Last week, Northern Illinois University presented its Distinguished Alumni Award, recognizing a graduate who’s achieved outstanding professional success. This year’s winner is Andrew Traver, Director of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, more commonly known as NCIS.
Traver discussed his path to heading this federal law enforcement agency, and how his job compares with what is portrayed on the "NCIS" TV show.
Andrew Traver graduated from NIU in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and an emphasis on criminal justice. He set his sights on federal law enforcement but, at the time, there was a hiring freeze.
“So I went into the Navy as an officer," he said. "I went to Officer Candidate School and served and benefited from that a lot and, when I left the military and active duty, I came back and federal agencies were hiring so I started to apply.”
He was accepted into the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives – known as ATF -- as a special agent in 1987. Traver spent a total of 26 years in ATF as a criminal investigator and was Special Agent in Charge of the Chicago Field Office from 2004 to 2012. Traver says this gave him many opportunities to speak at NIU.
“Sometimes I would speak to a single class," he said. "Sometimes I would speak to multiple classes in a single day. Other times, they would hold events in the Holmes [Student] Center in the evening, and I would have a group of more than 150 people I would talk to.”
But Traver’s biggest break came when he was appointed to head NCIS in 2013 during the Obama administration. Traver says one of the biggest changes for him was scale, as NCIS investigates crimes affecting the Navy and Marine Corps.
“With ATF, you’re in charge of an office and you have one state or several states. With NCIS, you have the entire world. We have personnel stationed in 190 different locations around the globe,” he said.
Nearly a third of NCIS operates overseas, and the staff of a thousand can deal with up to ten times that amount in criminal cases each year. Despite this scale, Traver says the work is similar to that of a big-city police department.
“So we work homicides, sexual assault, narcotics, stolen property, child exploitation, major case financial crime and fraud, and bribery. We also work espionage and things of that nature,” he said.
Traver says working as an ATF criminal investigator helped greatly with the transition to heading NCIS. But he says the less traditional law enforcement work required adjustments and a completely different approach.
“I don’t want to use the word 'fail' but, if for some reason we aren’t able to close a case out successfully, then whoever that person is, we’ll probably get them another day," he explained. "Whereas on the counterintelligence/counterterrorism side, if we fail to deter or detect or prevent something, the after-effects or the results could be calamitous.”
These remarks describe NCIS’s general mission, but many Americans are more familiar with the agency through the eponymous television show on CBS. Traver says some of the interpersonal relationships on Mark Harmon’s team match up well with real life, even if the real NCIS lacks an equivalent to Abby Sciuto.
“The television shows do a great job of capturing the camaraderie between the personnel and between our agents and other analysts," he said. "It does a great job capturing the sense of humor which is necessary to kind of diffuse the pressure you feel all the time, and you get exposed to the bleakest aspects of human behavior on a regular basis.”
On the other hand, he says, the show makes certain concessions to drama.
“There’s gunfire in every single episode, and I’ve been director for four and a half years. I can’t think of a time when an agent has fired their weapon aside from training at the range -- which is a good thing, because we don’t want to shoot anyone," he said. "We want to make a case, acquire evidence, corroborate it, take it to a prosecutor -- whether civil or military -- and bring that perpetrator to justice.”
Traver says cases also take much longer to solve. But he says some agents might as well be characters on a TV show. He says NCIS agents will appear on a segment for news magazine 48 Hours that will premier later this year. Traver says the agents go into more detail about past cases.
“One of the cases was a murder that was 30 years old from the Vietnam War that a couple of agents who are now retired reopened and actually solved. And that’s real life," he said. "Those were real-life agents that resulted in investigations that resulted in every case that is profiled and the offenders received natural life without parole.”
Traver says even though cases take longer and aren’t as dramatic as on television, agents’ tenacity and drive to succeed is the same in both arenas.
Winning the Distinguished Alumni Award allowed Traver to return to NIU once again to discuss NCIS and get more students interested in criminal justice. While the award took him completely by surprise, he was glad to return once again to his alma mater.
“It’s just always good to come back and be a part of the Huskie family.”