The lasting image of FBI Special Agent George Piro will be his 2008 “60 Minutes” interview, in which he sat opposite CBS investigative journalist Scott Pelley.
Piro, one of the few agents at the Bureau fluent in Arabic, had been the lone interrogator of Saddam Hussein while the Iraqi dictator was in U.S. custody following his 2003 capture. Piro met with Hussein daily over several months, eventually earning his trust and getting him to share critical intelligence.
In his mid-30s at the time of the Hussein interrogation, Piro was a fairly young agent, having only been at the FBI for five years. Nice work for a guy his age, and it landed him on national television.
Pelley’s line of questioning for Piro was direct. This was 60 Minutes, after all, and no such interview would be complete without a grilling of “coercive techniques” and “weapons of mass destruction.” At one point, Pelley asked Piro if he’d ever resorted to the torture technique of waterboarding when interrogating Hussein.
“No,” replied Piro.
“Never?” Pelley shot back.
“Never,” said Piro.
“No. It’s against FBI policy…”
Special Agent Piro kept his cool throughout the interview. He didn’t flinch, didn’t get defensive, didn’t snap at any of Pelley’s questions. He was calm, composed, just as he must have been with Hussein. And just as he is now, over a decade later serving as one of the highest-ranking agents in the FBI, Special Agent in Charge of the 900-plus-employee FBI Miami Field Office that has jurisdiction over all of Southeast Florida and into the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central and South America.
No one’s born with composure. It’s learned and developed. In the FBI, they call it “quiet confidence,” and in large part it comes from a dedication to physical training. Which is why all FBI Special Agents are required to maintain a baseline level of strength and conditioning.
In the Miami office, Piro leads by example. At age 53, he trains twice a day, five to six days a week. In the morning before work, Monday through Friday, he gets in an hour of strength and/or endurance training in one of the two fully equipped gyms on the FBI’s Miami campus. After work, he practices Brazilian jiujitsu at nearby American Top Team, one of the country’s elite mixed martial arts gyms.
The consistent training keeps him physically fit, of course. At 6’1”, and between 170 and 173 pounds, with about 5% body fat, Piro can hold his own against lightweight and middleweight BJJ fighters decades younger than him. But in his leadership role at the FBI, he calls on the intangible benefits of training more so than the physical.
“It’s no secret that having a strong body develops a strong mind,” says Piro. “The two go together and amplify each other. The more physically fit you are, the stronger your mindset is, which translates to those intangibles. I’m able to manage and balance stress incredibly well, much better than if I wasn’t so physically fit.”
Sarah E. KyleThe Art of Training
Piro’s martial arts training dates back to childhood, where he and his brother did martial arts at school growing up in Beirut, Lebanon. Shortly after getting started, however, their practice was interrupted by the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, with the brothers unable to attend school. The Piro family eventually escaped the war and moved to the United States when George was 12 years old, at which point the boys were able to join a karate school near their home in Turlock, CA.
Piro did karate throughout his teens and into his 20s, utilizing his skills as a defensive tactics instructor after becoming a police officer. He wasn’t introduced to BJJ until moving to Miami in 2014, 15 years into his FBI career.
“I went to the first training session and fell in love with the gym,” he says of American Top Team, which has gained notoriety as the training home of top UFC fighters including Amanda Nunes, Piro’s coach Wilson Gouveia, and his training partner Thiago Alves. “I joined and have been training religiously ever since.”
As martial arts disciplines go, BJJ is particularly well-suited for law enforcement officers, whether police or FBI. Jiu jitsu is rooted in non-violence and self-defense, and it’s predominantly a ground-based discipline, involving various chokes and submission holds intended to de-escalate physical altercations.
“[Brazilian Jiu Jitsu] essentially allows a smaller individual to defend him or herself against a larger, stronger opponent,” says Piro. “There was also a study done by the LAPD back in the ‘90s, which I would argue is still very accurate, showing that over 90% of law enforcement physical altercations end up on the ground. As an FBI agent, or just a law enforcement officer in general, your goal is to control or subdue your opponent with minimal injuries to the suspect or to you. So, jiujitsu is probably the most practical, applicable, martial arts for law enforcement.”
Culture of Strength
In recent decades, strength and conditioning protocols have become commonplace among law enforcement and the military, thanks in large part to advances in the exercise and nutrition sciences since the 1970s and 80s. Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in the FBI.
The Miami Field Office alone is equipped with not one, but two gyms — an indoor facility comprised of traditional free weights, plate-loaded machines, cardio equipment, and even dedicated areas for boxing and martial arts; and an outdoor “functional training” space resembling a CrossFit gym. Then there’s the FBI Academy in Quantico, VA, which sets the standard for law enforcement training facilities, complete with full-time strength and conditioning coaches.
Unlike police departments, which have varying fitness standards from one location to another, all 14,500 FBI Special Agents around the world are required to pass an annual physical fitness test consisting of pushups, situps, a 300-meter sprint, and a 1.5-mile run, with minimum standards based on age. FBI SWAT members are held to even higher standards, surpassed only by the Bureau’s Hostage Rescue Team, whose training is on par with the Navy SEALs.
“Physical fitness is critical for the FBI, and it’s something we promote from day one when you enter the Special Agent ranks,” says Piro, who oversees not only 476 Special Agents and roughly 430 professional staff at the Miami Field Office, but also Miami SWAT and the Hostage Rescue Team when it gets dispatched under the authority of his office. It’s critical for us on three different levels.”
Those three levels are:
Being physically fit. “Our jobs are inherently dangerous,” says Piro, “and being physically fit could potentially save your life. So, we really promote and require our agents to be in shape, and we allow them the ability and opportunities to train [on site].”
Being mentally fit. “This occupation is extremely demanding and difficult, and physical fitness provides that work-life balance,” he says. “It’s an excellent way for us to make sure that our employees are not just physically healthy, but mentally healthy. There’s nothing better to relieve stress and help deal with the impact they face in their occupations as Special Agents than by being physically fit.”
Sharpening critical intangibles. “The core values of the FBI are fidelity, bravery, and integrity,” says Piro. “And those values require our agents to have a strong sense of self, character, discipline, commitment, and dedication. There’s really no test to measure those things, but physical fitness is a way to help sharpen and develop those intangibles.”
Protecting and Serving the Country
For Piro, those third-level intangibles are even more important now than they were during his “60 Minutes” interview. Earlier this year (February 2021), for instance, two FBI agents were killed in the line of duty in Sunrise, FL. As head of the Miami Field Office, Piro was in front of the cameras, again taking pointed questions from the media. These are the press conferences nobody wants to have to do, but Piro does them. Always cool, always composed.
When asked if it’s a stretch to say that his composure in such tense, public situations is partly due to his training regimen, Piro says, “No, it’s not a stretch. It absolutely helps me. During these very difficult situations, during crises, there’s a lot of stress. And my ability to manage stress is critical for me to be able to lead my employees, but also to represent the FBI to the highest standards and meet the American people’s expectation of what an FBI leader is supposed to be doing. Being physically fit gives me confidence that I can handle any crisis. It instills that quiet confidence.”
The commitment and dedication to training goes beyond the three levels, and far beyond just Special Agent Piro. It legitimizes the FBI “brand,” and according to Piro, it also affects everyday Americans.
“When people hear the three letters F-B-I, we want them to get a sense of comfort and confidence,” he says. “The men and women here are very committed to the mission of the FBI, which is very simple. Our mission is to protect the American people and to defend the United States Constitution. That’s it.
“I’ve been doing this job for almost 23 years. And I can tell you that what makes the FBI the premier agency in the world is our people. It’s not anything else. We don’t have a stealth bomber, no warships, no huge satellites and incredible technology and all that. Our biggest asset that makes us so successful and so unique is our dedicated employees. The one agency that our country has historically leaned on when facing challenges has been the FBI. It’s the one agency that’s always been there to protect the United States.”