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Exclusive interview: Navy's top lawman on 'a new NCIS'

Nov. 14, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
NCIS Director Traver MWM 20131105
Andrew Traver, the new director of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, sat for an exclusive interview with Navy Times at NCIS Headquarters in Quantico, Va. (Mike Morones / Staff)
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Director bio

Name: Andrew Traver
Age: 50
Education: Bachelorís in criminal justice from Northern Illinois University.
Background: Career ATF agent who over 26 years rose from a street agent to lead two field divisions. Came to prominence in Chicago, busting violent gangs.
Navy service: Two years. Commissioned via Officer Candidate School and served aboard destroyer Benjamin Stoddert. Discharged early after his father contracted a life-threatening illness and he needed to help his family.
Personal: A prostate cancer survivor, he now advocates for men to get screened. He also volunteers for wounded warrior causes.
Read more:
New NCIS leader creating SWAT teams to counter mass shooters

Former gunnery officer. Chicago gang-buster. CrossFit buff. Cancer survivor.

Former gunnery officer. Chicago gang-buster. CrossFit buff. Cancer survivor.

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QUANTICO, VA. — Former gunnery officer. Chicago gang-buster. CrossFit buff. Cancer survivor.

Andrew Traver, the new head of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, has to steer his agency to confront emerging threats like cyber spies while still prosecuting difficult foes like sexual assault. This even as the agency reels from regular budget crises ó the latest one, for example, canceled travel and endangered payments to informants, jeopardizing ongoing investigations.

Even so, Traver said the agencyís still hiring, and its responsibilities are greater than ever.

He was a controversial pick in some respects. The National Rifle Association opposed his back-to-back nominations by President Obama to lead his old agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ó a nomination that died in the Senate both times. And as the first outside director in 16 years, there was some resistance from a few insiders and retired agents.

After a month on the job, Traver sat down with Navy Times on Nov. 5 at his office to address these issues and discuss his priorities. These are excerpts from the 50-minute interview, his first as the head of the 2,000-person agency. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity.

Many NCIS agents served in the Navy or Marine Corps before joining the agency. Are you still hiring, and are you still hiring from the fleet?

A. There is active hiring going on right now, and the recent guidance we were given was to continue to hire. Itís also important to bring people on quickly and with enough foresight so those who are leaving can actually provide excellent training for the new people coming on board.

Q. If the sequester cuts remain in effect, how large will the cut be for NCIS and what capabilities and areas will this affect?

A. Well, we felt it when I first got here. We were already struggling with the availability of funds just to conduct day-to-day operations. Things just as basic as providing confidential sources with subsistence payments that are in ongoing investigations, on the [counterintelligence] side and on the [criminal] side. Now with the [continuing resolution] passed, itís a little bit better. We have operating funds available. For a little while, all of our travel was shut down unless it was critically essential.

Q. Many former agents are worried that NCIS is getting overstretched, that its resources are shrinking even as the missions expand into cyberspace and elsewhere. What do you think of that assessment?

A. I would say thatís why our people are so good because you have to operate under extreme duress. Because you realize that weíre spread very thin and the demands are very great.

Itís the old adage of doing more with less. And at NCIS, you do a lot more with a lot less.

Q. When you were named to be the director, a few retired agents called you the wrong man. Youíre coming from outside the agency, they said, and donít have experience working counterterrorism and counterintelligence cases. How do you respond to that?

A. I learn fast. I knew coming here Iíd have to get up to speed on things like cyber and CI, but fortunately, thereís some incredible subject matter experts here. They run the operations. Iím not in the weeds, directing their operations. With respect to retired agents, this is a new NCIS here. This isnít NCIS circa 2010 or [Naval Investigative Service] circa 1990. Weíre moving forward. And the futureís going to be very different when it comes to the type of mission that weíre expected to accomplish.

Itís a violent world, and unfortunately, Iím very familiar with the violent side of humanity from my previous career. I have every confidence Iím going to be able to do this. Iím here, theyíre not.

Q. Tell us about your Navy experience. How long were you in, and what did you do aboard the destroyer Benjamin Stoddert?

A. I went to Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I. I received a regular Navy commission. I went to Surface Warfare Officer School in Coronado and then reported as the gunnery officer on the Benjamin Stoddert, an Adams-class destroyer. Basically, a floating haunted house at the time: Old, noisy, hot, dirty, broke down a lot.

It wasnít my initial intention to be in surface warfare and when the time came to start selecting duty stations, I just wanted to be on a combatant. When they asked what class, I said, ďIt doesnít really matter.Ē I should have known better. But it was a great experience.

Q. Why did you get out?

A. I had to get out early because my father, who was an Army veteran, was stricken with a brain tumor back in Chicago where we lived. I flew back on a Red Cross emergency flight ó we were in the Philippines at the time ó to Chicago for his initial surgery because there was a chance he wouldnít survive surgery. And after his surgery he had some significant physical impairments. The right side of his body was fundamentally paralyzed, and they gave him just a few weeks to live.

I took time to help him with his rehabilitation, and as it was going to become protracted, I just ended up getting a discharge and getting out because there was no way I could return to the fleet. I had a brother and sister in high school, and I needed to be there to take care of the family situation. So, regrettably, I had to leave.

Q. What are some new trends youíre seeing with crime and narcotics use?

A. There is an increase in traditional hard drugs: methamphetamine, crack cocaine, even heroin. There seems to be an increase in just an element of violence in offenses, an element of violence where assaults arenít just hand-to-hand. Now, assaults involve weapons and firearms.

Referring to the sexual assaults, one thing that seems to be disturbing is that most of them seem to involve an element of intoxication, in most cases extreme intoxication. If youíre in the uniformed services or just a regular person, youíve got to look out for your own self. Donít make yourself more vulnerable to being victimized.

Q. Based on your experience as an ATF agent working gangland crimes, are there enough restrictions on the sale and use of assault weapons?

A. I donít want to comment on that particularly. Any opinion I have on that would be purely my own opinion. I was the ATF incident commander for the Aurora [Colo.] theater shooting and was also the ATF on-scene commander for the Northern Illinois University Valentineís Day shooting in 2008, when five students were killed and 35 were injured, and then the shooter also committed suicide. So thereís no place thatís safe, ... and The Navy Yard is a great example. Not a great example, a tremendous example.

We live in an open society, a free society, and thereís a lot of vulnerabilities and it appears that thereís less and less reticence by those who are so inclined to commit horrendous acts of violence like this.

So I think NCIS as a service really needs to be equipped and prepared to respond to these types of situations wherever they could happen.

Q. Can you tell us about your experience with prostate cancer and what you learned from surviving it?

A. I would encourage any man and anyone who has a male loved one: Get screened, get tested. ... Itís a horrible, prolonged death. Itís important for yourself and the people you love: Get screened, stay on top of it.

I started to screen through the government when I was 40 because I get a government physical every year. And thatís how I found out there was something not right is through the [prostate-Specific Antigen] blood test done once a year. I went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester [Minn.] and had surgery.

It was the hardest year of my life so far. But I wouldnít have been sitting here right now if I didnít do what I did.

Q. You went through a year of chemotherapy?

A. No, I went through radical surgery, and it took me months and months and months to recover from it. It took a long time to recover.

Q. One last question: Why do you wear an ankle holster?

A. Itís practical. I worked in Chicago for eight years and during the winter, which lasts from October till April, Iím out in dress clothes, and Iím wearing a suit coat and an overcoat, and it would take me five minutes to get unbuttoned to get to my gun if I wore it on my hip. So, all I gotta do is drop down to one knee and itís right there.

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