Mueller Often Uses FBI Jet Bought for Counterterrorism

By John Solomon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 12, 2007

When the FBI asked Congress this spring to provide $3.6 million in the war spending bill for its Gulfstream V jet, it said the money was needed to ensure that the aircraft, packed with state-of-the-art security and communications gear, could continue to fly counterterrorism agents on "crucial missions" into Iraq.

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the bureau has made similar annual requests to maintain and fuel the $40 million jet on grounds that it had a "tremendous impact" on combating terrorism by rapidly deploying FBI agents to "fast-moving investigations and crisis situations" in places such as Afghanistan.

But the jet that the FBI originally sold to lawmakers in the late 1990s as an essential tool for battling terrorism is now routinely used to ferry FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III to speeches, public appearances and field office visits.

In fact, Mueller's travel now accounts for nearly a quarter of the flight time for the lone FBI jet able to make international flights.

FBI officials acknowledged to The Washington Post that Mueller's use of the Gulfstream is a marked departure from the travel practices of his predecessors, such as Louis J. Freeh, who flew commercially or used a smaller Cessna Citation jet. They said that Mueller's aides first check with the counterterrorism division to make sure the Gulfstream is not needed for terrorism operations, and that the Justice Department approves each flight.

They also said that Mueller's logistical and security advisers have urged him to use the plane routinely. "It's not like he is the one checking the box for which plane he uses," Assistant Director John Miller said. "He is the CEO of the FBI's part in the war on terror. That means every trip he makes -- whether to rally the troops in field offices, to negotiate agreements with partners overseas or to explain to the public the changing threats and solutions -- furthers the operational mission of the bureau."

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, has expressed concern that the jet has often been used for Mueller's routine trips rather than for counterterrorism operations, as lawmakers intended. Grassley said that when he questioned the bureau in December about how the plane was used, he received no answer.

"Using this FBI jet to get to speaking engagements when the plane is intended to help fight terrorism is a good way to lose congressional approval of a necessary resource," he said. "If the FBI wanted a jet to fly the director around, then it shouldn't try to justify the plane as a weapon in the war on terror."

Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, disagrees. "He's got to be in touch at all times," said Wolf, who said he knew about Mueller's use of the Gulfstream and is not concerned. "I think he is a good director, very honest and very ethical, and I think it is totally appropriate."

FBI officials said Mueller relies on the jet's special communications gear to ensure that he can be in instant contact with Washington in the event of another terrorist attack that grounds commercial flights, and also to conduct sensitive conversations during routine travel.

But they also said that, on occasion, Mueller has used the jet to reach a government function and then stayed behind for vacation, returning home aboard a commercial airliner that lacks secure communications. Mueller designates his deputy, John Pistole, as acting director when he flies commercially.

Mueller and his security detail typically fly on the Gulfstream from Washington's Reagan National Airport, requiring the jet to fly from a suburban airfield, where it is stored. Each time that happens, it costs an additional $1,000.

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