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.
FBI officials asked The Post not to name the suburban airport because it houses other sensitive national security assets. But they said that the runways there are too short to allow the Gulfstream's takeoff while loaded with Mueller's security detail and equipment.
Mueller's predecessor, Freeh, persuaded Congress in the late 1990s to give the bureau the Gulfstream V jet -- often fancied by celebrities and chief executives -- for the narrow mission of transporting global terrorism suspects on a moment's notice back to the United States for interrogation. The bureau had operated only a small number of single-engine planes for investigative surveillance and one Citation corporate jet capable of reaching anywhere in the United States.
"We were commonly given a narrow window to remove the suspects, sometimes as little as 12 hours," Freeh wrote in his memoir, "My FBI." "In those circumstances, we would have to scramble for a military aircraft to do the transport. If one wasn't available we'd start calling friendly CEOs of American corporations to see if we could hitch a ride. . . . To me, the situation was ridiculous so I began lobbying for a Gulfstream."
The FBI succeeded after a string of terrorist attacks, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia in 1996 and the two embassy bombings in Africa in 1998.
"Due to the number of international terrorist attacks against United States personnel and facilities overseas, the FBI identified a need for an aircraft with long-range flight capabilities," stated the bureau's 1999 appropriations request to Congress.
In February 2001, the FBI struck a deal to acquire the jet from the Air Force. It was delivered around the time of the September terrorist attacks that year, documents show.
Mueller took over the bureau in late summer 2001 and has flown the plane several times to meet with his law enforcement and intelligence counterparts or to consult with FBI legal attaches in Europe and the Middle East. In one such trip last year, Mueller jetted to Bucharest, Romania; Baghdad; Islamabad, Pakistan; Kabul; Bagram, Afghanistan; and Tel Aviv in just five days, FBI officials said.
But Mueller also regularly uses the jet to visit field offices in the United States, in what his aides describe as an effort to boost morale and to keep agents focused on the counterterrorism mission. Mueller also tries to squeeze in speeches and public events.
One such trip occurred in May 2005 when he took the Gulfstream to Kansas City, Mo., to deliver a speech to a symposium on agroterrorism. Bureau officials said the plane, which seats about a dozen people and has a galley, is now flown 800 to 900 hours annually, with Mueller accounting for an average of 180 hours, or 23 percent of its flight time.
When the jet is flown on terrorism-related missions, the costs are absorbed by special money Congress gave for that purpose. When Mueller uses the jet, the FBI's base operating budget covers the costs. Appropriations for the jet have grown from $1.7 million in 2003 to $3.6 million this year.
In March 2004, after Mueller had started routinely using the Gulfstream, President Bush designated him as one of a handful of senior government officials entitled to "required use" of government aircraft for personal and government travel. FBI officials said they did not seek the designation from the White House, and Mueller has declined to use the plane for personal travel.
The FBI boasted in a message to Congress in 2003 that "the use of the G-V in recent months has had a tremendous impact on the successful rapid response of FBIHQ and field personnel and equipment to the fast-moving investigations and crisis situations in New York, Washington and Afghanistan."
In the fact sheet accompanying its 2007 budget request, the FBI stressed that the Gulfstream has flown "personnel to and from Iraq, and it is important to maintain the G-V to successfully carry out these crucial missions." The agency also said the jet had been used to bring surveillance equipment to agents working overseas, transport forensic evidence from Iraq and Afghanistan, and transport terrorism suspects.