Law Enforcement and Intelligence
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Within the U.S. government, the title of "Special Agent" is used to describe any federal criminal or non-criminal investigator or detective in the 1811, 1801, 2501, or similar job series as so titled according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) handbook. Agents are typically educated at least as far as the undergraduate level. Such persons are usually armed and have the power to arrest and conduct investigations into the violation of federal laws.
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", making them the first Special Agents in the United States. In 1880, the U.S. Congress created the position of "Chief Postal Inspector" and renamed these "Special Agents" to "Postal Inspectors".
The titles Special Agent and Secret Agent are not synonymous. The title Special Agent is commonly the official title assigned to individuals employed in that capacity, especially by the U.S. agencies described above (and for the reasons described below), whereas "secret agent" is less of an official title, but is used to describe individuals employed or engaged in espionage. U.S. Special Agents, like state, county, and municipal law enforcement officers, can, at various times, engage in secret or undercover activities as part of investigative "sting operations" or counter-espionage assignments, during which they might be referred to as "undercover agents". U.S. Special Agents may also be referred to, or refer to themselves, as "criminal investigators", "federal agents", "U.S. Agents", "federal officers", or "federal investigators". The latter terms are merely descriptors and not formal titles.
Exactly which U.S. Special Agents have the broadest authority is a matter of debate. The issue of concurrent jurisdiction (in which two agencies have non-exclusive jurisdiction over a given set of the U.S. Code, such as the FBI, ICE, and DEA in respect to drug laws) does not make the issue clearer. However Special Agents of many agencies can enforce any federal law while performing their agency specific duties.
ATF, DEA, FBI, USSS, PFPA, USMS, and ICE special agents not only have the power to enforce all federal law, but also applicable state and local laws, if so authorized by the state in which they are operating. DCIS (Defense Criminal Investigative Service), NCIS, AFOSI, and USACIDC agents only investigate the specific statutes within the United States Code for which they are authorized; they are also tasked with enforcing the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), a jurisdiction not held by most of the larger federal agencies. DCIS agents are civilian agents with statutory law enforcement authority. Other special agents, such as those employed by the National Park Service, have jurisdiction over crimes committed within the boundaries of or have a nexus to the lands managed by their agency or department only.
While certain active-duty Special Agents employed by the military do have broad authority, they cannot enforce all federal laws all the time. Most are restricted by law (such as the Posse Comitatus Act) and policy to police military establishments and can only operate outside these restrictions when the nexus of the violation they are investigating occurred on military-controlled areas or there is a military connection.