Milwaukee FBI special agent speaks at Eckstein

Nancy McNamara

From selling clothing to busting criminals. From retail management to FBI special agent. Don’t let her small stature and relaxed demeanor fool you. Nancy McNamara means business.

The special agent in charge of the FBI Milwaukee Division spoke at Eckstein Hall last Thursday about the current mission of the FBI and how it became her life’s work. She was interviewed by Mike Gousha, a distinguished fellow in law and public policy at the Law School, for his “On the Issues” series.

McNamara became the first woman in charge of the Milwaukee office when she took over in October. She most recently served as section chief of Public Corruption and Civil Rights at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The New Haven, Conn. native took an unusual route to get where she is today. She did not enroll in the FBI Academy until 1996 when she was 33. And unlike most of her counterparts, she was not male and had no law enforcement background. In fact, she had just ended a retail management career at Macy’s department store.

McNamara was a fan of the Nancy Drew mystery books growing up. It was only a matter of time before the thrill of fighting crime she felt while reading the books restored itself. It’s something “innate within us,” she said.

“You either get it or you don’t,” she said.

The average age of new agents in 1996 was about 27, but McNamara compared her first days of training to entering kindergarten.

“It’s about getting out of your comfort zone and being in a job you really want to be in,” she said.

McNamara said she believes her atypical background helped her make the transition.

“We don’t want someone too confident … we need someone with a little nervousness,” she said. “We prefer someone new and fresh so we can teach them.”

The discussion soon shifted to FBI priorities, starting with the threat of terror in the Midwest. McNamara pointed out Milwaukee’s close proximity to possible terrorism hotbeds like Chicago, Detroit and the Twin Cities.

“Though I believe we are very safe, Wisconsin is not immune to terrorism,” she said.

Gousha then cited the Tucson shooting and asked how terrorism is changing. McNamara claimed today’s terrorists are unpredictable, saying they are not necessarily organized attacks. She also encouraged public participation to help root out suspicious individuals.

McNamara believes America could see an increase in Web-based attacks in the future. To protect the U.S. against cyber-based attacks and high-technology crime is an FBI national priority and a challenging task for McNamara’s “cyber-squad.”

“These criminals are not your everyday drug dealers,” she said. “It’s challenging, but also a very good feeling when you catch one.”

McNamara added that the best way to keep up with the constantly evolving tech world is to develop sources by “reaching out to the community, letting them know what we do and inviting them in.”

Combating organized crime is another FBI priority. McNamara said it is done best by working with local forces, especially in targeting gang hierarchies. Though this area of focus has not evolved much in Milwaukee, she said the FBI cannot remain complacent.

“We need to be constantly on our toes,” McNamara said.

After the interview with Gousha, McNamara took questions from the audience. Tom Petri, field representative for U.S. senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), was particularly interested in how the media portrays the FBI.

“They pick up on every detail,” McNamara responded.

She said accepting the way the media treats the FBI is one of the most difficult parts of the job.

“We have to take the critique and move on,” she said.