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WomanOf the Month 2-03: C. Suzanne Mencer

The bumper sticker on her office door reads, "I don’t brake for terrorists." C. Suzanne Mencer, executive director of Colorado’s Department of Public Safety, exhibits cool competence as she heads up the state’s effort to prevent terrorism among her other responsibilities. A retired FBI agent, her years of experience in counterintelligence and investigations in international and domestic terrorism have proven uncannily valuable since Sept. 11.

As the leader of the Office of Preparedness, Security and Fire Safety, created in November 2001, Mencer guides the effort to establish a comprehensive plan to respond to a terrorist event. The office also looks at the state’s infrastructures, making sure they are protected. The private sector is being asked to partner in the effort. Mencer also has responsibility for the Colorado State Patrol, Colorado Bureau of Investigation, Division of Criminal Justice, Division of Fire Safety, and Human Resource Services.

If the U.S. goes to war with Iraq, should citizens expect increased terrorist acts in their own country? "I think that’s a good possibility," says Mencer. "Kind of like in the 1960s, we may see a lot of protesters, and sometimes that turns to violence. It’s a sad reality. Also, we might see groups that object to what they perceive as a lessening of personal freedoms and rights—traditionally we’ve seen this through domestic terrorism groups. Then there are the people who are clearly in support of Iraq.

"It doesn’t take an organized group to effect a great deal of damage—we’ve seen in Israel what one person can do. What Sept. 11 showed the world is that we can be hurt, it can be done. The terrorists’ only limits are their imagination, whereas we have very specific guidelines and rules and regulations that preclude us from acting arbitrarily. That is why we really need to have joint terrorism task forces where law agencies combine their resources, rather than everybody doing their own thing.

"What we’ve learned from Sept. 11 is that we have to break down some of the legislative and personal barriers so that entities can share information and work with each other."

Mencer attended high school and college (a glance around her office confirms her devotion to alma mater Ohio State) in Ohio. Her first career was teaching high school Spanish. During her last stint in St. Petersburg, Florida, "I was breaking up fights in hallways, taking razor blades away from kids, and I thought, ‘Maybe I can get a job where I can be armed too,’" she recalls, laughing. A fellow teacher who’s sister worked for the FBI in Miami came running into her classroom one day to tell her the bureau was hiring Spanish-speaking female agents. The pay was very attractive compared with teaching. Mencer graduated in the 1978 class, in an era when there were only about 135 female agents. "Women came into the bureau in 1972 when J. Edgar Hoover died—now there are I would guess some 1,200," says Mencer.

Her first stop was Mobile, Ala., where she was the first female agent in the office. The times they were a changing, but just barely. "I would go to a home to do an interview and the person would excuse themselves for a minute. They would leave the room and then come back. When I got back to the office I would find out the person had called the office to check that I was an agent. They just didn’t think a woman would be an FBI agent."

Six months later Mencer married an agent she’d met in her training class, and the FBI placed her to the New York office while her husband worked out of Newark. She spent seven years working in the city, an experience she describes as "great—the best time I had in the bureau." Her Spanish-speaking ability earned her an assignment to foreign counterintelligence and undercover work. "I didn’t look like I could speak or understand Spanish, plus I was a woman, so it was a great help," she says. "I was the one who got to go into the restaurants and listen to the conversations while other agents sat out in the surveillance van. It was great fun."

What were the spies up to? "We found they have various levels of responsibility and interests. Some are interested in the sciences and technology community, some in affecting policy toward their country, some in just stealing military secrets. You make sure the people are actually doing the business they are supposed to be doing if they are assigned to the UN—are they truly diplomats?"

During this time Mencer’s daughter was born, and several years later the family decided to transfer to FBI headquarters. At first Mencer analyzed evidence seized in an investigation of Puerto Rican terrorists; she then became a supervisory special agent in charge of investigations in country-specific areas of national security from 1985 to 1990. She also supervised the budget for the FBI’s National Security division. Five years and another baby later, the family decided it was time for another move, this time out of Washington, D.C. A desk supervisor’s job opened up in Denver, and later, a position opened up for her husband as well. Mencer headed a squad of special agents, analysts, local law enforcement officers and other federal agency investigators in the Joint Terrorism Task force.

Work-life balance became an issue for Mencer when her children entered the teenage years, and after 20 years in the FBI she decided to retire in 1998. Just two years later, however, Gov. Owens called to ask if she would head up the Department of Public Safety. While she initially hesitated, having already served her country for 20 years, "I haven’t regretted it," she says today. "I’ve learned a lot about state government and the legislative process. The hardest part is the acronyms! I went home one night after several days on the job and told my husband, ‘I had a presentation that lasted two hours, and I have no idea what they talked about!’ But it’s great—the men and women who work in the department are outstanding, extremely dedicated to public service, extremely competent."

Looking back on her early days in the vanguard of female FBI agents, Mencer thinks she had the advantage. "I did get to do the undercover roles, I did get to do a lot of things by virtue of the fact that I was a woman and not as recognizable. I once sat on an airplane next to some terrorists who were Spanish speaking when I was seven months pregnant. I listened to their conversation, and they never suspected in a million years that I would be an FBI agent. In fact, most of the time I was trying to put the brakes on my career because there was an urgency to be promoted, and my family has always come first."

How can the U.S. be most effective in preventing terrorist acts? "We have seen cases where the actuality has actually duplicated fiction, and I think we need to think along those lines more—looking at things that would seem the worst possible imaginable thing to do, and then figuring out how could they do that, and how we could prevent that. It’s a new mindset for us—mostly law enforcement has been reactive, and now we’re trying to be reactive. It’s a change in direction, and we have a long way to go.

"You do the best you can to prevent everything you can possibly think of. You harden targets, you make things look like they are impenetrable, you put surveillance cameras up so you can catch people. I think that acts as a huge deterrent. The problem with deterrents is, you can’t measure them. So what have we prevented? There’s no way to measure. You do what you can and hope that it’s enough. And if it’s not enough, you have plans in place to go in and mitigate the circumstances."