Step­ping out of the ring

Mary B. McCord, who over­saw high-pro­file Rus­sia and Beng­hazi probes in a Jus­tice Depart­ment ca­reer span­ning two decades, is ready to move on

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY ELLEN NAKASHIMA ellen.nakashima@wash­post.com

At the end of Jan­uary, Mary B. McCord had a ring­side seat to his­tory.

It was she, as a ca­reer at­tor­ney over­see­ing the high-pro­file Jus­tice Depart­ment probe into po­ten­tial col­lu­sion be­tween as­so­ci­ates of Pres­i­dent Trump and the Krem­lin, who ac­com­pa­nied the act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral, Sally Yates, to the White House to warn the pres­i­dent’s lawyer that the na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser was at risk of be­ing black­mailed, ac­cord­ing to an in­di­vid­ual fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter.

Yates said she thought “it was im­por­tant” to bring a ca­reer na­tional se­cu­rity pro­fes­sional. Af­ter all, McCord “had been the one who was most in­ti­mately fa­mil­iar” with the facts, said Yates, who did not name the at­tor­ney in con­gres­sional tes­ti­mony. Nor would McCord in an in­ter­view con­firm or com­ment on the visit.

McCord, who spent the past seven months as act­ing head of the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Divi­sion (NSD), two weeks ago re­turned to her for­mer job as prin­ci­pal deputy as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral. And on Fri­day, she is re­sign­ing af­ter more than two decades with the Jus­tice Depart­ment to work in academia.

McCord, who said she was not in­ter­ested in staying on as a po­lit­i­cal ap­pointee, said she’s con­fi­dent that the wide-rang­ing Rus­sia probe, which be­gan in July, will be in good hands with the ca­reer at­tor­neys and the FBI spe­cial agents who have deep ex­pe­ri­ence in coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence work.

McCord also had no com­ment on Pres­i­dent Trump’s fir­ing last week of FBI Direc­tor James B. Comey.

She said, how­ever, that she was not leav­ing out of frus­tra­tion or in­com­pat­i­bil­ity with the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion. “If I waited for a par­tic­u­lar in­ves­ti­ga­tion to fin­ish, there would ab­so­lutely never be a time to leave,” she said.

McCord would not com­ment on the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion, but she said it was im­por­tant for the gov­ern­ment to publicize the fact that Rus­sia had in­ter­fered in the 2016 elec­tion. “There’s value to call­ing out: We know what you’re do­ing,” she said. “We know why you’re do­ing it.”

That sort of trans­parency is key to in­oc­u­lat­ing the pub­lic against ef­forts to un­der­mine the demo­cratic process, she said. “Hope­fully the vot­ers, whether they’re here, or in France, or in Ger­many, wher­ever Rus­sia tries to med­dle, will un­der­stand that,” she said.

McCord took over as act­ing as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral for na­tional se­cu­rity when John Car­lin left the depart­ment in Oc­to­ber to take a job in the pri­vate sec­tor.

“Mary is a re­ally good lawyer,” said Car­lin, who re­cruited McCord into the NSD in 2014 from the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in the District of Columbia. “She was an ap­pel­late spe­cial­ist and has an in­cred­i­ble de­vo­tion to law, and gen­uinely loves learn­ing and tack­ling hard le­gal is­sues through­out her ca­reer.”

One of McCord’s en­dur­ing memories dates to Septem­ber 2012, when the Is­lamist mil­i­tant group An­sar al-Sharia at­tacked U.S. com­pounds in Beng­hazi, Libya. U.S. Ambassador J. Christo­pher Stevens and three other Amer­i­cans died in the as­sault. Then-At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric H. Holder Jr. im­me­di­ately as­signed the case to her of­fice, and she was on the phone brief­ing him the weekend af­ter it hap­pened on what in­ves­ti­ga­tors had learned in the first three days.

The na­tional se­cu­rity team at her of­fice, coun­tert­er­ror­ism prosecutors at the NSD and FBI agents in New York worked to­gether to in­ves­ti­gate the at­tack. In Au­gust 2013, prosecutors filed charges against the group’s leader, Ahmed Abu Khat­tala. In June 2014, as McCord was moving to the na­tional se­cu­rity divi­sion, the FBI, Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions forces and the Jus­tice Depart­ment were plan­ning a cap­ture op­er­a­tion. “I was with the at­tor­ney gen­eral when the [se­nior of­fi­cials] de­cided to go for it,” she re­called. “That night it was set to hap­pen, I re­mem­ber all night, just waiting for word — be­cause the worst thing that could have hap­pened in my mind was to lose an Amer­i­can life.

“When we heard in real time it was suc­cess­ful and no one was hurt,” there was ela­tion, she said.

Abu Khat­tala is set to stand trial in Septem­ber in U.S. District Court in Wash­ing­ton. Though McCord will no longer be with the depart­ment, she is “hope­ful that we’ll bring him to jus­tice and he’ll never see the light of day.” She added, “I feel very con­fi­dent we’ll con­vict him.”

McCord’s work ethic is le­gendary. “We used to beg her to take care of her­self,” re­called Car­lin. “She nearly lost vi­sion in one eye be­cause she needed to get it treated” and de­layed do­ing so be­cause she was work­ing so hard read­ing le­gal briefs. She even­tu­ally got surgery to re­pair a de­tached retina. She also reg­u­larly took con­fer­ence calls in park­ing lots af­ter shut­tling her teenagers to weekend travel soc­cer games.

She cred­its her hus­band, Shel­don “Shelly” Snook, with car­ry­ing the load. He’s also a lawyer and a for­mer long­time ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant for the U.S. District Court. He is now spe­cial as­sis­tant to the coun­selor for the chief jus­tice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

“There are days I go home frus­trated or in a hor­ri­ble mood, and he’s borne the brunt of that,” she said. “Not once has he com­plained.”

Ken­neth Wain­stein, the first NSD head, who made McCord his deputy chief in the sex of­fense and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence sec­tion when he was the U.S. at­tor­ney for the District of Columbia, said McCord was al­ways “a stand­out pros­e­cu­tor.”

While at the helm of the NSD, she over­saw the in­dict­ments of four al­leged Rus­sian hackers who plun­dered Ya­hoo email ac­counts, and the guilty plea by ZTE Corp., a ma­jor Chi­nese state-owned tele­com, for sell­ing equip­ment con­tain­ing items of U.S. ori­gin to Iran in vi­o­la­tion of sanc­tions. ZTE’s to­tal set­tle­ment, with the Com­merce, Trea­sury and Jus­tice de­part­ments, neared $1 bil­lion and in­cluded the largest crim­i­nal fine for a sanc­tions vi­o­la­tion case.

But af­ter 25 years in gov­ern­ment, she’s ready to move on.

“For me, it’s a nat­u­ral time now to get back to what I re­ally like to spend time do­ing.” That means “dig­ging deep” into le­gal is­sues and be­ing with her hus­band and three chil­dren. Her next ca­reer move, she said, will af­ford her time to do both.

“If I waited for a par­tic­u­lar in­ves­ti­ga­tion to fin­ish, there would ab­so­lutely never be a time to leave.” Mary B. McCord, act­ing head of the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Divi­sion

MICHAEL S. WIL­LIAMSON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Mary B. McCord, prin­ci­pal deputy as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral, poses for a por­trait in the Jus­tice Depart­ment build­ing’s court­yard. As head of the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Divi­sion, she over­saw the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of pos­si­ble col­lu­sion be­tween the Trump cam­paign and Rus­sia.

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