Just before she began her training as a special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Quantico, Virginia, a car accident landed Asha Rangappa in the hospital.
Despite her severe pain — she suffered contusions of the ribs —Rangappa decided not to postpone her arduous physical training by more than a few weeks lest she lose her training slot and the chance of joining the investigative agency.
Rangappa reported to Quantico academy for training less than a month after the 2001 accident and did all the physical training: push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups. She could not do as well in some other parts of the physical training but six weeks later she scored enough plus points to cancel the negative ones.
“In the FBI they don’t care if you met with an accident and were in hospital,” she said. It did not matter if you had difficulty performing what you were asked to do.
“In the FBI, they don’t want to hear any excuses and value a set of principles different from the ones that I had been used to. At times in Quantico, I thought about just quitting but then I convinced myself against doing that and told myself ‘I’ve got to do this,’ “ she said.
She would wrap her ribs, starting at 4 in the morning, before setting off to train.
Rangappa recalled during a recent interview with India Abroad that her FBI training also involved a 17-week paramilitary stint in Quantico to become a skilled firearms user.
“One of the hardest things at Quantico was the physical training, especially given that I was seriously injured at time. That apart, I was ‘very hungry’ all the time as I am a strict vegetarian and had to help myself with only salads in a place where food was not mostly vegetarian,” she said.
The U.S.-born Rangappa, whose parents are from Karnataka, came out of the training and joined the New York Division of the FBI as a special agent in 2002. She believes that, at the time, she became the first Indian-American woman to do so. She specialized in counterintelligence investigations, assessing threats to national security, conducting classified investigations on suspected foreign agents and performing undercover work. After serving for three years, she quit. Planning to get married, she moved to Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs as an associate dean. “I was thinking of starting a family at that time,” she said.
From action to academia
Rangappa is now an associate dean at Yale, where she had received her law degree. She also teaches National Security Law and related courses, and is one of the most sought-after commentators for newspapers and TV on national security issues, particularly on the current investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Rangappa has her thoughts, for instance, on the direction of the investigation undertaken by former FBI director and Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller. She said the goal is to figure out what kind of operation the Russians were conducting before, during and after the election which can include the Russian-backed advertisements in Facebook, and include people trying to hack into voting machines.
“The main goal is to figure out what exactly the Russians did,” she said. “Along the way, we may find people that may have committed various crimes, and I don’t want to call things that you see popping up with Paul Manafort, former campaign manager of Donald Trump, as sideshows to minimize those crimes because they are important, but they are really secondary to the main question which is what did the Russians do in terms of meddling into our democracy and how.”
She said it is harder to investigate such crimes because the goal of foreign intelligence is not to leave any footprint so “it’s like chasing a ghost.” But the U.S., she said, has the tools to do the investigation and one of the things discovered in Mueller’s investigation is that at least there are two trails that are very hard to cover up – the financial trail and the digital fingerprints as seen in the Facebook investigation.
“I think we’ll track them down eventually but in terms of bringing them to justice I think that’s a little bit of a different story because in some of these cases there may not be a specific crime. For example, there are very few laws against spying. There is an Espionage Act but that is very specific like passing defense information or passing classified information,” Rangappa said.
Still, she said, it is important to expose all of what happened, and when one exposes something, it neutralizes them. She said it’s like pulling back the curtain on what they’re doing and they no longer can remain invisible. Rangappa should know since counterintelligence investigation was one of her main tasks with the FBI.
Born to take on challenges
The courage to take up tough challenges even in the face of adversities and a never-to-give-up attitude has been a hallmark of Rangappa since early in her life. The former high school cheerleader graduated cum laude from the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs at Princeton University in 1996. She then went to Bogotá, Colombia on a Fulbright Scholarship to study constitutional reform in that country and its impact on U.S. drug policy in the region. In the mid 1990s, Bogota was a “pretty dangerous place,” she said, but that did not deter her. She said she has always been a risk-taker in almost everything and enjoys a non-traditional approach to life.
She enrolled in Yale Law School when she returned to the U.S. and got a law degree in 2000. She then left for Puerto Rico and clerked for a judge.
Until then, Rangappa had considered a career as a prosecutor. But, she said, she realized that would require her to work in a law firm for some time and though she spent a summer doing that, it did not appeal to her.
That’s when she got the idea to join the FBI. She had applied during her studies at Yale but did not hear from them because there was a hiring freeze. After 9/11, she said, the agency started making an effort towards diversity and inclusion – not just seeking out white males.
“I believe I was one of the first, if not the first Indian-American female recruits in FBI, going by what my coworkers told me at that time, and I was excited to have been offered the job as special agent,” she said.
How did a brown-skinned woman of 28 — and a strict vegetarian — fit into the white male-dominated FBI?
“In a sense I was a pioneer in the field and I had a lot of diverse experience that people in my position do not usually have early in their career. I could speak English, Spanish and I also speak Kannada or Kanarese and I could talk to people, do undercover operations and I looked like just another person to outsiders, not like someone who could be an FBI agent. I think I had a very satisfying, well-rounded experience in the bureau in New York,” she said.
Incidentally, Rangappa was voted America’s hottest female law school dean by visitors to the site “Above the Law,” a popular online legal tabloid, garnering over a third of the 8,000 votes, according to a 2006 Yale Daily News report. “More than anything I’m amused, because there’s some irony to winning a hottest anything contest when you’re eight months pregnant,” she said at that time.
Rangappa, who left the agency in 2005 when she married a fellow FBI agent, lives in Hamden, Connecticut with her children. The couple has since divorced.
She said her parents fully supported her decision to join the FBI although they were a little confused initially. “My father, who was a doctor in the U.S. Army and my mother who had worked as translator in the FBI, realized the importance of doing something, especially after the 9/11. You know Indian parents would raise some objections on grounds of safety but when people came to know that I was an FBI special agent and congratulating my parents, they kind of thought it was cool and became proud of my decision,” Rangappa said.
Looking back, looking ahead
The former special agent said contemporary TV shows about the FBI and its operations are inaccurate. “The FBI is not at all like they show on television,” she said. I would say the least realistic of them is ‘Quantico.’ What they do is take some real-life incidents and mix them with fiction to make it more exciting and appealing. They take things that are real and add things that are imaginary. It’s a mixture of fact and faction, but not truly reflects the real hard and tough lives of FBI special agents,” she said.
However, she was all praise for Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra who plays Alex Parrish, one of a diverse group of new FBI recruits. “I absolutely love that Chopra is in the lead role of Quantico. It’s fantastic to see a strong woman — and especially a South Asian —portraying a special agent in the FBI, and I hope it will encourage more women from diverse backgrounds to consider a career in law enforcement,” Rangappa said. But she would not comment on how realistically she played that role, saying she has not watched much of the show to give an opinion on that.
The super sleuth, now 42, describes herself as a person with eye for details but also likes to look at the bigger picture behind the law and the rules and loves to help explain complicated legal issues to lay people in an understandable language. She said her Yale students seemed a little scared of her given her FBI background but that she tries to keep things light.
“I have a sense of humor and I am very accessible to them and so even if initially there was some uneasiness among them, eventually they have come to realize that I am not an intimidating person,” she said.
Rangappa said some of her habits cultivated during her FBI service have stayed with her: She is more vigilant about her surroundings, whether out in social settings or at home with her children. “When you go to law enforcement, you develop a particular set of mind, a mental makeup and that instinct to protect yourself and people around you never leave you. I know what my children are up to and they know well they can’t play some small little mischief with me,” she said.
Rangappa is happy teaching and writing and giving commentaries about current national security issues.
She recalls her FBI experience as happy and fulfilling, adding that she would like to write about it. “Now that I am no longer with the FBI, I would like to write a book and talks about things that I could not when I was in the service,” she said.
Rangappa wears a few more hats too: “I love to do acting. I have acted in several community theater productions, was in a hip-hop dance troupe, and did some improve comedy,” she said. Some of the shows were in 2015 in Hamden, Connecticut.
Rangappa acknowledges that being in the FBI isn’t for everyone, especially most Indian-American women.
“I believe most women from our community would not like to take the risks of choosing this kind of a career of an FBI special agent,” she said. “But I would say that serving the country is a great thing and gives a great satisfaction. But then there are different ways of serving our country like some people love to join the military and that’s also serving the country. There are so many ways to do it. It’s just that I loved what I did. For me it was a deliberate choice.”