Spy agency can't shoo legal gadfly

Lawyer: Emile J. Henault Jr., a veteran NSA worker, now tirelessly sues his former employer - to make it better, he says.

March 10, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

Emile J. Henault Jr. is the go-to guy for spies who have had it up to here with management.

After a 27-year career at the National Security Agency, Henault opened a law office a few miles away. Now he takes pleasure in suing his former employer on behalf of disgruntled workers.

"Sometimes they get a little rambunctious out there," he says of an agency known for its secrecy and silence. "I try to make them behave."

Many of his clients are NSA veterans. Some are older white men who accuse the agency of discrimination for promoting less-experienced women and minorities. Others are fighting for their jobs after being accused of NSA no-no's ranging from drunken-driving arrests and messy extramarital affairs to friendships with foreigners and surfing for Internet porn on office computers.

In one case, Henault saved the job of a man blamed for the failure to fully erase classified data from computers before they were donated to a local high school.

Henault sees his clients as innocents battling an Orwellian bureaucracy, even if that bureaucracy mails him a pension check every month. A plastic goat bearing an NSA logo presides over a shelf in his office. It is a scapegoat, a symbol of hard-working civil servants discarded by an agency that he feels has lost its way.

"They're prosecutorial up the gazoo," he says of the NSA. "We're trying to save them from themselves."

He has filed dozens of legal claims against the agency - to the irritation of former colleagues and even judges. On occasion he has asked the courts to award his clients as much as $3 million in damages.

Henault, who is 68 and has seven grandchildren, is not the man Hollywood would have cast in the role of gadfly to the nation's largest spy agency.

His bushy eyebrows and fleshy cheeks call to mind Andy Rooney. His taste in office attire runs to tattered jeans and brightly-hued sweaters. His Mercedes convertible - license plate: Emile - dates to the Reagan administration and is specked with rust.

Yet his clients regard him as a rare outside authority on the agency's workings. He is, they say, a selfless crusader for what many lawyers view as lost causes. "Even though I was in this intense whirlpool for such a long time, Emile never let go," says Virginia L. Nelson, a former NSA analyst whose job Henault tried to save.

There are those, however, who see him as a zealot. He tends to name defendants up and down the NSA hierarchy. His court filings show a flair for flowery turns of phrase, charging that the agency "peddled ... bogus propaganda" or that its actions "shock the conscious of society."

Epic lawsuits

And judges have rapped him for drafting epic lawsuits. "Your complaints ... more resemble novels than pleadings," a judge wrote in a scolding letter in 1998.

Last year, a federal judge sanctioned and fined him $3,500 for filing a frivolous suit against a bank executive in an NSA-related case.

Around the same time, government lawyers asked the court to sanction Henault for what they alleged was a "disturbing pattern" of lawsuits intended to intimidate and harass NSA staff. The motion for sanctions was supported by a 23-page brief and a folder of 13 exhibits.

The government lawyers contended in court papers that Henault's lawsuits against NSA managers hurt one defendant's ability to get a home mortgage, worsened another's multiple sclerosis, and disturbed the final hours of a man dying from cancer.

The dying man undoubtedly suffered "as he contemplated the possibility of a ruinous suit against his estate," Assistant U.S. Attorney Allen Loucks wrote in the motion.

In the end, the government withdrew its request for sanctions in return for Henault's promise not to name individual agency workers as defendants for three years - unless Henault gets permission from his law partner, Dennis J. Sysko. But Sysko, himself a former NSA employee, says the agreement has no practical effect on the firm's work.

"Did the government get a pound of flesh? No," says Sysko. "Would they have preferred him to go away forever? Maybe."

The U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore, which represented the NSA, declined to talk about the case. The NSA, in response to questions about Henault's criticisms of the agency, offered only a brief written statement saying that it follows the law and respects civil rights. "We stand by the integrity of our processes," it said.

When the statement was read to Henault, he chuckled.

The oldest of seven children, Henault was born in Pittsfield in the Massachusetts Berkshires. His father operated cranes for General Electric and ran a small dairy farm, where by age 11 Henault was driving the tractors.

After graduating from high school, Henault enlisted in the Navy and scored first in his class in a code-making course. The feat earned him a transfer to the National Security Agency, while the rest of his class was shipped to remote Alaska.

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