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Agent of Change
A major player in the FBI's Milwaukee Division covers topics ranging from the Sikh temple shooting to human trafficking.
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

In the hours after the Aug. 5, 2012, shooting at Oak Creek’s Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, one person was in charge of the sprawling response: Teresa Carlson. One of the FBI’s most prominent women – and only the second to ever serve as special agent in charge of the Milwaukee Division – Carlson left a national security post in New York in late 2011 to come to Milwaukee, where she oversees a statewide team of agents. She previously headed up the white-collar crime divisions in New York and Birmingham, Ala., where her unit investigated the HealthSouth accounting scandal and brought the first indictment of a CEO under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. As a rookie agent in the early 1990s, Carlson parlayed her experience working for the Michigan legislature (a part-time job while attending law school) into a spot on the Chicago Division’s storied public corruption squad. She penned a piece of faux legislation for the squad’s undercover operation, dubbed “Silver Shovel,” and the investigation eventually led to convictions of no fewer than 18 local officials.

Why did you choose the FBI?
You get to be a public servant and do something that is very meaningful, challenging, exciting. I can’t think of a better job.

Does it have a certain cachet?
Usually, at cocktail parties, you’re the most interesting person, unless you live in D.C. Then you’re not interesting at all because at every cocktail party, it’s, ‘What branch of the government do you work for?’ And everybody works for the government. You’re just another boring government worker.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a female agent?
The bureau, like most law enforcement, is a male-dominated profession, but I was recently at this “Trailblazers” conference where we celebrated women in the FBI. The first female agent ever was there, the first female executive, the first female special agent in charge. It was so inspirational to hear their stories. They were so proud because of all of the things they put up with, and their hard work helped to pave the way for people like myself.

What is the FBI in Milwaukee doing to combat human trafficking?
We’re actually about to stand up a new squad that will specifically target civil rights matters and, particularly, human trafficking. We’re responsible for the entire state of Wisconsin, so we’ll be looking at any trafficking related to migrant workers in the rural parts of the state but also problems we have in Milwaukee with Milwaukee kids.

What was Aug. 5 like?
That was a tough day. Trying to organize 30 different departments and get control of a crisis was a tough thing. [Police] Chief John Edwards of Oak Creek was very quick to say, “This has to be an FBI investigation,” which is as it should be. We have a worldwide reach. Wade Michael Page wasn’t from here, and it’s so key in those first 24 to 72 hours to make sure there’s not somebody else out there planning a like attack.

Can you tell me what his thinking was?
We can’t, unfortunately.

It died with him?
Right. There was no letter, no note, no one he talked to beforehand, no actual evidence as to why he did it.

We just know he was involved in white hate groups.
Right. His involvement in white hate groups means he hates everybody. His distinction between a Muslim, a Sikh or anybody else doesn’t matter. He hates them all.

Why hasn’t there been a large-scale terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9/11?
There are probably a lot of different reasons for that. One is, we’ve done some really, really good work. And by “we,” I mean team USA, not just the FBI. There have been a lot of terror attacks that were thwarted.

Are there threats that we don’t hear about?

A lot, or one or two that didn’t get reported?
It’s a hard number to put your hand on. How many people are killed on the battlefield that would have, could have? How many plots are somewhere between sitting here, talking about some building we’d like to blow up, to we actually get to the planning stage? There are so many things that are in all those different stages that it’s really hard to say exactly how many.

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