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FBI's DC head says he's ready for next career move

Thursday - 10/25/2012, 2:17am  ET

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - Amine El Khalifi made for a tricky target even though federal agents had him in their sights for months. Sometimes his havoc-wreaking plans were grandiose _ such as wanting to detonate a Virginia building containing military offices _ but there was also concern over lower-tech plots like walking into a location and shooting it up.

His final plan, to blow himself up inside the U.S. Capitol, led to his February arrest in an FBI operation after a man he thought was an al-Qaida associate handed him explosives and a gun that were rendered inoperable.

"He kind of jumped from plan to plan," requiring constant surveillance and vigilance, recalled James W. McJunkin, the departing head of the FBI's Washington field office.

McJunkin says the case, which concluded last month with El Khalifi's sentencing, sticks out as among the most memorable in the two years he has led the office.

But it was standard fare for a supervisor who, over a quarter-century with the bureau, helped run investigations into some of the most significant terrorist activity in the last five years.

He worked on cases including a foiled plot to blow up the New York City subway system and deadly coordinated shootings in the Indian city of Mumbai.

He was called in after a failed car bombing in Times Square in 2010, and he skipped a family dinner after an underwear bomb nearly brought down a Detroit- bound airliner on Christmas Day in 2009.

McJunkin, 51, is retiring next month after about 25 years with the bureau for a corporate security position at a financial services firm in Chicago.

He takes with him an expertise in counterterrorism and his departure follows that of several other key FBI officials, including the head of the New York office. There's been turnover, too, in the field office, with new leaders recently selected for the criminal and counterterrorism sections.

Still, he downplayed the brain drain effect his retirement would have on the agency.

He also leaves behind an aggressive, detail-oriented management style for which he makes no apologies.

"In this business, when bad things happen, people die," McJunkin said matter-of-factly in an interview with The Associated Press ahead of his retirement.

The career he's giving up surpasses what he imagined for himself when he entered law enforcement as a Pennsylvania state trooper.

He joined the FBI as a special agent in 1987, working initially in San Antonio and later Atlanta before rising up the ranks as he carved out a counterterrorism expertise following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He supervised the FBI's counterterrorism division before becoming the field office's assistant director in charge in 2010.

Part of that work has involved building inroads in the Muslim community, repairing a relationship often fraught with suspicion. He said he knew it wasn't enough to attend annual events and has instead tried to schedule regular meetings with Muslim leaders.

His agents also have made headlines in the last year and a half investigating local government corruption.

Two former D.C. Council members have already been convicted along with several ex-campaign aides to Mayor Vincent Gray. An investigation into the mayor's campaign is continuing. McJunkin wouldn't discuss the investigations or where they'll end up.

He said he and U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen have made fighting government corruption a priority. He encouraged the public to be patient about corruption investigations because they're complicated and time-intensive, and he said while there were many honorable and decent people serving in local government, an insidious reality of government graft is the way it unfairly taints innocent people.

The FBI has not named a replacement for McJunkin, though he says there's no guarantee that it'll be someone with the same leadership style _ which he describes as a dedicated, committed approach that sometimes involve a boot-in-the- rear to get low performers into gear.

He's not above raising his voice to get his point across, and he confesses to upbraiding rank-and-file agents for seemingly small foibles like failing to get timely oil changes in their bureau-issued vehicles.

"I expect perfection. We may not make it every time. I expect the effort."

McJunkin initially said he was retiring with no regrets. Upon further reflection, he said he was disappointed to not have located and returned home Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who vanished in Iran five years ago. FBI Director Robert Mueller announced a $1 million reward in March for information leading to his return, and McJunkin said the FBI would continue working to make that happen.

Still, he said he was proud to have served the FBI in the positions he has. And he's confident he chose the right time to retire.

"I think I've ridden just as high in the atmosphere as I possibly could," he said.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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