VIRTUAL SLEUTHS COMBAT ONLINE CRIMINALS WITH THE CLICK OF A MOUSE
A computer hacker in Seattle deftly pilfers credit card numbers from an online retailer based in Texas. An identity thief at an Internet café in Moscow steals social security numbers from a temp agency in Tucson. A child pornographer in Anaheim e-mails illicit images to Beijing. An extremist in Peshawar uses his laptop to try to sabotage the electrical grid in Washington, D.C.
Each potentially has at least one thing in common: They’ll have Toreros to reckon with. The modus operandi for the next generation of nefarious minds has expanded far beyond the brutish methods of traditional crime into the murky ether of the virtual world. After all, there’s no need to rob a bank at gunpoint or launch a terrorist attack on, say, the New York Stock Exchange if you can effectively do both from your home computer.
It’s a grave new world for those entrusted with protecting a vulnerable populace in a hyper-tech society. Nevertheless, that’s the heady task that USD graduates have seized as FBI agents hunting online criminals and shaping national cyber-security policies.
They’ve taken different routes to the FBI, but the paths of four alums in particular have converged at the trailhead of a precarious battle between cutting-edge criminality and avant-garde policing, a place where each shares a common purpose, driven by relentless faith in their mission to protect and serve.
Andrew Leithead ’92 (J.D. ’95) wasn’t the first — or the last — USD graduate to enter the ranks of the nation’s premier federal law enforcement agency. But he may very well have been the youngest when he first aspired to his future career.
“I’ve wanted to work for the FBI ever since I was a kid,” Leithead says. “My Little League baseball coach was an FBI agent. I remember thinking that there must be nothing better than going to work every day and putting bad guys away.”
His first opportunity came as a USD undergraduate when he was accepted into the prestigious FBI Honors internship program after his junior year and was assigned to the organized crime section at FBI headquarters. Among the projects he worked on was helping to write a “white paper” on Britain returning control of Hong Kong to China and the effects the transfer could have on organized crime.
“That was a terrific summer,” Leithead says. “It was very exciting and just a great all-around experience. The supervisors I worked with were great role models for me.”
Among them, John Iannarelli ’93 (J.D.), who had become the first USD student to earn a spot in the FBI internship program two years prior with encouragement from Larry Campbell ’63 (J.D.), a special agent who oversaw FBI recruiting in San Diego.
“I was very interested in the FBI going into the internship,” Iannarelli says. “Coming out of it, I never had a doubt. I never looked back.”
Eric Schramm ’96 (J.D.) and Ramyar Tabatabaian ’96 (J.D.) took slightly more circuitous routes. Schramm first studied political science at UCLA, then economics, before eventually graduating with a degree in physiology. Rather than enter medical school, he opted to study law at USD. Even then his career arc was far from certain.
“I had this sinking suspicion that I might have a hard time being a litigator for 25 to 30 years,” Schramm says. There are some people who want to be FBI agents from an early age, but for me it never really crossed my mind until law school.”
Tabatabaian started his post-undergrad life in the corporate world working for a broker, Charles Schwab & Company, after majoring in economics at Cal. But something was missing.
“I found out pretty quick that you have to find a job that you love,” he says. “I decided that I wanted something more than just a job where I’d make a few bucks.”
Tabatabaian enrolled in law school at Northern Illinois University before transferring to USD where, with Campbell’s encouragement, he set his sights on the FBI.
“Larry Campbell told me that this was the best job in America,” Tabatabaian says. “That just kind of helped solidify in my own mind that I was making the right choice.”
Within a span of five years, all had graduated from USD and joined the FBI, with Tabatabaian stationed in Los Angeles, Leithead in New York, Schramm in Washington, D.C., and Iannarelli in Flint, Mich.
Tabatabaian helped recover underwater evidence as a member of the FBI’s dive team in Los Angeles when he wasn’t investigating bank fraud and public corruption cases, including working undercover to catch prison guards accepting bribes to smuggle everything from cigarettes to cell phones into a California penitentiary.
Schramm worked in the Washington, D.C., Field Office for two years before transferring to Los Angeles, where his wife was also an agent. His primary focus was on counterintelligence and counterterrorism, a realm where the well-worn trope, “I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you” holds slightly more resonance.
“I’ve worked national security matters my entire career, so discussing cases is a challenge,” he says. “Most of the work I’ve done has never really seen the light of day.”
Early in his career, Iannarelli worked several kidnapping cases in and around Detroit, although one of his very first assignments was helping chase Michigan leads in the months after the Oklahoma City bombing.
“I was just a small cog in the wheel,” Iannarelli says, “but I was excited to be a part of something much bigger than myself.”
Leithead was assigned to the New York City Field Office and worked counterintelligence, counterterrorism, violent crime and several high-profile bank robbery cases (including the so-called “Sleepover Bandit” case, which netted him a “Federal Investigator of the Year” award). Like Schramm, his public résumé is scant.
“I’ve been privileged to be a part of a lot of great investigations,” Leithead says, adding with a chuckle, “I just can’t talk about most of them.”
The most painful unfolded suddenly, vividly for the world to see on a Tuesday morning in September 2001. Leithead had just broken off a surveillance assignment in Staten Island and was waiting at the ferry landing when he saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center and both towers fall.
“I think everybody in the FBI remembers exactly where they were when they heard the news,” says Iannarelli, who was the FBI’s airport liaison in San Diego that day. “But, because of who we are and what we do, there wasn’t a whole lot of time to think about how we felt about it personally. We had work to do.”
Leithead and his partner caught a ferry for emergency personnel across New York Harbor and slowly made their way toward the FBI offices at Federal Plaza a few blocks away from Ground Zero.
“I remember it being very silent,” Leithead says. “You’re in the middle of lower Manhattan and there’s just … silence. There was a lot of debris in the air and we were walking through six or eight inches of ash that covered everyone and everything.
“It was a horrific day,” Leithead says. “It changed everything.”
Tabatabaian was already on the front lines before the attacks caused a turbulent, seismic shift in the ideology and methodology of federal law enforcement. In 1999, he joined a small team of agents investigating computer crimes in Los Angeles, one of the seeds that would eventually grow into the FBI’s national Cyber Division.
“When I first started, we had to wait in line for a laptop computer,” Tabatabaian says. “There wasn’t Internet access at our desks or anything like that. Instead we just had one computer room where we could go to access the Internet.”
Tabatabaian tackled one of the first major cyber cases in August 2000 with a securities fraud investigation that became known as the “Emulex hoax,” in which a stock trader named Mark Jakob disseminated a fake press release about the Emulex Corp. that caused the high-tech company’s stock to hemorrhage more than $2 billion in market capitalization in one hour of trading, while Jakob netted himself some $250,000 in profits.
After the hoax was uncovered, Tabatabaian quickly cobbled together a team. Within hours, they had traced the fake document to a local community college computer lab, and within a week they were executing a search warrant before arresting Jakob.
“The tools that we were using and the things that we were doing were low-tech, relative to now, but it was groundbreaking at the time,” Tabatabaian says. “Cyber Division didn’t even exist yet. We were really kind of making it up as we went along.”
Iannarelli joined the newly formed Cyber Division in 2003 as a supervisory special agent (SSA) with the division’s management-level executive staff.
“I saw it as a challenging opportunity to create something new that now has become a part of what every agent does every day,” says Iannarelli, who now heads a squad of cyber agents in the Phoenix Field Office. “I absolutely love it. It’s one of the most challenging jobs I’ve had the good fortune of doing at the bureau.”
Challenging is an understatement in a field where technology and the criminal methodology used to exploit it are constantly evolving at a breakneck pace.
“It’s definitely an arms race,” says Tabatabaian, now an SSA who oversees one of several cyber squads in Los Angeles. “Criminals develop new tools to commit their crimes, and you have to develop new tools to combat them. They get better and then we get better, they change their methods and technology and then we have to adapt. You never stop learning.”
In the last decade, cyber crime has gone from a relative afterthought to what President Barack Obama has called “one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation.” To help meet that challenge, both Leithead and Schramm joined the Cyber Division executive staff at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., as SSAs, with Schramm working primarily on policy issues and Leithead serving as Special Assistant to Cyber Division Assistant Director Shawn Henry and Chief of the Executive Staff.
“We are now seeing the threat recognized at a high level, whereas maybe it wasn’t paid as much attention in prior years,” Leithead says. “Cyber is at the forefront of all of our priorities at the FBI because it cuts across so many different areas.”
Everything from identity theft, child pornography and fraud to computer intrusion (hackers), cyber-espionage and cyber-terrorism now falls under the cyber jurisdiction.
“Where there’s a computer, there’s a potential criminal nexus,” Iannarelli says. “Gone is the day when the bank robber sits down and scribbles out a note. Instead you have people sending extortion threats over e-mail or trying to hack into financial institutions on their computers.”
While cyber agents patrol the vast reaches of the online world, much of their day-to-day work involves traditional boots-in-the-mud investigations that include following leads, conducting surveillance, analyzing paper trails and compiling evidence for prosecutors to use at trial.
“People may have the image that we’re all a bunch of computer geeks sitting behind our desks staring at the computer screen all day and nothing else,” Iannarelli says. “Whether you’re working cyber or not, you’re still an agent of the FBI and a lot of what we do carries a
certain amount of risk and potential for violence.”
That includes executing search and arrest warrants with riot shields raised, guns drawn and bullet-proof vests cinched tight. In particular, Iannarelli says individuals involved with the online peddling of child pornography tend to be among the suspects most resistant to apprehension.
“They are often people that you’d never suspect,” Iannarelli says. “As a result, they stand to lose a lot.”
Further complicating the work of policing online criminals is the fact that, as Leithead says, “cyber knows no boundaries,” a point that Tabatabaian has experienced extensively firsthand by working international cyber crime cases in nearly a dozen countries, ranging from Iceland and Thailand to Russia and Japan. He served with colleagues Jason Smolanoff and Todd Munoz, as part of the first FBI team to travel operationally throughout China during “Operation Summer Solstice,” an investigation that resulted in dozens of arrests and the seizure of more than $500 million worth of counterfeit software. For their work in Operation Summer Solstice, they received the 2008 Attorney’s General Award for Excellence in Law Enforcement.
“There is a very real international component to cyber-crime,” Tabatabaian says. “It can cross borders in seconds and attack from anywhere around the world.”
And you thought your workload was daunting. But extraordinarily high demands and expectations simply come with the FBI business card.
“There isn’t any FBI agent who’s going to say they’re underworked,” Iannarelli chuckles. “But our job is to protect people; the fact that there are a lot of criminals out there just means there are a lot of people who need protection.”
Earning the trust, if not the respect, of the people they protect isn’t always easy — especially in a turbulent, even paranoid, era of global politics and cultural upheaval.
The FBI, among other federal agencies, has endured heavy scrutiny and often scathing criticism in recent years, an unavoidable reality that’s not lost on even the most dedicated and driven of public servants.
“It can be challenging when public perception and politics and emotions play a part in people’s expectations of how good a job you’re doing,” Schramm says. “But despite all the challenges, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. At the end of the day, this is an organization that’s full of exceptional individuals. We could probably go off and work other jobs, but we stay here because we believe in the mission.”
It’s a mantra oft-repeated by these agents, so much so that a cynic might wonder what sort of Kool-Aid is being served in the FBI cafeteria. But, in reality, it simply takes an extraordinary amount of dedication to devote yourself to a profession that, by its very nature, is often shrouded in secrecy.
“When you’re on the inside you have a much different view of things,” Iannarelli says. “I can tell you that I have not met anybody in the FBI who isn’t dedicated to the mission and who doesn’t give the full 100 percent. It’s an organization that looks for and employs the very best.”
That includes recruiting the very best as well. Third-year law student Anna Russell ’10 recently became the latest USD student to complete the FBI Honors Internship program. She worked in the Cyber Division, in part under the supervision of both Leithead and Schramm, and now interns for the Chief Division Counsel at the San Diego Field Office while she completes her studies at USD.
“They say when you’re doing intelligence work that your best days are when nothing happens,” Russell says. “I really gained an appreciation for all the work that goes on behind the scenes that’s impossible to showcase.”
In a climate where the traditional parameters of law enforcement have become more malleable, both by necessity and design, the agents credit their USD education for helping them navigate the rocky legal and moral shores. But, above all, it’s a foundation of unified purpose and faith in their work, the system and the mission.
“I go home at the end of every day and I feel very satisfied that the taxpayers are getting absolute value from what we do, which is to defend the United States and uphold the Constitu-tion,” Leithead says. “You come to work every day and do the right things for the right reasons. It’s a little corny, red, white and blue probably, but it’s certainly who I am and what USD helped to inspire in me.” — Nathan Dinsdale