FARGO – In North Dakota, it’s rare to see G-men wearing dark blue jackets emblazoned with the letters “FBI.” But lately, the bureau has been increasing its presence in the state with the hope of stamping out organized crime, particularly in the Oil Patch.
The FBI has had satellite offices, also known as resident agencies, in Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot and Bismarck for decades. And this summer, a resident agency was established in Williston in response to the illegal activity that’s accompanied the oil boom, said Kyle Loven, spokesman for the FBI’s Minneapolis field office, which oversees agents in Minnesota and the Dakotas.
Although the FBI has created this new outpost in western North Dakota and sent more agents to the region, the bureau continues to tackle the same sorts of cases as before.
Local authorities still look to the bureau to investigate interstate drug rings, bank robberies, kidnappings, white-collar fraud, terrorist threats, as well as serious crimes on American Indian reservations.
Loven said reservation crime accounts for much of the bureau’s workload in North Dakota. Under the Major Crimes Act of 1885, the FBI has jurisdiction over certain crimes on reservations, such as murder, rape, arson and burglary.
Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II said the FBI tries to maintain a good relationship with his tribe. And by working with the bureau, tribal members benefit, he said.
“There’s going to be multiple levels of jurisdiction, especially on reservations, and it’s in the best interest that everybody work together. And usually when the FBI show up, it’s because they have a case,” Archambault said. “They’re not going to show up and pursue something that isn’t going to lead to prosecution.”
Exactly when the FBI’s resident agencies were established in North Dakota i s unclear. But the FBI’s presence in the state began shortly after the bureau opened an office in the Twin Cities around World War I, Loven said.
John Fox, the FBI’s staff historian, said the Williston office is the first resident agency the FBI has opened in the U.S. in roughly 20 years. The city previously had a resident agency, but it was closed in 1960 for an unknown reason, Fox said.
Loven said that even though the new Williston office is already in operation, a grand opening is planned for this fall. The addition of the office, announced last year, brings the total number of FB I agents and support staff in North Dakota to about 25 to 30, with those personnel divided equally among the five resident agencies, he said.
The oil boom brought a flood of people and money to western North Dakota. It’s a situation that drug and human traffickers have tried to exploit. In turn, local law enforcement agencies have been overwhelmed.
“A lot of our population is transient,” said Chief Arthur Walgren of the Watford City Police Department. “There’s this back-and-forth movement of a lot of them, and when they’re involved in crimes, it becomes difficult to track them down. Once they cross state lines, it allows the FBI to help us with those investigations.”
Walgren said having a resident agency an hour’s drive away in Williston will let his department work more easily with the FBI. “This will definitely open up the communication a lot more,” he said.
Asked why the Williston office wasn’t opened sooner given that the boom began in 2006, Loven said that before opening a fully-staffed resident agency, the FBI has to ensure the crime problem is severe enough to justify doing so and resources have to be reallocated from somewhere else, a process that takes time.
“We don’t operate on a knee-jerk basis,” he said.
‘Worst of the worst’
Archambault said the negative impacts of the boom didn’t hit the Standing Rock reservation, which sits south of the Oil Patch, until a couple of years ago. That’s when the tribe experienced an influx of methamphetamine, he said.
Archambault said the reservation, which is bigger than Delaware and has just four or five officers on duty at a given time, is an easy target for drug dealers.
“It’s not the FBI’s fault that the drug trafficking takes place” on the reservation, he said. “It’s because we don’t have enough resources to provide adequate law enforcement.”
With the aim of cracking down on this sort of problem, federal, state and local authorities from North Dakota and Montana announced the formation of the Bakken Strike Force in June.
Chris Myers, acting U.S. attorney for North Dakota, said the strike force unites the existing drug task forces in Dickinson, Williston, Minot and Bismarck with a fifth task force made up of agents from the FBI and other federal agencies. In all, 50 agents are “targeting the worst of the worst criminal organizations in the Bakken,” whether they’re operating on or off a reservation, Myers said.
‘Work with us’
Loven said that while interagency feuding does occur in other parts of the country, the FBI’s relationships with other agencies in North Dakota are cordial.
Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney agreed.
“They work with us, not against us,” Laney said of the FBI.
The sheriff said his office and other law enforcement agencies in the Fargo-Moorhead area collaborate with the FBI when it comes to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, a national effort that the bureau oversees.
Laney said each area agency has a task force liaison who’s responsible for sharing with the FBI any terrorism-related information that local officers come across. He said his office has, at times, relayed such information to the FBI, but he declined to elaborate on those instances.
Loven said another key part of the FBI’s anti-terrorism mission in North Dakota involves looking out for Grand Forks Air Force Base, where drones are flown, and Minot Air Force Base, where nuclear weapons are stored.