What is a Special Agent?

In the United States, a special agent is a highly trained and skilled law enforcement officer who works for a federal agency. Special agents are tasked with investigating and addressing a wide range of criminal activities that fall under the jurisdiction of their respective agencies. These federal agencies may include the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Secret Service, and many others.

Special agents undergo rigorous training and background checks before joining their respective agencies. They possess unique investigative and enforcement powers, allowing them to conduct complex and often undercover operations to combat various crimes, such as terrorism, drug trafficking, cybercrime, financial fraud, and organized crime. Special agents frequently collaborate with other law enforcement agencies and work on cases that have national or international significance, making their roles critical in protecting national security and upholding federal laws. The work of special agents often involves significant risks and demands a high level of dedication and commitment to the pursuit of justice and public safety.

What does a Special Agent do?

A special agent having a meeting with two of his colleagues.

Duties and Responsibilities
The duties and responsibilities of a special agent can vary depending on the federal agency they work for and their specific area of specialization. However, there are some common responsibilities that apply to many special agents across different agencies:

  • Criminal Investigations: Special agents are primarily responsible for conducting in-depth criminal investigations related to their agency's jurisdiction. They gather evidence, interview witnesses, analyze data, and collaborate with other law enforcement agencies to build cases against individuals or groups involved in criminal activities.
  • Counterterrorism and National Security: Some special agents are involved in counterterrorism efforts, working to prevent and respond to terrorist threats and activities that pose a risk to national security. They may conduct intelligence gathering and analysis to identify potential threats.
  • Undercover Operations: Special agents often engage in undercover operations to infiltrate criminal organizations or gather intelligence on illegal activities. They may assume false identities to gain the trust of criminals and gather critical information.
  • Surveillance and Monitoring: Special agents may conduct surveillance on suspects or locations to gather evidence and monitor criminal activities covertly.
  • Arrests and Apprehensions: When sufficient evidence is gathered, special agents participate in arrests and apprehensions of suspects, ensuring that proper legal procedures are followed.
  • Testimony in Court: Special agents are often required to testify in court as expert witnesses, presenting evidence and providing insights into the investigations they have conducted.
  • Cybercrime Investigations: With the increasing prevalence of cybercrime, some special agents specialize in investigating computer-related crimes and cyber threats.
  • Drug Enforcement: Special agents working for agencies like the DEA focus on combating drug trafficking and related offenses. They work to disrupt drug networks and bring drug traffickers to justice.
  • Financial Investigations: Special agents may be involved in investigating financial crimes, such as money laundering, embezzlement, and white-collar offenses.
  • Protection of Public Officials: In certain agencies like the Secret Service, special agents are responsible for the protection of high-ranking government officials and dignitaries, both in the US and abroad.
  • Crisis Response: Special agents may be called upon to respond to critical incidents, such as hostage situations or major disasters, and provide support and expertise in resolving such situations.

Types of Special Agents
In the United States, special agents serve in various federal agencies, and their roles can vary based on their agency's mission and jurisdiction. Here are some types of special agents:

  • FBI Special Agent: Special agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are responsible for investigating federal crimes, including terrorism, cybercrime, organized crime, public corruption, white-collar crime, and civil rights violations.
  • DEA Special Agent: Special agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) focus on combating drug trafficking and related offenses. They investigate drug organizations and work to dismantle drug networks both domestically and internationally.
  • ATF Special Agent: Special agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) investigate violations of federal laws related to firearms, explosives, arson, alcohol, and tobacco.
  • Secret Service Special Agent: Special agents of the United States Secret Service have dual roles: protecting high-ranking government officials and investigating financial crimes, including counterfeiting and financial fraud.
  • ICE Special Agent: Special agents of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) enforce immigration and customs laws, investigate transnational crime, human trafficking, and various immigration-related offenses.
  • U.S. Marshals Special Deputy: U.S. Marshals are special agents who work for the United States Marshals Service. They are responsible for apprehending fugitives, protecting federal witnesses, and executing federal court orders.
  • Diplomatic Security Special Agent: Special agents of the U.S. Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) provide security for U.S. diplomatic personnel and facilities worldwide. They also investigate passport and visa fraud.
  • NCIS Special Agent: Special agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) investigate criminal and counterintelligence matters related to the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
  • IRS Special Agent: Special agents of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Criminal Investigation Division investigate tax-related crimes, including tax evasion and money laundering.
  • USPIS Postal Inspector: Special agents of the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) investigate crimes related to the U.S. Postal Service, including mail theft, fraud, and illegal use of the mail system.

Are you suited to be a special agent?

Special agents have distinct personalities. They tend to be enterprising individuals, which means they’re adventurous, ambitious, assertive, extroverted, energetic, enthusiastic, confident, and optimistic. They are dominant, persuasive, and motivational. Some of them are also investigative, meaning they’re intellectual, introspective, and inquisitive.

Does this sound like you? Take our free career test to find out if special agent is one of your top career matches.

Take the free test now Learn more about the career test

What is the workplace of a Special Agent like?

The workplace of a special agent in the US can be diverse and challenging, as it varies depending on the federal agency they work for and the nature of their investigations. Special agents often work in both office environments and in the field, conducting investigations and engaging in law enforcement activities. Their work may take them to various locations, both domestically and internationally, depending on the scope of their agency's jurisdiction and the nature of the cases they handle.

In an office setting, special agents spend time analyzing evidence, conducting research, and collaborating with colleagues to build cases and develop investigative strategies. They use sophisticated technology and databases to gather information, track suspects, and communicate with other law enforcement agencies.

However, a significant portion of a special agent's work occurs outside the office, as they conduct field investigations, conduct interviews, and gather evidence. This often involves traveling to different locations, including crime scenes, suspect residences, businesses, and other relevant places. Fieldwork can be physically demanding and may require agents to work long hours, particularly during active investigations or critical incidents.

The workplace of a special agent can also be high-risk and unpredictable, especially in agencies that handle counterterrorism, drug enforcement, or other dangerous criminal activities. Special agents may find themselves in hazardous situations that require quick thinking, adaptability, and the ability to handle stressful and potentially life-threatening circumstances.

Additionally, some special agents may have unique workplaces based on their areas of expertise. For example, special agents working for agencies like the Secret Service may be assigned to protect high-ranking government officials, and their workplace may involve traveling with and providing security for these officials in various settings.