other federal agencies when doing things overseas. We work with our intelligence community partners and the Department of Defense. Even if they provide extraditions or renditions, we are a partner in that. So no, it’s not going to be an FBI mission; we’ve already kind of grown into [integration], and I think that going forward, integration is going to become even more important to provide support.
The Politic: What advice would you give to college students interested in pursuing careers in national security or counterterrorism? What might you have told yourself at the age of 18?
We are looking for people from a diverse skill set, particularly for the FBI. FBI agents and people that we are looking at — it can be former military, it can be attorneys. We’re looking for foreign language abilities [and] people who are comfortable with people from different cultures, so living overseas is very useful. We need different skills — like accounting, science, and technology, like forensics. My recommendations would be to find a career in an area that you love, pursue that, and be the best you can be at it, and then apply to the FBI, as opposed to trying to pick a major to get into the FBI. We are not looking for a single type. We are looking for people who are successful, motivated and understand the world.
The FBI is an exciting career. Not everybody in the FBI is an FBI agent. We are looking for intelligence analysts, which is similar to a position you would have in other intelligence agencies: same level of training, same experience. We are looking for people with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, but more likely advanced degrees, master’s degrees. We are looking for linguists, particularly native speakers. We are looking for people who can support our infrastructure internally in terms of accounting and facilities, all sorts of things. Everybody in the FBI isn’t an agent. We have lots of opportunities. If anyone is interested in applying they definitely should be looking at the web site FBI.gov.