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Sep 1st 2017 by Chtorrr • 53 Questions • 138 Points
My short bio: Hi Reddit! I'm Marc Ruskin. I am a former FBI Special Agent, and I spent 20 years in Undercover Operations. I've juggled a dozen different aliases and have been awarded five commendations from the Director of the FBI. I've worked at US Embassies in Paris, Madrid, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Asuncion, the latter where I was given a Letter of Recognition from the Minister of the Interior for the rescue of a kidnapped former Miss Paraguay (Mariangela Martinez).
Since retiring, I've divided my time between a law practice in New York and extended sojourns in Liaoning Province, China where I've been studying Mandarin. My new book, The Pretender: My Life Undercover in the FBI, is now on sale.
Thanks to All of You For Stopping By.
** Had a Great Time! **
What sets you apart from the ever growing list of other 'cheap flights if you sign up to my newsletter!' guys?
Did you find it difficult to juggle between all the different aliases? What alias was your favorite? And do you ever bust them out anymore now that you're retired?
Great question, I'll do my best to answer this: Flystein is a great service but it's specifically for flights you've already looked at and are looking for cheaper deals. They charge per request, too. Really useful if there's somewhere you need to go at a specific time and you want to make sure you're not getting screwed.
Skiplagged is really for the US, it's for hidden city ticketing. See my comments further down in the thread. Also a great tool if you're comfortable with the risks.
Scott and Jack have great sites, but they use humans to do all the work, and so by definition they will miss deals. I come from a programming and automation background, so I'm able to grab a lot more of the deals. Scott says he sends out 20-30 a month to his premium list, which to me seems like he's missing a lot?
There were about a dozen over two decades as a UC, but never more than three at a time. Alex Perez was my fav, with the pony tail, the bling, on the street day in- day out. One tough moment: had one 800 beeper for both Alex and Sal Morelli (budget issues), and got a beep from an unknown number. Me: "Yo" Him: who's this?" Me: "you beeped me! who you looking for?" and so on, until finally Him: "You Alex? Julio gave me your number." And so it went!
Just signed up. It says a team of highly trained experts are finding me flights. It also says monkeys entered my email address into your system. Is your company ran by automation? or is ran by HIGHLY TRAINED EXPERT MONKEYS??
What are the requirements for becoming and undercover agent?Were family or relationships allowed?
To quote from the surveillance agents in Reservoir Dogs, you have to "have rocks in your head" to be a UC. Seriously though, you need five+ years agent time, and if you have a family, they will need to have lots of patience to accommodate an unusual career. Most agents don't do UC work, and of those who do, most don't do it often. There are about 100 full-time UCs in the FBI at any given time - for a country of 300+ million people. I was privileged to be one of them.
Why can't anybody make these sites for domestic flights? I have seen a dozen people do this for international but I really need domestic sales.
What was the craziest thing you ever saw in your years as a special agent?
Great Question! Because no one wants to pay for a premium service; and because the savings are a few bucks. Want to save on Domestic Flights? Get yourself the Chase Southwest card, get the companion pass, and go wild.
Working on the darkside, I often was exposed to the people whose greed made them act in ways we would think of as crazy. Such as the nuclear engineer who offered to sell me -- believing I was a spy for a hostile nation -- the blueprints for making a dirty bomb. For use here. And he was American....
What are your thoughts on buying "connecting flights" such as JFK-ORD-some random city instead of just buying the direct flight? This obviously doesnt work with checked bags though.
Did you ever slip up and mix up characters? How do you recover from these situations?
I mean, I think it's ok for Domestic Flights, if you don't mind not ending up where you need to go.. My list specializes in international deals that save hundreds of bucks.. Hard to do that with hidden city ticketing. My big thing with hidden city ticketing if you book JFK-ORD-Podunk, and the flight gets cancelled to ORD, they're going to send you to Podunk no matter what. Do you really want that risk??
I never mixed up alias IDs. Each one was tailored to a specific case, each a unique persona. It was not that hard to keep them apart. When possible, I would try to use the same birthday, so a not to have to remember a dozen of them.
When you were actively undercover, was duplicity more like a game to be won, or a burden to bear?
Not a burden. Rather a way of life. You could call it a game, but I saw it more as a challenge. Did I have what it takes?
Only if i would have known about this few months ago, i paid 1100$ for round trip from Houston to kolkata(India). Is that a fair deal or you guys could have done better?
What are some of the differences between real life FBI agent work and what you see in movies?
$1100 is a lot... Most of the deals I see in my database are to Mumbai or Dehli, tho
FBI Agents have, or used to have, a great sense of humor. In the films, like Die Hard, they're all black suits and grim faces: "We're taking over now." That never happens. We'd kid around with the locals, cops and trooper, and work together all the time.
What kind of clothing would you regularly wear? The stereotype is the black suit. Is there any truth to that?
Good question. I've seen $287 dollar round trip flights on United (DIRECT!) from New York To Tel Aviv - that's a flight that usually costs $1000 most of the time.
In the last week, Air Canada fares were 80% off for about 4 hours because of a glitch in their system. To their credit, they're honoring the deal.
My personal favorite was an almost round the world trip in First Class from Myanmar all the way to the US for under $500, including suites in Quantas First.
The stereotype is just that. For the movies. An agent going out on an interview, particularly in a white collar case, will wear business attire. I would dress to fit the role I was playing, from street hustler with lots of gold chains (courtesy of FBI Seized Property) to refined European jewel thief in elegant suit and $30,000 watch.
Has there been any occasion where your mission/objective conflicted with your own personal ethics?
Edit : follow-up question : given your experiences, how has your perspective of the world changed from when you started to now.
Before working as a UC, it was black and white. The good guys (us) and the bad guys (them). I came to realize that it's a continuum, evil on one end, Mother Theresa on the others. And most everyone in the middle. And early on, I did form friendships with subjects, was invited to an intimate wedding, had a guy's son scratch my phony initials on his skateboard. Did not make me feel great.
As to conspiracy theories, there is an appropriate saying attributed to an outlaw motorcycle group: "The only way three people can keep a secret is when two of them are dead." Someone will always going to talk.
What are your thoughts on James Comey? Can you talk a little bit about how (if ever) politics affected investigations while you served?
Politics never effected cases that I worked on. One of the reasons I was attracted to law enforcement was that, ideally, it's objective and not political. In my time, I saw public corruption investigations of both Democrat and Republican officials -- no one in the Bu cared what the political affiliations of an official happened to be. The perception among many agents, in and out of the Bu, is that Directory Comey allowed the FBI to become politicized, to the detriment of the institution.
What were the most important things to do or remember while undercover?
You have to be "on" constantly, never out of character. And think like a criminal, act like one -- not like a cop. A cop would ask "where did you get the heroin/guns/ whatever." A real criminal couldn't care less. I never asked that kind of question, which would set of alarm bells with the subjects -- even though the prosecutors often pushed me to do so. By acting like one of them, I was accepted as one of them.
He died when parachuting out of the 727.
what is the strangest thing you've had to put on an expense report for an operation?
Myself and agent Rita F. put together carriers for my Mini-Nagra recording device that would allow me to carry it the place least likely to be searched - guess - It had an elastic waistband, and flaps with Velcro pockets in the front, and was worn over briefs, with baggy pants. I'd cut hole in my right pants pocket to run the on-off switch, held in place with a safety pin. Very high-tech. The bean counters authorized the minimal expense for the materials, but voucher must have read a bit odd!
Vincent Terranova, the agent played by Ken Wahl in the TV show Wiseguy was great, and very realistic. Showed the emotional issues of deep cover work for the first time.
In terms of doing illegal things to keep your cover, is there a line that UC's can't/won't cross? In other words, what would an UC do if the crew they had infiltrated wanted them to join on a murder or assassination attempt?
There are absolutely lines that can not be crossed. There is policy, for UCs and Informants, concerning authorized criminal activity. Some property crime might be authorized in order to avoid compromising the safety of the UC or CI, not violent crime. And that is realistic -- many real criminals may be fine with property crime and want nothing to do with violence. If I, in my UC capacity, refuse to participate in a violent act, that does not compromise me as a UC. Me: "No way. I'm a thief, not a killer. If you want to risk a 20 year stretch, and enjoy hurting people, that's your business. Count me out." If anything, my credibility as a real criminal just went up.
What percentage of construction companies in a close proximity to NYC would you say are involved in the mafia?
The La Cosa Nostra case that I worked in the mid-2000s involved money laundering and hot jewels. I could not comment with any personal knowledge on construction.
I know when preparing a new alias, you try to get as much real life experience to make sure the alias is authentic. Did you ever have to do anything disturbing/unethical/illegal when preparing for a new alias? And if so what did you have to?
An example of the kinds of unusual things I'd need to learn: For one case, I went to Waste Management's facility in South Florida to learn about the working of the business. Over the years I learned a little bit about a lot of professions, in order to get on the inside. As to "unethical," it depend how you view lying. I was constantly lying about who I was, my history, etc. I learned to "live a lie." But nothing illegal, and no lying that would bring harm or loss to innocent bystanders (except a little bit, in COMMCORR - I learned my lesson). Often appearing to be doing illegal activity, when I really wasn't. Selling "hot" Swatches at 1/3 of list, out of the trunk of my car in RUN DMV, to create the appearance of being a hood. I had really bought them at market price, legitimately.
When you were UC on Wall Street what was your cover? Trader, lawyer? Did that kind of cover require a lot of financial education?
In COMMCORR, I started of as a clerk on the floor of the COMEX, one of the commodities exchanges, learned the business, and a year later passed the written and practical exams to become a local trader on the NYMEX. The case went down in flames after someone recognized me from my time at the DA's office, and blew my cover.
aren't you worried you just posted the target on your back to reddit?
They were doing their job and I was doing mine. Most guys understand that. And having the entire weight of the FBI come crashing down isn't what most former subjects are looking for.
Hi Mr Ruskin, would you please shed some light on the psychology of the people you have met UC during your investigations. Would you also talk about the motivations and behavior of the "bad" guys , did you find any patterns of similarity between them?
The motivation is usually greed. As is often the case with those who are not technically "bad guys." Just that in the case of the subjects I dealt with, they did not let laws interfere with their business activities. For the Malaysian Chinese heroin dealers, it was all business -- it just happened that selling heroin was immensely more profitable than selling a legit product.
Hi I'm interested in becoming a special agent. I am a 23 year old male with a degree in pr and a national guard Intel officer. I plan on either getting a master's in international relations or a law degree. My other plan to be competitive is just volunteering to get orders overseas. Any advice?
The law degree would be the way to go. Makes you more competitive. Not so for the MSIA.
We would coordinate with the National Police and Intel Services of the host country. Exchange info on international cases and work together. In Europe it was all very formal and proper. Me: "Can you provide bank info on a suspected Wall Street fraudster?" etc. The receive a report two week later to pass on to the NYO (New York Office). Now in Paraguay, it was different. I'd be bouncing in an unmarked car with locals, a revolver tucked into my waistband.
You don't look Asian, how did you infiltrate a Chinese gang?
As the nephew of imprisoned Mexican cartel boss Gil Sandoval. His fellow inmate, Bing Gong Yong, serving life for kidnapping and murder, ran his heroin organization from inside prison. Gil was pretending to run his cocaine business, with me as his trusted lieutenant. And we wanted to expand into the heroin business. And so it went....
Obligatory "Have you ever shot someone?" question.
But seriously, since you spent a long time in undercover operations, is it really a thing for an agent to be "in too deep" that they begin to turn or sympathize with the groups they've infiltrated?
First, I was in one shootout, in Buenos Aires of all places, Intervening in a carjacking while off duty. First (documented) shooting by an FBI Agent outside the U.S. No one was killed, and it's not like in the movies. Not like I had imagined. Take my word for it, once was enough. I did not like being shot at. And I'm impressed, all the time, by our combat men and women in arms, more now than ever. And yes, a UC can be to deep, that's why the Bu (as we call it) had the Undercover Safeguard Unit. To monitor and protect UCs. Check out MIPORN, with UC Pat Livingston, to see what can happen to a UC who spends too much time on the dark side.
Thanks for answering!
I know usually that's not a great question to ask a lot of people in these positions because usually having to shoot at someone isn't ideal.
And having read up a little on Livingston, I can understand how integrating into that kind of lifestyle be dangerous. But do you think it's still likely for that to happen in other kind of organizations like the right-wing terrorist group you mentioned? Or is it more complex than people realize?
My friend Mike G. infiltrated many Aryan Nations type organizations, and came out psychologically unscathed. To do this sort of work, one needs a fairly unusual skill set and personality make up. That's why the Bu's UC Safeguard Unit is so important.
In the Buenos Aires shootout, there was a minor miracle. The shooter, on the back of a motorcycle, fired one round into my Ford Escort's windshield, I returned fire. Later, the locals found, a few yards from my car, the magazine (clip) from his 9mm Glock. Full of ammo. After he fired the first round, the one already chambered, the magazine fell out. Either it was not properly seated, or he inadvertently depressed the release. Had that not happened, he could -- would -- have sprayed 15+ rounds into my windshield, and you wouldn't be AMAing me today.
what's something that was considered standard operating procedure when you started, but was changed by the time you left?
This may not be exactly what you're asking about, but addresses the issue of changing times as they affect UC work. When I started, I carried a real tape recorder, reel-to-reel. A Nagra or a Mini-Nagra. If the bad guys found it....Now recording devices are all digital, nothing to worry about, they can be disguised as anything. On the other hand, in those days there was not internet. As long as you did a decent job crating your fictitious ID, you were relatively safe as to your alias. Now there is Google, and if it looks like Alex Perez did not exist until two months ago, you've got problems.
Which Mafia family, and what decade?
Which movie that ISN'T Donnie Brasco were your experiences most like?
What's your favorite mob movie?
Who should play you if there is a movie about your experiences?
Genovese, around 2005, in Queens and Long Island. Couldn't watch an episode of The Sopranos for years after that op. Favorite mob film: Goodfellas based on Nicholas Pileggi's book. They got it right.
What's the closest you've come to being uncovered?
Also have you ever had any near death experiences?
There were a few times. Once, in RUNDMV, I was chatting with a few subjects - we were friends already - in the lobby of Yonkers DMV when a subject from COMMCORR walked in. I extricated myself, close call. Then there was that shootout in Buenos Aires....
They can afford the best lawyers.
Get a law or accounting degree, work out regularly, and don't post anything online that can come back to haunt you.
Hey! Thanks for doing the AMA. How'd you get started in your field?
When I worked for Senator Moynihan in DC, as a young legislative research assistant, I met a special agent from the DEA (it may have still been the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs - BNDD in those days). He was about to retire, and made a big impression on me -- his integrity compared to what I saw around me in the Congress. If you think the mean streets are rife with crime, the absence of ethics in Washington was staggering. (I'm not referring to Moynihan, who's integrity was unparalleled).
Hi Marc, I know this isn't exactly your area of expertise, but is there a real "X-Files" type of department within the FBI? Or is that just purely for entertainment purposes?
If it existed, I would have heard about it. I got around a fair bit throughout the organization. It would have been a challenge: UC infiltrating the Alien Community!
Would it be possible for the people with integrity to lose control of the organization, and if so, what would be signs that this might have happened, that the public might notice?
It is hard to imagine a scenario where leaders with integrity lose control of the Bu. There would have to be "rogue agents," a virtually impossible situation to develop. On the other hand, where there to be leaders at the top with questionable integrity, or absence of independence from political pressure, then there would be a real problem. Signs to look for would be apparently unsubstantiated investigations conducted against critics of those in high places, or conversely, the shutting down of investigations targeting those in high places.
Greettings Marc Ruskin. Were there any instances where you had to compromise your principles, and were there any time that you had to turn in a bad guy who genuinely became your friend whilst you were undercover?
No, I did not compromise my principles, and was never pressured to do so. If there was a gray area, I'd talk it out with the case agent or supervisor. And yes, there were times were I had become friends of sorts, and the subjects were ultimately arrested. Particularly in RUN DMV, in the early nineties. (Young UCs can be too eager to succeed, as I was, and as was my fellow UC in the TURKEY CLUB UN OP, with the mob, years later). Afterwards, I resolved to keep it strictly business. My attitude: "You've got friends, I've got friends -- I don't need more friends, I do need more money. I'm here to do business."
Have you even been forced into a situation where you had to get drunk, or take drugs to keep your cover going? How do you deal with situations where you might have to "party"?
My attitude would be "I'm here to do business. Make money. I'll party when I get back to Miami." My line was often that I lived in Miami, doing deals all over the U.S. and overseas. By being elusive about where I was at any given time, I could avoid situations where a subject would want to meet right away. "Sorry, won't be in New York until next week." Ie. not until we've had time to plan it out and make it as safe as possible.
I'm pretty sure Ivan Boesky and Mike Milliken were indicted, and I believe they served time. It happens, but you're right, not enough. Leaving tens of thousands of senior in poverty after stealing their savings is worse than pretty much any crime I dealt with.
What is the best way for a criminal to secure and leverage the best deal in exchange for assistance in an investigation? What's the highest level of crime you've seen essentially forgiven in exchange for such help?
In SUNBLOCK, a UC op targeting a Malaysian Chinese global heroin importation and distribution investigation, I was posing as the nephew of Gil Sandoval (not his true name, of course), the head of a Mexican cocaine cartel in the eighties, serving "natural life" with no hope of parole. One the most interesting and challenging cases of my career. At the end, I testified on his behalf at the re-sentencing hearing. Altogether he must have served about 18 years. For a long time, our lives were in each others hands. A slip up by me, and a shiv in the back for Gil. A slip up by him, and I'd be going to a UC meet with a melancholy end.
Thanks for doing this AMA! My question is:
As an active military member transitioning out soon, I have always wanted to work as a special agent and work on domestic cases. I already have a TS SCI done through a SSBI from the FBI for my current job. Could this help me with the application process and what is the best way to contact for setting up an interview?
Your background sounds great. With your clearances, you've already been vetted once, and emerged as trustworthy. You'll need to apply to take the written test, but keep in mind that is years since I went through the process. You'll need to check the website for your local FBI office, and speak to a recruiter there. Good luck!
How do you feel about the portrayal of the FBI in pop-culture?
Also, did you ever flaunt the fact that you were an agent? Not for anything nefarious, just to see how people react. Let's face it. It's a pretty bad ass job!
Agents are for the most part very nice guys and gals, with great humor. NOT like in the films at all. And we did not flaunt it. I would tell people that I was an attorney, and leave it at that. A friend from San Juan, Bob B., would tell people he worked for Social Security (he never had a follow-up question!). It's not the kind of job you want everyone to know you're doing. Just a matter of discretion. And if one person in your building finds out (as happened to me in San Juan), then the whole building knows.
The FBI have always been protreyed in media as always wearing black suits no matter what.
Is this true in real life FBI?
Or do you dress differently sometimes.
The black suits are for Die Hard and Men In Black. Its a popular stereotype, and just that. Just as the stern visages and absence of humor.
What is the typical budget for an investigation, and what is the largest budget you've seen?
There is not typical budget, really. The case agent, the agent running the show, drafts a Proposal, which includes a budget (I drafted one once, for a case that I later was the UC in, and my RUN DMV case agents then handled that part of the op)s. It's a comprehensive undertaking. Big cases have to be approved at FBIHQ, with DOJ input, and if approved, so is the budget. Whatever it take to get the job done.
What are the best ways to figure out if someone is lying to you in a face to face conversation?
Also, are you any good at poker?
I believe that it takes years of being lied to get to the point where you can tell. As and Asst. DA, I interrogated several 100s of subjects when I worked in the Investigations Bureau, and after being lied to a zillion times, I developed a feel for it. Very useful to me as a UC.
Which FBI TV show/movie/series do you consider the most (or somewhat) accurate in your opinion?
TV: Wiseguy. Film: The Infiltrator, Infernal Affairs, The Departed.
How did you make your way "in" as an undercover? It's always puzzled me how a random person can make their way into something like a NY Mafia Crime family or a big heroin organization.
Developing a credible scenario that allowed me to get my foot in the door would take months of planning. In SUNBLOCK, case agent Mark C. and I came up with a plan that I would pose as the nephew and trusted lieutenant of imprisoned Mexican cartel boss Gil Sandoval. I even traveled to Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary and spent a day with Gil, in the visitors' hall, working on our common history, so that we could pull it off. Fellow inmates saw us embrace and talk warmly, and had no doubt that I was family.
Recently saw The Infiltrator and was very impressed. One or two scenes were I thing the Hollywood screenwriters got out of hand (I would NEVER have allowed myself to be take to a meet blindfolded, no way). Better to blow off the meet. If Mr. Big wants to meet, we do it in a way that's safe for everybody. THAT is how real criminals behave. They're not going to jeopardize their safety to make a few dollars.
Your thoughts on COINTELPRO, and on whether the organization is doing anything today that, when revealed, will be seen as being on that same level?
The positive consequence of COINTELPRO was the creation of the Attorney General Guidelines, which delineate in minute detail what FBI agents can and can not do. There are sections of the AG Guidelines for UC ops, and for everything else. And it is my experience that they are adhered to with near religious attention. Deviation from the Guidelines is really not tolerated. Not to say that there can't be a bad apple, but that would be the exception.
Have you ever had to make an arrest out of working hours?
There is no such thing as normal working hours for a UC. I would return beeps (pre cellphone days) from subjects at 11:00 PM on weekends. Otherwise those alarm bells go off in the back of their mind: "how come he only works on weekdays?"