During the 23 years that followed the rip-off close call, Betro would survive half a dozen similar scrapes—even a heart-stopping near plane crash off the coast of Australia—as he rose through the ranks at the 126-year-old military law enforcement agency.
In recognition of his crime-fighting expertise and his career record, then Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter named Special Agent Betro director of the NCIS in January 2006. Said the Navy secretary, reviewing Betro’s credentials during a Pentagon press briefing: “Tom is certainly the right person for this job. He has ideas, abilities, and the respect of other law enforcement executives—along with the trust of the NCIS team and my own full support and confidence.”
Betro’s own assessment of his work is more understated. For more than two decades, he says, he’s helped “battle the bad guys” for the intelligence and crime-fighting agency that today operates out of more than 150 locations around the globe.
The battle is fought by about 2,800 personnel in 34 countries. About half are special agents. Another 500 are military, either active duty or re- serves; the remainder are civilians. NCIS works to prevent terrorist attacks, combats global espionage, and investigates military-related crimes such as murder, drug trafficking, and sex crimes. Hundreds of NCIS special agents have been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan to perform counterintelligence operations and conduct criminal investigations.
Betro—square-jawed and clear-eyed, with the air of a college ath- lete—is responsible for all of the above. And the Colby government major—the son of a former Massachusetts police chief—wouldn’t have it any other way. “This kind of work, I think it gets in your blood,” he said. “Once you experience the camaraderie, the bonds that develop between us after all those nights spent hiding in the bushes—well, I think this job gets into your DNA, that’s all.
Tom Betro ’81, director of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, at work in his office at the Washington Navy Yard. Betro rose through the NCIS ranks to head the agency’s global operations, which are carried out by more than 2,800 personnel in 34 countries.
“After the tragedy of 9/11, we take our responsibility to help protect this country very seriously ... and we’re absolutely determined to do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal.”
Born and raised in the Boston suburb of Walpole, Tom Betro (pronounced BEE-troh) is one of 11 children, and his father, Joseph Betro, worked around the clock. “My dad worked as a police patrolman when I was a kid,” Betro said, “and, as you might imagine, it was pretty difficult to make ends meet with eleven children to feed. So he had three or four other jobs going at all times, and I don’t think he ever slept.
“I have a great deal of admiration for him—and also for my amazingly hard-working mother [Carol Sullivan Betro]. And, to this day, those two are still my heroes. Nobody in our family had ever gone to college ... but my parents made it clear that they expected us to go,and that there was nothing in life more important than getting your homework done.”
A standout student and athlete in high school, Betro was amazed to discover that most Colby students were just as bright as he was. “I got a major wake-up call right at the end of the first semester,” he said, wincing, “when I learned that I’d gotten a D in Biology 101.
“Up to that point, I’d been cruising along, playing soccer and attending lots of fraternity parties and assuming that I could get by with minimal academic effort. And then all at once the reality hit me: this isn’t going to be easy—you’re gonna have to put the [study] time in.”
Betro was a star soccer player at Colby, three-time All-New England forward, and the leading scorer on a team that won the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference New England championship in 1978. “He was definitely our go-to guy up top,” said soccer coach Mark Serdjenian ’73. “He was one of the best.”
Early on Betro fell under the sway of Government Professor Sandy Maisel. “Sandy was extremely passionate about political science,” Betro said, “and I can remember many occasions when he’d invite a bunch of students to his house and we’d all sit around arguing about the ‘shadows at the back of the cave’ [from Plato’s classic political dialogue, The Republic] and concepts like that.”
Maisel recalls Betro’s “transformation,” though he was surprised to have been credited for it. “He was no longer the fair-haired boy on the soccer field but somebody who was talking about interesting things in class,” Maisel said.
Betro says Maisel and other Colby professors taught him how to think critically and write clearly. “And that really paid off at NCIS ... because, as I later discovered, knowing how to write clear, well- organized [investigative] reports was actually a crucial factor in career advancement.”