opinion

All the Way to the FBI

Tom Hymes
This column was originally published in the October 2007 issue of XBIZ World.

The letter came a week before the scheduled meeting, an awkward lead-time considering the distances people would need to travel. On official FBI letterhead, the one-page invitation stated that the meeting would take place at the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, but made no mention of who else would be attending. The stated purpose: to have "a briefing on the inspection process and a general update on what the inspectors have encountered during the first year of operation." The purpose sounded somewhat under-whelming to me. There has to be more meat on it than this, I thought.

I called the special agent to accept the invitation and asked if the meeting would be on the record.

"Absolutely," he said. "That's why we're doing it." He also told me what other companies had been invited and which had already accepted. I wondered whether any would actually have the balls to decline the invitation.

FBI agents are often very forthcoming. You ask them questions, and they sometimes hesitate but most of the time they give you an answer because they have to. They are federal officers. The government is supposed to be transparent. Unless it's officially classified information, they may not want to answer your question but are obliged to do so anyway.

Sometimes, the apparent unease with which they answer questions is amusing, and one easily imagines agents who have to interact with civilians keeping office drawers full of Pepto-Bismol. But this morning of Sept. 13, I did not get the feeling that my questions were causing the agent any discomfort. He answered quickly and evenly — even a little eagerly — in such a way that it made it seem as if the meeting was routine.

But a nagging little something told me that there was more going on than the objective stated above. No one I spoke with had a clue, however; even people who'd been to the first meeting and maintained regular communication with the Feds told me that a plan to meet again had not been mentioned at the first meeting. Apparently, for all concerned, this one came out of the blue with more than a few questions attached.

On the appointed day at the appointed time, we met in the dingy lobby of the FBI building, where two agents escorted us upstairs after we had all equipped our lapels with visitor passes. Before entering the meeting room, we were invited to use the rest rooms. I have to say it was one of the most depressing bathrooms I've ever been into in my life. Dark, neglected and ancient, still utilizing foot pedals to flush the toilets, I didn't want to touch anything, and I'm not a prude. I mentioned how surprised I was to one of the agents.

"Well, at least we're not using your tax dollars for stuff like that," he said, employing what was clearly a standard response. I laughed appropriately, but was still more than a little taken aback by the misplaced sensitivity, especially considering the wasteful and needless regulations we were there to discuss.

Finally, we got settled into our seats and the meeting began. I wrote coverage of the meeting, but it does not reflect how floored I was by the general disinterest these agents appeared to have in 2257. The lack of engagement was palpable, and I think that was really why we were meeting.

They are going to continue to enforce 2257 — that you can take to the bank — but when they say they need the industry's help to smooth out the process, every outward impression I got supports that plaintive plea.

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