As criminal borders fade, U.S. attorney brings world into Virginia’s Eastern District

On Friday morning inside an Alexandria courtroom, a former high-ranking Colombian general who headed the country’s anti-terrorist force was sentenced to 13 years in prison for taking bribes to help a deadly drug trafficking organization.

Mauricio Santoyo Velasco, 53, a retired general with the Colombian National Police, asked for forgiveness in Spanish and pleaded guilty to giving information to the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), a terrorist and drug trafficking organization, about criminal investigations by Colombian, British and U.S. law enforcement authorities. The AUC was responsible for hundreds of assassinations and kidnappings, funded with the proceeds of cocaine trafficking.

(Steve Helber/AP) - U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride has helped his office become among the highest-profile in the country.

“Former general Santoyo took bribes from terrorists — plain and simple,” Neil H. MacBride, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said after the sentencing. “The quid pro quo here was money for information — and for terrorists, information is power.”

A 10-story federal courthouse a few blocks from Alexandria’s historic Old Town district seems an unlikely spot for the case of a Colombian general who helped narco-terrorists in South America.

But since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the federal prosecutor’s office in Alexandria has become a hub for some of the highest-profile terrorism and national security cases in the country, from WikiLeaks and Somali pirates to the conviction of former CIA officer John Kiriakou. MacBride’s prosecutors are currently working on cases that reach into more than 60 countries on six continents.

Among the 94 U.S. attorney’s offices across the country, law enforcement officials say that the Alexandria office, with its 130 prosecutors, has raised its profile to the point where it rivals the Southern District of New York, which is famous for its financial fraud and terrorism cases.

“Virginia is home to the Pentagon, CIA and the world’s largest naval base,” MacBride said in an interview. “All that, plus our proximity to the nation’s capital, means we’re a national security bull’s-eye.”

MacBride, 47, a University of Virginia law school graduate, has been U.S. attorney since 2009 and oversees a district that sprawls across one-third of the state and contains more than 6 million people. He arrived in his current job after prosecuting murder and drug cases as an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington and working for Vice President Biden when he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and drugs.

When Eric H. Holder Jr. was appointed attorney general in 2009, he hired MacBride to be associate deputy attorney general and then promoted him to U.S. attorney, commending his “characteristic intelligence, diligence, humility and integrity.”

More recently, Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer praised MacBride’s judgment and called him an “exceptional U.S. attorney.”

MacBride’s office has used several characteristics of the Eastern District of Virginia to expand its jurisdiction to a wide variety of cases. One factor is geography. Northern Virginia is home to airports that cater to international travelers, particularly Dulles International. The CIA is based in Langley, and the Pentagon is just a few miles from MacBride’s courthouse.

Two years ago, MacBride’s prosecutors won the first piracy conviction in the United States since 1820 when five Somali pirates were found guilty of attacking the USS Nicholas off the Horn of Africa in 2010. The USS Nicholas was based in Norfolk.

But even when there isn’t such an obvious tie to the naval base, MacBride said the office uses a statute that allows it to prosecute suspected terrorists who are flown into Norfolk on military aircraft.

MacBride is also leading the prosecution of Megaupload, which was one of the Web’s most popular file-sharing sites. It was shut down by federal authorities in January on charges that it engaged in a different kind of piracy — illegally sharing movies, television shows and e-books.

Megaupload is based in Hong Kong, and several of the defendants live in New Zealand, including owner Kim Dotcom. But MacBride said he was able to indict one of the department’s largest criminal copyright cases because the company leased server space from an Internet service provider in Northern Virginia.

Proximity to the CIA means high-profile cases involving leaks of classified information to reporters are also prosecuted by MacBride. He charged former CIA employee Jeffrey Sterling under the Espionage Act for revealing government secrets to a New York Times reporter. In a separate case, Kiriakou pleaded guilty in October to violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by telling an ABC News reporter the name of a covert CIA officer involved in the interrogation of detainees abroad.

Federal prosecutors working for MacBride are also handling a critical aspect of the biggest leak case in U.S. history. The investigation is focused on whether the anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, violated U.S. laws in posting hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic cables on the group’s Web site and sharing them with mainstream news organizations.

Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is charged with leaking the documents and he faces a military trial. Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London since June, but if he is ever charged in this country, it would happen in Alexandria.

Another factor that draws cases to Alexandria’s courthouse is that trials move fast there. The court is known as the “rocket docket” because its judges follow procedural rules that move cases through much more quickly than other courts, said MacBride, who clerked in the district as a young lawyer.

Some of the highest-profile cases of homegrown extremists have landed on the rocket docket. A Virginia man, Amine El-Khalifi, was sentenced in September to 30 years for plotting to carry out a suicide bombing on the U.S. Capitol; Yonathan Melaku, a former Marine Corps reservist, admitted to shooting at the Pentagon two years ago; and Farooque Ahmed, a Pakistani-born Virginian. admitted plotting to blow up Metro stations.

After the sentencing of Gen. Santoyo, his defense lawyers walked out to a phalanx of television cameras and Spanish-speaking reporters who were eager to hear the fate of a man who was once one of Colombia’s highest-ranking law enforcement officials.

“Criminals today aren’t confined by borders, and neither are we,” MacBride said. “A criminal organization is as much a threat to us from across the ocean as it is across the street. That’s why we made the strategic decision to go after networks and their leadership wherever they are found.”

 
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