Robert S. Mueller III is leaving behind a different FBI from the one he joined.
The prep school and Princeton graduate came on board 12 years ago as a straight-edge prosecutor, a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam who once spent nine months building a case against a California branch of the Hells Angels. The phrases “war on terror” and “al Qaida” never arose during his Senate confirmation hearing. The word “email” came up but once.
He took office Sept. 4, 2001.
“I thought I’d be spending time on those kinds of cases I had been doing as a prosecutor: organized crime, narcotics cases, public corruption cases and the like. . . . And I had some idea of where I wanted the bureau to go,” Mueller recounted this week in a farewell meeting with reporters. “And then a week later we had September the 11th.”
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Now, after serving longer than any other FBI director aside from J. Edgar Hoover, Mueller is about to depart at the age of 69. He’ll leave behind a law enforcement agency that’s larger, endowed with stronger powers and far more focused on terrorism than when he joined. Some problems he inherited have been solved. Other challenges have arisen in their stead.
In fiscal 2001, the bureau had a budget of $3.3 billion and a staff of about 27,000. By fiscal 2012, the bureau’s budget had expanded to $8.1 billion and the staff grown to about 34,000 employees.
After 9/11, Mueller identified counterterrorism, counterintelligence and cybercrime as the bureau’s new top three priorities. They still are. Asked this week to identify his nightmare scenarios, Mueller cited an attack on a plane and a cyberattack on a financial institution or other critical facility.
“It took me a while to fully understand that the training I had, which was principally to investigate criminal acts after they had occurred, was not going to be the paradigm for the future,” Mueller said.
At first, he had a lot to repair.
A joint investigation by the House and Senate Intelligence committees, completed in December 2002, concluded that “the FBI was unable to identify and monitor effectively the extent of activity by al Qaida and other international terrorist groups operating in the United States.” The investigation further noted “the FBI’s reliance on outdated and insufficient technical systems.”
Mueller shook up the bureau in response. He created an intelligence office to coordinate activities, added thousands of intelligence specialists and partly pivoted away from traditional targets such as drugs and white-collar crimes. New tools have been deployed. That includes, Mueller recently told the Senate Judiciary Committee, a “very few” drones used for domestic surveillance in a “very, very minimal way.”
The Government Accountability Office subsequently praised the bureau’s post-9/11 progress, citing “commitment from the top, a dedicated implementation team, involvement of employees in the process and the achievement of key milestones.”
Still, some changes have been awfully pricey.
When Mueller took office, he inherited an information technology updating that included a vaunted “Virtual Case File” system to replace old-fashioned paperwork. Over several years, the new system remained bug-ridden and elusive. The bureau finally pulled the plug on the $170 million Virtual Case File project in 2005, replacing it with a system called Sentinel that went online last year.
“There were missteps. One of the things I regret is not asking enough questions early on about information technology,” Mueller acknowledged. “We had to reboot, reset that, but we did get it done.”
In other cases, including the investigations of U.S.-based Muslims and the collection of massive amounts of telephone data, the transitions to a post-9/11 world have alarmed some skeptics and civil libertarians. Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the information-gathering programs have “been instrumental in contributing to the prevention of terrorist attacks.”
After having the traditional 10-year term as director extended by two years, Mueller’s last day in the hulking J. Edgar Hoover Building will be Sept. 4. He’ll be replaced by James Comey, a former top Justice Department official.
Mueller and Comey were allied in some key moments during the Bush administration, including a 2004 episode in which both threatened to resign over the White House’s frantic push for a controversial wiretapping program. During one tense late-night confrontation, Mueller had what Comey later diplomatically called a “brief, memorable” exchange with the attorney general.
Precisely what Mueller, a Ranger-trained, former rifle platoon commander in the 3rd Marine Division, told the markedly smaller Attorney General Alberto Gonzales remains something known only to the few men present. The moment, though, was a defining one for Mueller’s tenure, as was his 2002 refusal to let FBI agents take part in interrogations that used harsh techniques such as waterboarding.
“I know he has changed the FBI . . . in fundamental and crucial ways,” Comey said in July at his Senate confirmation hearing.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who first met Mueller several decades ago when she was the mayor of San Francisco, likewise praised him as a “man of high integrity and very strong values.” Even Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, a frequent critic of FBI actions, said Mueller had “done a good job of transforming the FBI from a law enforcement agency into a national security agency.”
Comey will inherit some “hard choices” on the budget, Mueller acknowledged. The new director also will face some key administrative decisions, perhaps including finding a replacement for the 2.4 million-square-foot Hoover building on Pennsylvania Avenue.
A tall, white-haired grandfather who survived a bout with prostate cancer, Mueller has a portfolio spread among a myriad of mutual funds as well as stock in blue chip companies such as Chevron, IBM and General Electric, according to his annual financial disclosure statement.
Still, he’s not going to be resting on his investments. Mueller said he expects to do some public speaking and teaching after he leaves the FBI, as well as some “internal” investigative work in the private sector. He’ll also have to adjust to life outside the pressure cooker.
“I’m ambivalent. (I’ll) miss it,” Mueller said. “But the time has come.”