The line of tourists snaking along benches in the courtyard of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, headquarters of the FBI, seems more natural at an amusement-park ride than a tour of the nation's hub of law enforcement. But who can complain? This is one tour that ends with a bang, literally.
Legend has it FBI tours began in the mid-1930s after a group of curious Boy Scouts requested one. Since 1937, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been giving organized tours to the public. The hour-long walk-through, while informative, is not glamorous. At times the props seem hardly more convincing than the special effects of a county fair horror ride. Movie posters from '50s G-Men films line a wood-paneled wall. Ross Perot-style charts and maps and a large photograph of Janet Reno decorate the space. But what the tour lacks in set design, it compensates with information.
The tour guide rattles off statistics about 400 offices worldwide, 56 field offices, 11,200 Special Agents of which 18 percent are women. On the second floor of the 22-year-old building, tourists zigzag through stations explaining the FBI Academy, FBI operations, gangsters, organized crime, the 10 Most Wanted, terrorism, espionage.
Tour takers also peer, albeit through a glass case, into the seamy side of life: gangsters' guns, replicas of bombs, repossessed goods, illicit drugs. A special section is dedicated to Aldrich Ames for his much ballyhooed treason. Like a scared-straight film, the Ames section details the damage and deaths caused by espionage. A short escalator ride to the third floor begins a fishbowl look into the operational labs for DNA and materials, where drug use can be gleaned from a strand of hair and the make and model of cars can be identified from smudges of paint. A glimpse into the gun archives shows the thousands of rifles, machine guns and pistols repossessed by the Feds.
Because most of the labs will move to new facilities at the FBI Academy in Virginia by 2002, upcoming substitutions could include an interactive CD-ROM of the FATS (Fire Arms Training System) that would allow tourists to simulate the split-second decisions that agents confront.
Part propaganda, part zoo, part in't-it-great-to-be-one-of-the-good-guys and part ooh and ah, the tour leaves even the most jaded visitor entertaining fantasies of Special Agentdom. The biggest crowd pleaser of one recent tour came at the end when Special Agent Robin Bonner demonstrated firearms. Clutching a 9mm revolver, then a 10mm semi-automatic, Special Agent Bonner, perfectly coifed, repeatedly hit the solar plexus of her target without breaking a nail -- a feat that Hoover would likely have appreciated.
And, no, there aren't any X-Files. Or so they say . . .
-- Julie Ziegler