HEADQUARTERS, QUANTICO, Virginia — Naval Criminal Investigative Service Director Andrew Traver assumed command in October 2013 — weeks after the Navy Yard shootings — with a clear mandate: Take an agency known for sleuthing and prepare it for dangerous confrontations.
A year later, training is about to begin for the first class of NCIS agents who will comprise the Regional Emergency Reaction Counter Threat teams that can serve high-risk warrants or act as first responders in the case of on-base emergencies, like active-shooter crises.
NCIS also has its eye on tackling the large number of sexual assault complaints it investigates every year from the Navy and Marine Corps, as well as economic fraud against the Navy Department that is an increasing priority for leadership.
Traver sat down with Navy Times on Nov. 20 for a wide-ranging interview. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity.
Q. What can we expect to see from your second year leading NCIS?
A. Just want to be moving things forward. I want to get the REACT teams done and get them deployed and get that as a part of the basic structure of NCIS now into the future. I want to see us bringing on the right people and moving the right people through.
Q. How will REACT teams help with crisis response and NCIS operations?
A. I would like to get them involved earlier in the planning process. So as you know you are moving toward a certain resolution to a case, they are involved early on to provide the best tactical guidance they can so the actual operation is as sound as it can be. Our own safety, the safety of the subjects and the safety of any collateral individuals are of importance.
The way it works now, if we are working a major drug investigation in, say, Jacksonville, North Carolina, when the time comes to go out and serve a warrant in town, generally we have to call the local police department SWAT team to do it. And there are no other federal agencies that [have to] do that. They all have some tactical capability where they go out and do it themselves. We just want to be able to carry our investigations through from the very beginning all the way to the logical conclusion. And do it ourselves and do it proficiently and do it professionally.
Q. What are some of the crime trends you're seeing?
A. Two biggest things we wrestle with — one is sexual assault, obviously, and we have gotten some relief in the last year. We were able to bring on a group of reservists, masters at arms. Most of them are, in their full-time job, law enforcement officers and investigators. We brought them on, spread them across our Navy offices and they have managed to help a little bit with our sexual assaults. We have a pilot program that is in development where we are actually going to bring on uniformed masters at arms to do the same thing.
The other thing is economic crimes, fraud. Prior to 9/11, NCIS had about 150 agents that were involved in economic crime, fraud. But after 9/11, because of different emphases, it actually dwindled to about a dozen. Over time we have managed to build economic crime back up to where we are in the mid-70s in terms of agents. During that same period, Navy contracts have increased exponentially, by a factor of at least 40, I think. So maybe it has about $400 billion in contracts. So one of our goals is to rebuild our economic crimes program.
Then the rest of the stuff is almost the same kind of crime you would see in any big city police department. For us, the epicenter of our sexual assault cases is pretty much Camp Pendleton; they have the highest number of sexual assault cases. In terms of just general crime, [Camp] Lejeune is our busiest office in terms of that. There is a lot of fraud in Europe that we are addressing. There is a lot of fraud in the Middle East that we are starting to address.
Q. What sort of drug use trends are you seeing that involvesailors or their dependents?
A. It seems to be fairly stabilized. It seems there is more of a return to the traditional drugs: meth, heroin, some cocaine, marijuana. There was kind of a spike in people using bath salts. Most of those didn't turn out very well, so that kind of subsided. And then one of the other things we find a lot of is prescription drug — I don't know if it is abuse — but we come across quite a few prescription drug overdoses, most unintentional, that have happened.
Q. There have been a number of recent cases in which inspector general investigations concluded NCIS agents weren't following procedures. What are you doing to improve that?
A. I think if we have needed to we have tightened up quite a bit. I will give you an example: Some of the things we were cited for were actually minor deficiencies or violations of our own internal policies.
So there was a case where there was a bunch of sailors in a barracks shower. And one sailor bumped into another sailor in the shower. A few days later one of his buddies said he should report that as a sexual assault. So it gets reported. We get the referral a month after the incident, and what do we have for evidence? We have an empty barracks shower and we have no witnesses to interview. We have no suspect to interview. Part of our standard process is to photograph the crime scene and sketch the crime scene. Well, it's a barracks shower. No one photographed the crime scene. But that gets reported as a deficiency in our investigative process.
Well, it is an investigation that clearly doesn't have any merit that is never going to be prosecutable at any venue. In that case you can see where agents will think, well, I am not going to go through all the steps because there is really nothing here for me to do. So what we have encouraged is, because of the additional scrutiny from IG and others, is that it doesn't make any difference; follow every step of our protocol regardless of the case. Do it anyway so at the very least we can say there is no prospective merit here — we did everything we were supposed to do.
Q. There are always rumors in the Navy about sailors who might really be NCIS undercover agents. How often are undercover agents sent on deployment or in the fleet for an extended time?
A. Something I would rather not talk about. It is one of our tactics, techniques that we use that protect. Every law enforcement agency does that. It is important to us as well because not only are we doing the criminal mission, but we have the counter-intelligence mission.
Q. How many agents are you hiring in the next few years, and what are you looking for
A. Right now we are about 200 to 220 under authorized strength. We are down about 100 professional support staff and then the balance of that is agents. What is ideal for us is for someone to come in who already has a specialized background. Sex crimes investigation, cyber, fraud or economic crime, forensics — any of those specialties that are very hard to come by and that take a long time to acquire when you are a new person on the job learning it for the first time. One of the challenges we face is, we bring someone with a strong cyber background and ... they go through training and then they realize that with a cyber background they can do a lot better financially in the private sector versus working for the government.
So there is tremendous opportunity here, but you have to embrace the whole lifestyle and not just think of it as, "Okay, I will do this for a while until I can find something else or until I can make more money." It is the government, and there are benefits and, of course, there are detriments to that. I have been a civil servant for almost 30 years and you have to be here for a reason more than just, "Hey, I saw the 'NCIS' TV show; that looks like it would be kind of cool." That is not why you should be here
Q. So now that you've been in your job for a year, what is the TV show "NCIS" getting right and what is it getting wrong?
A. Well, they get the camaraderie and the dry sense of humor. They get that right. We rarely, rarely, rarely fire our guns. Definitely not every episode. And it is really, really tough to solve most crimes in 48 minutes without commercials. So that part of it I understand, it is entertainment. Kind of capturing the sense of what it is like to work here and kind of the interaction between the agents, that is fairly close. Less the profanity.
It has been great as a cultural touchstone. When I was with ATF and I would travel or I would be somewhere, people would say, "Who are you with?" I would say, "Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives," they are like, "What? Huh?" You say "NCIS" — everybody gets it.