Bush names veteran prosecutor to direct, repair FBI
WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush named veteran prosecutor Robert Mueller to take over the FBI and begin repairing the nation’s premier law enforcement agency after embarrassments ranging from bungled Oklahoma City bombing documents to the discovery of an FBI spy.
Mueller has previously won top-level appointments from Bush’s father and from President Clinton, but both Republicans and Democrats suggested there will be pointed questioning at confirmation hearings.
If confirmed by the Senate, Mueller, a 56-year-old Republican and decorated Vietnam veteran, will fill a 10-year term as the sixth full-time director of the FBI. L. Patrick Gray and William Ruckelshaus served as acting directors during the Watergate era.
Louis Freeh retired last month, two years before his term would have expired.
Attorney General John Ashcroft, who had championed Mueller as a trusted team player, interrupted his vacation in Missouri to attend Thursday’s Rose Garden ceremony where Bush charged Mueller with assuring the nation that the FBI is ”independent of politics and uncompromising in its mission.”
”The FBI has a great tradition that Mr. Mueller must now affirm and some important challenges he must confront,” the president said.
The most immediate challenge will be winning over senators fed up with what they see as the FBI’s we-know-best attitude and with its headline-making mishaps: the botched investigation of former nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee; the mishandling of evidence in the Oklahoma City bombing trial that forced the postponement of Timothy McVeigh’s execution, and the discovery in February that veteran FBI agent Robert Hanssen had been spying for the Russians for more than 15 years.
As low-key as his reputation, Mueller spent just 48 seconds at the microphone Thursday. He pledged to ”enforce our nation’s laws fairly and with respect to the rights of all Americans.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Mueller inherits an FBI ”beleaguered by a series of high-profile mistakes and by a culture that too often does not recognize and correct its errors.”
Added Leahy: ”I will be interested in hearing Mr. Mueller’s views, his willingness to acknowledge and correct the bureau’s problems and his ability to meet these challenges head on.”
Another committee member, Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa, said he wants a personal meeting with Mueller to see if he is equipped to overhaul the agency’s ”management culture with an air about it that the FBI can do no wrong” and to restore public confidence in federal law enforcement.
FBI Deputy Director Tom Pickard, who was named acting director on June 22, will continue in that post until Mueller is confirmed.
Bush settled on Mueller (pronounced MULL-er) last Friday, some three or four weeks after interviewing him in the Oval Office, according to White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.
Mueller had long been the front-runner for the job but subsequent to his interview, Bush ordered aides to take one last look at other candidates. He wanted, aides said, a director capable of reining in the independent streak that the FBI had taken on under Freeh, who had a bitter and distrusting relationship with the Clinton administration.
Asked about the kind of relationship Bush wanted to establish between his Justice Department and any reshaped FBI, Fleischer told reporters: ”It’s not a question of deference; it’s a question of judgment. The president believes that under Bob Mueller, the FBI will be headed by a man with sound judgment based on matters of law and justice – and not politics.”
Mueller, a former acting deputy attorney general at Justice, won Ashcroft’s support by aiding in the transition from the Clinton administration from January until May, when he resumed his job as U.S. attorney in San Francisco – the appointment he was given by Clinton.
Under the first President Bush, Mueller served as assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s criminal division, where he supervised the prosecutions of Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega and mobster John Gotti and headed the investigations of the BCCI banking scandal and the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
FBI watchers said Mueller’s task now will be to change the bureau’s culture and opening it to greater scrutiny by outside and internal watchdogs.
”People who are going to be sitting in judgment of his nomination will want to hear that,” said Michael Bromwich, former Justice Department inspector general.
Steve Colgate, another former Justice Department official, credited Mueller with a no-nonsense – and successful – approach to turning around troubled organizations. He cited Mueller’s work as chief of the homicide division at the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington and as U.S. attorney in San Francisco, where he replaced a number of prosecutors and reorganized the office.
”You have someone who has a clear record of moving into an organization that is troubled and analyze the situation, make recommendations and carry them out,” said Colgate.
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