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FBI field chief wants 'transparency'

Shawn Henry has a favorite word that one might not expect from the head of the FBI's Washington field office -- "transparency." Just four months into his post as assistant director in charge, Henry says he's already working hard to make the agency more accessible.

He's visited schools, showed up at several of the bureau's Citizens' Academy classes, met with community groups and attended a memorial for fallen local police officers.

But among his larger aims is to partner more with the private sector. The FBI is sharing information with businesses that previously would have been off-limits — even in the midst of criminal investigations — to make sure they're equipped against cyberterrorism and other threats.

“I want to walk up to the line,” the 48-year-old Henry said during a recent interview at his office. “I want to give you as much as I can so that you understand what it is that we do.”

The inevitable caveat, of course, is what Henry calls maintaining the cloak of secrecy. With the District of Columbia remaining a top target for terrorism and foreign intelligence agencies, and a central site of public corruption, there's a lot he won't reveal.

As a whole, however, the FBI has evolved over the past five years from a “need-to-know” to a “need-to-share” agency, Henry said.

For instance, under his recent tenure overseeing the FBI's cyber division, he said the agency shared information with banks and financial services about a software vulnerability that organized crime groups used to steal millions of dollars. Banks and financial services were then able to prevent attacks.

It would have been kept hidden in the past, he said.

Just this week, his office reached out to a private sector entity, though he can't say about what. But examples include his office talking with retailers, manufacturers, defense contractors and utility companies about threats specific to their industries, he said. That could mean sharing information even during an ongoing investigation — an unusual move for the agency, he said.

Before, FBI officials may have bristled at sharing that information because it could ruin their chances of convicting their suspects later on.

“And what I've said is we have an obligation and a responsibility to share the information so people can protect themselves,” Henry said.

The New York native is on familiar turf. He first joined the agency in 1989 at the D.C. field office as a special agent focusing on public corruption and serving on the SWAT team. He also has worked in the Baltimore and Philadelphia field offices, and held several positions at FBI headquarters, including overseeing audits of the agency's operations across the country and heading the cyber division.

Now, Henry directs about 900 agents and 900 professional staff at facilities in Washington and Manassas, Va., for the FBI's second-largest field office after New York.

Situated in the nation's capital, his office has been at the center of countless landmark cases.

In the 1970s, agents investigated bombings by the Weather Underground movement in Washington and the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon's resignation. The office also handled the case of John Hinckley, who tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.

In addition, the office has tackled major espionage cases as well as local crime and corruption issues. For instance, it led the 1990 sting that videotaped former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry smoking crack cocaine, assisted in the D.C. sniper investigation and the case of Harriette Walters, a D.C. tax office manager who pleaded guilty in 2008 to embezzling nearly $50 million.

More recently under Henry, the office has been involved in several high-profile cases, such as five young Muslim men from the D.C. area who were convicted Thursday on terror charges by a Pakistani court. His agents investigating how financial bailout funds are being used also headed a case that resulted in the indictment last week of Lee Bentley Farkas, a mortgage company executive, and others accused of scheming to steal more than half a billion dollars.

In the past few months, his agency opened a cross-border task force office in suburban Maryland with FBI agents from Washington and Baltimore working with local police on gangs, violent neighborhood crews and other crime.

For all of its reach, Henry said the FBI can't do it alone. His transparency approach with community outreach is twofold: gain the public's trust and show people they can play a role in thwarting threats.

“I think sometimes we overprotect and I think that by doing that there's a sense of mistrust,” he said.

Nizam Ali, co-owner of the historic diner Ben's Chili Bowl, met Henry at the field office's informational citizen course this spring. To his surprise, Ali said Henry was “extremely warm and friendly.”

“I think it's a great message and a great goal of the FBI to be more transparent and I think that really helps with public perception,” Ali said. “He'd be a great guy to invite to your home for a cookout,” he said of Henry, a burly man with a serious brow who occasionally flashes a smile or quips about his bald head.

Although some might be skeptical about how much transparency an FBI head can offer, Henry said he likes the word. Without breaching delicate protocols or giving away state secrets, he said he finds there's still room for openness.

“I want to be able to pull back the curtain — come on in, here's what we're doing,” he said.

-- Associated Press

By Washington Post Editors  |  June 25, 2010; 2:04 PM ET
Categories:  The Region  
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