Special agent

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In the United States, a special agent is an official term used to refer to an investigator or detective for a federal or state government who primarily serves in criminal investigatory positions. Additionally, many federal and state special agents operate in "criminal intelligence" based roles as well. Within the U.S. federal law enforcement system, dozens of federal agencies employ federal law enforcement officers, each with different criteria pertaining to the use of the titles Special Agent and Agent. These titles are also used by many state level agencies to refer to their personnel.

Most people holding the title of "Special Agent" are law enforcement officers under state or federal law (with some also being dual intelligence operatives such as with the FBI). These law enforcement officers are distinctly empowered to conduct both major and minor criminal investigations, and hold arrest authority.

In U.S. federal law enforcement, the title of "Special Agent" is used almost exclusively for federal and military criminal investigators.

In intelligence usage, "agent" may also refer to a human source or human "asset" who is recruited, trained, controlled, and employed to obtain and report information.[1] However, within law enforcement agencies, these types of sources are often referred to as informants, confidential informants (CI—not to be confused with counterintelligence), or confidential human sources (CHS).

Alternatively, some state and local government agencies within the United States title their criminal investigators as special investigators.[2][3]

Federal government[edit]

Within the U.S. government, the title of Special Agent primarily designates the Criminal Investigator GS-1811 series position.[4] However, the title is also concurrently used for General Investigator GS-1810 job series and the intelligence specialist in the GS-0132 job series according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) handbook. The vast majority of special agents are GS-1811 (or equivalent) Criminal Investigators. Special agents typically have at a minimum an undergraduate degree.

  • 1811: Criminal Investigator (Primary Special Agent occupation within the federal government)
  • 1810: General Investigator
  • 0132: Intelligence
  • 2501: Foreign Service Criminal Investigator (Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service)

Federal agencies[edit]

Most federal agencies, including the following, employ some type of special agent, investigator or background investigator:

Training for the federal criminal investigator[edit]

Federal law enforcement training can be divided into various categories, the most common being basic, agency-specific basic (ASB), advanced/specialized, and agency-advanced/specialized. To operate safely and effectively, U.S. Special Agents and criminal investigators must possess skills and knowledge regarding criminal and civil law and procedure, enforcement operations, physical techniques, and technical equipment, to mention a few. They must also be physically fit. While possession of a college degree can aid in obtaining employment in this profession, only extensive training provided at specialized facilities, combined with on-the-job training, can provide the skills and knowledge needed to perform the duties of a federal criminal investigator. As of 2012, there were 13,913 FBI agents, as of 2016, there were approximately 6,500 ICE-Homeland Security investigations (HSI) agents, and as of 2011, there were 4,890 DEA agents in the United States.[6]

Criminal investigators and the use of the term special agent[edit]

Not all federal criminal investigators are called special agents. Some federal agencies entitle their investigators as criminal investigators but use the term interchangeably with special agent. Other federal agencies use different titles for the same 1811 criminal investigative job series. Series 1811 criminal investigators for the U.S. Marshals are entitled Deputy Marshals. Series 1811 criminal investigators for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service are called postal inspectors. These inspectors were originally called surveyors and received a title change in 1801 to Special Agent. In 1880, the U.S. Congress created the position of Chief Postal Inspector and renamed these special agents to postal inspectors. The first special agents in the United States were appointed in 1791 when the Secretary of the Treasury was authorized to employ "Special Agents" for the purpose of examining the accounts and books of the Collectors of Customs. The position of Special Treasury Agent was created, and until 1860 submitted reports to the Department of Treasury, through the Collectors of Customs in the Customs District in which they were employed.[citation needed][7]

State, county, municipal, and tribal governments[edit]

The terms 'special agent' and 'agent' are also used by various specialized state level law enforcement agencies to refer to their officers, including the North Carolina Bureau of Investigations (NCSBI),[8] the Kentucky Department of Criminal Investigation (DCI), the Washington State Gambling Commission, many agencies inside the California Department of Justice such as the California Bureau of Investigation, the California Bureau of Firearms, the California Bureau of Gambling Control, the California Bureau of Forensic Services and the California Bureau of Medi-Cal Fraud & Elder Abuse,[9] the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI),[10] the Arkansas State Police (ASP) Criminal Investigations Division[11] and many others. These agencies may be a part of a State Bureau of Investigation (which is usually a part of an Attorney General's Office or a state level Government Department) or a State Police Agency (which is again itself a part of a state Department of Public Safety or a Department of Justice).

Also, Maryland has criminal investigators who are employed by the state attorney. These investigators are called special investigators. As with special agents, these special investigators are authorized to conduct investigations, make arrests, carry firearms or other weapons, and carry a metallic badge.[12][13]

In popular culture[edit]

Special agents, particularly those within the FBI, have been depicted in popular entertainment for years.

The title "Assistant Special Agent in Charge" and its acronym "ASAC" (/ˈsæk/) are stated frequently throughout the TV series Breaking Bad. For example, in Season 1 through Season 4, both Hank Schrader and Gus Fring are shown to be friendly with Hank's boss, ASAC George Merkert, and in Season 4 Episode 12 "End Times", Steve Gomez tells Dennis the "ASAC" is being pressured to search Gus's laundry for drugs. In Season 5, Hank – who is proud to have been promoted to the job vacated by his ousted boss – repeatedly chants "ASAC Schrader" to his baby niece Holly.[14]

In the TV series White Collar, Peter Burke is the "Special Agent in Charge" (promoted from assistant Special Agent in Charge at the end of Season 6) and the head of the Manhattan White Collar Division.[citation needed]

In the TV series Criminal Minds several of the Behavioral Analysis Unit members are Supervisory Special Agents.

In the TV series The X Files, the title "Special Agent" is given to both Fox Mulder and Dana Scully of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The title is referenced by them numerous times throughout each episode.[citation needed]

The main character from the TV series Twin Peaks, is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, and also, other FBI special agents make numerous cameos throughout the series, and its prequel movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.

"Dick Barton - Special Agent" was the subject of radio programs in the 1940s and later TV and film productions.

In the TV series NCIS the character Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo constantly introduces himself as "Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo" in an attempt to be charming.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO Standardization Agency "AAP-6 - Glossary of terms and definitions", p. 47.
  2. ^ "Worcester County, MD: State's Attorney". Worcester County, MD Code. Retrieved 2021-12-26.
  3. ^ "View Document - Maryland Code and Court Rules". govt.westlaw.com. Retrieved 2021-12-26.
  4. ^ "Special Agent Blog". www.specialagents.org. Retrieved 2021-11-26.
  5. ^ "DLA Office of the Inspector General". www.dla.mil. Retrieved 25 August 2017.
  6. ^ "Top Careers for Students of Criminology and Criminal Justice". Portland State University. Retrieved 2015-01-28.
  7. ^ "Department of Treasury". Retrieved May 16, 2020.
  8. ^ "NCSBI - Careers". www.ncsbi.gov. Retrieved 2023-07-30.
  9. ^ "Become a DOJ Special Agent". State of California - Department of Justice - Office of the Attorney General. 2020-04-16. Retrieved 2023-07-30.
  10. ^ DeVine, Josh (2022-07-28). "NOW HIRING: TBI Special Agent/Criminal Investigator". TBINewsroom.com. Retrieved 2023-07-30.
  11. ^ "Criminal Investigations". Arkansas Department of Public Safety. Retrieved 2023-07-30.
  12. ^ "View Document - Maryland Code and Court Rules". govt.westlaw.com. Retrieved 2021-12-26.
  13. ^ "Worcester County, MD: State's Attorney". Worcester County, MD Code. Retrieved 2021-12-26.
  14. ^ "Breaking Bad: Season 5, Episode 5 script | Subs like Script". subslikescript.com. Retrieved 2023-02-28.