Tom Betro '81 directs agency that fights crime, from drug trafficking to terrorism

By Tom Nugent | Photos by Sean McCormick


Just a year after receiving his Colby A.B. in 1981, Betro launched his career as a special agent at the Navy’s famed criminal investigative branch and spent the next two decades working on a variety of cloak-and-dagger assignments, often having to immerse himself in dangerous situations. He was kidnapped in Pakistan during a botched undercover drug operation and held by a knife-wielding assailant before escaping. Betro survived another drug deal gone bad by signaling to police as he rode in the back of a taxi, sandwiched between two dealers and a bag full of hashish bricks.

NCIS Director Tom Betro ’81 crosses the grounds of the Washington Navy Yard en route to his office.
NCIS Director Tom Betro ’81 crosses the grounds of the Washington Navy Yard en route to his office.

But his most terrifying moment took place off the coast of Australia in 1986, when the Navy C-2 cargo plane in which Betro was a passenger lost part of a propeller, sending the plane into a steep nosedive. “I saw my mother’s face,” Betro said, “and she was crying and asking: ‘What were you doing way out there in the middle of the Indian Ocean?’” The plane limped back to Australia on its remaining engine for an emergency landing.

Not all of the highlights of his career have involved drug dealers and maydays. He did two tours as an NCIS “special agent afloat” on the aircraft carriers USS John F. Kennedy and USS Enterprise. Along the way he earned a master of arts degree and won the James Forrestal Award for Excellence in Strategy and Force Planning from the Naval War College.

After stints as assistant director of counterintelligence and deputy director for operations, he was selected to become the director of the Navy’s primary investigative service.

In recent years, partly as a result of Betro’s leadership, NCIS has made headlines investigating the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole guided missile destroyer in Yemen, for uncovering millions of dollars worth of fraud against the federal government, and for solving 50 homicide cases with its renowned cold case unit.

a director’s chair given  to Betro by the producers of NCIS
A director’s chair given to Betro by the producers of NCIS, the popular television drama based on the real-life agency. The show’s writers and producers have consulted with Betro as they create weekly episodes. Betro filmed a skit with the cast.

Betro may not be married to his job, but he is married to NCIS Special Agent Erin Betro. The Betros have two children, Courtney, 15, and Tyler, 10. But the couple is careful not to bring their professional roles home, Director Betro said. “For one thing, it’s always clear who the boss is—she is,” he said. “And it’s also true that we’re both so tired from work by the time we get home that the last thing we want to talk about is what went on at the office.”

After 25 years on the job, Betro says success in his NCIS career has required a strong work ethic, attention to detail, perseverance, and patience. He’s also learned how to remain flexible and openminded and is willing to look continually at new ways of accomplishing NCIS’s mission. Colleagues also say his personality is well suited for this kind of work. “Tom Betro is pretty easygoing, pretty down to earth,” said NCIS Special Agent Frederick E. Barnes, “and he’s also got a terrific sense of humor. He’s extremely serious about meeting his responsibilities as director, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously, and I think that’s a real asset when it comes to managing people effectively.”

But there is one frequently asked question about which Betro does not joke: Can we prevent the next 9/11 from happening? “I do think we’re much better prepared now than we were back in 2001,” he said. “On the other hand, I also think we need to remember that we’re dealing with an adversary that’s very agile, very smart, and isn’t constrained by public policy the way we are. The terrorists are formidable, and they are going to remain formidable in the years up ahead.

“But you can also be sure that we’re going to do everything we possibly can to stop them.”

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