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If Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson’s only job had been running the daily operations of the Justice Department, that would have been enough. If his only job had been directing the law enforcement response to the Sept. 11 attacks and reorganizing the department to disrupt future acts of terrorism, that would have been enough. If his only job had been spearheading the administration’s response to the Enron scandal and a wave of corporate crime, that would have been enough. But Thompson has faced all three staggering challenges at once. The measure of his success, says Solicitor General Theodore Olson, is “the number of disasters that you haven’t heard about because Larry kept them from happening.” The job of the Justice Department’s No. 2 has always been daunting and rarely fully appreciated by the public. Since Sept. 11, the responsibilities of the deputy attorney general — called the DAG, for short — have become even more expansive. Among Thompson’s formal duties: oversight of the Criminal Division; of 93 U.S. attorney’s offices; of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; of the Drug Enforcement Agency; and of the U.S. Marshals Service. In the war against terrorism and beyond, Thompson’s fingerprints are on virtually every policy initiative to come out of the Justice Department. But while Attorney General John Ashcroft is a political lightning rod, 57-year-old Thompson works largely behind the scenes. The average Washingtonian would be unlikely to recognize him walking down Pennsylvania Avenue. Friends and colleagues say Thompson’s low profile is the result of a quiet, self-deprecating nature, rare in the world of politics. “Larry is at his best bringing people together,” says Thompson’s top deputy, Christopher Wray. “He genuinely does not care who gets the credit.” In the panicky weeks following Sept. 11 — before Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge was appointed director of homeland security — the White House tapped Thompson to head a team quietly buttoning down vulnerable sites against a potential terrorist attack. It was a powerful vote of confidence for the Atlanta litigator, who just six months earlier had walked away from a partnership at the law firm King & Spalding, where he pulled down more than $1 million in 2000. Working under the assumption that another attack was imminent, the group considered how to best protect government buildings, transportation systems, nuclear power plants, and other possible terrorist targets. “It was a very intense, very frightening undertaking,” Thompson says. “Having to understand how our country might be vulnerable to terrorist attacks is something I had absolutely no background in as a trial lawyer.” The Protection Coordination Working Group, as it was called, disbanded in November 2001 with the formation of the Office of Homeland Security. But Thompson’s involvement in the war against terrorism has continued. His largest challenge: transforming the Justice Department from an institution that investigates and prosecutes crime to one focused on preventing crime. Thompson chairs a group of senior DOJ officials who meet regularly to develop policy on national security and counterterrorism issues and also represents the Justice Department on an interagency committee that meets several times a week. His day typically begins around 7 a.m. with a briefing from the Central Intelligence Agency, followed by a briefing from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, followed by a briefing by the Criminal Division. “What he learns in those briefings often sets the tone for that day’s action,” says David Laufman, Thompson’s chief of staff. “A substantial portion of his time is consumed by identifying and helping to resolve national security issues related to homeland security.” When Thompson arrived at Main Justice in May 2001, his wife, Brenda, a school psychologist, remained in Atlanta. Thompson planned to visit every other weekend. After Sept. 11, those plans fell by the wayside. “When the president said we Americans must get back to normal and not let the terrorists adversely affect our way of life, I think he was right,” Thompson says. “But for those of us who are in government and who are responsible for dealing with terrorist threats, it will really never be back to normal for us.” In July 2002, the Bush administration turned to Thompson with yet another high-stakes assignment, naming him chairman of the Corporate Fraud Task Force. As such, Thompson organizes the federal government’s disparate law enforcement resources in Main Justice, U.S. attorney’s offices, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and other agencies to combat corporate crime, such as securities fraud, accounting fraud, and money laundering. Task force members say the former prosecutor and white collar defense attorney is in his element. “It’s never happened before that we’ve brought all these groups together in one room, talking about how we’re going to handle investigations and how we’re going to handle turf disputes. You need a referee,” says U.S. Attorney James Comey Jr. of the Southern District of New York. “Larry immediately puts people at ease and at the same time sends a very strong message about how we’re going to handle these cases.” The task force received initial criticism as being little more than a public relations ploy by the administration to deflect attention from its ties to corporate America, but the group seems to be having an impact — racking up more than 150 indictments since July 2002 and pushing longer prison terms for white collar criminals. “I think we’ve had unbelievable successes in the short period of time the task force has been up and running,” Thompson says. “On the one hand, you have the obligation to build solid cases. On the other hand, you have to work as quickly as possible.” In a department full of intense personalities, Thompson has a reputation for being laid-back and likeable. But those who know Thompson say his gentle persona belies tremendous confidence and resolve. “Anyone dealing with Larry Thompson who thinks, because he is so nice, they are going to be able to push him around is sorely mistaken. I think he is a bit of a steel fist wrapped in a velvet glove,” Comey says. A Missouri native, Thompson is the eldest of four children. His father worked on the railroad in Hannibal and his mother was a cook. Thompson attended a segregated school through the eighth grade. He went on to earn a master’s degree from Michigan State University and a law degree from the University of Michigan. After graduating law school, Thompson took a job with the Monsanto Co. in St. Louis, where he worked alongside future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Thompson joined Atlanta’s King & Spalding in 1977 and served as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia from 1982 to 1986. He says he was drawn back into government out of a sense of civic duty and nostalgia for his days as U.S. attorney. “I have a great deal of respect and affection for this department as an institution,” he says, adding, “Isn’t it a great country, that you have two guys from Missouri running this remarkable department?”

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