August 30, 2011

FBI in Montana

Part 1: In Resident Agencies, Agents are ‘Jacks of All Trades’

Resident Agency Placard

The FBI has 10 satellite offices, or resident agencies, in Montana under the governance of the Salt Lake City Field Office in Utah.

In the early days of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, popular lore has it that agents who botched a job risked exile to the Bureau’s remote field office in Butte, Montana. The field office closed in 1989, but the FBI still sends plenty of agents to the Big Sky state. It’s not a punitive measure, but a concerted effort to tackle the same threats confronting the rest of the country.

“If you think this is a sleepy little burg, think again,” says Scott Cruse, an assistant special agent in charge in Helena, one of 10 satellite offices, or resident agencies, in Montana under the governance of the Salt Lake City Field Office, which also covers Utah and Idaho. Priorities here largely mirror those of every other field office: fraud, corruption, cyber scams, child pornography, terrorism, criminal networks. “We may not have the large enterprises in Montana, but we work it up the chain,” Cruse says. “We follow that thread.”

Oftentimes, the thread extends well beyond the state’s expansive borders. In one recent case, an agent in Helena working with local police peeled back the seedy layers of a child pornography web spanning at least five states. In another case, an agent in Bozeman unraveled a local conman’s ruse to trick investors into pouring millions into a fictitious gold-mining scheme. The cases, which we will feature in the coming days on, illustrate how despite the region’s relative remoteness it is not immune to the prevailing threats of the modern era.

“It’s not a small world for us anymore,” says Special Agent Greg Rice, who works in the Bozeman resident agency. “We tend to find a lot of cases that are connected to other states or even foreign nationalities.” In one such case, a local bank received a fax on what appeared to be the letterhead of a local business. The fax actually originated in Russia, instructing the teller to transfer $50,000 to a foreign account.

“There’s a lot of wealth here,” Rice says. “The people are very nice. They’re very trusting.”

Resident Agency Territories by County

Map of FBI Montana OfficesBillings: Big Horn, Carbon, Carter, Custer, Dawson, Fallon, Fergus, Golden Valley, Judith Basin, Musselshell, Park, Petroleum, Powder River, Prairie, Rosebud, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Treasure, Wheatland, Wibaux, and Yellowstone

Bozeman: Beaverhead, Gallatin, Madison, and Park

Browning: Glacier, Pondera, and Toole

Glasgow: Daniels, Garfield, McCone, Richland, Roosevelt, Sheridan, and Valley

Great Falls: Cascade, Chouteau, and Teton

Havre: Blaine, Hill, Liberty, and Phillips

Helena: Beaverhead, Broadwater, Gallatin, Jefferson, Lewis & Clark, Madison, Meagher, Powell, and Silver Bow

Kalispell: Flathead and Lincoln

Missoula: Deer Lodge, Granite, Lake, Mineral, Missoula, Ravalli, and Sanders


- Salt Lake City FBI territories

The FBI has 56 field offices and about 380 resident agencies across the U.S. While in the larger field offices agents might work on terrorism or white-collar squads, agents like Rice in the small resident agencies have to be generalists—capable of working any case anytime.

“You have to learn to handle them all,” says Rice. “If people are calling in about fraud you’ve got to deal with it. You can’t wait for the fraud guy to come back.”

The Montana offices support each other on large operations, but individual cases are generally handled locally. Agents in the Kalispell office in Northwest Montana, for example, might focus more heavily on domestic terrorist threats, while in Bozeman and Billings the agents might be tracing the interstate flow of drugs or cyber scams. The 600-mile border with Canada also presents special challenges.

Agent Cruse says it takes a special type of agent to work in a resident agency, or RA. “You have to be a jack of all trades,” he says. “You’ve got to be willing to work long, odd hours, you’ve got to be able to get along with the local police, you’ve got to be diplomatic, and you’ve got to have a tough skin.”

“When you’re in a small RA,” Agent Rice adds, “you are the face of the FBI.”