For a man at the center of so many critical government actions, with a portfolio that includes preventing terrorist strikes and cyberattacks, FBI Director Robert Mueller has mostly avoided the limelight since he joined the bureau just a week before Sept. 11, 2001.
As his friend and former CIA Director George Tenet says, Mueller represents a different type.
“St. Paul’s, Princeton, a high Protestant with a locked jaw, blue blazer … khaki pants, penny loafers, maybe a little Vitalis and Old Spice to boot,” Tenet told the crowd at a recent ceremony honoring Mueller.
But on the eve of his departure, the taciturn FBI leader broke from tradition to talk about his service and the challenges for his successor. With his 12 years at the FBI drawing to a close, the decorated former Marine opened up a bit about what leading the bureau has been like in an age of al-Qaida and more.
The surprises came almost from Day 1.
“I had been a prosecutor before, so I anticipated spending time on public corruption cases and narcotics cases and bank robberies and the like, and Sept. 11 changed all of that,” he says.
It took him a while to realize how drastically the mission of the FBI had to change. Conversations with President George W. Bush and later with President Obama focused his mind on this thought: “What is the FBI doing to prevent the next terrorist attack?”
To try to answer that question, Mueller moved 2,000 agents from gumshoe criminal investigations into counterterrorism and national security. And in a huge shift in mindset, he also set up an intelligence operation within the bureau to analyze threats. That transformed an organization filled with men in dark suits.
One of them was Mueller’s former deputy and right-hand man, John Pistole.
“He directed and implemented what is arguably the most significant change in the FBI’s 105-year history,” says Pistole, who now runs the Transportation Security Administration.
But as Mueller prepares to exit the stage, lawmakers are asking whether the bureau has changed its stripes in all the ways that count. A big one involves sharing information with counterparts. A few months ago, Boston police criticized the FBI for not telling the department about its scrutiny of one of the accused marathon bombers before pressure-cooker bombs exploded at the race site.
Texas Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, head of the House Homeland Security Committee, put it this way at a recent hearing: “We learned over a decade ago the danger in failing to connect the dots,” he said. “My fear is that the Boston bombers may have succeeded because our system failed. We can and we must do better.”
Mueller says the FBI is “light-years” ahead of where it was on information-sharing a dozen years ago and that he fosters a close relationship with federal agencies and local police.
‘The Thing I Worry About Most’
In recent years, Mueller’s job protecting national security has changed again. The core of al-Qaida has been “decimated,” and the accused Boston bombers and the Army psychiatrist who carried out a massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, to support the Taliban exemplify the new face of terrorism, Mueller says.
“You have individuals that are not aligned with any particularized group who can be radicalized and find a weapon of choice and then kill American innocent civilians,” he says. “And unfortunately, we have to be prepared for that. It’s much more difficult to discern, but we could anticipate that there may be more in the future.”
For nearly a dozen years now, Mueller has started his morning — every morning — with a secret threat briefing. So, what keeps him up at night?
“Well, the thing I worry about most … is the possibility of a bomb on an airplane, here in this day and age,” he says.
That’s a surprisingly specific answer and one with roots in recent history. In 2009, a Nigerian student with links to al-Qaida in Yemen tried to take down a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day. The student, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, has been convicted and sentenced to life in a U.S. prison. But the man who made those bombs, Mueller says, is still on the loose, despite repeated efforts to kill or capture him.
A ‘Different Context’
That airliner incident was personal for Mueller. As a prosecutor, he worked for years on the investigation of the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.
To “people who are looking at, for instance, our intelligence programs and criticizing them, I would say: Spend a few moments with families of those who have lost their loved ones, whether it be Pan Am 103 or Sept. 11 … and it puts it in a wee bit different context,” he adds.
About those critics: New revelations about surveillance of email and phone calls within the U.S. by the National Security Agency and the FBI have prompted bipartisan calls in Congress to restrict the federal government’s ability to snoop on its own citizens. The White House has launched a wide-scale review. Mueller says the FBI’s close ties to the Justice Department guide what agents do and impose checks and balances on their actions.
When investigators uncovered problems with agents’ use of sweeping national security powers, including letters that the FBI used to get hold of phone and financial records without following procedures, Mueller did his best to solve them, he says. Former Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine, who frequently held Mueller’s feet to the fire, says it has been a successful run for the director.
“The measure of a tenure and the measure of a leader is whether when he learns of those problems, he fixes them,” says Fine, now a lawyer at the Dechert firm in Washington. “And I think that’s what he did. He did it in a tireless fashion, and … he deserves credit for that.”
An Emerging Threat
Lately, Mueller has been focusing his energy on a new area of work for the FBI: cyberattacks on banks, utilities and other “vulnerable” areas. And in another pivot point for his agency, Mueller worries that the cyberthreat will soon overtake al-Qaida as the bureau’s biggest priority.
“Before we have a substantial incident which would serve as a wake-up call, we need to do everything we can to prevent that happening,” he says.
No small challenge for a bureau that has fought for years to bring agents into the digital age and spent nearly half a billion dollars on a troubled internal computer system — an effort Mueller says is now on track.
Over the past few months, something else has been on the mind of the FBI director, a problem he’s leaving for his successor: the budget crisis.
Mueller says there’s only so much the bureau can cut back on cars and travel and information technology upgrades. Furloughs for 2014, he says, are on the way. So is a tough conversation about priorities.
“I expect the special agent in charge to make certain that there is no Mohamed Atta, terrorist, swimming in the waters in that division,” Mueller says. “So what’s going to be hit is white-collar crime. What’s going to be hit is violent crime — we’re not going to be able to do as much as we’d want there. Organized crime.”
Starting next week, Mueller is inviting his successor, Jim Comey, to shadow him for the daily threat briefing and other tasks until Mueller says goodbye to the bureau on Sept. 4.
After that, Mueller says, he will write and teach and do a little investigative work of his own.
Justice Department colleague David Margolis recently suggested at an awards ceremony that his old friend Mueller would be perfect for another role.
“A job he was born for and has spent his whole life preparing for: drill instructor at Parris Island,” Margolis said.
Even the poker faced Robert Mueller broke into a huge laugh at that one.