Kerryman Deaglán Ryan is fighting crime as an FBI Special Agent in New York. But it’s not very conducive to family life, he tells John Daly
IT’S a long way from Cork’s Mardyke to the shooting ranges of Virginia’s Quantico, and an even longer journey when a career path leads to the hallowed halls of America’s legendary Federal Bureau of Investigation. For Deaglán Ryan, UCC BA in Applied Psychology, class of 1995, this path less taken has seen him become a Special Agent at the agency’s New York field office where he says “small pieces of history are made every day.”
A native of north Kerry, he recalls the moment the seed was planted. “Aside from watching thrillers and action films as a boy, which I suppose is everyone’s first introduction to the FBI, my first encounter with the real work that is undertaken by FBI Special Agents was during my undergraduate days at UCC. The Department of Psychology offered an elective unit in Criminal Psychology, which I immediately signed up for.”
The unit focused primarily on the work accomplished by a small cadre of dedicated FBI agents during the early 1970s and ’80s. Under J Edgar Hoover’s rule, agents were directed to gather only irrefutable, empirical evidence that could be convincingly presented to a jury. Attempting to use the tools of a nascent academic discipline like psychology was considered tantamount to employing witchcraft and was greatly discouraged. “Their work ultimately led to the publication of the Crime Classification Manual, which represented a paradigm shift in perspective in the way these types of crimes are investigated and understood. This unit fascinated me for a multitude of reasons and planted the seed that one day I would like to work in this arena,” he recalls.
This led to Ryan obtaining a Masters in Forensic Psychology from the University of Surrey in Guilford.
Upon entry into the Special Agent programme, all agents are assigned to one of five career paths, namely criminal, counter-terrorism, intelligence, counter-intelligence and cyber. Ryan currently works in the criminal division, primarily investigating white collar crime. “Some days are spent safely sitting at a computer catching up on administrative issues and paperwork, or engaging in intelligence-based analysis,” he says of the more routine aspects of the job.
Many of the cases that the FBI investigates do not go to trial, with most arrestees pleading guilty. “On the other side of that are the days spent in the field, and depending on which investigate branch you are operating in, there are certainly dangerous aspects of this job. Most agents, regardless of their squad assignment, routinely participate in arrests, whose planning and execution is taken very seriously. The name of the game is risk management, and through rigorous training, planning and post-operation analysis, the risk is minimised. Going through a door to arrest a subject, usually under cover of dark, you trust the plan, you trust the training and, most importantly, you trust the agent beside you and behind you to cover their corner as you are making sure that you are covering yours.”
Deaglán, 39, grew up in Ardfert, just outside Tralee. Though based in New York at present, he hopes to move back to California next year where he spends his free time walking and hiking in the mountains and desert. He is single, but is “looking forward to getting married and having kids at some point, once I manage to stay geographically stationery for long enough, and assuming the right lady happens along,” he laughs.
With any mention of the FBI immediately conjuring up images of Elliot Ness, John Dillinger, Aldrich Ames and a host of famous criminal investigations, Ryan admits that his choice of career does excite more interest than the norm. “In social settings, where you are amongst people you do not know so well, for operational security reasons, it’s always better to be relatively tight-lipped with respect to one’s career.” Much of the day-to-day contact with the public involves interviewing people who may have no criminal connection whatsoever, just to gather information, to help join the investigative dots. More often than not this is the first interaction interviewees have had with an FBI agent.
“One definitely carries the weight of certain, mostly positive, preconceptions, expectations and a hundred years of legacy and mystique, into every interaction,” he says. “Depending on the situation, once the formal interview or debrief is over, people do often like to ask questions about the job which, generally, agents are happy to answer.
“Camaraderie within the ranks definitely makes the work a lot more manageable,” he says. “The hours are often long and unpredictable, and family and one’s social life often takes second place to the exigencies of the job. Flexibility is key, everybody understands this.” The ability to maintain a sense of humour is an integral part of maintaining a positive outlook and staying motivated at the end of long work days, he believes.
“It can happen that you’ll find yourself preparing to go through a door with agents that you may not know all that well, to arrest a subject, or subjects, on the other side. Knowing these people, or being their friend, is not as important in that moment as having faith in their professionalism, and in the training that you have all been through to meet the requirements of any given situation you may encounter on the other side of that door,” he says.
Being part of an organisation like the FBI does make the prospect of a career in any other line of work pretty humdrum, he admits. “I’ve been with the Bureau about two-and-a-half years but, relatively speaking, I know I am going to feel like ‘the new guy’ for a couple of more years at least. With regards to becoming a competent and truly seasoned case agent, from top to bottom, the overall playing field is vast, and cultivating and honing an eclectic and disparate skill set is definitely part of becoming a good case agent. Occupationally speaking, I am at my happiest when I am being challenged to learn, and to grow and develop both personally and professionally,” he says.
“If, after a certain number of years working in say, the counter-terrorism arena, you feel a desire to work the criminal field, you can make the leap.”
The criminal field incorporates the investigation of everything from violent gangs and organised crime on one end of the spectrum, to international art theft on the other.
Agents act in the capacity of dog handlers, bomb technicians, pilots, scuba divers, evidence and crime scene specialists, language experts, tactical operators, crisis negotiators, firearms instructors, to name but a few. Many of these roles are undertaken as collateral duties, engaged in on a part-time capacity while an agent continues to work their assigned case load.
“As well as learning the ropes as a case agent, I’ve been lucky enough to bring my airline flying experience to bear in my Bureau career, having joined the aviation unit, flying both fixed-wing and rotary, on a part time basis,” he says of his current area of operation within the agency.
“Put simply, there is as much personal challenge to be had, and as many opportunities for professional development, as one is willing to subject oneself to within this organisation. Because of that, I can absolutely see myself being content to stay here for quite a while to come,” Ryan says.
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