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Federal Law Enforcement Jobs and Duties
Federal law enforcement and intelligence has a vital role in protecting our country. It encompasses many facets and a wide variety of responsibilities that focus on domestic criminal activity, terrorism, cyber crime, agricultural threats, financial and economic wrongdoing, and threats from abroad.
But while these activities may all rightfully be perceived as “threats,” each comes under the watchful eye of a unique federal agency that specializes in a very particular territory and area of law enforcement, analysis or intelligence.
Ghani Iqbal, a homeland security special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, cautions that comparing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to each other can be “very, very misleading and grossly inaccurate.”
He said it can be confusing when looking at the numerous and vastly different types of positions within the various federal agencies. All have different requirements, salary grades, duties and needed skills. He compares it to being a doctor, saying, “There are many different types of doctors who focus on very different types of medicine. This is no different and it can actually be confusing to an outsider.”
What jobs are there in federal law enforcement?
Here are some positions you might consider within the different agencies contained under the umbrella of federal law enforcement. Take a look at what you’ll do within each role and what education you’ll need to meet entry requirements.
Secret Service Special Agent
Job Description: Secret Service Special Agents plan and implement security for high-profile officials, including the President, Vice President and visiting foreign dignitaries. Agents also work to investigate financial crimes against the United States, including counterfeiting. Agents may travel on security details, and may be stationed at various posts around the country and abroad. Applicants must sign a waiver stating they will accept an assignment anywhere in the world. Of note is to join the Secret Service you may not have visible body markings such as tattoos.
Skills: Must be proficient with firearms and must be in excellent physical condition. Experience in investigative methods and law enforcement techniques is desirable.
Required Education: The expectation for beginning agents is at least a bachelor’s degree earned with superior academic achievement (based on grade point average, class rank or honor society membership) from an accredited institution. Some jobs within the agency may require a master’s or doctorate so be sure to check education requirements if you plan to apply for a particular job.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Special Agent
Job Description: ATF Criminal Investigators/Special Agents investigate crimes involving illegal firearms and explosives, as well as illegal trafficking of alcohol and tobacco products. They can be assigned to any field office across the United States or abroad and are subject to extensive travel.
Skills: Must be proficient with firearms. Agents must be able to handle personal risk and a demanding and irregular working schedule.
Required Education: A bachelor’s degree is generally needed, although relevant work experience or a combination of education and experience may qualify an individual.
Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Special Agent or Investigator
Job Description: DEA Agents investigate illegal drug trafficking and apprehend those involved in illegal drug activities. Agents are assigned to a home office, located throughout the United States. Work hours are long and irregular, and agents are expected to travel 25 percent or more of their time.
Skills: The DEA specifies agents must have good communication skills, problem-solving abilities, and attention to detail among other characteristics.
Required Education: A bachelor’s degree with a grade point average of at least 2.95 is generally needed, although relevant work experience or a combination of education and experience can qualify an individual.
Deputy U.S. Marshal
Job Description: Deputies with the U.S. Marshals Service apprehend and transport federal prisoners and provide protection to federal judges. They also operate the Witness Security Program. They work in districts throughout the United States and its territories. Deputies will be assigned to a duty station and agree to stay there for their first three years.
Skills: Ability to act quickly under stress, deal with a wide variety of people and have excellent problem-solving abilities.
Required Education: Generally a bachelor’s degree is required, although you may qualify with work experience or a combination of education and work experience.
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Officer
Job Description: Staff Operations Officers provide a link between CIA headquarters and operations field offices. They review operations and find solutions to problems to make clandestine CIA operations successful. They will generally serve in Washington D.C. with opportunities for overseas travel. Extended overseas postings exist but are competitive. The position requires a 5-year contract agreement.
Skills: Ability to work as a team or independently and must be flexible and adaptable. Have strong interpersonal, verbal and written communication skills.
Required Education: At least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. There is no major or program of study preference. but a 3.0 GPA is preferred.
Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) Special Agent
Job Description: Special agents with the FBI are tasked with protecting national security interests. This can involve conducting surveillance, gathering evidence, analyzing data and apprehending suspects. The FBI has offices located throughout the United States as well as overseas, to which agents are assigned. Special agents are required to work at least 50 hours per week. They will be relocated for their first assignment and there is opportunity for overseas travel.
Skills: Be highly observant, with advanced critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.
Required Education: Must have a bachelor’s degree and two years of full-time work experience or an advanced degree.
Naval Crime Investigation Service (NCIS) Special Agent
Job Description: Special agents for the Naval Crime Investigation Service (NCIS) investigate felony crimes that are committed within the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. They travel the world and may be stationed aboard a ship or on base. Special agents are not required to be members of the military, although a military background can be considered an advantage.
Skills: Must be resourceful and adaptable, and skilled in a wide variety of criminal investigative techniques and scenarios.
Required Education: Must have at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution.
Language Specialist or Linguist
Job Description: Both the FBI and CIA employ experts in high-demand languages who can use their expertise to interview witnesses and interrogate suspects. The FBI says you should expect long, irregular hours and to be assigned to a field office at home or abroad. You should expect temporary and long-term duty assignments throughout your career with the FBI. To work for the CIA, you must be willing to relocate to the Washington, D.C. area, and there may be opportunities for assignments abroad.
Skills: Excellent written and verbal command of language (the CIA says it is looking for “native-like proficiency” in the language), and an understanding of other cultures. Being skilled in a variety of criminal investigative techniques is an asset as well.
Required Education: A bachelor’s degree or higher in languages or linguistics is needed for both the FBI and CIA. An advanced degree is often preferred.
Job Description: Intelligence analysts take information and intelligence that has been gathered around the world to analyze and identify threats. They work primarily for the FBI and prepare briefs and reports for senior FBI members and law enforcement. As an intelligence analyst, you could be assigned to Washington D.C. or any of the 56 field offices across the country.
Skills: You should have excellent oral and written communication skills and critical thinking and intellectual curiosity are also a plus.
Required Education: Must have a bachelor’s degree and two years of professional work experience or an advanced degree and one year of work experience.
Job Description: Forensic accountants are responsible for investigating the financial portion of crimes for the FBI. They contribute to overall intelligence reporting by looking at financial wrongdoing at all levels of terrorist and criminal activity. These positions are located in every field office across the country. A support team of forensic accountants is based in Washington D.C., and its members respond to high-profile cases that involve large amounts of data.
Skills: Are able to identify and track funding sources and compile findings into meaningful reports. You should have the wherewithal and ability to testify or serve as an expert witness in court.
Required Education: A bachelor’s degree in accounting, or a bachelor’s with at least 24 credits in accounting is needed. Certification as a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Fraud Examiner or Certified Internal Auditor is also desired. Additional work experience in forensic, government or public accounting is another plus for candidates.
Electronic Surveillance Specialist
Job Description: Surveillance specialists gather information and intelligence so it can be analyzed. They must be able to plan and organize different types of surveillance operations and manage personnel participating in these operations. Much of their work is conducted in the field so extensive travel is required, and they often have erratic work schedules.
Skills: Must have extraordinary patience, the ability to blend into a crowd and have experience with photography and other electronic equipment.
Required Education: Must have a bachelor’s degree and two years of professional work experience, or an advanced degree plus one year of work experience.
Science, Technology and Weapons Analyst
Job Description: Science, Technology and Weapons analysts work with others in the primarily CIA community to evaluate and analyze weapons and technology developments in other countries, as well as identify cybersecurity threats. They must be willing to relocate to the Washington D.C. metro area. They may have some opportunities for domestic and overseas travel.
Skills: Critical-thinking skills, interest in international affairs, foreign language ability.
Required Education: A bachelor’s or master’s degree in a relevant field, such as engineering, physics or mathematics is required. A grade point average of 3.0 on a 4-point scale is mandatory.
Federal Air Marshal
Job Description: Federal air marshals protect commercial airlines from terrorist activities and prevent crimes against transportation infrastructure. They observe, analyze risks and make arrests as needed. Air marshals are subject to temporary or permanent assignments of varying length and subject to highly irregular work schedules. They travel constantly while on duty. Travel includes routine overnight stays in dangerous locations or areas with health risks.
Skills: Must be proficient with firearms and operate in very stressful situations where little or no back-up is available.
Required Education: A bachelor’s degree from an accredited school is generally required. However, in some cases work experience or a combination of work experience and education can be used to qualify for a position.
Transportation (TSA) Security Officer
Job Description: TSA security agents operate equipment that screens passengers and baggage at transportation hubs such as airports or ship terminals. There are positions located throughout the United States. Security officers must be able to work irregular hours and travel for the required 80-hour on-site training session.
Skills: Must be observant and very detail-oriented.
Required Education: This is one of the few federal law enforcement positions that requires only a high school diploma or GED. Security officers receive an extensive, on-site 80-hour training program to prepare for the role.