Northern ’89 Connects Liberal Arts and FBI
by Steve Charles
September 26, 2012
FBI agent Drew Northern ’89 returned to campus Monday to meet with students and “to tell an adventure story as a ‘thank you’ to Wabash.
“I’m honored to be here, and to be standing in the room with these professors and coaches and friends who taught me,” Northern said as he began the inaugural "The Liberal Arts at Work" lecture. “Whatever good things I am today are due to what they did to help me. I was a farm kid from Greenwood, Indiana, and wasn’t sure I belonged here. But they saw something in me, encouraged me to do something good with my life.”
Then he told his story.
“On December 26, 2007, as I stepped past the door gunner of the Ambassador’s Huey and onto the tarmac at a forward operating base in Iraq called Delta, I looked over my shoulder and at 53 people getting off helicopters all coming my way—Special Forces guys, archaeologists, FBI agents, all members of our team. It was the beginning of one of the coolest things I’ve ever been involved in.”
Northern was in Iraq as coordinator of the FBI’s Baghdad Major Crimes Task Force, leading an operation which helped shut down a major antiquities smuggling pipeline, recovered stolen and counterfeit artifacts, and located a valuable archaeological site in dire need of cultural protection.
That “coolest thing I’ve ever been involved with” was the Lost City operation, a mission into an active combat area to investigate a site rumored to be the ancient lost city of Ur-Sagrig, where antiquities had been routinely looted.
“Most Iraqis thought the United States was in Iraq to steal its cultural heritage, something much more important than oil,” Northern explained. Further stoking those suspicions was the fact that when Operation Iraqi Freedom started, the military had been unprepared to prevent the looting of the Baghdad museum and other sites.
“If we could show Iraqi people we weren’t there to do that, but to help preserve that cultural heritage, then we could change Iraqi public opinion,” Northern said. "And, you know, if you tell a Wabash guy to do something, he makes it happen.”
Northern's task force arrested forgers, recovered more than 600 pieces of that cultural heritage, and, on the December 26, 2007 mission, located and visited a site that may be a lost city with extraordinary archaeological value.
“They said if we found this, it would be the Iraqi equivalent of finding the lost city of Atlantis,” Northern said.
In the process, Northern and his team worked with Iraqi law enforcement officials to restore the rule of law to a country that had fallen into disorder and become the kidnapping capital of the world.
“It was scary to see how quickly the Cradle of Civilization had devolved into a Cradle of Chaos in which sectarian violence, public corruption and lawlessness threatened the stability of the Iraqi government and the safety of the Iraqi people,” Northern said. “As coordinator of the Major Crimes Task Force and the Rule of Law Initiative, I mentored police and military investigators in the investigative and interrogation techniques that would work in a democratic state.”
It would prove a difficult transition.
“Many of these people had been investigators under Saddaam Hussein, and most of the police stations had cattle prods, knives, hooks hanging from the ceiling, and car batteries that had been used as instruments of torture during interrogations.”
Northern also worked with an Iraqi judge with great courage.
“A very brave man who put the justice ahead of his career and even his own safety,” Northern said. “It will take many people like these, who stand for what’s right, no matter what. Iraq is going to have to battle this out for a long time, but these are the people who will ultimately restore the rule of law to their country.”
For Northern, though, the high point of his service in Iraq was that day at Ur-Sagrit.
“Every time I hear a helicopter blade I think back to what we did that day, how I summoned all the different elements of my liberal arts background to make this Lost City operation happen.”
He credited his Wabash education for teaching him the value of teamwork and how to communicate effectively.
‘This is where I developed my intellectual curiosity, and that confidence that comes from the Wabash experience.”
Northern is currently the FBI’s Chief Division Counsel/Supervisory Special Agent in the Indianapolis Field Office, and he also spoke to students about careers in the bureau. He noted that 30 is the average age of those starting at the FBI—he advised students to gain life experience, noting the military was an excellent stepping stone into the bureau.
Anne and Andrew T. Ford Chair in the Liberal Arts and Professor of English Tobey Herzog H’11 was Northern’s freshman academic advisor in 1984, and he introduced his former student Monday night, recalling the time he saw the future FBI agent dressed in army fatigues and jeans and wandering around the local Target store.
“I thought he was just desperate to meet local girls,” Herzog said. “So I stopped him and asked what he was doing.”
Northern had been hired by the store to look out for shoplifters.
“So I saw it, firsthand.” Herzog laughed. “The very beginning of Drew’s illustrious career in law enforcement.”
Following the talk, Northern presented Herzog and Wabash with an American flag that had flown over the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Northern’s presentation Monday was the first of a new lecture series titled “The Liberal Arts at Work,” which is funded by the Anne and Andrew T. Ford Fund in the Liberal Arts.
In photos: Joe Neal ’15 talks with Drew Northern ’89 following the presentation; Seniors Keaton Becher and Matt Page talk with Professor Tobey Herzog H’11 and admire the American flag Northern presented to the College.