FBI Terrorist Hunter Randy Leben

FBI Terrorist Hunter Randy Leben

Special Agent Randy Leben retired last September after 25 years with the FBI. He was a counter-intelligence officer for most of his career; then, after

  • By: Paul Guernsey
Special Agent Randy Leben retired last September after 25 years with the FBI. He was a counter-intelligence officer for most of his career; then, after 9/11, he began working in counter-terrorism. After taking up fly-fishing in the early 1990's, he began to see intriguing parallels between his new favorite sport and what he did for a living… You and I met in March, 2001 when we were both fly-fishing in New Zealand. How long had you been with the FBI up to that point, and what duties did you perform for the bureau? I had been with the bureau for 22 going on 23, years, and my entire career assignment had been in foreign counter-intelligence.What did counterintelligence involve? If you had to put it into a sentence, what did you do? The FBI is historically, and remains to the present, the lead counter-intelligence agency within the United States' intelligence community. Primarily, our goal was actually an offensive one, despite the nomenclature of counterintelligence. Our objective was to recruit hostile foreign intelligence officers operating in the United States and/or against US interests abroad. A good part of your career took place during the Cold War, so I would assume that the people you were trying to recruit most of the time were from communist countries. Correct. I worked exclusively against the KGB, and the GRU, which was Soviet military intelligence. I speak Russian fluently. And how did your job change, following 9/11? That [counter-intelligence] skill-set was necessarily transferred over to working in counter-terrorism. As CI officers, more so than FBI Special Agents who were career criminal investigators, we already possessed the skills and experience necessary to attack terrorism targets… In both counterintelligence and counterterrorism, we work…to acquire evidence but also in more of a pure intelligence sense to conduct assessments and look for patterns of activities of terrorist groups. When I talked to you in New Zealand-and this was before 9/11-you were looking forward a great deal to retirement. How did your plans change after 9/11, and what did that do to your personal schedule? As with everyone within the US intelligence community, not just the FBI, we simply had to rise to the occasion and do what we had to do. On a personal level, I would say that the work itself was quite challenging, it was exhilarating and we had a steep learning curve for those of us new to these terrorism targets. And why is it, do you think, that the terrorists have not launched another attack in the US since 9/11? While our failures in the US intelligence community are readily apparent, our successes must remain silent in order to remain a success-at least for the time being. In other words, the successes that we have achieved would not be successes if we talked about them. How long have you been fly-fishing, and how did you get started at it? I was new to fly-fishing in approximately 1990-1991, and I was introduced to it by my best friend, photographer George Nikitin, who in essence said, 'here, try this,' and it was an immediate passion. What was it about fly-fishing that attracted you to it? On an existential level, it's a very thinking sport. One needs to think critically. We need to consider the natural habitat in all its facets; you need to be aware of the hatch that very hour, the equipment you carry that very day; your own casting skills. Is fly-fishing a major pastime with FBI agents, or were you fairly unique? There's surprising few of us that I'm aware of. The career in the FBI is pretty much the consuming passion. However, there are a few avid fly-fishers among my colleagues. How did fly-fishing relate to your work at the bureau? Did you find it a complete escape from the job, or did it actually complement your work in some way? Well if I could use a metaphor-in fly-fishing as well as in counterterrorism, you eventually get "in the zone." Your goal is to catch a fish, or interdict a terrorist. In the first instance, you consider the environment, the habitat, your skill set, the hatch at that hour. When going after terrorists, you consider their background, their language, their literature, their history, their culture, their native ethnic group, and their current host country-environment… I would say in both pursuing a trout or a terrorist, you must think critically and then at a certain point, intuition kicks in, and you achieve a certain "flow." The reason I say that is because we probably have all had those rare, surreal moments on a stream when we're doing everything right, and we net several beautiful fish. So, in counterterrorism, after patient analysis of the terror group's patterns and activities, the terrorist hunter himself can create the opportunity-and he strikes. The other thing I would say is that fly-fishing is partly about instant gratification, and hunting terrorists certainly isn't! Now, since you grew up in Hawaii, you've been surfing longer than you've been fly-fishing. How would you compare the two sports? The number of surfers and former surfers in the fly-fishing world is striking. It's amazing… It's again going back to the concept of achieving a certain "flow" with the environment, which one does in surfing, and one does in fly-fishing. The number of surfers, including famous surfers, from the 1960's forward who have moved on and into fly-fishing is just stunning. There's quite a few of us… Not in any mechanical sense, but in almost a spiritual sense, the sensations, the feelings, the mind-set and the flow that's achieved is shared within both sports. How often did you get to go fly-fishing during your active career? At best, four times a year-four big trips, not day trips. I make at least one trip a year to Yellowstone, and the environment surrounding Yellowstone, and some years, two trips. And then invariably…all the waters of northeastern California for two-, three- and four-day trips several times a year. What are you going to do now that you've retired? More surfing, and more fly-fishing.