We sat down with the FBI's top agent in Philadelphia, Ed Hanko, for his first interview since declaring he would retire from the bureau on July 31.
The Wilkes-Barre native has been with the FBI for 29 years, most recently leading the Philadelphia division — the bureau's eighth-largest office — since 2013.
Over the years, Hanko has overseen an investigative force with a focus on counterterrorism, cyber crime and public corruption probes.
Why did you decide to retire? It’s very difficult for an agent who has spent their entire life serving their country to leave this position. Congress edicts we have to leave at 57 years-old, so as we get to that age we look at what can we do next and how can I still contribute while going to the private sector. Those were factors that led up to me making the decision it was time to leave. I received an excellent offer from private sector company and I took the offer knowing I will still be able to help out the United States and its’ citizens.
How will you continue to serve your country while taking your next step? I am going to be Vice President of Global Security for Aramark Corporation. They are in 22 countries, 275,000 people and they provide all kinds of services internationally. While we have our law enforcement and military to keep citizens safe, the economic engine that drives this country is business. The economic engine of all our businesses combined make us one of the strongest nations in the world. Our economy is larger than the entire combined economy of Europe. I will be able to assist in keeping our economy strong.
What do you think is your legacy as you leave this office? I believe my legacy of being here is that I was able to get things accomplished as a team. I was able to bridge those gaps that needed help, build partners, and give employees a pat on the back because we don’t get that a lot. It’s a part of my job to make sure the atmosphere in our office is upbeat and moving forward in a positive direction.
How many corrupt politicians do you think you’ve uncovered in your career? I’ve dealt with around 15 or 20 corruption cases. Although looking at my whole career of 29 years, I have been blessed to be able to work on an array of organized crime cases, kidnap cases, and drug cases. During this job, we see the good that can be done, but we also see the darker side that most citizens don’t see. It’s a tough business.
Is there any baggage you are going to take with you as you move on from the FBI? Losing two of my agents in the line of duty and losing another to cancer were definitely tough. But one of the things that bothers me the most will be the cases you can’t solved. You know who did it, but you can’t prove it. While we believe we know who committed the crime, there wasn’t enough evidence to take it to court. Those types of things bother you and they’ll continue to bother you. You can only hope someone will turn up one day and say “I saw it.”
What kind of terrorist threats have you faced in Philadelphia? We are a big target because Philadelphia is where America started and most terrorist organizations would love to do another dramatic attack. New York and Washington D.C. are big targets, but people want to get Philly because they think we might be less prepared than the other cities. But we are just as prepared because we talk to all our partners so we can get all our intel together to prevent attacks. Right now, for me, is one of the scariest times because we are no longer able to see some of their communications. What’s really disturbing is that some of those terrorists’ organizations are using encryptions to communicate and those companies that create the codes can’t event crack them.
Have you prevented attack during your tenure? I have, right after 911 there was a secondary plot we had heard of and this was to use trucks with explosive material to attack unknown sites. In Pa. we had two subjects that were attending a trucking school, both of their home addresses were in New Jersey where a terrorist leader resided. Those two people came to light when the trucking school told us they had two middle eastern students who were about to graduate and all they were interested in was driving trucks carrying hazardous material. We intervened and during the interview process they were able to give us where they lived, but it was so scripted. Just by talking to them we were able to stop them from committing a terrorist attack and had them deported out of the country.
What keeps you up at night? The biggest thing I worry about is that we are going to miss something and there’s going to be an attack or explosion. We might miss something that is totally off our radar. We second guess ourselves all the time because for terrorists to succeed, they only have to be lucky once, but we have to be perfect every single time. It’s actually impossible, but it doesn’t deter us because we will continue to work the cases to the best of our abilities.
Philadelphia has a reputation for being a politically corrupt place, is it as bad as its’ reputation? There are really good people here, politicians and citizens. I think any town or city that has a few arrests people assume “oh it’s a corrupt town”, but it’s our job to weed out those individuals before they corrupt entire systems like the Philadelphia traffic court case. That was an important case to do and it caused legislation to be reformulated as to where less corruption can exist, which is the big win there.
As you talk about your accomplishments, how did you almost not become an FBI agent? As a Baltimore city police officer, I was finishing my degree at the University of Baltimore. I always had a friendly competition with one of my classmates, Ed Goetz, so when I went to take the test for the FBI, I sat next to him. Three weeks later, I got a letter saying I didn’t score high enough, and that was the end of it. Ed got in and eventually went to the applicant coordinator, asking about my test. When they bought up the sheet, I had scored an 89, but then they looked at the actual test, I had really scored a 98. So you could imagine receiving a phone call from the FBI saying they made a mistake. They asked me if they could have my background check done and start in thirty days, so that’s where my career started. Ed Goetz and I are still pretty good friends.