Smoke ‘Em Out

By Austin Green

While hackers obtain secrets through clandestine methods, former FBI agent Warren Little preferred a more direct approach. During his 24 years with the bureau, he threatened and intimidated people.

“You try to impress upon them right away, ‘I’m not interested in fairy tales. No bullshit,’” Little said.

Little, who now lives in Montana, specialized in investigating suspects who attempted to dodge authorities by crossing state lines. He said his primary tool for extracting information was the threat of harsh punishment.

“‘If you want to cooperate, fine,’” Little would say to those under the FBI’s microscope. “‘But if you want to stick to this bullshit story, you’ll pay the price.’”

Kristi Angel, managing editor of The Billings Gazette since 2004, tells her reporters to take a less hostile route. Be a human first, and a journalist second, especially when dealing with average citizens.

However, she said journalists must follow one basic principle of interrogators like Little.

“You just have to have your bullshit detector on all the time,” Angel said. “Never accept anything for what it appears to be, regardless of who it comes from.”

Angel said the best way to pry secrets from authorities is to “smoke ‘em out” by gathering as much information as possible through public documents and other sources. Then, catch your subject off guard, and if necessary, it doesn’t hurt to deliver an FBI-style threat.

“Strike while the iron’s hot,” Angel said. “Let them know you’re going to do the story anyway, your deadline is coming up quickly, and they only have one chance to comment. Once your sources see that pattern, I think they begin to come around.”

Angel also suggested going to local authorities rather than federal if possible — “Those guys are experts at putting you in an eternal circle of voicemail hell,” she said — and stressed that the most useful secret-revealing tool journalists have is their credibility.

“A lot of it is building your reputation for being a straight-shooter,” Angel said. “You know these people because you cover them day-in and day-out for the trivial turn-of-the-screw type stories. Then, when the really big stuff happens, you’ve already got that relationship with your source.”

University of Montana journalism student Christopher B. Allen contributed to this story.