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FBI Director Bob Mueller’s “War on Terror” Comes to an End
After 12 years heading the nation’s premier law-enforcement agency, he’ll walk out of the Hoover Building Tuesday for the last time as director.
The SUVs and helicopters arrived one by one all morning at Camp David, the presidential retreat hidden deep within the Catoctin Mountains on Maryland’s border, assembling on September 15, 2001, the men who would lead the nation into war. There was President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, General Hugh Shelton, CIA Director George Tenet with the agency’s head of counterterrorism, Cofer Black, and Attorney General John Ashcroft with the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller. Sitting at a large conference table in casual clothes—the President wore a parka—they spent the morning and afternoon plotting the nation’s response to the devastating terrorist attacks and by day’s end settled on a course that would lead the country first into Afghanistan and, later, into Iraq.
Twelve years later, they’re all gone from the government—their war on terror over, their memoirs written, their speaking tours mostly wrapped up, their consulting firms up and running. The George W. Bush presidential library opened this spring in Dallas, and the former president has now taken up painting.
They’re all gone, that is, except one.
Robert Mueller’s war on terror has continued.
On the day of Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, Mueller, who started as director just a week before 9/11, watched from the seventh-floor windows of the Hoover Building as the new President and the inaugural parade passed below on Pennsylvania Avenue—one of just two senior national security officials, along with Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, who carried over from one president to the next. He’s gotten used to the revolving doors around him. In his roughly 4,000 daily terrorism threat briefings—give or take a few hundred—he’s worked with four attorneys general and six CIA directors. Internally, he’s seen five deputy directors and nearly a dozen heads of counterterrorism rotate through.
In 2011, he became the longest-serving FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover himself—and undoubtedly the most influential since. Later that year, his mandatory ten-year term poised to force him from office, Mueller was considered so vital to national security that Congress at President Obama’s request passed unprecedented special legislation allowing him to extend his term an additional two years. In almost any meeting now, he’s the senior and most experienced voice. “He’s the grownup around the table,” says one senior Justice Department official. “He’s like EF Hutton—when he talks, people listen. He can redirect a whole conversation, because he’s been doing this the longest. Everyone respects him.”
But today, after nearly 4,400 days, Bob Mueller’s war on terror is set to end.
At midnight tonight, he’ll hand over the reins of the nation’s premier domestic law-enforcement agency to newly confirmed FBI director Jim Comey, his longtime friend and onetime companion in the trenches of the war on terror.
Mueller has remade the Bureau from top to bottom, transforming its intelligence capabilities, focusing it on counterterrorism and cybercrime, and growing it internationally in ways Hoover never could have imagined. With little public note, the FBI under Mueller has become the first truly global police force, transforming the domestic agency created to combat interstate crime into one focused increasingly on transnational crime, especially in the arenas of cybercrime and counterterrorism. Whereas Hoover in his lifetime never crossed either the Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean, Mueller has become a global diplomat. A world map in the deputy director’s office shows more than 60 locations abroad where FBI agents are now posted, and Bureau leaders talk of its reach “from Indianapolis to Islamabad.” As Mueller says, “The FBI has never faced a more complex threat environment than it does today, whether one considers terrorism, espionage, cyber-based attacks, or traditional crimes.”
Indeed, Mueller’s final year has been especially difficult—perhaps his most challenging since the year after 9/11. In March, he personally fell victim to the rising tide of online identity theft when the details of his life—along with those of celebrities like Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Britney Spears, and Donald Trump—were leaked by a Russian hacker website. It was as disruptive to him as it was to anyone else, with Mueller spending evenings and weekends reassembling the mundane details of modern life, changing credit cards and bank accounts, and so forth.
The following month, the Boston Marathon bombing—the first successful terrorist attack on US civilians since 9/11 itself—tested the agency, first with the initial attack, then with the subsequent citywide lockdown and manhunt, then finally with the public questions surrounding whether better investigation in previous years might have stopped the attackers earlier. In the weeks after the bombing, too, in a confusing incident that still remains murky publicly, an FBI agent in Florida shot and killed a Chechen immigrant being interrogated about his connection to the Tsarnaevs.
In May, Mueller had to add two more photos to the memorial wall above his desk tracing the agents who have died in the line of the duty during his watch: Christopher W. Lorek and Stephen Shaw, both members of the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team, died in a training accident off the coast of Virginia. (The wall contains now nine photos—the first being FBI bomb technician Leonard Hatton, who died at the World Trade Center in the September 11 attacks.)
More recently, over the course of the summer, Mueller has faced two separate damaging PR issues: In Boston, the trial of former FBI Most Wanted fugitive Whitey Bulger—a case Mueller has been on the periphery of since his days in the Massachusetts US Attorney’s Office in the 1990s—highlighted a sordid chapter in the FBI’s history, when a corrupt agent turned mob informant, John Connolly, partnered with the Irish mafia leader to help him escape capture; and in Washington, the steady leaks about national security surveillance programs by Edward Snowden have kept up public pressure about investigative overreach and privacy intrusions more than a decade after the September 11 attacks.
And through all of this, Mueller has had to guide the Bureau through the ham-handed federal budget cuts known as “sequestration,” which has forced the Bureau to implement a hiring freeze and cut half a billion dollars from its planned spending—cuts that have impacted almost every program in the Bureau in some measure.
Now, with war clouds on the horizon with Syria as Mueller prepares to exit the Hoover Building tonight for the final time as director, the FBI is stepping up its surveillance and intelligence operations domestically in the hope of disrupting any possible retaliatory attacks by US-based Syrian or Iranian operatives.
Yet even while dealing with all these headlines, Mueller has been trying to raise the threat of cyber attacks, which in his final years at the FBI he’s become convinced pose as greater or even a greater threat to the nation than terrorism. He used his final speech as director in August to highlight the growing cyber threat. “These criminals are constantly discovering and exploiting vulnerabilities in our software and our networks. They have also become increasingly professional: They are organized . . . they network … and they share tools, stolen data, and know-how,” he told an international crowd at Fordham University’s conference on cybersecurity. “We must remember that behind every intrusion is a person responsible for that intrusion—a warm body behind the keyboard, whether he or she sits in Tehran or Tucson, Shanghai or Seattle, Bucharest or the Bronx.”
As Mueller said, quoting Winston Churchill’s line about only reaching the “end of the beginning”: “When it comes to securing our networks, we are still in the early stages of a long struggle.”
And yet, for now, Mueller’s long struggle is coming to an end. It will fall to others to carry forward Mueller’s agenda now as he leaves behind a Bureau in which the majority of employees have now never known another director.
Whether anyone could be adequately prepared to take over today’s FBI is an open question. The agency Mueller is preparing to hand over is hugely transformed from the one he inherited in the summer of 2001. The Bureau has long occupied a unique niche in the American psyche, the vision of the G-Men fighting “public enemy number one” etched into popular culture by decades of newsreels, movies, and TV dramas—whether that enemy be gangsters, Mafioso, Nazi saboteurs, Communist spies, or the Ku Klux Klan. (Within hours of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords being shot in January 2011, for instance, President Obama signaled his concern by personally dispatching Mueller to Tucson, Arizona.) Jim Comey, the next FBI director, will be tasked with keeping the unrelenting focus on national security, leading a global intelligence agency with tentacles in every corner of the world and a budget that would equate it to a Fortune 300 company, larger than Campbell’s Soup, Visa, or Yahoo.
The irony is that the Mueller of 2001 would likely today not be considered qualified to replace himself. The Princeton-educated Philadelphian, who won a Bronze Star for valor and a Purple Heart as a Marine platoon commander in Vietnam, had spent most of his career as a prosecutor when President Bush tapped him to take over from Louis Freeh. When he was asked to take over the Bureau in the summer of 2001, he thought his main mission would be to update the FBI’s antiquated computer system. The e-mail system was so outdated that in the summer before 9/11, the only way FBI agents in San Francisco could get a suspicious e-mail about al-Qaeda to agents in New York was to save it to a floppy disk and have an agent fly commercially cross-country to hand-deliver the disk.
When he started as director on September 4, 2001, Mueller had little experience in counterterrorism. “Coming into it, I wasn’t as familiar with al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden,” he recalls. On the morning of 9/11, he was coincidentally sitting in the FBI’s command center receiving one of his first briefings on al-Qaeda and the bombing of the USS Cole when reports arrived of a plane hitting the World Trade Center. “How could a plane not see the tower? It’s so clear out today,” Mueller wondered out loud. Over the coming minutes, it became clear that the incident was anything but an accident.
In the weeks after the attacks, thousands of agents were shifted to counterterrorism and intelligence work—areas that had long been considered a backwater and a career-killer within the criminally focused organization. Mueller’s life—and thus the Bureau as a whole—has been driven ever since by the “threat matrix,” the daily spreadsheet that lists all of the current plots the Bureau and government are tracking. As Mueller explains, “My admonition is, ‘No counterterrorism lead goes uncovered.’”
“He’s never let his foot off the accelerator,” explains former deputy director Tim Murphy, who himself was just a midlevel organized crime and drug squad supervisor in Florida on 9/11 and has risen through the ranks of Mueller’s Bureau to be its second highest official. “It was a continuous drive—not fast enough, not quick enough.”
Recalls Comey, the former deputy attorney general who until recently worked for a hedge fund in Connecticut, “[Mueller] drives at such speed that he can burn up people around him. Some people burn people up because they’re assholes; Bob burns them up by sheer exertion.”
Mueller’s relentlessness eased up some as the Bureau’s position strengthened and the response to terrorism within the Washington apparatus matured, but only in 2009, with the new Obama administration in town, did his staff convince him to stop arriving at the office at 6 AM. Instead, while his alarm clock still went off at 5, he worked at home for two hours before arriving at the Hoover Building at 7. “I still have to work on patience,” Mueller says. “You see things that still need to be done and changed daily.”
What he has accomplished in his ten-year term is nothing less than a top-to-bottom reinvention of the FBI. Few areas of the Bureau’s transformation are more clear than the changes in its business practices. Whereas for decades FBI agents had overseen all aspects of the Bureau, Mueller brought in a Fortune 500 human resources executive to revamp the Bureau’s nonexistent HR system, a CIA official to oversee its intelligence gathering, and an ABC News reporter to head its public affairs, as well as outsiders to be general counsel, the head of IT, and his chief of staff. Working with consulting firms such as McKinsey and Accenture, as well as Harvard Business School and Chicago’s Kellogg School of Management, Mueller has tried to end the dominance of the “agent generalist” and formalize career paths, HR plans, and leadership development efforts.
The transformations have not been without stumbles. The Bureau’s IT infrastructure continues to struggle; hundreds of millions of dollars were squandered in aborted upgrades in the years after 9/11, and Mueller has recently conceded that its current program is two years behind schedule. And the implementation of some of the Bureau’s new post-9/11 powers have been sloppy and mismanaged, particularly the misuse of National Security Letters granted by the Patriot Act, which allowed agents to collect things like phone records without a warrant, leading to Mueller being called on the carpet in a private meeting with President Bush in 2006. Mueller recalls that during his first years as FBI director, he struggled to get “ground truth,” to find out “what’s really happening, not just what people want to tell you.” As he explains, “The mistakes I’ve made are when I haven’t gotten to the bottom of it, dug really deep down, asked all the questions.”
As the Bureau refocused on terrorism, its criminal division atrophied. Some 2,000 FBI agents were pulled out of drug investigations along the Mexican border, a redeployment of resources that has contributed to the spiraling drug violence in the border region. Public corruption, violent crime, organized crime, and white-collar financial fraud prosecutions are all down by as much as half their staffing pre-9/11. Many lower-level federal offenses now go uninvestigated entirely, creating what agents call “risk-free” categories of crime. During tours of field offices, agents will point out how whole office floors once devoted to violent crime may only occupy a few cubicles. The diminished resources of the criminal division has been brought to the fore as local and state police forces find themselves increasingly battered by their own budget cuts.
A spate of high-profile busts—the largest public corruption sweep in US history in 2010 netted 133 Puerto Ricans charged with protecting drug traffickers there, and the largest organized crime bust in history in 2011 netted 120 alleged Mafioso in New York—have been seen as a sign that the Bureau is trying to reestablish its bread-and-butter criminal operations. But it’s still doing it with limited resources. While the NYPD has more than 34,500 officers and the Transportation Security Administration now has a staff of some 58,000, the Bureau only has a few thousand more agents than it did before 9/11. “I’m not terribly optimistic about what we face down the road in terms of violent crime,” Mueller says. “I’ll fight tooth and nail for more criminal agents, but I’ll never at the end of the day take an agent out of counterterrorism and national security.”
Whereas the Bureau’s original mission—catching “public enemies” like John Dillinger—was a relatively straightforward undertaking, combating terrorism has moved Mueller and the Bureau into the world of geopolitics and the complicated calculus that comes with it. Mueller’s role made him one of the nation’s most prominent overseas counterterrorism envoys, negotiating extensively with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh before the Yemeni dictator was forced out of power during the Arab Spring uprisings. Mueller also helped to broker agreements between the Afghan and Pakistani governments in tripartite talks in Islamabad. As Mueller explains, “When I look ahead, threats are going to have one foot in the US and one foot overseas. When I started out as a prosecutor, maybe one case in ten would intersect with someone in another state. Now in many areas, it’s not just other states, it’s other countries.”
In the summer of 2009, Mueller became the most vocal US opponent of the release by the Scottish government of Libyan intelligence officer Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the only person imprisoned for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103—a case Mueller had originally helped oversee at the Justice Department under President George H.W. Bush. Megrahi was greeted as a hero on the tarmac in Libya after being released on “compassionate grounds” by the Scots as part of health concerns that, based on newly released documents, seem to have been more about helping British firms access Libya’s oil reserves. Amid a series of tepid official condemnations—President Obama labeled it “highly objectionable”—Mueller’s letter to Scottish minister Kenny MacAskill stood out. Far from an official missive of the state to a fellow government official, Mueller’s letter was personal and heartfelt, written by a man not prone to public rebukes. As he wrote, “Your action in releasing Megrahi is as inexplicable as it is detrimental to the cause of justice. Indeed, your action makes a mockery of the rule of law. Your action gives comfort to terrorists around the world.”
Despite his respect and institutional knowledge within national security circles, Mueller has kept a low profile inside Washington, eschewing press conferences and the social circuit. He hasn’t done the Sunday morning Washington talk shows since 2002. He gives only a few public speeches a year—mostly to law-enforcement groups—and has done only a handful of sit-down television interviews in his 12 years heading the Bureau. He sees his job as leading the Bureau’s transformation—not politicking or debating policy. “This is all about putting the Bureau in a posture of predicting the next threat,” Mueller says.
Nearing 70, he’s not looking forward to retirement—he hopes to continue in government service in some capacity in the months and years ahead. (His last stint “retiring” from the government, after leaving the Justice Department at the conclusion of the George H.W. Bush administration after serving as an assistant attorney general only lasted a year before he rejoined the DC US Attorney’s Office as a junior homicide prosecutor.) Today, the private sector doesn’t hold much interest to him, and there’s only so much golf he looks forward to playing.
“After a day or two of that, I’ll be bored stiff,” he says. “It’s all gone by very quickly.”
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