Ken M. Schiffer Jr. ’60 currently teaches high school English at the Heritage High School in Leesburg, VA. But his lengthy resume also includes almost 30 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), six years as director of counterintelligence at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and a five-year stint as an instructor at the Counterintelligence Center in Springfield, VA.
After Hotchkiss, Schiffer earned a business degree at the University of Colorado and then attended the University of Wyoming. “I was on the rodeo teams at both schools, and dreamed of joining the Pro Rodeo circuit. During the winters between 1966 and 1969, I taught high school English in Sheridan, Wyoming, while spending my summers trying to make it on the tour. But I realized that wasn’t going to happen, and I didn’t want to teach any more. Someone suggested I look at the FBI, so I applied to the Bureau in Denver and was called in for an interview.”
Three-quarters of the way into his first year, Schiffer was contacted by headquarters and asked to consider special training. “I was given a language test - it was a fake language, but because of my background in Latin it was easy for me, and I got a perfect score. I was asked to work in Chinese counterintelligence, so I was sent to language school in DC to learn Chinese. There are many Chinese dialects, including Mandarin, but I learned a country dialect closer to Cantonese. J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI at the time, was convinced that the Chinese immigrants, who had come to the U.S. to work on the Pacific Railroad, would stay and infiltrate as spies, but no one would expect an FBI agent to speak this country-Chinese dialect.”
One of Schiffer’s cases while working for the FBI in Chinese counterintelligence occurred in the late 1980s, when Larry Wu-tai Chin, a Central Intelligence Agency employee, was arrested, tried, and convicted of espionage. Schiffer was the supervisor of the investigating squad assigned to the case. “This was a real eye-opener for the intelligence community and our government. Until that point, intelligence gathering had been directed at the Russians. No one thought that the Chinese were so sophisticated. The Chinese ran this guy for 30 years, getting him citizenship and gradually inserting him into the CIA, where he became in charge of the Chinese language service. The Chinese would periodically bring him back, always through another country, to deliver information. He would also go to Canada to a phone booth to pass on information, because in those days there was no passport needed, so there was no record of travel.” Schiffer said at the time of Chin’s conviction, “It’s significant, because most espionage cases never come to trial. The goal is to prevent disclosure of sensitive or classified information. We’re not the state highway cops of counterintelligence, giving tickets to violators. It’s our job to prevent it from happening at all.”
During his time with the FBI, Schiffer also served as a member of the Bureau’s Special Weapons and Tactics team (SWAT). “I was on the Bureau’s first SWAT team in the nation’s capital. Back then, we were neophytes – we didn’t have the sophistication that the SWAT teams today have.” Schiffer also served as a hostage negotiator. “Because I had been trained in SWAT, I understood the role of negotiator, and my experience helped me to be effective in that role. In December 1982, I was one of the FBI agents working with the Federal Park Service Police and Metropolitan Police to form a negotiating team when a 66-year-old man threatened to blow up the Washington Monument. The man claimed to have 1,000 pounds of dynamite in his truck and had a single demand — that was, that the issue of banning nuclear weapons be ‘the first order of business on every agenda of every organization’ in the nation. He wanted publicity on the major television networks. The negotiating team eventually managed to convince him to release the nine people held hostage in the monument, but the investigation had determined that this ex-Marine was a demolition expert. Once he saw himself on television, he got in his van to run, and one of our snipers took him out.” Schiffer also served as an instructor in firearms and defensive tactics and interview and interrogation for the Bureau.
Schiffer’s background with the FBI led him to become Director of Counterintelligence at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1998. “At that point, I was in a managerial role with the Bureau, based in San Diego, supervising espionage and counterintelligence there, so that put me in a good position.” Most notably, Schiffer inherited a case that began in the 1980s when Dr. Wen Ho Lee was accused of passing along nuclear weapon design data to help China build smaller, more powerful nuclear warheads. Lee lost his job at Los Alamos and spent almost a year in jail, but 58 of 59 felony charges against Lee were eventually dropped.
Schiffer left Los Alamos in 2004 to become an instructor at the Counterintelligence Center in Springfield, VA. There, he shared his expertise by teaching a Chinese Intelligence course, while occasionally doing some substitute teaching at Heritage High School in Leesburg, VA. In 2009, he left the Center and became a full-time teacher at Heritage. “I was looking to reinvigorate my life. I was intrigued by the kids, their world, and all of the challenges they face today, so I got back to the classroom.
“Teaching has changed dramatically since I first taught high school English,” says Schiffer. “It’s more difficult today. You need buy-in from the kids, the parents, and the administration. You have to negotiate with kids to get them to do what you are asking them to do.” Schiffer thinks often about former Hotchkiss Master Robert Hawkins when he is in the English classroom. “He taught me how to write. I hated having to write a 300-word essay every day, but I have used the skills he taught me throughout my careers. As I have told my own kids, ‘I don’t care what you do in life – you have to know how to write, and you will be judged on this.’ Hotchkiss delivers the environment to help you succeed.”