Tech Smarts Needed at NCIS

You won’t get to work with Mark Harmon, star of
the television show NCIS, but if you take a job at the real Naval
Criminal Investigative Service, you could find yourself leading the
real-world version of his on-screen life.

By Dona DeZube | January 2009


NCIS
investigates Navy-related crimes, including cyber crimes, from 165
worldwide offices. Among the ranks of its 1,300 agents are IT forensic
specialists, who work on cases involving terrorism, procurement fraud
and crimes such as rape or robbery.

“Because
we’re a Web-based world, computers are involved in 95 percent of our
investigations,” says Heather Bain, NCIS division chief of human
capital development. During searches, forensic cyber specialists shut
down and transport the suspect’s computers back to the office, where
they then examine the computers for evidence. Cyber specialists also
work in counterintelligence and counterterrorism, and conduct online
child pornography stings.

NCIS
has three missions: prevent terrorism, protect secrets and reduce
crime. The service hires recent college graduates with technical
degrees as special agents (as well as experienced IT specialists who’ve
not yet reached their 37th birthday) at about $42,000 a year in base
pay, plus a law enforcement availability pay premium of 25 percent for
being on call 24/7. In addition to the special agent career path, there
are a variety of computer specialist positions, none of which have an
age limit. (The age limit is tied to a mandatory retirement age for
many federal law-enforcement positions.)

‘We’re Investigators First’

Tech
hires are trained exactly the same as criminal justice majors. “We want
to groom a well-rounded agent who can do anything and everything we
do,” says Bain. “We’re criminal investigators first. That’s the basic
foundation in all our investigations: We investigate crime.”

Once
agents have learned the basics, such as how to conduct an interview,
process a crime scene and work with other agencies, they’re typically
sent to a large field office, perhaps Naval Base San Diego or Camp
Lejeune in North Carolina. At this point, an IT specialist might go to
work investigating intrusions into Navy networks or identifying and
outsmarting hackers.

What about
being called up to persistently dangerous locations – like Iraq? Can
that happen? “Every quarter we send out a worldwide announcement for
the next deployment,” says Bain. “There are incentives to go to
hard-to-fill vacancies overseas and for dangerous locations. For a
combat zone, like Iraq, you go for 90, 120 or 180 days depending on the
job. But, we’ve been really fortunate that we’ve filled all those with
volunteers.”

Moving Around – A Lot

“It’s
important to understand that we’re mobile,” she adds. “We don’t stay in
a fixed place for an entire career. Moving to a new location, after
working in an office for three to six years, promotes professional and
personal growth and gives you a new outlook on the job.” And, she
notes, if you want to be promoted, you have to be willing to move:
“It’s unrealistic to think you could get hired and retire from NCIS
without doing a couple of moves.”

NCIS
employees are a tight-knit bunch, Bain observes. “If I’m in San
Francisco and I move to Washington, D.C., they’re going to pick me up
at the airport, show me where to go and help me get oriented,” she
says. “If you’re in Iraq and someone in your family has to go to the
hospital, we’ll be there for them.”

Another
benefit of the job: variety. “Working on fraud-related issues, it is
possible or even likely that you’ll get a confession on a forgery or a
conviction on a contractor,” according to Bain. “In the course of 12
years, you could also work undercover on a drug operation, get involved
in counterterrorism or counterintelligence work, or find yourself doing
cyber investigations.”

Given the
breadth of the NCIS mission, career opportunities abound. For example,
while she initially resisted the posting, a stint working child assault
cases ended up being Bain’s most rewarding time at NCIS. “I put a lot
of child molesters in jail for a long time – 30 or 40 years,” she says.
“Moving on from that to senior management and now to be a part of
hiring agents and shaping the future of our agency is very rewarding.”

But note: To work with NCIS, you must be a U.S. citizen and able to hold a top secret clearance.

Dona DeZube is a freelance writer based in Maryland.

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