FBI's new director pushing ahead

Chief: With the search for terrorists key, the bureau's new head has no time for organizational changes or rehashing past scandals.

War On Terrorism : The Nation

October 16, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Robert S. Mueller III faced no small task when he reported to work Sept. 4 as the FBI's new director. The bureau was reeling from a long series of blunders, and it was Mueller's job to rebuild its tattered reputation.

Exactly one week later, as Mueller finished a routine morning briefing at FBI headquarters, the first of two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center's towers in New York City.

At that moment, the new director's mission changed to finding out who was behind the worst terrorist attacks ever on U.S. soil and thwarting any more violence.

For the ailing FBI, the huge investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington at once offered a chance to silence critics and opened the door to new rebukes about intelligence lapses and racial profiling.

For Mueller (pronounced Muller), it has been an extraordinary trial by fire.

With virtually no transition period and no time to implement the broad reforms he planned for the bureau, the ex-Marine and former federal prosecutor found himself at the center of the largest criminal investigation in U.S. history.

"The FBI must think differently, and Director Mueller is causing them to do so," President Bush said during a televised news conference Thursday night. "In a post-Cold War era, they were still chasing spies. Nothing wrong with that, except we have a new enemy."

The president praised Mueller for putting a new emphasis on preventing terrorist strikes - a daunting task in recent weeks.

The FBI publicly warned Thursday that further terrorist strikes could be directed at the United States over the weekend, a threat that did not materialize. The bureau also is investigating anthrax scares across the country, including a dozen cases of exposure and the death of a Florida tabloid journalist.

A `perfect fit'

Mueller is up to the task, friends and observers say, but it is monumental.

"No matter how familiar you are with the agency from the outside, it's an entirely different ballgame when you're there on the inside, running it," said Michael R. Bromwich, a former Department of Justice inspector general who has worked closely with Mueller.

Mueller, 56, comes to the job with extensive credentials, from overseeing the investigation of the Pan Am Lockerbie bombing and proceedings against notorious figures such as Manuel Noriega and John Gotti to, in recent years, rebuilding a weakened U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco.

He has one other thing that should serve him well in an investigation that could stretch on for weeks or months, possibly years before the public sees arrests or indictments directly linked to the attacks - an incredible reserve of good will with Congress.

During his Senate confirmation hearings in July, Mueller was praised by senators as a "super extraordinary" pick and a "perfect fit" for the FBI's top job.

Sen. Diane Feinstein, a liberal Democrat from California, had closely followed Mueller's work as the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, where he was credited with doubling criminal prosecutions from 1998 to 2000 and increasing civil penalties from $7 million to $208 million. She emerged as one of his biggest supporters.

"Robert Mueller is a man who can come in, and whip an operation into shape - no nonsense, no excuses, just results," said Feinstein, whose home was across the street from where Mueller lived with his wife, Anne.

Bad publicity

The FBI's vaunted "G-men" for decades enjoyed a storied and glamorized reputation. By late summer, though, the agengy appeared badly in need of the type of person Feinstein was describing for the 10-year appointment as director.

A series of missteps in the 1990s had brought the bureau under sharp scrutiny, from the FBI's handling of the deadly standoffs at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, to its investigation of the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta and its intense focus in that case on security guard Richard Jewell, who was later cleared of any involvement.

In the months leading up to Mueller's appointment, the scandals seemed to be unceasing. Most notably, longtime agent Robert P. Hanssen was charged with selling national security secrets to the former Soviet Union starting in the 1980s in exchange for $1.4 million in cash and diamonds. He pleaded guilty in June.

The details of Hanssen's case came to light amid a stream of bad news for the bureau:

Agents were accused of bungling the espionage investigation of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, in which 58 of 59 charges were dropped.

Discovery of thousands of pages of documents and other materials from the investigation of the Oklahoma City bombing that had not been turned over to Timothy J. McVeigh's defense lawyers forced a monthlong delay in his execution.

The bureau admitted this summer it could not locate about 440 of its guns and more than 170 laptop computers assigned to employees.

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