in the United States
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A special agent is an investigator or detective for a governmental or independent agency, who primarily serves in criminal investigatory positions. Additionally, many federal and state special agents operate in "criminal intelligence" based roles as well. Within the U.S. federal law enforcement system, dozens of federal agencies employ federal law enforcement officers, each with different criteria pertaining to the use of the titles Special Agent and Agent.
In general, some agents are federal law enforcement officers and hold either arrest authority or the right to conduct minor criminal/non-criminal investigations. In some agencies, however, a special agent may have both criminal and non-criminal investigatory authority but still have no authority to conduct major criminal investigations.
Regardless, most people holding the title of "Special Agent" are law enforcement officers under state or federal law (with some also being dual intelligence operatives such as with the FBI). These law enforcement officers are distinctly empowered to conduct both major and minor criminal investigations, and hold arrest authority.
Additionally, most special agents are authorized to carry firearms both on and off duty due to their status as law enforcement officers. In US federal law enforcement, the title of "Special Agent" is used almost exclusively for federal and military criminal investigators.
Confusingly, in intelligence usage, "agent" also refers to a human source or human "asset" who is recruited, trained, controlled, and employed to obtain and report information. However, within law enforcement agencies, these types of sources are often referred to as informants, confidential informants (CI—not to be confused with counterintelligence) or confidential human sources (CHS).
Alternatively, some state and local government agencies within the United States title their criminal investigators as special investigators.
Within the U.S. government, the title of Special Agent primarily designates the Criminal Investigator GS-1811 series position. However, the title is also concurrently used for General Investigator GS-1810 job series and the counterintelligence operations specialist in the GS-0132 job series according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) handbook. The vast majority of special agents are GS-1811 (or equivalent) Criminal Investigators. Special agents typically have an undergraduate degree.
Most federal agencies, including the following, employ some type of special agent, investigator or background investigator:
Federal law enforcement training can be divided into various categories, the most common being basic, agency-specific basic (ASB), advanced/specialized, and agency-advanced/specialized. To operate safely and effectively, U.S. Special Agents and criminal investigators must possess skills and knowledge regarding criminal and civil law and procedure, enforcement operations, physical techniques, and technical equipment, to mention a few. They must also be physically fit. While possession of a college degree can aid in obtaining employment in this profession, only extensive training provided at specialized facilities, combined with on-the-job training, can provide the skills and knowledge needed to perform the duties of a federal criminal investigator. As of 2012, there were 13,913 FBI agents, as of 2016, there were approximately 6,500 ICE-Homeland Security investigations (HSI) agents, and as of 2011, there were 4,890 DEA agents in the United States.
Not all federal criminal investigators are called special agents. Some federal agencies entitle their investigators as criminal investigators but use the term interchangeably with special agent. Other federal agencies use different titles for the same 1811 criminal investigative job series. Series 1811 criminal investigators for the U.S. marshals are entitled deputy marshals. Series 1811 criminal investigators for the U.S Postal Inspection Service are called postal inspectors. These inspectors were originally called surveyors and received a title change in 1801 to Special Agent. In 1880, the U.S. Congress created the position of Chief Postal Inspector and renamed these special agents to postal inspectors. The first special agents in the United States were appointed in 1791 when the Secretary of the Treasury was authorized to employ "Special Agents" for the purpose of examining the accounts and books of the Collectors of Customs. The position of Special Treasury Agent was created, and until 1860 submitted reports to the Department of Treasury, through the Collectors of Customs in the Customs District in which they were employed.
The state of Maryland has criminal investigators who are employed by the state attorney. These investigators are called special investigators. As with special agents, these special investigators are authorized to conduct investigations, make arrests, carry firearms or other weapons, and carry a metallic badge.
Special agents, particularly those within the FBI, have been depicted in popular entertainment for years.
The title "Assistant Special Agent in Charge" and its acronym "ASAC" are stated frequently throughout the TV series Breaking Bad. For example, in Season 1 through Season 4, both Hank Schrader and Gus Fring are shown to be friendly with Hank's boss, ASAC George Merkert, and in Season 4 Episode 12 "End Times", Steve Gomez tells Dennis the "ASAC" is being pressured to search Gus's laundry for drugs. In Season 5, Hank – who is proud to have been promoted to the job vacated by his ousted boss – repeatedly chants "ASAC Schrader" to his baby niece Holly.
In the TV series White Collar, Peter Burke is the "Special Agent in Charge" (promoted from assistant Special Agent in charge at the end of Season 6) and the head of the Manhattan White Collar Division.
In the TV series Criminal Minds several of the Behavioral Analysis Unit members are Supervisory Special Agents.
In the TV series The X Files, the title "Special Agent" is given to both Fox Mulder and Dana Scully of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The title is referenced by them numerous times throughout each episode.
The main character from the TV series Twin Peaks, is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, and also, other FBI special agents make numerous cameos throughout the series, and its prequel movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.
"Dick Barton - Special Agent" was the subject of radio programs in the 1940s and later TV and film productions.