News & Politics

Robert Mueller FBI Extension Makes History

Obama's decision launches the FBI director to legendary status

Robert Mueller. Photo by UVA Lawyer

President Obama's extraordinary decision to ask Congress to extend FBI Director Robert Mueller is a sign of just  how inseparable the former prosecutor has become with the agency that he's run since 9/11.

The FBI director's ten-year term, put into place by Congress after J. Edgar Hoover died in 1972, was meant to prevent any public official from amassing the political power that Hoover did after serving nearly 50 years as FBI director.  Since then the FBI has had five directors, none of whom have lasted the full ten-year term. Two quit early, one was fired, one was appointed to be the director of the CIA. Then there was Mueller, who has already outlasted three of his own deputy directors, four CIA directors, and four attorneys general.

Mueller, who has kept a remarkably low profile for such a high profile position, is the last high government official still in his job from 9/11—having started work as FBI Director on September 4, 2001—and was one of just two members of the national security team to carry over from the Bush administration to the Obama administration. While most Americans still don't know his name (not even a rare appearance on the cover of Time magazine last week raised his profile much, since the royal wedding and the killing of Osama bin Laden quickly overtook his story) Mueller has become something of a legend within law enforcement and intelligence circles: In fact, Mueller spent yesterday at Harvard Business School, helping to teach the aspiring business leaders there case studies on his own transformation and leadership of the Bureau since 9/11.

In many ways, Mueller's tenure is a Cal Ripken-like record—one the nation has never seen before in modern history and one that it's unlikely to see again. Being the FBI chief today is a tremendously complicated job, mixing intelligence, law enforcement, geopolitics, and national politics. Mueller has accelerated since 9/11 the FBI's growth into the world's first global police force, with hundreds of agents now deployed to more than 80 countries overseas, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Thailand and Hungary. FBI agents now range far afield from the U.S. to make cases and chase down suspects; under Mueller the FBI has worked its first case out of Antarctica and last month  conducted its first ground raid in Somalia to capture a pirate ringleader and bring him back to the U.S. to stand trial.

The decision by Obama, first rumored last summer but considered a longshot inside the Department of Justice because its unprecedented nature, allows Mueller to see through two of his signature priorities: Revamping the Bureau's computer system, which ran hundreds of millions of dollars over budget in the years after 9/11, and rebuilding the Bureau's criminal division, which was decimated in the years after 9/11 as thousands of personnel were reassigned to counterterrorism and national security. In the last two years, Mueller has shifted more emphasis back towards criminal investigations, including appointing one of his most favored executives, T.J. Harrington, to head the division. In both the criminal division and the new cybercrime efforts, Mueller has been emphasizing the same evolution he led the counterterrorism division through, pushing them to focus more on
intelligence-led and threat-driven cases.

The Sentinel computer system, the latest in a series of big IT projects the FBI has undertaken after initial hiccups in the years after 9/11 caused Mueller to scrap the first entire upgrade, was delayed last year for another year or two as the Bureau shifted course again.

The decision by Obama to extend Mueller was also partly a reaction against the other possible replacements: The field of contenders, including Mueller's former deputy director John Pistole, now head of the Transportation Security Administration, former Homeland Security Advisor Ken Wainstein, National Counterterrorism Center head Mike Leiter, and others, left the Obama administration wanting. A sure sign of just how much the job has changed since Mueller took over in 2001 is that it's unlikely that the Robert Mueller of 2001, who at the time was a U.S. Attorney in San Francisco with little counterterrorism or intelligence experience, would likely not even be considered for the
job today.

Read Washingtonian's 2008 profile of Mueller here and here.

Garrett M. Graff, the editor of Washingtonian magazine, is author of the definitive account of Mueller's tenure at the FBI, The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror (Little, Brown, 2011).

Subscribe to Washingtonian
Follow Washingtonian on Twitter

More>> Capital Comment Blog | News & Politics