Page last updated at 12:06 GMT, Saturday, 18 December 2010

The FBI, my husband, and my 87-year-old Uncle David

By Jane O'Brien
BBC News, Washington

Jane O'Brien
The FBI asked about the author's "loyalty" - and past indiscretions

Every five years my husband is re-investigated by the FBI. At worst, it's intrusive, requiring extensive information about our finances, and at best it's inconvenient, trying to find the address of an immediate relative whom nobody has seen for years.

The bureau's paranoia about the trustworthiness of its own employees is institutional but was heightened in 2001 by the conviction of Robert Hanssen, a special agent who sold state secrets to the Russians in exchange for $1.4m (£896,800) in cash and diamonds. For 22 years he went undetected.

To help ensure this will not happen again, the FBI now makes a point of interviewing any agent's spouse who is not a US citizen. As a legal US permanent resident - but UK citizen - I have already been subjected to extensive background checks, finger printed and medically examined, and had photos taken of my retina for the new age of biometric identification.

But the other week I got a call from a woman - I'll call her Brenda - saying I needed to be interviewed by the FBI as a matter of urgency. She warned that the questions were very personal and invasive and that the interview would take between two and three hours.

Caribbean trips questioned

We arranged to meet on neutral territory, a coffee shop in downtown Washington DC.

Brenda was easily recognisable by her clipboard, but looked more like a marketing researcher than an FBI investigator. A retired probation officer, she was disarming and mildly apologetic but said she really enjoyed her job as one of the federal government's vast army of contract workers.

Robert Hanssen
Hanssen is said to have unmasked US spies later executed in Russia

The first questions were easy enough.

When and where did I first enter the United States? How did I meet my husband? Had I ever served in the British military? For whom did I work? Brenda checked my passport, noted the immigration stamps, and questioned the reason for trips to Aruba, the Cayman Islands and Costa Rica.

Then I was asked if anyone had attempted to recruit me to gather information about the US government or whether I had been directed to marry a US government employee for the same purposes. Was I, in fact, a spy?

After seven-and-a-half years of marriage I could not help think - as I answered "no" - that if that had been the case and nobody had yet twigged, I must be doing a pretty good job and Brenda would be unlikely to unmask me at this stage.

The next section of questions came under the title of "loyalty issues".

Was I planning to become a citizen of the US? I answered that I had not yet decided, but probably.

"That's not a yes or no answer," Brenda observed.

"No, it's a probably."

"Probably yes?" she asked hopefully.

"But possibly no," I replied.

There was a moment of silence while Brenda pondered which box to tick.


She followed with a few more questions about property and bank accounts in the UK, and then: "Have you ever engaged in any activity for which you could be blackmailed?"

Suffice it to say, if you know me, then the FBI possibly knows you

Every indiscretion of the last several decades replayed slowly in my mind. When does an embarrassing moment of madness become a potential subject for coercion - and by whose standards?

High profile politicians in the US are regularly caught having affairs or breaking the law, but invariably end up with their own chat shows or rehabilitated into some other sphere of public life.

I eyed Brenda speculatively and answered no.

There were more questions about spying and working for foreign intelligence agencies - foreign, of course, meaning anything other than the US - and whether I had ever been arrested.

Then we ran into trouble. She wanted the names and addresses of family, friends and associates still living in the UK with whom I have regular contact. For some reason, I found this the most intrusive question of all.

Why, I asked, does the FBI need to know about my 87-year-old Uncle David living in West Wales, and what will the bureau do with this information? How could his existence possibly affect my husband's security clearance?

Red flag

Brenda could not answer, but she still wanted to know how we maintained contact. Was it by e-mail?

Deeply irritated, I explained that he does not own a computer. Neither does he have a direct debit or credit card, and I am pretty certain that he doesn't even have a passport.

In fact, I suddenly realised, he might just be the only person left in the UK completely untraceable by electronic means. That in itself ought to raise a red flag.

We moved on to names of work associates. Just give me a few, Brenda pleaded.

At this point, I'll reveal no more. But suffice it to say, if you know me, then the FBI possibly knows you. However, don't expect a knock on the door or a phone call any time soon. It took them seven-and-a-half years to get around to interviewing me and I think it will take them much longer to find my Uncle David.

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