Despite the corruption that occurred at the top levels of the bureau under FBI Director James Comey, the FBI has gotten incredibly good at outsmarting its criminal and foreign intelligence targets.
A prime example is the FBI’s Tactical Surveillance (TacOps) unit that plants bugging devices and surveillance cameras in the homes, offices, yachts, or airplanes of Mafia targets, corrupt politicians, foreign and domestic terrorists, foreign intelligence officers, and white collar criminals as well as in foreign embassies in the U.S.
In any given year, TacOps conducts as many as 400 of what the FBI calls covert entries, each authorized by court order and each requiring meticulous planning and ingenious cover stories.
Former President Trump’s team has claimed that FBI may have planted listening devices when conducting a search of Mar-a-Lago. But the truth is TacOps’ techniques are so sophisticated that no one would know if the FBI bugged Mar-a-Lago.
When conducting covert entries, TacOps tranquilizes guard dogs and may stage fake traffic accidents, traffic stops, or utility breakdowns to waylay occupants and security personnel.
To conceal agents as they defeat locks and alarm systems, TacOps creates false fronts to houses and fake bushes that hide agents.
If caught breaking in, TacOps agents are in danger of being shot by occupants who think they are burglars.
Let’s say the FBI plans to install listening devices in a foreign embassy in the U.S. For weeks beforehand, TacOps agents will conduct surveillance to see who goes in and out of the embassy. If a dog is on the premises, agents will photograph it and show the photo to a veterinarian on contract.
The vet will prescribe just the right amount of tranquilizer to shoot into the dog with a dart gun. When they have completed their clandestine work, TacOps agents will shoot another dart with a stimulant into the dog to wake it up.
On the night of the break-in, agents will be stationed at the homes of those who work at the embassy. To prevent workers from returning unexpectedly, agents may issue them a ticket while dressed in a police uniform or open a fire hydrant near the premises to close off traffic in the area.
For a job involving an organized crime target in Las Vegas, the secret TacOps Center in Virginia created a fake bush to camouflage two TacOps FBI agents so they could defeat the locks on a garage door and plant bugging devices in the house.
An image of a bush was imprinted on cloth. It was attached to plastic tubing and could be opened and folded like an umbrella. When unfolded, the bush was shaped like a cup turned upside down.
Working on a dark night, TacOps agents inched toward the garage door while shielding themselves from any passers-by on the street, which was about 100 feet from the house.
While the agents could have hidden themselves inside the bush, they preferred to hold it in front of them so they could run away quickly if challenged.
"The only difference between this bush and others around the target that night was that every few minutes, when all was quiet, the bush would grow legs and walk ever so slowly closer to the building," Louis E. Grever, who was in charge of the TacOps unit as the FBI’s executive assistant director over the Science and Technology Branch, told me for my book "The Secrets of the FBI."
Working as what he calls a "government-sanctioned burglar," Grever was on one of seven TacOps teams of about ten agents each that travel around the country conducting court-authorized break-ins. He conducted or supervised about a thousand covert entries.
Grever walked over to his desk at FBI headquarters and returned with a state-of-the-art FBI bug, which he placed in my hand. It was a circuit board the size of a postage stamp and the thickness of two stacked quarters.
"It’s a transmitter and a stereo recorder," Grever told me. "It records for about 24 hours, and it will transmit to a local receiver in encrypted form."
Grever shows how the bug can be concealed inside the rechargeable battery of a cell phone. Alternatively, the FBI could program a cell phone to record and transmit conversations.
TacOps is part of the FBI’s Operational Security Division. Consisting of 1,000 people, including contract employees, the division includes both TacOps and the Engineering Research Facility at Quantico. There, the FBI makes custom-designed bugging devices, tracking devices, sensors, and surveillance cameras to watch and record targets. It also develops ways to penetrate computers and defeat locks, surveillance cameras, and alarm and access control systems.
In particular, TacOps is considered critically important when it comes to preventing terrorism.
"TacOps collects against terrorists while they are in the planning stages, while they have their guard down, allowing us to see what’s really going on," Arthur M. "Art" Cummings II told me as the FBI’s executive director for national security.
While security personnel or occupants of a home, embassy, or office could legitimately believe that TacOps agents conducting break-ins are burglars and shoot the agents as trespassers, that has never happened.
However, if worst comes to worst, TacOps agents are authorized to use deadly force.
Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, is the author of "The Secrets of the FBI," and "In the President’s Secret Service." Read Ron Kessler's Reports — More Here.
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