Public Servant: Pistole brings sense of mission to FBI's #2 post
By David Harness
Ask John S. Pistole BA ‘78 about his job, and he’ll tell you about a sense of calling.
“It’s a very challenging, demanding job that I wouldn’t have sought,” he says. “But I believe I’m here for a reason.”
Pistole is deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He is the highest-ranking FBI official not appointed by the President of the United States and second only to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III in authority and responsibility within the bureau.
Pistole’s position commands considerable trust and respect. As the FBI’s “chief operating officer,” he oversees the bureau’s 30,000 employees, 56 field offices, and $6 billion budget. While Director Mueller is the public face of the bureau — the “CEO” who sets policy — Pistole runs the FBI’s day-to-day operations, carrying out Mueller’s vision and acting on his behalf when the director is away.
“I appointed John Pistole deputy director because he best brings the qualities to help lead — and transform — the FBI during a time of evolving terrorism and crime challenges,” says Mueller. “John is a dedicated public servant, a major asset to the FBI and to our nation.”
Pistole has regularly briefed President George W. Bush and testified before Congressional committees. He addressed the 9/11 Commission about efforts to thwart future terrorist plots. On the seventh floor of the J. Edgar Hoover Building – FBI headquarters – in Washington, D.C., he occupies an office large enough to make a comfortable apartment for an undergraduate.
But if Pistole’s position is commanding, the man himself is modest, his demeanor understated. He seems both comfortable in, and awed by, the role. “If it weren’t for God’s hand at work,” he says, “I wouldn’t be here.” This awareness at once humbles and empowers him.
Pistole was a college sophomore at Anderson University when he began to recognize public service as a calling. His father, Dr. Hollis Pistole BA ’45, then a professor at Anderson’s School of Theology, had modeled a more traditional calling – first as a pastor, then as a teacher/mentor to would-be pastors. Likewise his mother, Elizabeth BS ’43, a teacher at Anderson High School, had set an example of investing one’s life in serving others.
“My parents stressed the value of integrity and hard work, responsibility and being accountable – and treating others fairly,” recalls John, whose siblings Cindy Poikonen BA ’68, Carole Greenwalt BA ’72, and David Pistole BA ’77, all pursued careers in education.
His parents’ upbringing laid the groundwork for a college experience where vocational pursuits and spiritual development went hand in hand. Except, John Pistole almost didn’t make it to college, or the FBI, or adulthood for that matter.
“I had a rebellious time in high school,” he recalls. “I got to see what selfish living was like.” Then a car accident his senior year of high school broke his neck, nearly paralyzed him, and almost cost him his life. “I see that as God’s way of giving me a wake-up call, saying ‘Knucklehead, I’ve blessed you in so many ways. Don’t squander your living. I’ve given you blessings and an opportunity. You’ve got a job to do.’” With his energies refocused, he entered college with purpose.
By his sophomore year at AU, Pistole had found a mentor in Dr. Doug Nelson, a new political science professor at the time. Nelson, then as now, served as director of the Center for Public Service (CPS), an on-campus honor society designed to support and encourage students pursuing careers in public service.
“That idea, of public service being a calling, clicked with me,” recalls Pistole, who chose an American studies/pre-law major. Through CPS, he obtained a summer internship working for his congressman in Washington, D.C., later interned in the Indiana State Assembly, and participated in Anderson’s Model United Nations program. International trips, through the university’s Tri-S program (Study, Serve, Share), further opened his horizons and taught him the rewards and value of serving others.
The discipline of the analytic approach to the study of law, he says, prepared him for law school. At Anderson, Pistole also learned that “calling” can transcend vocation.
“Each of us as Christians are called to be ministers to a unique congregation, that is those we interact with on a daily basis — our families, our coworkers, whomever,” he explains. “We may be the only Christ that somebody sees.” Thus, regardless of one’s career or position, a believer has a God-given assignment to live out Jesus’ example of service, says Pistole.
By the early 1980s, John Pistole had completed his law degree, practiced two years as an attorney, and married Kathy Harp BA ’78. Though he had initially believed his calling was as an attorney, he had grown restless to do something more.
“I had a very positive image of the FBI,” he recalls. “I liked the application of law to the issues the FBI dealt with.”
Pistole’s law background opened doors to a position with the FBI, and in 1983 he began his career as a special agent in the bureau’s Minneapolis division, investigating organized crime and violent crimes. Two years later, he was transferred to the New York division, where he continued investigating organized crime, culminating in his 1990 arrest of Vincent Gigante, head of the Genovese crime family.
From there, Pistole was promoted to a supervisor in the organized crime section at FBI headquarters in Washington in 1990, field supervisor of a white collar crime and civil rights squad in Indianapolis in 1994, and assistant special agent in charge in Boston in 1999.
Along the way, he coordinated the FBI’s collaboration with the Italian National Police, as they investigated the assassinations of two prominent magistrates; developed curriculum and provided instruction at the International Law Enforcement Academy in Budapest, Hungary; and represented the FBI in Bulgaria on a State Department mission on organized crime. In 2001, he directed the “blue team” of the Information Security Working Group addressing security issues following the arrest of Robert Hanssen.
While weighing the promotion to assistant special agent in charge, Pistole discovered John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer through his church’s small group Bible study. At the time, staying in Indianapolis — close to his family of origin — had much appeal, for his family and for him. But the opportunity to have a greater impact also loomed. Praying Wesley’s prayer, especially “the part about turning myself over completely,” convinced John and Kathy to put their future in God’s hands, even if it meant moving to Boston.
In July 2001, Pistole was promoted from Boston back to FBI headquarters, as inspector in the inspection division, where he led teams conducting evaluations and audits of FBI field offices and divisions at headquarters. The following April, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Director Mueller summoned Pistole into leadership of the bureau’s most important mission, as deputy assistant director of the FBI’s counter terrorism division. As the #2 ranking official in counter terrorism, he oversaw all its domestic and international terror investigations, and helped build the division from a staff of less than 200 to over 1,000 personnel, as counter terrorism became the FBI’s highest priority.
“It’s not a script that anybody could write,” Pistole says, of his unlikely promotion to deputy assistant director of counter terrorism and, just a year and a half later, to deputy director. He had not thought about or aspired to either position. “That’s why I attribute it to God’s moving. It was so much a matter of timing and place.”
When, as a young attorney, Pistole first considered a career in the FBI, he did his own investigating: he read The FBI Pyramid, the 1979 memoir of W. Mark Felt, the FBI’s deputy director at the time of the 1972 Watergate break-in. This spring, Felt was revealed to be Deep Throat, the secret source who helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncover the scandal which led to President Nixon’s resignation. That revelation, Pistole says, only strengthened his respect for the position and responsibilities he now holds.
While Pistole’s tenure as deputy director hasn’t brought any Watergate-style investigations, the challenges he — and the bureau — face have been unprecedented. As the only government agency with law enforcement and intelligence responsibilities, the FBI provides a crucial link between the nation’s 750,000 police officers and its 15 different intelligence agencies – especially in this age of persistent terrorist threats.
As the bureau and its responsibilities have grown, Pistole has been responsible for finding more efficient ways of accomplishing its mission. “One of the key things I’m trying to do is really integrate the collection, analysis, and dissemination of public property called intelligence, throughout all our investigative areas,” he says. “How do we make sure people who are collecting information are getting it analyzed and shared in a timely basis — not only in the FBI, but especially in law enforcement?”
Pistole also manages personnel decisions, identifying future leaders and selecting officials for key assignments. “The personnel part of the job is huge,” he says, noting that post-9/11 burnout and greater job demands have increased the pace of such appointments, and made them all the more crucial.
“People still have a sense of mission [in the FBI], to make sure everything humanly possible is done to [prevent] another terrorist attack,” he says. “There are a lot of very dedicated, extremely hard-working people in this organization.”
But, he admits, the challenges — including adjusting to new structures, such as the Department of Homeland Security and the director of national intelligence — have never been greater.
“I try to be an optimist and say, ‘Rather than looking at all the problems, let’s look at them as opportunities to demonstrate character,’” says Pistole, of the counter-terrorism effort.
“I’m very hopeful there will not be another attack,” he adds, “but the reality is that there are a lot of people around the world who really want to cause harm to Americans, and if they have the means to do it, they will.”
If his job’s considerable demands seem stressful, Pistole takes it in stride. “I think stress can be a positive thing; it keeps you on your toes” — and on his knees.
“For myself, every day I pray for discretion or discernment, encouragement and wisdom,” he says, acknowledging he needs a lot of each in his work. Where he feels the greatest stress, Pistole admits, is in being away from his family so much. Each morning, he leaves home at 5 a.m., not to return from the office until 8 p.m., or later. Even weekends at home are subject to interruption.
“There is a tradeoff in that I wish I could spend more time with my family, and they wish that too,” he says. “So, I relish and really appreciate the time that I do have with them.”
“It’s a challenge,” adds his wife, Kathy, “but it’s something that we’ve worked at together. I miss him and I know that our daughters miss him, but he’s able to be available and accessible when he is home. It’s understanding the difference between quantity and quality time — and feeling a sense of calling to do what I do, as a full-time mom.”
“But for her support and sense of calling about this, I wouldn’t be here,” says John of Kathy. “I’m at peace about what I am doing, that I’m in God’s will and that I’m doing what he wants me to do. But if today I had a strong sense that God was calling me to do something else, that’s what I’d do.”