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FBI’s James McJunkin, head of Washington Field Office, ‘leads by example’

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The FBI agents scoured the charred lavatory of the commercial jet but couldn’t find the lighter or matches that ignited the suspicious in-flight fire. There was only one more place to look: the toilet’s discharge tank.

Normally, such dirty duty would go to a rookie. But agent James W. McJunkin, a supervisor, stepped forward and volunteered to collect the fluid in a large bin as it drained from the fuselage. Within minutes, his dress shirt had been ruined by the disgusting blue liquid.

That resulted in months of ribbing by fellow agents. But colleagues say the 2003 anecdote reveals something deeper. “Jim leads by example,” said E. Reid Roe, an agent and friend of McJunkin’s. “He’s a no-nonsense guy. He’s an agent’s agent. If you could picture an agent today wearing a fedora, that would be Jim.”

And, agents say, that’s exactly what the bureau’s Washington Field Office needed when McJunkin was tapped as its leader in November. Although it is one of the FBI’s most important outposts, WFO (as it’s known by agents) has churned through leaders in recent months. McJunkin is its third assistant director in charge (fourth if you include an acting head) since December 2009.

The job is one of the bureau’s most demanding assignments because the field office’s 850 agents are dispatched across the globe to investigate cases ranging from fraud to terrorism. They handle sensitive public-corruption probes and are tasked with disrupting planned terrorist attacks against some of the nation’s most tempting targets.

Strangely, McJunkin said his current assignment might be less stressful than his past few — as one of the bureau’s top counterterrorism agents. In recent years, he has helped supervise dozens of high-profile counterterrorism cases. At work by 6 a.m., he rarely returned home before 10 p.m. Knee-deep in some of the government’s most sensitive intelligence, he slept with his FBI-issued BlackBerry buzzing by his nightstand — always worried that the next rattle or chirp might signal something terrible.

“It was an intense and challenging job,” McJunkin said.

In his new role at WFO, he has only begun to leave an imprint. Each day, he arrives by 7 a.m. and spends his first hour reading threat assessments before attending meetings with his top lieutenants about cases and intelligence updates. Then there are follow-up meetings.

Supervisors and agents say McJunkin asks penetrating questions about a variety of cases, reflecting his background as a former Pennsylvania state trooper, criminal investigator, SWAT team sniper and counterterrorism specialist. Weeks after a briefing, he is known to track down agents to ask a question or provide advice. He had a scanner installed in his office so he could monitor secure FBI radio chatter.

Although some agents worry that he might become mired in details, others say the blunt-talking McJunkin presses them to think a step ahead of criminals and potential terrorists.

“To say he is ‘hands-on’ is an understatement,” said Ronald T. Hosko, special agent in charge of the field office’s criminal division. “He’s not throwing out random questions like, ‘Where are we on that?’ He has inputs. He has ideas.”

In the past few months, McJunkin has worked to cultivate relationships with community members and local police. On a recent Sunday during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, he attended an interfaith session at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, a Loudoun County mosque. One of a dozen or so officials and politicians who came to discuss a range of issues, McJunkin didn’t just wave the FBI flag. He had fasted for a day — “in honor of your faith,” he told a room full of worshipers.

D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, who got along well with McJunkin’s predecessors, said she enjoys working with McJunkin. “There is no ego there,” she said. “Jimmy is just a very knowledgeable guy. You trust his instincts.”

Perhaps Lanier can see flashes of the former police officer in her FBI counterpart.

McJunkin, the son of a Pennsylvania dairy farmer, dreamed of becoming a state trooper. As a 6-year-old, he often rode his bicycle to the end of his street to watch troopers catch speeders.

Later, he had a job washing state police cruisers at a gas station his father managed.

“As a kid, state troopers were heroes to me — larger-than-life heroes,” he said.

McJunkin graduated from Penn State with a bachelor’s degree in the administration of justice. A rabid Penn State football fan, he took his wife to a game as part of their honeymoon. (They live in Northern Virginia and have three sons).

After college, he joined the Pennsylvania State Police, and his assignments ranged from patrol to criminal investigations. A few years later, however, he needed a new challenge. In 1987, after a friend asked him to be a reference for an FBI background check, McJunkin applied on a whim to become an agent.

“It’s probably the only time in my life that I did something without thinking about it for a long time,” he said. “I remember telling my wife, ‘If he could do it, why not me?’ ”

He was assigned to the San Antonio office, where he became a member of the office’s SWAT team, and he was stationed on the perimeter of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex., during the bloody standoff in 1993. He also handled public-corruption investigations and spearheaded a police corruption probe, earning the respect of his supervisors.

Next he was sent to a resident agency office in northwest Georgia, where he supervised agents who conducted typical bureau investigations, into such crimes as kidnapping, bank robbery and fraud.

When terrorists struck the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, agent Robert Meadows recalls, he was standing next to McJunkin in the Georgia office as they watched the attacks and the immediate aftermath unfold on television. Although in shock, McJunkin quickly realized that the old way of doing business was over. He focused his agents on finding connections to the attacks. To better understand the nuances of Islam, he enlisted the help of a local university professor, who lectured to agents and other police officers, Meadows said.

Then came a series of 16-hour-day postings at FBI headquarters, the CIA and the bureau’s Washington Field Office. The jobs were so intense that McJunkin cut back on one of his passions: coaching football. As a high school student, a knee injury prevented him from playing on the varsity team, but as an agent and a father, he has tried to find time to coach youth teams.

Even in this pursuit, McJunkin was not content to run his 7-to-13-year-old players through drills. He spent his weekends scouting and videotaping opposing teams.

“I wanted to be able to put together a game plan that maximized our strengths and limited our weaknesses,” he said.

© The Washington Post Company