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Special Agent
His Feet in Two Worlds, an FBI Man Climbs to the Top

Sari Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 24, 2006

Mike Mason was closing the deal when the police moved in.

Inside a black Pontiac Firebird parked at a mall, he was buying a kilo of cocaine. Suddenly he saw flashing blue lights and grabbed the door handle.

It was too late. Police officers and federal agents were on him.

"Freeze! You're under arrest!" they yelled, their guns pointed, as he was pulled from the car. Then he and the dealer were on the ground, their hands being cuffed behind their backs.

But Mason wasn't really under arrest. Tall and lean and dressed in scruffy jeans, he was an undercover FBI agent with a wire under his T-shirt.

As he lay on the cold pavement, Mason saw a crowd of white shoppers gathering and staring at him. He knew what they were thinking.

Just another lowlife black guy dealing drugs. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

"God, did I hate that," Mason recalled.

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, he had known guys like the one he was pretending to be, but he had avoided them. He was the Boy Scout who never used drugs or smoked, the kid who worked his way through Catholic school and college, who had gone on to command a platoon in the Marines.

"I wanted to stand up and tell everybody, 'Yes, I'm a black man,' " he said. "But I'm an FBI agent. I was in the Marines. I'm a college graduate.

"People were looking at me like I was dirt. Like I was trash."

And there it was. For his entire life, Mason had been determined to not be defined by race. But race was a formidable foe. Even though he knew the arrest was fake and he probably would never see the onlookers again, the feelings had cornered him there on the ground -- and they cut deep.

* * *

Twenty years later, Mason is sitting in his office at FBI headquarters recounting the story. At 49 he is one of the nation's highest-ranking black G-men. As the executive assistant director responsible for all of the FBI's criminal investigations, from gang murders to public corruption, he oversees a $150 million budget and half the bureau's operational resources -- 6,500 people in Washington and 56 field offices across the country. He also is responsible for the FBI's cyber investigations, its fleet of more than 100 aircraft, the elite hostage-rescue team and the 59 FBI offices overseas.

FBI Director Robert Mueller last summer tapped Mason and another African American, Willie Hulon, for the bureau's two top jobs responsible for all counterterrorism, national security and criminal operations. Two black men, in charge, at the highest level of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The history-making appointments are not something Mueller dwells on. "They were the two best qualified," he said in a recent interview. "They were the obvious choice."

They are also a symbol of progress, of how far the bureau has come from J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, when agents hounded Martin Luther King Jr., ignored civil rights violations, set up the program COINTELPRO to monitor and sabotage national dissent, and made the minorities who joined the agency targets of bias and derision.

Mason knows this. And he knows this, too: For some black people, the trappings of his life mark him as suspicious, a black man who has risen to the pinnacle of a criminal justice system that has the world's largest prison population, with black men the largest racial group incarcerated. He helps lead an agency accused by some of racial profiling and one that's been successfully sued by its own black agents for discrimination.

But he's giving himself, body and soul, to the bureau, where he's at the top of his game. He even married FBI, an agent he met in his early days at Quantico. They've been married for 19 years, have two sons and consider themselves soul mates.

Everybody, it would seem, loves Mike Mason. He's punched all the right tickets on the way up. He's praised for his down-to-earth management style and his passion. And if you want someone to rally the troops, no one can do it like Mason, who can turn an FBI conference into something of a law-enforcement tent revival.

"I wanted to do this since the time I was in seventh grade," he said at a recent minority-recruitment event. "And I can tell you that my career has been better than anything I ever dreamed about. I feel like the guy who gets to walk out in the World Series tonight and pitch the fourth game. That's how I feel most days when I come to work."

Does he worry about the number of imprisoned black men? Yes, but he also worries about the number who resort to crime. He's had no problems putting them behind bars, including serving on the team that investigated former D.C. mayor Marion Barry. But he has also reached out to imprisoned and broken men. In his early days in the bureau he gave motivational speeches to prisoners.

So just how does the black son of a Chicago truck driver get to a spacious office in the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, with a spectacular view of the Justice Department?

The Daily Drill

Mason's day starts at 3 a.m. when he slips on a pair of blue sweat pants and drives in the dark from his Centreville cul-de-sac to the gym at FBI headquarters. He arrives at 4:20 and begins his workout: 25 minutes lifting weights and doing sit-ups, 35 minutes on the treadmill, and then shooting hoops. His rule is that he must hit a layup, a free throw and a three-pointer -- consecutively -- before he's done. Sometimes he does it in three shots. Other times, in 50. Every time, though, it has to be done.

By 6 a.m. he's at his desk, dressed in his dark suit and shoes that he shines each night before bed. His grandmother told him long ago that a man is judged first by his shoes. So he polishes and polishes.

Discipline. This is the first tool in Michael Mason's toolbox.

Files marked "top-secret" sit on his desk. A small replica of a Buffalo Soldier keeps guard nearby, and a photo of Jackie Robinson hangs on the wall.

What's one of the first orders of business for the nation's fourth-ranking FBI official before his daily, confidential meeting with the FBI director? Sending one or two complimentary e-mails. It could be to an agent working a case or a translator who helped Mason at a meeting with a foreign official. It's a habit he picked up while in college, writing each week to someone important in his life.

Kindnes s. A generosity of spirit and a respect for the contributions of others, big and small. This is his second tool.

His Glock is holstered at his side, and a quote he found in Reader's Digest is laminated and tucked in a blue leather binder that he carries.

"Attitude" by pastor Charles Swindoll: "The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than success, than what other people think or say or do. . . . I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it."

A Man of Confidence

On Nov. 2 he was standing at the front of a secure conference room inside the Denver headquarters of the FBI, where about 15 special agents in charge of Midwestern field offices listened intently. Mason's suit was set off by a blue-striped shirt and red tie. His shoes gleamed.

His voice was deep, his movements precise. His 6-4 frame towered over the podium, then he stepped away from it to speak for about 30 minutes, without notes. Resources were tight and it was critical how they managed them, he told the agents. "Asking for more just isn't going to happen. It just isn't an option."

He was smooth, confident, focused. He reminded them that he'd walked in their shoes. "My field blood has not been completely drained from me," he joked.

The night before, inside a 1903 bank vault that had been converted into a restaurant of dark cherry wood and European antiques, he and the agents met for dinner. Mason stood among the mostly middle-aged white men, a group that, back in the day, would have qualified for the FBI's old-boy network. Over Coronas and bowls of steamed Gulf shrimp, they gathered around him to talk shop and sports, even politics.

He sat comfortably among them, in a red plaid shirt and khakis, like a man who had nothing left to prove. He'd spent nearly 22 years doing that -- setting goals and working hard.

He had been a sniper on a SWAT team in Connecticut, and investigated white-collar crime and public corruption in Washington. He'd served on the director's security detail, and recruited new agents. He'd supervised the Syracuse, N.Y., office and was made an assistant special agent in charge of the Buffalo office, where he oversaw the investigation of the murder of a doctor who performed abortions. Back in Washington he oversaw background investigations of presidential appointees and became Mueller's special assistant. He went to Sacramento as the special agent in charge, and then in 2003 he became head of the Washington office, the country's second-largest field division, where he oversaw the corruption probe of Jack Abramoff and the anthrax investigation.

You could see it on their faces in the restaurant, the way the supervisors admired him, appreciated his openness, even when the news was hard.

One of the special agents looked over at Mason: "That man has it all," he said. "He's a dynamic leader. He's articulate, charismatic and intelligent. And isn't he a good-looking guy?"

'Fear Pressure'

Denver was more than another field office visit, though. Howard Mason, Mason's older brother, was living there. They had been close growing up, the big brother always looking out for the younger one, but now more than miles separated them. How had 16 years gone by without them seeing each other, seven without them talking? They had recently reconnected by e-mail and were still trying to figure out when to get together. It wasn't going to be easy this trip. Mason's schedule was tight. Besides, he knew his brother was not quite ready to see him. Still, he called when he hit town but couldn't reach Howard.

Michael Anthony Mason grew up in a three-bedroom brick house on the South Side of Chicago. His mother died of lupus when he was a baby. The children -- Howard, Jacquelynn (called "Lynn") and Michael -- were raised by their father, also named Howard, who worked as a truck driver for the board of education. He had lived through segregation and believed he was still being held back on his job by the color of his skin. When Mason was a teenager, his father remarried, bringing three more children into the house.

Mason's father was a disciplinarian who lectured about the importance of hard work, saving money and a good education. "He used to say, 'I don't want to hear about a teacher not liking you,' " Mason said. " 'Two plus two is four, even if your teacher hates you.'

"He certainly felt like being average was not going to help me out." Mason loved his father, who he said shaped his core.

He has worked since he was 13, pumping gas, bagging groceries, shoveling snow, cutting grass, washing cars, cleaning houses. The jobs helped pay for his braces and tuition to Catholic school.

"I always remember my brother working," said his sister Anita Mason Sledge, 43, who still lives in Chicago. "I never saw him just hanging out. . . . He was so focused, setting goals and going after those goals."

He was never tempted by peer pressure, because he had "fear pressure," Mason said.

"At the end of the day, I always knew I had to answer to my father."

His brother Howard, who is five years older than Mason, had to answer, too. And Howard said it was brutal. His father yelled at him, hit him, Howard and Lynn said, sometimes so badly that it left scars on his back. Once, when his father threw a butter knife and then a brick at the 10-year-old, Lynn held up a frying pan and threatened to hit their father. Mason was younger and, though he said he never saw such abuse, doesn't doubt his siblings' experience.

"I felt my father's rage," Howard said. "We never had the understanding that we should have had. We completely missed one another."

Howard's anguish was worsened by his memories of "having this loving, most attentive mother and then suddenly having her yanked out of his world and then having a man who simply was none of those," Mason said.

"I think that my expectations of my father were very different than my brother's expectations. I required less. And I learned to live with less. And I learned to appreciate less a lot more. So if my father said, 'Hey boy, want to go to Sears with me?' I was in seventh heaven just being in the car riding to Sears with him, doing a man thing, buying a wrench. I think Howard has spent his life searching to fill a void left by my mother being gone."

As a child, Mason learned from the men and women on his block, "my village." They were first-time homeowners, postal workers and factory workers who took great pride in those hard-earned houses, tending their manicured lawns, and children like Mason, with equal fervor. Audrey Wright taught him about the value of a job well done, paying him 39 cents to clean her house, and making him pay attention to every detail.

Willy Bradley, his boss in the grocery store, urged him to dream big.

And there was "Mr. Lloyd," the police officer who came home every day "looking sharp in his uniform."

His father's toughness, and community support, steeled Mason for the world beyond his neighborhood. Like when he was 11, and he and a friend, walking to Ed's Hobby Shop, passed a group of white teenagers playing softball.

"What are you niggers doing over here?" one boy said. "We don't like you niggers over here." Then he spit on Mason.

"I had a raincoat on and the spit hit the raincoat and just slid down," Mason recalled. "I was scared to death. But I remember thinking, I have every right to go to Ed's Hobby Shop. And we kept walking."

Off to the Academy

The day he graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University in 1980 with an accounting degree, Mason was commissioned in the U.S. Marine Corps as a second lieutenant. He commanded a mostly white platoon at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and figured the training would help his goal of joining the FBI.

His brother, Howard, had his doubts. Was the FBI a place for a black man to go?

But Mason was hearing none of it. As he said to a college friend, "Should we only pursue professions that welcomed us with open arms?"

Howard had headed on his own path, one that seemed driven largely by a desire to move far away from his father.

By the time Mason entered the FBI Academy in 1985, Hoover had been dead for more than a decade. In his class of 32, there were four African Americans, including one woman, Cassandra Chandler.

She remembers that first day at Quantico when Mason stood up with every other new recruit to say why he wanted to join.

"He was this tall, serious Marine and he was so proud to stand up and say, 'I have always wanted to be an FBI special agent,' " said Chandler, now the special agent in charge of the Norfolk office.

At Quantico, Mason stood out because he took the time to help other recruits who were struggling. Chandler was having trouble firing a gun, and Mason practiced with her.

Another woman at Quantico noticed that quality in Mason. Susan, an agent two classes ahead, spotted him during the physical fitness exam. "He was very handsome, standing tall and straight like a poster-child Marine," she said. They had lunch once but figured they wouldn't see each other again because new agents are scattered across the country. Coincidentally, the FBI sent them both to Hartford, Conn., where they became friends.

In Hartford he took on dangerous undercover assignments, buying kilos of cocaine without carrying a gun. He racked up arrests. He also risked being shot by colleagues.

"I had an agent point an M16 on me in the back seat of the car once," Mason said. "And I didn't think he knew that I was a good guy at that precise moment. And I just froze. It scared the hell out of me. Later, when we got back, I asked him, 'Did you know where I was sitting?' "

The Black G-Man

"I have never felt uncomfortable being a black man in the FBI," Mason said. "I was always treated very fairly."

Once, when he'd been working in an office with mostly Irish American agents for about seven months, a new agent, also with an Irish surname, arrived. After about three months, he told Mason, "Man, I've been invited to everyone's house for dinner."

Mason brushed it off. He hadn't been invited to any agent's house. But he chose not to be offended.

"It's their home and nobody is obligated to invite me into their home," he said. "On the job, I was treated very well."

Other times, he took on what he saw as racial insensitivity or bias.

One day in the FBI locker room he overheard some white agents talking about their kids' college applications. Then he heard one say that his son didn't get accepted at Notre Dame because the school had to accept a number of minorities.

Mason almost jumped over the lockers.

"Let me get this right," he remembers telling the agents. "The last Notre Dame yearbook I saw, you had to look to find any black students. But I'm sure those six black students kept about 4 million white students from coming in.'"

There was also the time in 1990 when he visited his old squad in Washington just as they were closing in on arresting then-Mayor Marion Barry. When he was on the squad, Mason had interviewed Charles Lewis, who used drugs with the mayor. The agents were annoyed that headquarters had denied the date for the sting because it was Martin Luther King's birthday. "Can you believe what the suits at headquarters are telling us?" one said.

Mason was stunned. "My God. To take down the mayor of the nation's capital on Martin Luther King's birthday would be extraordinarily offensive to a lot of people," he told them.

In 1983, two years before Mason entered the FBI Academy, Donald Rochon, a black agent in the Omaha office, found an ape's head pasted over a desk photograph of his son. Another time, a picture of the bruised face of a black man was put in his mail slot. After complaining, Rochon was transferred to Chicago, but the harassment continued and he received two unsigned death threats. He sued and won a settlement of more than $1 million.

In a 1991 class-action lawsuit, a group of black FBI agents charged the agency with racial discrimination in recruiting, promotions and the handling of the agents' complaints. Similar lawsuits were filed from the mid-1980s through 2001 at other federal law enforcement agencies.

"Law enforcement in general has been a good-old-boy network," said David J. Shaffer, the lawyer who represented the black agents who sued the FBI. "The FBI was high-profile because of the fundamental fact that the FBI is in charge of enforcing the civil rights laws."

The black agents lawsuit was an awkward moment for Mason. He believed he had not experienced discrimination, but he understood the concerns of other black agents. So Mason supported them with money and suggestions.

At one point, however, Special Agent Julian Stackhaus, one of the plaintiffs, butted heads with Mason after he said Mason accused him of trying to divide the black and white agents.

That angered Stackhaus, but Supervisory Special Agent Emanuel Johnson, the lawsuit's lead plaintiff, assured his colleague that he had worked with Mason and he was "a good guy." While some of the black supervisors had tried to distance themselves from the lawsuit, Johnson said Mason was different. He attended some meetings of the group. At one, Johnson recalled, Mason said that while he had not been discriminated against, he understood the need for their efforts to level the playing field for all agents.

In 2001 a federal judge approved a settlement with the black agents.

Later in his career, Mason opposed tactics he thought were racially insensitive. He was investigating allegations of fraud against D.C. officials working in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The FBI wanted to photograph and fingerprint all the mostly black D.C. employees who traveled to the Virgin Islands to learn whose prints were on a bill.

Mason objected but was overruled. "If it had been the staff of a senator on the Hill, there's no way in hell we would have done all those fingerprints."

After Sept. 11, he grew alarmed by the number of reports about "suspicious" people taking photographs or standing outside government buildings or buying bullets in a gun store. They all had dark skin.

"I told my agents, we need to be careful," he said. "We need to make sure our activities are driven by logic and evidence, not just by fear. We need to make sure that we don't treat everybody as a suspect based on what they look like.

A Wedding in the Works

I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it.

On a wintry afternoon after several years as an agent, Mason was in a hotel room on the outskirts of Hartford near the airport. He was facing the father of the woman he wanted to marry, and in a way, he was back on that pavement again, his race the only thing her father could see.

Mason and Susan, who is white, had fallen in love. For weeks her parents tried to convince her not to marry a black man. Now, her father had flown in and wanted to meet Mason to beg him to not marry his daughter. He worried about how the world would view her and any children they had. Ugly things were said. But Mason did not lose his temper, he simply said what he knew: that he was going to marry Susan.

There were also doubts in his own family.

Lynn Mason-Wyman, now a teacher in Norfolk, carried the memories of racism from her youth, remembered the white girls who had taunted her, the white man who'd seen her and her friends riding their bikes in his neighborhood and told them, "Why don't you niggers get on the other side of the tracks where you belong?"

She also wondered about the brother she adored: "I was kind of hurt because I felt like maybe he thought that black women weren't good enough," she said.

He was in love, Mason told her, and "if you can't dance at my wedding, don't come."

They were married in September 1987, in a church in West Hartford, and a plastic black groom and white bride sat on top of their cake. Lynn came, along with Mason's father and several neighbors from Chicago. Susan's mother was there and her brothers walked her down the aisle. But her father was a no-show.

And so was Mike's brother, Howard, who was supposed to be the best man. He called before the wedding to say he couldn't come because their father would be present and he couldn't be in the same room with him. The tug of their past was pulling them in different directions. "It broke his heart," Howard said. "I should have been there."

"It was the best of times and the worst of times," Susan recalled, going through their wedding album recently. It wasn't until the next summer that Mason and his wife would see her parents. When they did, no one talked about what had happened. In fact, the family would never talk about it. Susan said her parents are in poor health and could not be interviewed.

When the boys, Matthew and Benjamin, were born, Susan's mother and father embraced their role as grandparents. Her father built a cradle for the boys.

Shortly after their younger son was born, Mason's father-in-law approached him. "He said, 'You are really a good father and a good husband, better than I ever was,' " Mason said. "And I said, 'Oh, thanks.' And then he grabbed my arm and he said, 'No, look at me. You are a better husband and a better father than I was.' "

Mason was already well up in the FBI ranks, stacking up one promotion after another and moving his family back and forth across the country. They would make seven moves in 14 years.

Three years ago, Susan was talking to her father on the phone. By this time, she had left the FBI to raise her sons. "You know, you were right about Mike and I was wrong," he told her.

Soon afterward, Mason suggested to Susan that they renew their vows. "By then, her parents were treating me like a son," he said. In a tiny church in Clifton, relatives from both families gathered to watch Susan's father walk her down the aisle.

Making Up for Lost Time

It was a cold day in downtown Denver when Howard Mason pulled up in his Toyota Corolla to pick up his little brother at his hotel. Mike Mason was back in town to give another speech, and this time he and his brother, who works in the shipping department of a wireless phone company, finally connected.

"Man, it's great to see you," Mike said as he got into the car, the seat already pulled back for his 6-4 frame. " Sixteen years."

"It was one of those magical moments," Howard said.

They had lunch at an Italian restaurant, and Howard could hardly taste his food. His brother was "always one of the only things in life" that made sense to him. They laughed and reminisced about growing up on Wallace Street, and touched on the moments Howard had missed over the years: Mike's wedding, their grandparents' funerals, their father's funeral six years ago.

Mike talked about his boys, now 12 and 15, whom Howard had never met.

His sons are being raised to know all sides of their heritage. He wants them "to know their history and be comfortable with their blackness. I make them understand that their daddy didn't get where he is without the sacrifice of many, many people. I'm sitting where I'm sitting now because of people who sat-in at lunch counters. And that act is never lost on me," he said recently.

What Mike also hopes is that his boys remain close, no matter where their lives take them. He has often told them about their uncle and what good friends he and his brother had been.

"I always worry about my father legacy with my boys, with all the time and sacrifices this job requires," Mike said. "It's the one job I don't want to screw up. With fatherhood, you don't get a do-over."

After talking for eight hours, some of the time spent at Howard's apartment, Howard drove his brother back to his hotel. They agreed to get together again. Maybe the uncle would finally get to meet his nephews. They embraced.

As he watched Mike walking way, Howard felt the old big-brother tinge.

Was Michael going to be okay?

He caught himself. Mike Mason would be fine. His little brother was a man who had made it to the top of the FBI.

Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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