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Breaking Barriers

FBI leader works hard to stay true to values, get job done well

Carol Lee’s soft smile and quiet demeanor veil a remarkable career as one of the top law enforcement executives in the country. Lee is the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the Albuquerque Division of the FBI, the first woman to hold the position in the state, and the first Asian-American woman named to an SAC position in the country.

Lee was born in Oregon to parents who were first-generation Chinese immigrants. Her father had been a police officer in China and came to Oregon State University to study police science. Her mother was a translator for missionaries in China and was sent to Oregon to study theology. They married after college and eventually owned and operated five restaurants.

“I was very impressed with how hard my parents worked,” says Lee.

Her parents’ work ethic clearly influenced Lee. She attained a bachelor’s of arts degree in political science and international studies and a law degree, all from Willamette University in Salem, Ore. After law school, she felt “I could always practice law,” joined the FBI in 1986 as a special agent and hasn’t looked back.

First assignment

Her first assignment after FBI Academy was in Honolulu, where she worked all violations dealing with U.S. Pacific Islands like Guam and Saipan.

“The historical perspective in the Pacific Islands for the FBI was not good. Older Japanese-Americans were wary of the FBI. During World War II, it was the FBI who looked at espionage. As an Asian-American, it was disarming for some of the citizens for me to go to the investigations.”

Lee investigated crystal meth ties to Korea. “Japanese and Korean individuals first developed the chemistry for crystal meth. They gave it to kamikaze pilots in WWII when they began their missions.” During her time in Hawaii, Lee was part of the largest crystal meth seizure in the country.

Special agents go through rotations in various sized field offices and work the national security and criminal investigative sides within the bureau. National security includes terrorism, counter-intelligence and cybercrime. Criminal priorities focus on public corruption, civil rights, organized crime and white collar crimes, violent crimes and major thefts.

“One of my first challenges in Honolulu was that I was assigned to the national security side of investigations, when I really wanted to work the criminal side.”

When asked if being an Asian woman was a deciding factor in this assignment she says, “I was told that I couldn’t be successful in the criminal side, that it would be difficult for me to get sources because I was an Asian woman.”

“I think at times there’s a pre-judgment on how women and some minorities will do. I tried to stay true to my values and tried to excel in everything I’ve done.” Lee says that being in a minority has made her work harder to prove herself.

After three years, Lee finally got her wish and transferred to the criminal side, proving she was able to break into investigations where other agents were having trouble.

“People have a need to talk to anyone who will help them out, it doesn’t matter who you are, and certainly being an Asian woman wasn’t an issue as long as I was someone who could help people and their families. I didn’t find it difficult to work with any member of any race or ethnicity.”

Most importantly, “I discovered that both sides were actually very interesting and fulfilling work.”

Key to major bust

To help further her job skills, Lee immersed in language training and began to improve her Cantonese. Even though her Chinese parents spoke the language, they insisted that their children speak only English.

In 1993 Lee transferred to the San Francisco division, where she was assigned to Asian criminal enterprises and the most memorable case in her career, “Operation Bytes Dust.”

“There were Vietnameseand Chinese-American gangs involved with heroin and alien smuggling who transitioned into computer chip robberies in the late ’80s and early ’90s during the Silicon Valley boom,” Lee says. “These gangs were very well organized, almost in a paramilitary fashion. … They were so well-organized throughout the U.S. and Canada that computer chip robberies became more lucrative than heroin.”

During Bytes Dust, Lee and her team brought down more than 100 individuals as well as their main leaders. For this operation, Lee was presented with the Attorney General’s Award for Excellence in Law Enforcement.

Lee took her expertise to Washington 1999, where she was promoted to the Asian/ African Criminal Enterprise Unit at FBI headquarters, supervising national security matters. She was in D.C. during 9/11 and lost a cousin in the attacks on the World Trade Center.

“My cousin was a pastry chef at the Windows on the World restaurant in the World Trade Center. She had gone to New York City to get experience and was planning to return to San Francisco to open her own pastry shop,” Lee says.

That loss had a profound effect on Lee’s resolve to leave no stone unturned when investigating any and all threats. She became more committed to working collaboratively with other law enforcement and intelligence agencies. She crossed over to the bureau’s counter-terrorism mission, assisting in the investigation and timeline of all the downed flights during that tragedy.

Next, Lee supervised the national security side at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories in San Francisco as part of the “Agents in the Lab” program. Then, she headed to San Diego, where she was promoted to ASAC (Assistant Special Agent in Charge) working with U.S. and Mexican law enforcement to secure both sides of the border, getting a first-hand look at drug cartels and threats to the U.S.

In 2007 Lee’s was named Section Chief of the International Operations Section. Her responsibilities included oversight of the FBI’s legal attaches in 60 countries, establishing partnerships with law enforcement and counterterrorism officials as well as oversight for all personnel. Her travels took her to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India in the aftermath of the bombings in Mumbai.


Lee was appointed to SAC in the Albuquerque Field Division in 2009.

“Our number one priority is counter-terrorism, but we are also responsible for the border, two nuclear labs, as well as 22 pueblos and reservations,” she says. Her duties include responsibility and oversight for all FBI programs, investigations and personnel throughout New Mexico.

“What makes Carol Lee a particularly effective leader in New Mexico’s law enforcement community is her genuine interest in the communities she serves,” says U.S. Attorney Kenneth Gonzales. “Carol actively seeks people out, listens to them, learns about their concerns and then assesses how best the FBI can assist their communities. Under Carol’s stewardship, the FBI has improved the multiagency partnerships in New Mexico’s broader law enforcement community by making the FBI’s unique resources more available to local and state officers and collaborating with them to improve public safety in New Mexico.”

Her favorite assignment in a clearly fascinating career?

“The two best jobs in the FBI are being special agents and special agents in charge. As a field agent, you do the investigations, working with people to make a difference. As the SAC you do the same but on a larger scale, and are involved with all aspects of each investigation, helping focus resources for those investigations. The SAC position is the pinnacle of my career, but as a whole, there hasn’t been a position with the FBI that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed.”

Lee has been married for 11 years to Phil Lowell, a retired FBI special agent who worked cases in New Mexico in the late 1960s. She enjoys playing golf, listening to popular rock music and likes to travel and read about the history and culture of every place she’s visited.