The Watcher: The FBI Vanguard Protecting New York

Supervisory Special Agent Kristy Kottis at the FBI New York field office. Antonio Bolfo/Reportage/Getty

Even while she sleeps, the dangerous voices are still speaking. Someone in St. Louis reports that two men in a truck are driving to New York with a bomb. A man was seen wandering the Lincoln Tunnel. Someone posts his rage on YouTube, threatening attack. The alarm buzzes at dawn, chopping her world in two, between the knowing and not knowing. She rises into a world where her job is to know what story the city is telling.

In her Manhattan apartment, as she sits on her bed, her BlackBerry flashes. The two men in the truck have left Kansas with their bomb ... Off to the gym, home to shower, up come the blue dress trousers, on with the white blouse and blazer. On comes the cracked leather belt, her holstered Glock. She swings a leg over the seat of her Vespa, drops a helmet over her shoulder-length brown hair, and pilots into the stream, into the story. Who are these people whose voices speak destruction?

Supervisory Special Agent Kristy Kottis and the little-known threat-response squad are part of the FBI’s New York field office and its Counterterrorism Division. The New York field office is the largest of the FBI’s 56 outposts nationwide, and when we imagine a standard FBI cops-and-robbers scenario, it’s because we’ve seen, generally in TV or movies, lantern-jawed, besuited men chasing bank robbers, serial killers, white-collar fraudsters, and pedophiles.

But within the bureau, acting as a first responder to all terrorist threats to New York City, sit Kottis and her squad. And within this world, Kottis, in her early 50s, is—according to a former boss—one of its stars.

Special Agent Dan Ganci, Kottis’s former second in command, says that before Kottis took over the squad in 2009, it was sometimes tasked with a lot of “hey you” details, as in, “Hey you, go deliver this vehicle downtown.” Or, “Hey you, go pick up this and that.”

“The squad worked terrorism-related cases,” says Ganci, “but was more reactive, more interested in responding to a threat rather than heading one off.”

Today the squad is the “control tower of terrorism,” says Ganci.

Kottis dismisses compliments like these. Her no-nonsense, let’s-roll-up-our-sleeves attitude has made her popular with the “alpha” personalities, mostly men—and mostly in their 30s—whom she manages. They have a tendency to call her “mother bear.” She calls them her “cubs.”

Kottis’s squad room in downtown Manhattan contains about 100 desks, separated from each other by chest-high cubicle dividers. The desks are draped with body armor and rucksacks, family photos of wives and children. Down a hall sits the joint operations center, where, during events like New Year’s Eve, the tennis U.S. Open, and the United Nations General Assembly, agents sit at worktables loaded with computers, while live video feeds are piped into window-size LCD screens on a front wall.

Adjacent to Kottis’s office is the threat assessment center, a small, windowless room staffed round-the-clock by an agent answering phones and writing down leads from people who believe they’ve spotted something suspicious in the city. Their job: take every phone call, email, and fax seriously.

“We are the ER of terrorist threat,” Kottis tells me, and “the light infantry of the FBI. Everything comes here first. We look for problems before they happen. We’re like pre-crime. We address things that are percolating.”

One of the scenarios that Kottis and the threat squad—indeed, the entire FBI—constantly prepares for is an attack at a “special event,” such the New Year’s Eve celebration in New York’s Times Square and the Boston Marathon—places, says Kottis, that are “soft targets” with “soft borders.” Kottis was sitting at her desk at 2:50 p.m. April 15 when a fellow FBI special agent working in Boston sent her an email about an explosion. At the exact same time, Kottis looked at her office TV to see the footage of smoke plumes, chaos, and people cut down at the finish line of one the U.S.’s most iconic events.

Even though these explosions had happened more than 200 miles away, they might as well have gone off under her Manhattan office windows. Immediately Kottis and the threat squad started following every pulse of information coming from Boston’s ground zero on Boylston Street, feeding it back into their own storylines of more possible attacks in New York. Within the hour, she says, they had “stood up” and “hardened their posture.” She would soon start attending three briefings a day about the investigation.

Right after the explosions, Kottis was summoned to a meeting by the FBI’s executive management and understood that they were to prepare for the worst. There was, of course, the memory of Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who, in 2010, parked an explosive-laden vehicle in Times Square and walked away, intending for it to detonate.

After hearing about the attack in Boston, Kottis says, “my first and foremost concern is, is there an imminent threat to New York City? The second but equal one is to take the information that we’ve got, once we’ve verified it, and [ask] and how it fits to Boston, and is there a link?

“So, if something came in from Boston, no matter how little it is, we’ll take it down to its absolute, bare logical play. And that’s what we’re doing now.”

When I ask Kottis to explain, she lays out a hard-scrub protocol.

“During the Boston investigation, there’s a squad handling this case [there]. When the leads come in, they’re [also] coming here. Like, let’s say during the investigation, they found a wallet that had the name Betty Smith on it [and she’s from New York]—that lead would come here. Does that have anything to do with the bombing? We’d investigate everything and anything about Betty Smith to find out if there’s any conductivity to the information that Boston’s holding. If we find that it does have some specific conductivity, we do the investigation, and we give that information back to Boston ASAP.”

The investigation can be relentless. Kottis goes on: “A call comes in: ‘I saw a Massachusetts car taking pictures of the George Washington Bridge. But I didn’t get the license plates.’ Now, we have the ability to track that. From many ways. We’re able to track when that car went across, get a picture of it, and that’s the kind of detail [we need]—instead of just saying, ‘Damn, the person didn’t get the license plate.’

“This is where we go that extra step. OK, somebody saw something suspicious. We don’t go, ‘Oh, that’s stupid.’ No, we track it until we get that guy. We get the license tag, track it all the way back to Massachusetts, and we have that person interviewed.”

With the investigation just 24 hours old at the time we last spoke, Kottis is reluctant to profile who might be responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing.

“The person sitting quietly in his basement, wringing his hands, that’s the person who is problematic, because you can’t see them anywhere. They’re invisible, until they’re not.”

I wonder if picking a traditional Massachusetts holiday like Patriots’ Day, April 15, marking the 1775 battles of Lexington and Concord, might suggest a U.S.-centric perpetrator.

“It’s hard to know what makes someone excited,” says Kottis. “For some people it may be that week, but for some people it may be, ‘Hey, I’m going to do it this week, because it will throw law enforcement off, and they’ll be looking for a connection when there really isn’t one.’ ”

The FBI, and the Joint Terrorism Task Force, says Kottis, are expertly suited to follow such a story because of their “worldview.” At Times Square on New Year’s Eve, for instance, “when the NYPD stops someone trying to jump the queue, his sensibility is, a man tried to jump the queue at Times Square.

“It’s the JTTF that brings, hey, is this guy connected to other things? Where is he from? What’s his world picture look like? Our backyard is the U.S. and also what’s happening with individuals outside the U.S. who would like to do harm within the U.S.”

stanton-FE02-kottis-fbi-embed-01 Tools of the trade strewn around the office. Antonio Bolfo/Reportage/Getty

Kottis announces that she’s organized a training mission to find a guy who may or may not be affiliated with al Qaeda and engaged in “unusual” activity. Kottis and her squad don’t know much about the “target.” They’ve gotten a tip from someone in a Bronx housing project that each night this particular individual leaves the building dressed in a bulky jacket, perhaps armed with a camera. Wearing a jacket and carrying a camera aren’t crimes, of course, except it’s typically not heavy-jacket weather when this fellow walks out the door on his nightly stroll—and nighttime is not typically an excellent time for photography.

The odd thing, though, is that the call regularly comes from someone identifying himself as living in the building, but who won’t reveal his name. Kottis has started to wonder if the anonymous tip could be a trick to call the FBI out to the scene so the individual—individuals?—can observe how the FBI does its business. In other words, the watcher may have become the watched. That’s why Kottis has something different planned for today. She hopes to turn the tables if, in truth, her team is under surveillance.

Kottis whops the side of an enormous blue Humvee with her fist. “Good luck!”

Le Nguyen, a 32-year-old former military intelligence officer, guns the Humvee through midtown traffic. An encrypted radio on the center console pops to life. It’s Kottis back at the office: radio check. “26 Base to 26 Brad, on Bravo 3.”

“This is 26 Brad.”

Brad Carpenter, 39, is the lead agent on this trip. Carpenter grew up in New Jersey, and he had been assigned to investigate terrorism finance in Washington, D.C., and worked as an FBI SWAT operator in Boston before coming to the squad in 2010. He’s driving an unmarked car. As the Humvee roars up to the target building, Carpenter will park unnoticed and watch anyone who might be watching the Humvee.

At any one time the FBI’s New York Counterterrorism Division is working “open leads.” According to Special Agent in Charge John Giacalone, head of the New York Counterterrorism Division, Kottis’s threat-response squad handles a boggling amount of tips each year, numbering in the thousands. This is a long list of potentially catastrophic outcomes: photocopier toner cartridges set to explode aboard a commercial passenger flight, a scenario averted in 2010, or the persistent threat of a cyberattack on financial and/or electrical grids. Kottis and her crew live and struggle on a roaring tide of data, a million different bits signifying nothing, or everything: destruction, economic depression, mass casualties.

New York is a city that “everybody wants to attack,” says Giacalone. The phone calls, leads, emails, and tips run from the serious to the absurd.

The lead “can be anything,” says Kottis, “from a phone call, ‘My neighbor’s doing some weird s--t at 3 in the morning with trucks in the garage.’ Or the more extreme is, ‘My neighbor is a terrorist, and I have proof.’ We answer every phone call.”

Every call? I ask. It’s then that Kottis tells me about the woman who kept calling to complain about her vagina. “My vagina,” she would tell the agent, “I can’t keep it from smiling!” The men answering the phone, Kottis says, were embarrassed to write this down.

She told them to write it down.

If a threat is deemed a “nexus” to terrorism, her office will eventually hand it off to the domestic or international terrorism squads, also in the Counterterrorism Division. In the case of Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, Kottis led the squad’s response. She had already left work for the day and was headed to dinner when her BlackBerry buzzed: “Suspicious smoke and fire in Times Square.” Some 50 hours later, after a manhunt involving multiple local and federal agencies, Shazhad was apprehended at JFK airport as he prepared to leave the country. He had anxiously followed his own manhunt on television before deciding to bolt the U.S.

stanton-FE02-kottis-fbi-embed-02 Kottis and her team sift through thousands of leads. Nothing can be overlooked. Antonio Bolfo/Reportage/Getty

What makes Kottis a “star” in this world of counterterrorism is her ability to draw connections between disconnected bits of information. At the same time, she is adamant that she and her squad are led by the facts. Only the facts.

She arrived at the threat-response squad in 2009. Big changes were in store. The FBI wanted more coordination between the enormous number of agencies and players involved in the governance, and safety, of New York.

“They said, ‘Fix it. Make it how you want it,’” says Kottis. She decided that all threat information that has to do with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force would funnel to her squad. “We are the triage center,” she decided, “so everything has to come to [us].”

Until then, tips, leads, and intelligence had been arriving at the JTTF on various and sometimes-disconnected channels. The NYPD and the FBI could follow the same case without realizing it or sharing information. Kottis is clear to her task-force officers, those employees of other law-enforcement and government agencies who sit in her squad room, that they work for her and the FBI.

“We pay the bills. We run the show,” she says. “And I make that very clear. It takes the pressure off everyone: make no mistake, everyone, the buck stops here. I am interested in your opinion, but at the end of the day, it’s my flag that’s going to sink if this goes worldly wrong. Together we fly, but singularly we fail.”

Having been given the mandate of redesigning the squad, she loosely modeled it after “fusion cells” made popular by the U.S. Army and Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the battlefield, these cells scoop up information and “fuse” it with intel from other sources, looking for connections between otherwise hidden events or people. Say, for example, a police officer in Seattle discovers shrubbery whose leaves have turned inexplicably white. Logging in to something called Guardian, an intel database, Kottis can notice that the same thing has happened to shrubbery in Long Island, or Miami. Is this a symptom of some larger threat? An agent picks up a phone and starts asking questions.

Aside from this operational ability, also important is Kottis’s skill to build rapport and find cooperation from various constituents—like the NYPD and Homeland Security—attached to the Joint Terrorism Task Force. In short, people like working for her. One of several women on the squad, Kristin Gibney, 32, an account salesperson for Anheuser-Busch before joining the bureau, says that “when you do something that she’s superexcited about, she’s like the mom on the sidelines: ‘Great, kids!’ It’s exciting, and it makes you work a lot harder.”

Kottis told Gibney to ditch her high heels the first day of work. You’re an FBI agent, she said. Be the person you want to see in the FBI movie. When it came to mentoring newer agents in the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombing, Kottis told some of them, “Listen, this is why you joined the FBI. You joined to fight and participate in [solving] the most complicated and heinous of crimes, and you were geared to do this—that’s why you were called to this work. And now here we are—this is it.”

Her success aside, Kottis is somewhat of an anomaly in a male-dominated workforce. For example, of the more than 1,100 special agents in the New York field office, approximately 200 are women. And of approximately 14,000 FBI special agents worldwide, a little more than 18 percent, or about 2,600, are women. Women do hold directorial and supervisory roles, but in a much lower percentage than their male peers (citing security reasons, the FBI will not release exact figures).

Still, these numbers are remarkable, because a little over 40 years ago women worked at the FBI only in support capacities. The bureau’s first female agents, Joanne Misko and Susan Malone, were sworn in in July 1972, just three months after J. Edgar Hoover’s death. During his tenure as the bureau’s director, Hoover—a man of his era—had ferociously upheld his rule that women were not fit to be FBI special agents. Shortly after Hoover’s death, however, Acting Director L. Patrick Gray reversed the policy.

About the bureau’s slow progress toward gender equality, Kottis is philosophical. And somewhat nonplussed.

She wonders how many people want to go into law enforcement in the first place. Not too many, she says. And of those, how many are women? Even fewer, she points out. This is not a job, she says, for people who also want to have a family. “The American public is counting on you to answer the bell when they need help. And to say I have child-care issues is not acceptable to me. And it’s unacceptable whether you are a male or female.” About the challenge of being a woman in a male-dominated FBI, Kottis says, “I feel asexual.”

Her advice to her squad: “Don’t be a pussy.”

“Be alpha.”

Outside the housing project, having reached our destination, Special Agent Nguyen parks the Humvee ... And its engine dies. Quits. Won’t restart. He and Brad Carpenter get out and scratch their heads: the FBI has arrived, but will need a mechanic to return to base! This, when you think about it, is embarrassing. But the two agents take this setback in stride. On the street, what happens, happens.

“Let the story unfold,” Kottis is fond of telling her agents.

Carpenter and another agent, Gary Battista, stride up the wet walk to the lobby doors. Battista, 37, went to West Point and served as an infantry officer in Iraq. When it comes to interviewing people, he will tell me later, you “learn to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. If your subject is not uncomfortable, you’re not doing your job.”

A few people watch us as we enter the double doors. I can’t tell who they think we are. But they know something’s up.

Carpenter reaches in his jacket pocket and produces his bright gold-colored FBI credentials and announces to the woman behind the receptionist’s window that he’d like to speak with the superintendent. Without a word, she disappears from the window, and then whisks down a hall.

I hear whispering. She reemerges and says Carpenter can talk with the super now. She battens the lobby window and closes shop for the duration of Carpenter’s visit.

Carpenter politely introduces himself and says he would just like to ask a few questions. The super doesn’t get out of his chair. He’s a heavyset African-American man surrounded by towers of papers and books. Carpenter says he’d gotten a tip that there’s a gentleman living in the housing project who may be acting suspiciously.

Carpenter wonders if the super knows anything about this.

stanton-FE02-kottis-fbi-embed-03 Only about 18 percent of the 14,000 FBI special agents around the world are women. Antonio Bolfo/Reportage/Getty

By the time she arrives at her sparse office each morning, Kottis has been briefed three times about the potentially dangerous stories unfolding during the night.

The heavy black radio in her hand squawks, wired to the NYPD Special Operations Division frequency, another voice layering more detail, plot, more uncertainty. She spins in her chair and presses a button, flashing an intel database across the screen: more details, more characters, more leads. A man has threatened to walk into a New York City bookstore with a hammer ... There’s a suitcase sitting unattended in front of a library. A man, possible suicide, possibly an “emotionally disturbed person,” is threatening to jump from a bridge. But what if this man is not emotionally disturbed? What if this man is standing on this bridge to distract attention as another man steps from a car and detonates?

As ever, each threat and rumor of threat requires a response. Kottis gets up and checks the whiteboard outside her office door. Of the approximately 40 special agents and task-force officers in the threat-response squad who call this expansive, carpeted room home, most are already on the streets, asking questions, looking for facts. They will call Kottis and say, “I’m in Brooklyn, now headed to Queens.” Two men in each car, the multiple teams spread across the city. They have to find the story before the story resolves itself in smoke, blood, noise. As part of the FBI’s New York Joint Terrorism Task Force, Kottis’s squad contains representatives from some 40 local, state, and federal agencies and organizations. Homeland Security, Secret Service, Immigration and Customs, NYPD, MTA, Port Authority, the U.S. military ... This hive hisses with leads, scenarios, facts, questions.

Kottis’s office is somewhere between a pleasant mess and empty looking. In the corner are her tools of the trade: two battering rams, three scuffed riot shields, several long-handled sledgelike hammers. Along a wall, bookshelves, piles of papers, photos—one of them inscribed, “To The Chimp.” This was her nickname in Washington, D.C., when she worked violent crime, gangs, and drugs. On the wall are a photo of J. Edgar Hoover and a romantic-looking portrait of the Chrysler Building in 1930. After postings in Istanbul, Estonia, Pakistan, and Malaysia, Kottis has come to love New York best.

“I want romance,” she says. “I want to be in a romantic atmosphere. I want to have the gentleman behind the bar be a white-coated gentleman: ‘Ladies, can I help you this evening?’ I want to feel like I live in New York, because I do.”

Sitting on the couch in Kottis’s office—how to describe this?—is FBI Director Robert Mueller. Someone has taken a life-size color cutout of Mueller’s face and set it atop an FBI “raid” jacket—the blue windbreaker you see people wearing on TV when they batter down doors. Mueller’s arms are crossed in his lap. Kottis says, “I feel like if he wasn’t on the couch, but on the wall, he would just be another picture. But this way, he gets the respect.

“Sometimes he scares the cleaning people, because if the lights are out, his reflection hits the wall, and he startles people. And you know what? The director of the FBI should startle people.”

Standing in the super’s office at the housing project, Special Agent Carpenter is discovering that the man doesn’t know anything about anyone in his building acting suspiciously. Nothing. The place, after all, explains the super, has nearly 1,000 residents. How can he keep track? Carpenter wants to know if there is any public Internet in the building? The super shakes his head, no.

Carpenter wonders if there’s a mosque here. The super says there’s one down the street. Carpenter asks again if there’s anyone he’s concerned about in the building.

The super says nobody he knows is causing problems. Carpenter shoots back, how about people you don’t know about?

The remark catches the super off guard: getting serious here.

Carpenter wonders about any security cameras on the premises. Pending, says the super.

Carpenter wonders about a community meeting room—there’s not one of those, either.

The problem, Carpenter explains to the super, is that he doesn’t have a name. He does have a picture, he says, but he doesn’t have a name. He produces a computer color printout—it looks like a mug shot.

Just then, the receptionist walks in and says to the super that he has a phone call. The tension in the room freezes.

stanton-FE02-kottis-fbi-embed-04 Kottis’ nickname when she worked gangs in DC was “the Chimp” Antonio Bolfo/Reportage/Getty

There’s little to suggest in Kottis’s youth growing up in Braintree, Massachusetts, the daughter of a child psychologist and a schoolteacher, that Kottis would rise to prominence in America’s premier law-enforcement agency. She was, she says, plagued much of the time by the feeling of being a “regular” person, with no aptitude for being anything like an agent. When she was 15, her parents took her to tour the FBI building in Washington, D.C., and she had an epiphany.

“All of a sudden, I felt like who I am made sense. I felt like a little freak growing up—some things didn’t make sense. What am I? Am I a boy or a girl? Who am I?

“So, when I went on the [FBI] tour, we did the machine-gun thing and catching bad guys, and I’m like, that’s what I need to do.”

She earned a degree in education from Eastern Nazarene College and was hired by Cornell and Tufts as an assistant women’s basketball coach and phys-ed teacher. She then taught the same at West Point, followed by five years of teaching in the New York City public schools. Still, she says, “I was marching through life: ‘I wish I could be an FBI agent, but who am I? I’m just, like, regular.’”

Her teaching experiences, though, had taught her leadership skills, and she calls this journey a matter of defining her boundaries, physically and mentally.

On Thanksgiving Day, 1990, she was reading The New York Times and saw a tiny ad that asked: “Do you have what it takes to be an FBI agent?” For reasons she can’t quite explain, reading this ad—which was so small, she felt like she’d stumbled upon it by accident—felt like an omen. I’m ready, she thought. She joined the bureau in 1991.

If the experience of teaching had showed Kottis that she could be an FBI special agent, another experience, two years later, taught her that she’d finally become one. Kottis was working on a gang and drug task force in Washington, D.C. One night, she was awakened in her townhouse by a strange sound.

“I was lying in bed and I remember feeling like I heard sorrow. That’s the only way I can describe it. It wasn’t sexual, but it was moaning, and sorrowful.

“This serial rapist had been terrorizing the neighborhood. Quantico’s behavioral-science unit had been looking for him, because this guy had been pretty naughty—attacking people, breaking into houses, escalating in violence.

“So he got into my neighbor’s house. I woke up my friend, who was in the other room, and said, ‘You need to come in my bedroom and listen to the wall.’

Her friend said, “You are such a freak—why would I do that?”

“I think something bad is happening.”

“So we go over to the wall, and she’s listening, and she goes, ‘Tsk, she could have company, know what I mean?’

Kottis said, “I’m going over there.”

“So I snap on my gun [over] my pajamas. The paperboy comes up [as] I’m walking out.”

Kottis told him, “Get out of here!”

“I start knocking on the door. ‘It’s Kris! I just want to talk to you for a second!’

“She still doesn’t come to the window. ‘All right, I’m coming in. I warned you!’

“I go to the door, and I hear the most horrific scream of my life. It was like a death gargle.

“What had happened is, she had been with this guy all night—he had been raping her all night, had her cow-tied—and he had just slit her throat.

“So we get to the door, and I step in with my weapon, and this guy comes bounding off the landing, right in front of me. To this day, I know my heart stopped beating.

“I pull my weapon in, because I didn’t want him to grab it. We’re standing in front of each other.”

Kottis yelled, “FBI! Put your f--king hands up!”

“He’s backing into the house, and I can see his pants are on backwards. My heart hadn’t started beating yet—I think I’m having a heart attack.

“[The] guy takes off through the house into the darkness. I start in and I hit the coffee table, full on.”

Kottis yelled to her friend, who was also a law-enforcement officer, “Go out the back!”

“Tactically, you don’t chase what you can’t see. I put my back against the wall. I can hear him moving around, and I’m saying, ‘I’m FBI. Stop moving or I’m going to shoot you. I’m going to blow your head off.’

“He dives through the back door. I could see him running up the alley, and I screamed to my friend, ‘Black male, white pants, blue shirt, coming your way! Don’t let him go!’

Kottis ran to her apartment and grabbed another gun, an FBI walkie-talkie, and her car keys. That’s when she heard her name being called.

“It’s my neighbor,” she says. She “had dragged herself to the front door, throat slit from ear to ear, blood pounding through the screen, still tied up. I was just ... ‘Oh, my God.’

“I ran over to her, I said, ‘I’m here,’ and I said, ‘Just tell me—I’m chasing a black male, about 6 foot 2, with a blue shirt, striped, and white pants. Is that the person who did this?’ She was, ‘Yes.’

“‘Is there anyone else?’

The woman grunted, no.

“My neighbor came out of his house, and he and I pushed her head down, and he brought a towel and wrapped [it around her neck]. I said, ‘Don’t wait for the ambulance, blow lights—just go!’

Kottis’s neighbor reached the hospital in time and miraculously survived the attack. The rapist ran into a basement and managed to escape a search by police. He was caught a week later.

When she reflects on the event now, Kottis remembers getting tunnel hearing—her ears filled with a high-pitch tone, “EEEEEEE!” just as her instructors at the FBI Academy said would happen in times of stress. Every action she took seemed a matter of muscle memory, which she credits to her training. The incident reminded her that she would never be “off duty.”

When I ask Kottis how she knew to go to the wall and listen to the “sound of sorrow,” as she puts it, she’s unable to explain. “I just knew something was wrong.”

She knew that the story she was hearing—a balmy, windblown night, a woman and man making love—was not love at all, but violence, destruction, rage. Whatever else drew her to that wall, empathy played a part, the innate desire to lean in, to listen to what is being said.

stanton-FE02-kottis-fbi-embed-05 Kottis’ office is spare but she’s got a battering ram at the ready (lower left corner). Antonio Bolfo/Reportage/Getty

In his cluttered office, the super picks up the incoming phone call and starts talking while Carpenter stands there, waiting. I can tell Carpenter’s not happy with the super’s recalcitrance; he’s not sure the man’s being honest.

The super is ensconced behind his bunkerlike piles of paper, and Carpenter can’t really get inside his personal space. A lot of what special agents do is similar to what actors do on a stage: they create moments, believable moments, by taking ownership of space. They lead you down a path of their choosing as you tell a story of your own making. The story isn’t really writing itself here.

Having finished the call, the super tries to hang up the phone with one hand and reach for the photo with the other. He keeps missing the cradle. Otherwise, he doesn’t betray much, other than indifference, worry, and a failure to remain calm.

The super looks relieved when Carpenter thanks him for his time and turns to leave.

Carpenter admits, “We didn’t learn much, but now he knows we’ve been here.” He pauses, “Either there’s something to learn here, or there isn’t. We’ll find out.”

“The biggest fear is one guy falling through the cracks,” Battista says later. FBI agents, he says, nag themselves with one question: “what are we going to ask the next time to make sure we find out everything?”

Understanding the pressures of her job, I ask Kottis what she does for relaxation. The truth, she admits, is that she mostly works. She pauses. “I do like lounge music,” she says. “I like a lot of snare, with some vixen or boy-cat crooning me some heartfelt song.”

I had glimpsed a bit of this gusto over lunch at Del Posto, in downtown Manhattan. One of the restaurant’s owners, Mario Batali, is a summer resident in my hometown, and I had texted him that Kottis and I would be at lunch. Batali delighted Kottis by having various special treats sent over to the table. FBI special agents typically hang out at Reade Street Pub in Tribeca, over burgers and beer. Kottis’s idea of a good time is tucking into beef cheeks and fish roe at a place like Del Posto.

“Oh, my God, this is amazing,” she says, tipping her head back. “Oh, man.”

Just then, her Glock peeks out from her blazer—she expertly tucks it away. I had never imagined that an FBI special agent would so deeply enjoy cured meats and cheese. In this way, Kottis reminded me of the CIA analyst Carrie Mathison on TV’s Homeland—minus that fictional character’s personality disorders. (“In fact,” one female agent told me, “we’re the ones who do all that stuff on the show. It’s really about our world.”)

She tells me she lives with a dog, a Basenji—a wiry, large-eared breed originating from West Africa. The dog’s name, she says, is Greg.

“Greg?” I ask.

“Yes, Greg. I named him after my father.”

Her father, she says, was delighted. Kottis then tells me that she and Greg once went to dinner at Bouley, a fine French restaurant in Tribeca.

You can’t tell if Kottis is pulling your leg when she’s telling you stuff like this. She’s able to easily amuse herself.

But beneath the mischievousness is someone hyperalert to her needs and happiness, someone who is obsessed, most of all, with how the story might end: will we be harmed?

Beneath the humor is someone who believes, “Isn’t this hotel martini nice? Drink up, friend, because the world is a dangerous place.”