• The Making of a Spy Catcher

    Randy Thysse
    (Photo by Mark Brown)

    When Randy Thysse was growing up in the Minne­apolis working-class sub­urb of Brooklyn Center, it was suggested that he learn a trade, like neighbors who were plumb­ers or glaziers, or maybe he could follow in his dad’s footsteps and learn carpet laying.

    The trade he settled into, and which he never once considered while growing up, is sometimes called spycraft. At age 49 and a 23-year veteran of the FBI, Thysse is the special agent in charge of the counterintelligence division of the FBI’s New York Field Office, the bureau’s largest.

    At least two things pointed Thysse to a college education rather than vocational school. One was his summer job in a roofing factory where it was hot and dirty and he learned about jackhammers and cleaning sludge from tanks. “It paid well, but I came home every night smelling like asphalt,” he recalled.

    The other was a recruiting visit from a University of St. Thomas track and football coach named Mark Dienhart (the university’s executive vice president and chief operating officer).

    At Park Center High School, Thysse had been both a good student and a good athlete, a path he continued as a Tommie. At 6 feet 1 inch and around 245 pounds, he was an offensive lineman in football, was a shot-putter in track and won the heavyweight intramural wrestling championship his senior year.

    “I remember when Mark came over and asked me to consider St. Thomas,” Thysse recalled. “I came because of him. He was my football coach for two years, and Dewey (Duwayne) Dietz was my track coach for four. They were good role models and a positive influence.”

    Dienhart recalled recently that “Randy was quiet, thoughtful, very hard-working and quite popular with other members of the team. He contributed significantly to some pretty successful football and track teams and, I know, also had personal success in the classroom.

    “It’s not a surprise to me at all that he’s become accomplished in his professional life, but I could never have anticipated he’d become an FBI agent and would never have pictured Randy at home in the Big Apple. That’s a long way from Park Center High School.”

    A long way is right. The path from Thysse’s 1985 graduation from St. Thomas to his appointment as head of the FBI’s New York counterintelligence program has involved eight moves, travels to the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Central and South America, lots of specialized training, very few 40-hour weeks, and plenty of adventures he can’t talk about and a few he can.

    At St. Thomas, Thysse majored in financial management and today sees the benefits of his career-preparation courses as well as his liberal arts courses.

    Classes like those in accounting prepare you for a job right out of college, he said, but the benefits of a liberal arts education … critical thinking, how you make decisions and communication skills … those become more important as you grow in your career. They pay off throughout your life.

    He cited the three philosophy courses he took from Monsignor Henri DuLac. “Those courses won’t specifically lead to a job right out of college. But they help you become better-rounded. Logical analysis and critical thinking is everything in the FBI,” he said.

    Some of Thysse’s other favorite faculty members were Dr. Paul Schons in German, Dr. Shirley Polejewski in accounting and Dr. James Filkins in finance.

    “Dr. Schons was always in a good mood,” Thysse said. “And besides German, he taught me something else. He didn’t give big tests at the end of the semester; instead he’d give us little quizzes each day. You had to keep up. The lesson is that you can’t always cram for a final.”

    Randy Thysse

    Randy Thysse (Photo by Mark Brown)

    It’s easy to spot Thysse in Aquinas yearbook or Aquin newspaper photos from the early ’80s; just look for the biggest person. During his St. Thomas years Thysse also was in the Tiger Club, was president of the Lettermen’s Club, served on the All College Council, and ate his share of Lavinburgers, the peanut butter sandwiches served in Ireland Hall by Monsignor James Lavin.

    He moved out of Ireland Hall during his senior year and shared a Grand Avenue home with classmates, just a few houses down from the 7-Eleven. “One day in the weight room I was spotting for this guy named Bob. We were becoming friends and I told him we were having a party at our house over on Grand, and I invited him to stop by.

    “Bob showed up, but I was surprised to see he was wearing his collar. I had no idea he was a priest. He was Father Robert White. I think he had a good time at the party; that fall after I graduated, he married Karin and me in the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas.”

    Thysse and Karin are not childhood sweethearts, but close. They met in 7th grade, but didn’t start dating until high school. They have a college-age daughter, Carrie, who this summer is an FBI intern, and a son, Erik, in high school.

    After graduation, Thysse began a four-year career with an insurance company. He also took more accounting classes and earned his certified public accountant credentials. It seemed his career path was set, until the day he was chatting with a neighbor who worked for the FBI.

    “Financial scandals were in the news at the time, and my neighbor told me the FBI was always looking for good accountants. I looked into it, and soon was on my way to four months of training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.”

    There he was introduced to the skills he’d need to investigate spies, terrorists and dangerous criminals. In addition to physical training and learning how to handle weapons, he studied behavioral science, law, ethics, forensic techniques and interrogation methods. At graduation, he received his badge, credentials, firearm and ammunition. (While he’s been in situations where there has been gunfire, he’s never had to fire his gun in the line of duty.)

    As FBI Director Robert Mueller told one graduating class at Quantico, “If you go anywhere in the world and tell someone that you are an FBI special agent, you will immediately have their respect.”

    His first assignment took him to the FBI field office in Des Moines, Iowa. That’s also where he completed an M.B.A. at Drake University, his daughter and son were born, and he became a Catholic.

    “Thysse is a Norwegian name, and I was born and raised a Lutheran. My wife Karin is a Catholic, and I went to a Catholic university, and my friend Bob the weightlifting priest married us. When my daughter was baptized at St. Augustin’s in Des Moines, the pastor asked if I’d ever considered becoming a Catholic. I took the RCIA classes and joined the church.

    “When it comes to our work in the FBI, your moral compass has got to be set,” he said. “I think my faith gives me that compass. You need that to make good decisions.”

    Thysse explained that when you are first assigned to the smaller FBI field offices, you work in your specialty area – in his case it was accounting and white-collar crime – but you also work on a wide assortment of other cases, ranging from hate crimes to bank robberies to kidnappings.

    His next assignment, in 1998, took him to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., where he supervised a financial-fraud unit. He returned to the field and from 2000 to 2002 oversaw six FBI offices in Montana. His first assignment that focused on spies began 10 years ago when he joined the bureau’s counterintelligence section in Washington. He later was assigned to the national security branch in Memphis, and in 2008 returned to FBI headquarters as section chief in the global counterintelligence section. Last year, he was promoted to his current post as head of the Counterintelligence Division of the New York Field Office.

    As Jeff Stein wrote in his “SpyTalk” column in the Washington Post newspaper, “Thysse will be responsible for tracking spies from every nation trying to steal American secrets. The United Nations has often been described as a ‘nest of spies.’”

    Here’s the FBI’s description of its New York field office: It protects the U.S. from terrorist attacks, foreign intelligence and espionage, cyber-based attacks and high-tech crimes, public corruption, criminal organizations, white-collar crime, significant violent crime and protects civil rights.”

    Here’s Thysse’s description: “Drinking from a fire hose.” The nature of his work changed when he was promoted to management-level positions. “Now we aren’t the ones who kick in the doors or make the arrests, but we approve what our agents do, ensure that the planning is sound and provide guidance to the younger agents. It is different but still very satisfying work.”

    And yes, there have been family events interrupted by calls. “You can be mowing the lawn on Saturday morning and have to drop everything to respond to a bank robbery or jump on a plane for somewhere. It’s crazy as far as that goes,” he said. “I’m pretty good at leaving my work at work, but sometimes there are things that occupy your mind. I can’t talk about my work at home. Most definitely. My wife knows I chase spies for a living, but nothing beyond that.”

    Much of what Thysse does never will be known outside FBI circles. But from time to time his name appears in newspaper stories about cases he has worked on. There was a kidnapping in Nebraska, a fatal stabbing in Montana, a Tennessee mosque painted with swastikas and set on fire, a Memphis sex-slave ring and an elderly Washington, D.C., couple convicted of spying for Cuba.

    Some of the spies and criminals Thysse has investigated are highly skilled while others – like the Des Moines bank robber who dropped his wallet in the woods – not so much.

    One of the most publicized spy cases in recent years – dubbed Operation Ghost Stories – came to light last fall because of Freedom of Information requests. In June 2010, after more than a decade of surveillance, the FBI arrested 10 Russian spies in New York. They pleaded guilty and later were exchanged for four Russians in prison for spying for the West. It had been named “Ghost Stories” because of the spies’ long-term efforts to blend invisibly into American society.

    Thysse cannot talk about his involvement with the case (at the time of the arrests, he was working in global counterintelligence at FBI headquarters) but said the operation is a good example of what agents do in his line of work.

    “Usually, the critical work of our Counterintelligence Division is carried out in conjunction with our partners in the U.S. intelligence community with the utmost secrecy,” according to an FBI website. “Because the public rarely hears about those efforts, it would be easy to forget how real the threat of espionage is. … There are a lot of foreign services who want what we have, and that’s why we have agents and analysts in FBI field offices across the country working with other intelligence community partners every day to address these threats.”

    Thysse can tell you, though, about some of the interesting people he’s met. When he was in training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, he attended some classes with actress Jodie Foster, who was there preparing for her role in “The Silence of the Lambs.” He also met Larry the Cable Guy and not long ago met Henry Kissinger at a social function.

    “He asked me for my business card and then asked me to come to his office for a visit,” Thysse said. “A few weeks later his secretary called to see when I could come over. We spent an hour talking about politics and world events and having tea and some little cookies. It was very interesting.

    “As I was leaving his office I had one of those moments that give you pause. I remembered back when I was a kid, the son of a carpet layer, talking about what trade I should learn. I was thinking, ‘How cool is this.’”

    Having top-secret security clearances doesn’t mean you can’t have a sense of humor. “I was giving a talk to a grade school class back in Montana,” he recalled. “It was when ‘The X-Files’ was popular on TV and I was asked about aliens. I told them, ‘I’m not allowed to talk about it. I can’t even joke about it.’ I guess they didn’t know I was kidding. Their teacher told me later I had really stirred things up.”

    Thysse doesn’t watch much television and said he dislikes watching cop shows because he feels they are unrealistic. There can be parts of FBI work that some would consider gruesome and difficult, like the agents who had to inspect conveyor belts of 9/11 debris for weeks on end. “We do get a lot of support from one another within the bureau; there’s a strong sense of camaraderie,” he said. “And I don’t know if this will make sense, but when I look back at some of the crappiest parts of my job, they also are some of my fondest memories.”

    Does he ever get thank-you notes from people he’s helped? “I’ve gotten some nice thank-yous from some of the criminal cases I’ve worked on … like from bank tellers who had guns in their faces … but we don’t get those kinds of notes in our counterintelligence work. Much of what we do, no one knows about, or ever will.”

    Thysse does think most Americans appreciate the work he does. Not maybe him personally, but what the FBI does on their behalf. “This job definitely carries with it a sense of service to one’s country,” he said. “If I had gone the CPA route, no doubt I could have made more money, but I do have a high level of job satisfaction.”

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