On Thursday night at 10:00 p.m. Eastern time, USA is going to premiere a documentary series like no other. Inside the FBI: New York has a title that largely speaks for itself. This series, from executive producer Dick Wolf and filmmaker Marc Levin, gives you a look behind the scenes at the inner workings of the FBI New York office, one of the busiest and most challenging places for federal investigators to work. Levin spent many months there watching agents and analysts within the organization work to stop threats on the front lines, and using a wide array of techniques.
Earlier this week, we had a chance to have a wonderfully insightful conversation with Levin about the series, its unexpected relevance, and breaking some misconceptions many of us have about the FBI. (Throughout the interview, we reference a screening panel via the Newseum featuring Levin and FBI Director James Comey; you can watch that in full at the bottom of the show to go along with the full trailer for the series itself.)
CarterMatt – When did the idea for this project first start to come together?
Marc Levin – I would say it was the summer of 2015. Dick Wolf and Tom Thayer came over to my shop and laid out what they were hoping [to do]. Dick had been having conversations with Director Comey and had always dreamed of doing a scripted FBI series. The Director was excited about the idea of doing something like that and suggested that he should go up to the flagship office in New York and spend a few days with the real people. He and Tom did that, and they were blown away.
When Dick came over to me he said ‘if I had told my casting agent to give me some candidates for the head of organized crime, and he brought in a Chinese-American actress who was 4’7”, I would’ve fired them. Then, I met the supervisor of organized crime.’ He went on and on about how meeting the real people was so different than what he had in mind. He said ‘I need to do a documentary series before I even do a scripted series.’ He and I knew each other because I had directed some Law & Order episodes, and we had a conversation a good many years ago about his interest in the nonfiction world.
That’s how it started. As far as the filming started, it began in September 2015 when the Pope came to New York City. It was the largest national security event in New York City history because the UN was happening, President Obama was here, the Pope was here, it was an unbelievable convergence. That was kind of the test, if we could get inside during such a big national security event.
Did you ever imagine when you started that the series would be as relevant as it is now? The timing of it is, to be frank, eerie.
We were very low-profile during the project. My friends and family were all over me like ‘what the hell’s going on’ [after the election].
I would say a few things [on the subject]. One, even with the FBI and the entire intelligence community on the front pages of the paper every day, our focus is obviously on the pros, the real men and women who work every day. They don’t work for President Trump or Clinton or Obama — they work for us. They are the unseen, the unsung heroes. These are the focus of our series.
But, being inside as all of this went down, I would say that there were two historic things that were happening that we just by fate happening to intersect.
First, the world of counter-terrorism changed and evolved to a whole new place in the time we were in the FBI. It went from the old model of Al Qaeda, people being trained in camps and being sent to various places, to a social-media inspired, free-agent lone-wolf situation that we are in now. We were literally inside during the first episode the so-called ‘new normal.’ We were inside the Office of Counter-Terrorism here in New York City and also with the JTTF (Joint Terrorism Task Force) when [the Paris terrorist attack] hit. That’s how the series stars. Then, only weeks later, San Bernardino, then Brussels, then Orlando, then Nice, then Chelsea, the first successful attack in New York City since 9/11. We were inside, and this whole thing was changing and becoming even more challenging for law enforcement to figure out how to get on top of it.
The election and the Russia hacking and all of that was the other thing. That is not the focus of our series, but there’s no way to ignore it. I did an interview with Comey in December after the election, and it was very much like you heard in the Newseum interview. He was in a very difficult place, and didn’t ever really understand how all of this could blow back on the FBI. Everyone assumed that Hillary was going to win, so a lot of decisions were made with that in mind.
You have to understand that these people are pros, and if you are in counter-terrorism or in crimes against children or cyber-crimes, your job is to get the case together. That professionalism and mission-driven personality was an eye-opener. When you get to know a lot of these special agents and analysts, you get to realize that these people could make two, three, four times as much money in the private sector. Think about the tremendous opportunities there. Yet, they’re committed and driven by doing something that is meaningful and counts.
Then, with all of this noise on top of it, you can imagine the frustration that is happening. Nobody is looking at what really goes on here. [Doing this was] obviously critical and important and political. It was a unique experience. Once in a lifetime.
Did you welcome the challenge of specifically going to New York? I mean you could’ve easily just went to Omaha or somewhere else a little less daunting.
I was excited to take on the challenge. I’m a New Yorker, and 9/11 changed everybody’s life and changed history. It radically changed some of my feelings about law enforcement and the intelligence community. This isn’t all new to me — I did a series in the mid-1990’s called CIA: America’s Secret Warriors, I won my first Emmy on The Secret Government with Bill Moyers.
I think 9/11 changed everything, so the opportunity to get on the front lines with the people fighting global terrorism was something that I had been waiting for.
You spoke a little about this earlier, but what do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions about the FBI?
I would say there’s three. One is the classic men-in-black 6’3”, crew-cut guys from Indiana [agent stereotype]. Certainly the New York office is incredibly diverse, much more diverse than I imagined in terms of race, in terms of gender, and in terms of religion. That was an eye-opener.
Another thing was that while I’d done a work with local law enforcement, there was this attitude there of ‘oh god, here come the feds. They’re gonna screw up everything, they don’t know what they’re doing.’ That was just so big over the years with the people that I’d been working with. Seeing the level of expertise and the background [was incredible] — I thought everyone in law enforcement would have come out of a military background. Some of them are, but there are a lot more varied backgrounds that somehow end up with the FBI.
Director Comey, as he mentions in the [Newseum video], mentions the challenge of recruiting and maintaining talent that is up to the challenge. This is more than knocking down cars and grabbing people. It’s global. It’s not just the five boroughs and the metropolitan area. Criminals are so much more sophisticated now. It takes so much more sophisticated law enforcement to keep up.
I also guess as a New Yorker myself I had some of the New York chauvinism thinking that anyone would want to come to New York to work from Quantico. It’s the biggest, it’s the most action. That’s not the case because of the cost of living and wanting to raise a family. It’s hard in the metropolitan area on a government salary. The New York office is filled with New Yorkers! That made it feel a lot more familiar to me.
Was there a willingness among many of the people at the bureau to be open on-camera? Did you experience a lot of hesitation?
Tremendous [hesitation], even though the directive came from headquarters and Director Comey. First of all, the New York office is famous for being independent, its own world. There are a lot of people I respect who I’ve gotten to know, but were still old-school and the default mode was ‘no comment.’ Certainly, the younger generation is much more open and grew up with social media.
If you had come to a Q&A I did last week with an agent for counter-terrorism and the head analyst out of intel, they were honest. They asked [after we showed up] ‘who the hell are these people, and how the hell did they ever get into a joint operation at command center during a national security event?’
In the first episode after the Paris attack, there was a real sense of apprehension about what’s going to happen on Thanksgiving. We were inside, and there was actually an alert about a character who was under suspicion and on watch lists. They feared that they had come to New York with weapons. To see that play out in real time and be allowed that access was significant, but there was some resistance. It took a while to earn their trust.
Is this something you’d love to explore further with this? Would you like to revisit the CIA or go and look at the NSA or other government agencies?
If you look at my body of work, I’ve also spent a lot of time looking at things on the other side of the law. I’ve shuttled back and forth, but I feel we need a better understanding. Who feel a tremendous strain between the FBI and local law enforcement — how do we get beyond that? The threats are growing and are more challenging. I have to figure out how to be a storyteller, how to tell stories that are compelling and entertaining, and yet somehow illuminate and help people understand. I am wrestling with that now, and am very curious to see how this is received and how it plays out.
This has whetted my appetite. Before I started I thought of the New York office as the peak office covering mostly New York, but not anymore. We went with the head of counter-terrorism to Kampala for the trials of the terrorist convicted of the World Cup attacks in 2010. We were also in Paris after the attacks.
Law enforcement is global now. They’re all inter-connected. We had a cyber takedown in the third show, with Russian and Ukrainian criminals operating out of Thailand with connections right in Brighton Beach. My point is, the globalization and seeing how it is all connected was a total eye-opener to me and something I’m trying to figure out.
Thanks once more to Marc Levin for his time. As a reminder, Inside the FBI: New York premieres on USA Thursday night at 10:00 p.m. Eastern time. (Photo: USA.)