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A CHANGE OF DUTY

Attacks shifted U.S. attorney’s focus
to anti-terrorism efforts
GREG DERR photos/The Patriot Ledger
Michael Sullivan made anti-terrorism efforts a focus as U.S. attorney.


Patriot Ledger State House Bureau

BOSTON - Before becoming the U.S. attorney in Boston, Michael J. Sullivan assumed his job would focus on domestic issues such as gun and inner-city violence, illegal drugs, white-collar crime and civil rights enforcement.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001, and the world of law enforcement turned upside down. Over the next five years, Sullivan made anti-terrorism efforts a central part of the office, including the prosecution of would-be airplane shoe bomber Richard Reid.

In his own words ...

Michael Sullivan tells how Sept. 11 significantly changed the role of the U.S. attorney.
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U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan

“The whole role of the U.S. attorneys’ offices changed significantly, as well as the whole role of law enforcement in terms of its efforts to intervene long before an event had occurred,” said Sullivan, a Republican state representative from his hometown of Abington and Plymouth County district attorney before his appointment. “There was no time to have this thing evolve. It had to be done immediately.”

Last week, Sullivan, 51, was named acting director of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He’ll continue to serve as U.S. attorney while holding down the second job on an interim basis.

While the new job will require him to get up to speed quickly, Sullivan is no stranger to learning on the job. Despite his lack of expertise when he took over as U.S. attorney, Sullivan put together a team that focuses exclusively on anti-terror efforts.

“There are extraordinary differences in U.S. attorney offices in September of 2006 and September of 1996,” he said. “Obviously, we came in in September 2001 and there was an expectation to do something significantly different.”

U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, who is also acting director of the BATFE talks about how his job changed after Sept. 11.

Sullivan sees greater cooperation among law enforcement agencies in tracking down leads on potential terror plots.

“When I came on board, we had zero resources exclusively dedicated to national security and anti-terrorism,” he said. Now, the office has a 12-person department dedicated to national security and anti-terrorism.

Domestic and foreign intelligence gatherers are quick to work together in tracking potential plots such as one recently uncovered by British authorities, Sullivan said. “That’s the significant difference between prior to September 2001 and where we are today in September 2006,” he said.

Just before Christmas 2001, Sullivan had been on a ski trip with his two sons in New Hampshire when he got a call that a flight from Paris to Miami had been diverted to Boston with a terror scare.

That’s when the so-called shoe bomber case fell into Sullivan’s jurisdiction, a case that demonstrated the planning and stealth that goes into planning a terror strike, Sullivan said.

“We learned again how organized al-Qaida is, how well-trained a number of the al-Qaida soldiers were, how sophisticated they were and how willing to essentially kill themselves as part of the mission,” he said.

Sullivan has publicly defended the U.S.A. Patriot Act as an important tool in fighting terrorism, saying the act gives federal investigators the same tools that law enforcement officials have in everyday criminal investigations. That includes allowing investigators access to public library records, he said.

U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan says he won’t rule out taking the ATF job permanently if it’s offered to him.

Other high-profile cases Sullivan has handled as U.S. attorney include prosecuting former House Speaker Thomas Finneran, a Mattapan Democrat, on perjury charges.

Sullivan denied accusations that his motivations were partisan.

“I’ve never approached the job as a prosecutor in a partisan fashion,” he said. “I appreciated I’m going to have critics, but in terms of using the office or making decisions based on partisan politics, I’d say absolutely not true.”

Sullivan also believes fugitive James “Whitey” Bulger is still alive, and that FBI and State Police investigators were initially slow to work together on the case. He said investigators now follow every lead they get in the case.

“People have lost weekends, vacations, family events, birthdays, because at the last minute they have been called out to go to some other part of the country or other part of the world, and they’ve done it without complaining at all,” Sullivan said. “These people are focused.”

Sullivan said he expects to spend most of his time in Washington for as long as he holds the ATF position, and adds that he has no idea if President Bush will nominate him as a permanent director for the duration of Bush’s term.

Sullivan’s term as U.S. attorney expires at the end of the president’s term in January 2009. He won’t say whether he’ll return to Massachusetts elective politics, but adds he’s not looking for a way to leave his home state.

“I’m a Greater Bostonian. I was born here in the city, my kids grew up in Abington, they’re invested in their community,” Sullivan said. “I’m not saying that I’m ruling out the possibility of relocating in a permanent way, but it’s not one of my first choices.”

Tom Benner may be reached at tbenner@ledger.com.