United States Marshals Service Director John Clark has spent more than 20 years in the service. He previously served as the Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal and United States Marshal for the Eastern District of Virginia. A George W. Bush appointee, Clark was the first career Deputy U.S. Marshal appointed as director and was sworn in on March 17, 2006. When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, Clark stayed on as director, where he’ll remain unless the Obama decides to nominate someone to fill the position.
Last month, Clark was joined by Attorney General Eric Holder at the U.S. Marshals Service Director’s Awards Ceremony, where they gave out awards to U.S. Marshals employees recognizing them for their work on issues like the Mexican border, upgrading the technology used to track fugitives, and preparing mobile command centers.
Main Justice sat down with Clark to discuss the U.S. Marshals Service’s plans for dealing with the transfer of Guantanamo Bay prisoners, drafting logistics for the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City and dealt with an influx of activity on the Southwest border. An edited version of the interview appears below.
Main Justice: What type of challenges is the U.S. Marshals Service facing?
John Clark: There are lots of things that stretch and strain us these days, of course, you can just think about everything from Guantanamo Bay to the recent few days with the Times Square bomber. Folks like that end up in our care and custody. There’s the Southwest Border, the prison population. In fact, nationally we’ve had about a 4 percent increase, about 58,000 plus federal detainees in our care and custody. Enforcing the Adam Walsh Act, protecting the federal judiciary, witness security. You put it all in the basket and it’s a tremendous amount of work to handle.
So this year, thanks to a really decent president’s budget for this fiscal year, we have been able to overcome some of the challenges – at least on our funding and human resources base – or as they might be called boots on the ground. We’ll have more deputy marshals, we’re finishing up here our largest recruitment effort ever. This year we’ll have about 14 new basic deputy marshal classes passing through our academy [there are typically 45 or 46 deputy marshals in each graduating class].
The Marshals Service, because of our unique role in the judicial system, really has a touch on so many different things that go on. I like to describe it as we’re the neck of the federal judicial funnel. Everything that comes though in terms of prisoners, fugitive warrants, asset forfeiture, witness protection, protecting judges, all that kind of stuff some through that funnel, and the Marshals Service has some role to play with that.
Putting the deputy marshals in the field where the work is, and using our federal funding base to meet and help us offset a lot of these challenges – things that are going on around the world that impact us. We are overcoming some of those challenges this year thanks to great support from the Department of Justice and the president on the budget, so this year and through next year will be better for us.
MJ: On the issue of Guantanamo, I guess you’re sort of in a holding pattern right now until they decide what’s next. How detailed are the plans for transferring prisoners to the United States from Guantanamo?
Clark: I will say the plans are very detailed. We try to think of everything. I wouldn’t discuss those plans obviously openly, but we are organizationally ready and able to meet the wishes or the direction of the president and the Attorney General to provide for safe and secure location wherever the trials might be decided to be held.
You’re correct that right now the Attorney General and the president have decided to explore other locations and actions they might want to take about where they might want to try them eventually. But our role is to provide for the very best security possible wherever those trials may be held.
MJ: So there are a number of different options you’ve explored for where the trials would be held?
Clark: Sure. At the request of the Attorney General. If he directs certain places where he feels the trials might be held as a venue, we would go out and do a security survey, look at the venue itself and try to make preliminary assessments on what vulnerabilities might exist at that particular location, as well as describing what strengths their might be or what might lend itself to being a better venue for the trials.
That’s all done on what I would call our professional opinion. It’s not an exact science when you’re trying to figure out security circumstances. But you can rely on a lot of past experience and things that you can do nowadays to make a very good assessment of a particular location to see if if would be good for a trial.
MJ: How quickly could you set up a location if a certain spot was designated?
Clark: We could respond very quickly. In terms of assessing a spot that had not yet been looked at, that would probably take some time. But that would only take about 72 hour or a week to get the basic survey done. Obviously, the more time we have, the better it is.
It would be doubtful that the Attorney General or the president would ask us to do something like that on a moments notice – although in the Marshals Service we are known for being able to do something overnight and get it done. We have plenty of history and a track-record of being asked to do something on very short notice and getting it done. So that does happen.
We have the mechanism in place to very quickly take care of assessments and do those kind of things. But if it’s a decision, for example, of where to bring Guantanamo Bay detainees, the more time we have to assess the place the better.
MJ: With the KSM trial, what are the additional challenges that the U.S. Marshals see that make it different from a normal trial?
Clark: As individuals are watched on the world stage, everybody has an interest on how that plays out. But when you think about the individuals themselves and their connection to terrorism, their open statements that they’ve already made in terms of their hatred for Americans, the security apparatus has the be the very best it can be, as visible as it can be, as robust as it can be.
The challenge for us comes when you’re having a public trial in a building that is open to the public, that is often in places where there’s all the other considerations you need to make, in terms of the community, in terms of the building itself and the structure itself. There’s lots of factors that go into trying to assess all that. It’s just safe to say when you have high-visibility-type detainees such as those held at Guantanamo Bay that we need to really be on top of our game when handling security not only surrounding those individuals but all the individuals that they might come in contact with – from judges, the public, U.S. attorneys and others who are there.
MJ: I noticed recently in Philadelphia you assigned new deputy U.S. Marshals to that area. How do you decide which areas need additional Marshals?
Clark: We have a resource allocation model. One of the things we’ve really focused on in the past few years is a methods and means to be able to place deputy marshals and resources where they’re most needed. Of course there was congressional intent over the past few years to place some of our new positions on the Southwest border because of the increased workload down there. But offices like Philadelphia and a number of other places. In fact now a new graduating class will see recruits going to all points across the country. This last graduating class, I remember talking to deputy marshals going to small places like Vermont to large district offices like Houston, so we’re filling the gaps.
MJ: You’ve been heading the U.S. Marshals for awhile now, what trends have you noticed over that course of time?
Clark: Well I’m approaching my fifth year as director, and I’ve noticed in that time what I call an increased tempo – a pace – of national security issues, violent crime issues, on the Southwest border, of course taking primary responsibility for the Guantanamo detainee issues. When you think about that as a bunch of moving parts, there’s a lot of things that are going on there. One thing that’s really been noticeable to me is the pace is always on the increase. Just comparing where things are now to certainly five years ago. When you think to a pre-9/11 scenario, there was not so much of the process going on that we have today. It’s a very fast paced sort of process.
MJ: What are the accomplishments you’re most proud of?
Clark: We’ve been able to increase our efforts on violent crime. We’ve been able to increase the size and scope of our regional fugitive task force and our district fugitive task forces. I’ve also been here to sort of shepherd in the Adam Walsh Act law. When I first came in as director that was not yet signed into law, and there was a lot of debate about who would be responsible and if we were the right agency to tackle that.
I’m also pleased with the overall accomplishment of being able to get a more robust budget and resources for our agency which was desperately needed to see increases in staffing and financial ability to be able to handle the tasks that we’ve been given.
I guess the final thing, just in terms of things that have happened in recent years, is the increase in the judicial protection. Being able to get the home intrusion alarms in judges’ homes [and] opening up a threat management center here at our headquarters in order to be able to handle judicial threats. So those things have been able to make us a stronger, better agency.
MJ: To what do you attribute that rise in threats against judges and federal law enforcement officials?
Clark: There’s a few things I think that are going on there. For one there’s increased awareness with all the judges and the U.S. Attorneys and all those we’re responsible for protecting. And when you increase the awareness, that is to make people aware of the threat environment and their responsibility to report it, there’s usually, and in this case there was, an uptick in the number of incidents reported to us.
Every time there’s a conference with groups of attorneys meeting, we have someone from the Marshals going to those conferences to speak to them about their security and the importance of it. We’ve also strengthened our relationship with the judiciary. Whenever I travel, I meet with chief judges and district judges and U.S. attorneys to make sure that they have my number, they know how to get a hold of me, and that we are available to them on short notice. We’ve done a lot of education and awareness, so they see the need to report.
The cause of it, I might say though, in today’s world there are more individuals who are more prone to threatening judges. I think a lot of it has to do with the availability of information with the use of technology and the Internet. Individuals can find out more about particular cases and judges decisions. They can use Internet sources to find out more about the judge. So if someone is prone to want to threaten someone, there are a number of ways they can find material about a judge. We have to think about that as well. The number of individuals who are just prone to violence against judges or U.S. Attorneys has also increased.
MJ: But technology has also been a help to the Marshals as well. You have the mobile command units, increased ability to track fugitives. Could you talk a little bit about how things have changed in that respect, how technology has helped you track prisoners and fugitives?
Clark: Things like the mobile command units were all purchased with the purpose of helping us increase our response time, help us be fast on our feet. If there’s an incident anywhere in America, be it a natural disaster, like a Hurricane Katrina, or some type of a significant event – a major case that’s going on or a judicial protection detail, or a number of things where we might want to have a good mobile base of operations, command and control of communications – those vehicles help us do that. It’s designed to help us increase our response and be fluid and fast in getting there.
MJ: On the Southwest border, what are some particular challenges that the Marshals are facing?
Clark: We have a very high volume of detainees around there, may of whom are apprehended along the border for either immigration violations or some other type of crime connected to the Southwest border. In Houston, Texas, alone, there’s about 6,500 detainees just in our South Texas district. So prisoner population generated from that is a great challenge. Cross border issues, violence, as you probably know from the news on a regular basis, there’s always something it seems like back and forth across the border.
The Marshals Service through our fugitive task forces are very involved in the various police and sheriff’s departments along the border and our federal partners in trying to apprehend fugitives or wanted people who are going back and forth from the U.S. to Mexico. We have an office in Mexico City and we have a number of what we call Mexican Investigative Liaisons – MIL positions – the deputy marshals who spend most of their day working with their counterparts in Mexico to help accomplish everything from international extraditions to finding people, wanted subjects.
So it’s a combination of just the huge Department of Homeland Security effort down there – the violence, the cartels, the drug trafficking – that drives a lot of the prisoner population and makes for a very busy area.
MJ: Internationally, how do you maintain relationships with other countries in terms of extraditing prisoners to and from the U.S.?
Clark: The Marshals Service is responsible for finding international and foreign fugitives, fugitives who have fled from another country to the United States and those who have fled from the United States to another country, so we have very good relationships with our foreign counterparts. In fact in a couple weeks, we’re co-hosting with the Toronto Police Service an international fugitive conference in Toronto which will have about 22 countries attending. We work very regularly with INTERPOL, of course the State Department, the Department of Justice of course with their international affairs.
Annually, now we conduct, it’s approaching a 1,000 now, international extraditions a year from points all over the world. In addition to that with the fugitive apprehension program, we assist foreign governments with finding individuals who are wanted here. If it has a terrorism nexis or national security nexis, the FBI will handle it. But the vast majority of those international cases for individuals, the U.S. Marshals Service will handle it. So we work very closely with the embassies here in Washington.
MJ: What are some of the countries you see the most interaction with?
Clark: Well on the Northern border with Canada, we have a lot of activity in that part of the country, and actually we have a very similar process there with our district offices along the northern border who interact very closely with our Canadian counterparts. In the European corridor, a lot of the countries which produce the most activity are Great Britain, Germany. We do have some activity in the Far East as well. A lot of the sex offender cases seem to migrate to or have some connectivity to the Far East.
MJ: In working with local and state law enforcement, have you noticed any recent needs because of budget constraints in different states?
Clark: We pride ourselves in working very closely with our state and local counterparts, and they too are struggling with budget restrictions or cutbacks in personnel. Many of the state and local departments that we’ve dealt with have actually had to reduce the number of police officers on the street.
We are able to help in locating wanted people that a lot of the departments are looking for, but also through our task forces we’re able to help supplement their police operations with some of our funding and personnel. So we’re able to help them with things like getting radios, or vehicles, or maybe paying out some overtime, so it helps them continue their basic crime fighting strategy. So it has been a noticeable thing.
MJ: Any particular areas where there has been a lot of help from the Marshals?
Clark: The most recent example is in Florida, where we had a number of locations were departments were asking for some federal help. We were ale to work with some of the congressional leaders, the Department of Justice and others to get funding to establish a task force there. Over the last year and a half or so we’ve been building up task force operations there in Florida. A number of places that wouldn’t have been able to do much at all on the fugitive apprehension side now have a very good, robust fugitive squad that’s part of the larger state of Florida.
MJ: The Marshals recently sent out a unit to protect the trial of the man convicted of killing abortion doctor George Tiller. How many of those type of special protection cases do the Marshals handle?
Clark: There are occasionally situations like that where we’ll have to provide extra protection for individuals who are part of a case. In some ways, that was an unusual circumstance because of the nature of what happened there with that particular situation. But from time to time we do have to go out and provide protection for individuals. In this case – the abortion provider Dr. Tiller’s extended family – you don’t know if there’s a larger plot of intent by others to want to kill others who are part of that group, so you just don’t know.
We have quite regularly had protection details on judges, and it usually requires a lot of investigative work and effort to determine the nature of the threat and we have to put in place protective measures to provide security for that individual and his or her family.
MJ: One of the things that is currently being considered is having cameras in the courtroom. Do you think that could pose new challenges for the Marshals Service?
Clark: It could. We organizationally, because of security issues, would want to make sure that the cameras don’t show the faces of witnesses or judges or people that might otherwise be harmed in a case. In other words, there are some legal issues that are certainly beyond any involvement that we have. We essentially follow the law whatever that is. But we have some concerns from a security standpoint.
MJ: The public serves a large role in your effort to capture fugitives by bringing them to your attention, how are you getting your message out there?
Clark: One of the things that I’m pleased to say is that we have a close relationship with America’s Most Wanted. They’ve done about 1,000 shows now, and the Marshals Service has been instrumental in 60 percent of the individuals captured on that show – either directly arresting them or helping another agency arrest them. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, we have a great connectivity to with the enforcement of the Adam Walsh Act. Basically any organization that has anything to do with our law enforcement functions, we have a strong partnership, a strong connectivity to them.
MJ: The Adam Walsh Act was mentioned on the 1,000th episode of America’s Most Wanted, I guess the president mentioned it as a priority for the next fiscal year?
Clark: John Walsh was interviewing the president, and the president had good research and he knew about the Marshals’ enforcement of the law and knew that we were not yet fully funded to do that, so he did pledge on national TV his support. We’re hoping as that unfolds down the line in that new fiscal year, we’ll see an appropriate number of resources being dedicated to fix that.
That’s another sort of huge undertaking for us, because there are by very conservative estimates 150,000 unregistered, or we call them non-compliant sex offenders out there, meaning there are individuals who their whereabouts are unknown in the local where they should be registered, so the local authorities don’t know where they are. If you turn on the TV or open the newspaper any given day, you’ll see evidence oftentimes of non-compliant sex offenders picking up young children or other teenagers and the results are often tragic, so we of course take that very seriously.
MJ: Could you talk a little about your work providing witness security and how that plays into successful prosecutions?
Clark: That’s an often hidden part of our work, but we are providing witness protection, and that’s been ongoing for a couple dozen years now. We have about 8,000 individuals for which we provide protective measures for, and with family members, the total is about 18,000.
So it’s a large protective operation that provides a great deal of support for the Department of Justice and others because it provides support for and helps to solidify the prosecutions. When you have witnesses who feel capable of testifying without any fear of retaliation or threats or any death threats they’re more willing to testify and more willing to participate in the case.
No one has ever been killed who have followed the rules. We have people who have left the program voluntarily on their own or haven’t been able to follow our instructions, but nobody under our direct responsibility has been killed so we’re very pleased with that record and we hope it stands.