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A Price Quietly Paid

Secret agents from the Country Club

What would you give up to stop the next terrorist attack from happening? It's easy to answer "a lot" when you're not the one doing the sacrificing. But would you be willing to slash your income by $70,000, give up your cushy lifestyle, sell your beautiful home, trade your slick sports car for a Ford Taurus, and move to whatever city you were told to, and when you were told to?Before September 11, most Americans living the lifestyle described above would have said no way. But in the aftermath of the attack on the twin towers, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been flooded with applications from folks who'd never considered applying to the FBI before. The phenomenon has caused a national spike in applications from around 40,000 to 80,000 a year for just 896 positions.

But it's the caliber of the applicants willing to give up everything they've worked for to serve their country that's so mind-boggling.

Charlotte FBI recruiter Amelia Martinez likes to brag about those she's signed up of late, all of whom will start their careers at the agency as field agents making $53,000 a year doing basic investigations into drugs, corporate crime, fraud and the like. There's the surgeon who wants to fight terrorism, the physicist who already has two patents under his belt, and the eight PhDs she's signed on recently. After 17 weeks of training, they'll join similarly qualified folks, like the NASA rocket scientist turned field agent who works out of the FBI's Charlotte regional office.

"Going from $120,000 a year down to $53,000 is the norm now," said Martinez.

Obviously, the days when most recruits were military or police officers with a few years experience under their belts are over. In the post-Sept. 11 FBI, when a barrage of applications has upped the ante, achieving an entry-level position often means distinguishing yourself from your peers in some spectacular or unique way.

Those applicants the FBI now considers competitive have special skill sets. They're gifted accountants with the talent to investigate Enron-level corporate fraud or to help ferret out and freeze terrorist assets. Some speak Arabic and other foreign languages and have enough in-depth knowledge of the Middle East to step off a plane 24 hours after a terrorist attack on an American embassy in a Middle Eastern city and conduct an investigation. Others have advanced degrees in the natural sciences or certain forensic skills that would be valuable in an investigation. They've got computer skill sets that allow them to track a hacker or the author of a virus across the globe. They're former military with weapons of mass destruction training. But most importantly, they're all willing to take a large pay cut to their often six figure salaries.

"They have a sudden desire to help keep America safe," said Martinez. "I can't tell you how many people have said the money's not worth it any more, the money's not important if we all die because of terrorists."

But merely making the cut doesn't mean your unique skills will be used immediately -- or ever. There are still drug crimes to be investigated and kiddy porn rings to be broken up. What the FBI is building is a sleeper army of highly trained specialists who can be called up when and if they're needed. Each recruit is given a special code that denotes his or her particular skill set, and then the information is filed away until it's needed. That way, if there's a large explosion of unknown origin at the nation's capital, an expert in nitrogen-based bombs can be quickly called away from the mortgage fraud investigation she was conducting to look into the situation. In that respect, signing on with the FBI to combat terrorism can also mean giving up the very field you love in order to offer your talents to your country.

In the process, because of the dedication of selfless, freedom-loving Americans who are making this possible, the federal agency is building what will likely become the most elite crime fighting force the world has ever seen. The direction the agency is headed even awes many senior agents, who are quick to admit that they wouldn't make the cut if they applied to the FBI today.

"All the senior agents wonder, "My God, what's the agency going to be like in a few years?'" Martinez said.

I wonder, too. And I feel a little safer, knowing the caliber of the rear ends warming the seats at the academy these days, and what they and their families gave up to be there.

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