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Newsmaker: Paul J. McNulty / Prosecutor at front in the war on terror

Monday, January 28, 2002

By Rachel Smolkin, Post-Gazette National Bureau

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- As a young boy in Whitehall, Paul J. McNulty could name all the U.S. presidents in 42 seconds. He had a lamp depicting a Revolutionary War patriot who looked like Paul Revere. The snug room he shared with his brother was decorated in a colonial motif -- along with his beloved Pirates and Steelers pictures.

"Within my heart was always this sense of public policy, government service, the big cause," McNulty said in an interview last week. "The big cause was the preservation of this rich heritage that was America. I was captivated by it. And I knew always that someday I would be a part of something that had to do with that mission."

Paul J. McNulty

Born: Jan. 31, 1958

Birthplace: Mercy Hospital, Pittsburgh. Grew up in Whitehall.

In the news: U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. Overseeing some of the nation's highest-profile cases, including Robert Hanssen, Zacarias Moussaoui, and John Walker Lindh. Also briefly oversaw Scott W. Tyree.

Quote: "Within my heart was always this sense of public policy, government service, the big cause. In my mind, the big cause was the preservation of this rich heritage that was America. ... I knew always that some day I would be a part of something that had to do with that mission."

Education: Baldwin High School (1976); Grove City College (1980); Capital University School of Law (1983).

Family: Wife Brenda; four children. Katy, 17, Annie, 13, Joe, 15, Corrie, 10.


But not even McNulty could foresee his own role in shaping history. On Sept. 13, the Senate confirmed him as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, making McNulty one of the primary enforcers in the nation's war against terrorism.

He is overseeing the prosecutions of Zacarias Moussaoui, the first person to face U.S. criminal charges in the Sept. 11 attacks, and of John Walker Lindh, the American accused of assisting the Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Lindh made his initial court appearance Thursday.

McNulty's "rocket docket," nicknamed for the great dispatch with which Virginia's Eastern District handles cases, includes convicted spy Robert Hanssen. Earlier this month, Scott W. Tyree, the man accused of picking up a 13-year-old girl from Crafton Heights and taking her across state lines for sex, also made an initial appearance in its court.

The Eastern District of Virginia wraps around Northern Virginia and the Pentagon and stretches south through Richmond and Norfolk. Along with Washington, D.C., and New York City, it is considered one of the plum positions for a U.S. attorney.

Since Sept. 11, the district has gained even larger national significance. The amiable 43-year-old who was once elected "class clown" at Baldwin High School will now lead about 100 lawyers through one of their most sobering and crucial periods.

"The thing that makes Paul effective is he's not one who always has to be the one speaking, and he'll find the right people," said Sen. George Allen, R-Va., who recommended McNulty for the job.

McNulty advised Allen on parole abolition in 1994 during Allen's tenure as Virginia governor.

"He'll assemble the team necessary to prosecute," Allen added. "He's someone who will explain to the public, and indeed to the world, how our process will go forward."

McNulty is accustomed to high-profile, high-pressure situations. He was chief counsel to the House subcommittee on crime during hearings into the disastrous 1993 federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas.

And he served as chief counsel and spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Republicans during impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton.

During a nighttime jog on Washington's National Mall, McNulty conceived then-House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde's opening statement for the Senate trial. McNulty contemplated the oath that the 100 senators would take at the trial's outset, the oath of office that the president took to uphold the Constitution and the oath that Clinton took when he testified.

McNulty realized that the concept of the oath unified his thoughts.

"The oath," Hyde, R-Ill., would say later on the Senate floor. "In many ways the case you will consider in the coming days is about those two words: 'I do.'"

McNulty later served as chief counsel to House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas. McNulty returned to the Justice Department, where he served as chief spokesman under President George H.W. Bush. A year ago, McNulty headed the younger Bush's transition team and prepared Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft for his Senate confirmation hearings.

Knowing that Ashcroft's hearings would be contentious, McNulty assembled top GOP lawyers to brainstorm questions that the former Missouri senator would face. By the time the hearing began, McNulty had prepared a weighty briefing book with appropriate answers.

As Democrats grilled Ashcroft about his support for civil rights, McNulty sat just behind his elbow, straining forward as he balanced the book on his lap.

"I had a backache for a week," he recalled, his blue eyes crinkling with boyish amusement.

McNulty has more than 16 years of federal government experience, but none as a prosecutor. He speaks earnestly about his four priorities -- vanquishing terrorism, gun violence, drug trafficking and cyber-crime -- and about the importance of energizing and supporting his staff.

He has set a goal of meeting with every police chief in the Eastern District and recently launched a cyber-crime unit to specialize in computer and intellectual property crimes and to prevent cyber-terrorism.

"You want to serve your country at a time like this, and so it satisfies that deep desire to be making a difference, perhaps, at a time when America needs everybody to try and make a difference," he said in his Alexandria, Va., office, which is at least three times the size of his boyhood bedroom.

Family photos adorn his office, and, despite the intensity of his job, McNulty cherishes the time he spends with his family at night and on weekends. He met his wife, Brenda, at Grove City College; they have three daughters and a son, ages 10 through 17.

The McNulty family lives in Fairfax Station, a comely Northern Virginia suburb, and counts Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as a neighbor.

McNulty is teaching his children U.S. history through chronological travel, taking them to Jamestown and to Revolutionary War battlefields before starting on the Civil War. Now, he is conscious of his own historical place.

"My own self-consciousness is not so much making history; I don't feel comfortable thinking of myself in those terms," he said. "I view people who make history as being much more than what I am. So I look at the idea that I've got the privilege of going along for the ride."

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