A July 30 article on Robert S. Mueller, the Bush administration's nominee to direct the FBI, misstated the number of people who died in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. The 1988 bombing killed 270 people. (Published 7/31/01)
It was Jan. 22, and David Margolis was exhausted. The career Justice Department attorney had worked hard during the chaotic conclusion of the Clinton era, and the first workday of the Bush administration was upon him too soon. He reported for work at 8:55 a.m. to find a note on his chair:
"Where are you? It's 0700 hours."
The note was from Bob Mueller, the hyper-motivated prosecutor and former Marine who had been recruited to run the department's daily operations until President Bush installed his own team. Margolis, a friend of 11 years, was not the only one struck by Mueller's pace and performance in the succeeding weeks. When Louis J. Freeh announced in May he was stepping down as director of the FBI, Mueller was Bush's surprise choice to succeed him.
As it turned out, the FBI job had long intrigued Mueller. And when Mueller appears today for his confirmation hearings, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are likely to get a glimpse of the sense of mission that has propelled him throughout his career as a lawyer and prosecutor but never to a job of comparable scale.
Robert Swan Mueller III graduated from St. Paul's and Princeton, and married his high school sweetheart. Then he signed up to join the Marines. In Vietnam, he led the rescue of a trapped rifle platoon and received the Bronze Star. He rarely talks about that or the wound for which he received the Purple Heart. In the '70s and '80s, he joined two country clubs that barred women. In the '90s, he promoted women to positions of influence.
He laughs at jokes but rarely tells them. Friends say he's punctual even about his own parties, signaling their end by flicking the lights. His edges are hard when he wants something done, harder when it isn't done the way he wants but smooth when someone is suffering. He believes bragging is taboo. He declined to be interviewed for this article, but his friends, colleagues and courtroom competitors talked uniformly about his tenacity and decency.
Mueller, 56, is a registered Republican, yet a striking number of people describe him as apolitical. A Justice Department senior staff meeting went quiet this year when Mueller ran through a list of people he considered qualified for top temporary jobs, most of them Democrats. It had never occurred to him that Democrats and the new Republican administration might not mesh.
Mueller owes his first significant Justice Department job to George H.W. Bush, his second to Bill Clinton. Now, he heads into the confirmation process with the support of liberal California Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) and conservative Republican Attorney General John D. Ashcroft.
But even with no obstacles to his confirmation in sight, some White House and congressional staff members question Mueller's ability to manage the 27,400-person agency.
He is Bush's choice to redeem the FBI after years of escalating embarrassment. From the Robert P. Hanssen spy case and the bungled Wen Ho Lee investigation to turf battles with the Justice Department and charges of arrogance and malfunction, the bureau is facing political pressure unlike any in its history.
Five inquiries are underway amid debates about the FBI's direction. Earlier this month, the FBI revealed that hundreds of guns and laptop computers had been lost or stolen. Bureau higher-ups told the Senate Judiciary Committee that security systems had been neglected for years, while FBI veterans testified that the bureau did a poor job of monitoring and investigating itself.
"The FBI has been starved for leadership," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).
Barring a surprise, the FBI's leadership will soon come from Mueller. The skills he has honed -- and some he has not -- will be tested as he manages the agency and wages its public defense. His intentionally low profile led some people in the White House to wonder whether he had enough "star power" for the job. His integrity and drive are widely lauded, yet even his supporters warn that his bluntness could work against him.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) advised Mueller on Friday that he would ask at today's hearing how the nominee would restructure the FBI and overcome its "culture of arrogance." Other constituents have other concerns.
The intelligence community was dismayed when Mueller pushed for the death penalty against Hanssen. Advocates of sentencing reform are wary of his support for mandatory minimum sentences. The conservative Free Congress Federation fears he would risk personal freedoms by pursuing cybercrime too aggressively. And an array of Mueller's advocates say he will need to get more comfortable in the spotlight.
Congress is expecting dramatic reform in a bureau that has a budget of $3.4 billion -- rather larger than Mueller's current $17 million spending in the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco.
The best agents, meanwhile, are looking for a defender of the faith.
"When someone says the FBI needs to be brought under control," said John Sennett, president of the FBI Agents Association, "the question is, whose control?"
Three times in his career, Mueller has quit private practice to enlist as a government lawyer. He also spent four months trying cases as a public defender. The first time he quit a firm, to join the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco in 1976, some of his friends thought it was strange.
"We were all working as bankers or investment bankers or in the ad business, trying to make a million dollars in two years," said Christopher Mill, a Princeton classmate of Mueller who is an executive in San Francisco. "He was making chicken feed, but he loved it."
Mueller was known among those closest to him as a man with a strong moral compass and a desire always to do more than expected. He made a number of lifelong friends at Princeton in the mid-'60s, but one of them recalled, "We used to be the crazy guys who did all the antics. Bobby would assimilate and listen and smirk, 'I don't believe you guys are doing this kind of thing.' "
In response to an e-mail question about the motivations that have guided his career, Mueller said only that he took to heart a college dictum, "Princeton in the nation's service," and had a "desire to give back what had been given to me."
His first tour in Washington began in 1989, when he was lured to the Justice Department by St. Paul's roommate and Princeton classmate Robert S. Ross, who was chief of staff to Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh. He soon took charge of the criminal division and such high-profile cases as the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and the fraud investigation into the Bank of Credit and Commerce International.
One of his first projects was to shake up the prevailing hierarchy, which prompted a backlash among some of his managers. "He can be a little bull-headed sometimes," an admirer said. "Once he settles on what he thinks is the right thing to do, he charges forward." When Mueller concluded that the department's internal security section had security lapses of its own, he fixed the problem with reassignments and early retirements. "Bob's belief was that they should be a paragon," a colleague said.
On the BCCI case, much of the attention was critical. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), one of Mueller's classmates at St. Paul's, faced off with him in 1991 during a Senate hearing on the banking scandal. Kerry and many others in Congress complained that the Justice Department was timid in pursuing the multinational case.
Mueller's defenders say he navigated turf problems, helped prosecutors untangle a complex investigation and won the forfeiture of $1.2 billion of the bank's U.S. assets. Mueller, during the 1991 hearing, said, "The criticisms of the department are fundamentally unfair. To the extent the allegations could be pursued, they were pursued." Still, 10 years later, the Wall Street Journal cited the criticism in calling Mueller "a peculiar choice" to be FBI director.
The Flight 103 investigation highlighted Mueller's attraction to complex crimes and concern for crime victims and their families. The midair bombing over the Scottish village of Lockerbie killed 230 people, including 35 Syracuse University students headed home for Christmas. On his trips to Scotland during the investigation, Mueller took in the image of passengers' belongings that had been gathered from the wreckage, particularly the many Syracuse T-shirts.
It was that image he invoked Jan. 31 in an extemporaneous talk to a group of victims' relatives. He had arrived at 4:30 a.m. to sit with them and watch, via satellite TV, a Dutch court convict one Libyan and acquit another in the case. "His eyes just filled," said Mary Lou Leary, a senior Justice Department lawyer. "He's so dignified. He didn't lose it. He waited a few minutes and he went on."
The criminal division was an A-list job, but he left in 1993 with the arrival of the Clinton administration to work at the high-octane firm of Hale and Dorr. After two years collecting a salary deep into six figures, Mueller made his most arresting career move: He called U.S. Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr. and asked to be a regular street prosecutor in the District, where homicide squads were battling unprecedented violence.
Hitting the Street
The move fed his appetite for action and his preference to act from conviction.
"In the business world, you have to make little compromises, and he wasn't willing to make any of them," a longtime friend said. "He wasn't comfortable representing anybody who was guilty of anything. His reaction was, you ought to clean up your act and tell the government what you did wrong."
Determined not to come across as a big shot, Mueller set up shop in an ordinary office on Fourth Street NW. Assigned a standard caseload of knifings, batterings and shootings, he asked his colleagues' advice about tactics and procedure. In his early fifties, he wanted to go out on the street.
"Other people fantasize about going to Paris or Hawaii. Bob Mueller doesn't care about any of that," said Dennis Saylor, his Justice Department deputy. "He's an athlete, he likes his exercise, he loves his family, but he's a prosecutor at heart."
To get an edge, he showed up at the medical examiner's office to watch an autopsy. He drove to crime scenes. He spoke to D.C. police during 9:30 p.m. roll call, pressing them to become more rigorous.
"He was consummately interested in figuring things out," said D.C. Medical Examiner Jonathan L. Arden. "He was literally and figuratively sleeves-rolled-up and in the trenches."
Mueller took nine homicide cases to a jury before Holder persuaded him to take charge of the unit. He was tough and businesslike in court, where he worked from color-coded files with plastic labels. A longtime colleague called him "a well-organized pit bull."
Yet his opponents sensed that his will to win did not trump his commitment to fairness. One day, as Eli Gottesdiener's client sat at the defense table in a jailhouse jumpsuit, Mueller coaxed details of a killing from a detective on the witness stand, working hard in his just-the-facts-ma'am style to keep the defendant behind bars until trial.
The first-degree murder case, Gottesdiener recalled, involved a bad street corner, drugs, a nasty encounter and conflicting accounts. But Mueller battled and prevailed. Afterward, Gottesdiener approached him and asked him to take another look.
Two weeks later, Mueller called to say he was dropping the case.
Gottesdiener was flabbergasted: "The wrong prosecutors with these low-life witnesses, this guy could have been put away on a murder charge and have been innocent." About Mueller, he marveled, "He's judgment without ego."
In 1998, the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco was troubled by disorganization, defections and record lows in cases filed and convictions won. Its boss had just resigned. To restore the office to working order, Holder -- who had become deputy attorney general -- recruited Mueller.
Law and Order
Mueller waded in, even though his appointment was temporary. He required all 14 supervisors to reapply for their jobs, then retained only two in their posts. The majority of the new chiefs were women and several were minorities, an increase on both counts. Mueller implemented rules to restore discipline and productivity. He abolished casual Friday. The speed and sweep of the moves shook the office.
Mueller fired no one outright, Hastings College law professor Rory Little said. "Instead, he says, 'I'm moving you to the small-case narcotics section because I think your experience is needed there and you can help the young lawyers.' He makes it sound positive, but he's putting you in Siberia."
Still, some who were demoted or transferred remain bitter. "I don't think anyone coming into an office cold like he did can know as much as you need to know about the individuals involved," said an attorney in the office at the time. "If you look at it from a strictly personal side, it was very tough and very hard to take."
The shake-up got great reviews from judges, federal agents and defense attorneys, among others. Boxer, one of the Senate's most liberal members, was so smitten with the Republican prosecutor that she bypassed declared candidates and backed Mueller for the permanent post.
"Normally, I wouldn't be saying, 'Let's nominate a straight white Republican cop as U.S. attorney,' " said San Francisco defense lawyer Cristina Arguedas, who said just that on Mueller's behalf. "But he's so superior."
After taking over, Mueller put a new focus on securities fraud in San Francisco's financial district and targeted technology-related crime in Silicon Valley. The number of criminal cases doubled, and the money recovered in civil actions rocketed from $7 million in 1998 to $208 million in 2000.
Mueller's legal strategy seemed pure law and order. He personally pursued the liberal district's first death penalty case in recent times. He made it harder for defendants to challenge plea agreements. He strongly supported mandatory minimum sentences. Frustrated that convicts were ducking court-ordered restitution, he persuaded the Justice Department to fund a pilot project.
Then, in January, Mueller got another call from Washington -- an invitation to return while the Bush administration installed its own people at the Justice Department. He would be working beside Ashcroft as acting deputy attorney general.
Soon after, Ashcroft was asking Bush to let Mueller run the FBI.
The director's post had intrigued Mueller as far back as the mid-1980s, recalled William Weld, a former Massachusetts governor and squash partner of Mueller. Princeton classmate Ross remembered the job being on Mueller's wish list when "nothing seemed less probable."
Indeed, only a series of logic-defying developments put Mueller in the position he is in now. First, Holder -- a Democrat -- brought him to Washington. Second, Freeh resigned as FBI director, two years early. Third, Ashcroft -- a Republican -- liked Mueller's style and wanted him for the job.
Mueller offered cool counsel under pressure, Ashcroft said. In February, U.S. marshals raided the Indiana Baptist Church for refusing to pay taxes. The operation to evict defiant church members threatened to turn into a crisis like the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Tex., Justice officials said, but Mueller oversaw a studied, successful operation.
He was a key figure in fierce internal administration debates over the case of FBI spy Hanssen, according to many familiar with the discussions. Mueller, along with Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, argued in favor of pursuing the death penalty because of the enormity of Hanssen's crimes.
But the stance prompted strong objections from CIA Director George J. Tenet and others within the intelligence community. They viewed the position as naive and argued that the government would gain more in finding out what Hanssen had betrayed. Ashcroft eventually agreed to drop the death penalty in exchange for life imprisonment, plus a promise from Hanssen to tell all.
Mueller played a positive role after it was discovered that the FBI hadn't turned over documents in the Timothy McVeigh case, according to Ashcroft aides. The McVeigh situation prompted complaints that Mueller was a day slow in informing Ashcroft of the problem, but Justice officials said Mueller was making sure he knew all the facts. As McVeigh's execution approached, Mueller presented to Ashcroft the arguments made by victims and relatives for a closed-circuit broadcast of the event.
Two months later, when Freeh resigned, Mueller's friend Margolis told him he would be among those shopping Mueller's name for the post.
"He blushed," Margolis said, "and mumbled."
The Ashcroft camp pushed for Mueller, but people in the White House raised their concerns about "star power" and kept talking to other candidates. Eventually, however, the White House was convinced by Ashcroft and others in the administration and on Capitol Hill that Mueller was a qualified and loyal soldier with the tenacity to clean up the FBI.
At the hearing today, Mueller will face the first public questions about his skills and intentions. Grassley said one of his first would be this: "When do you anticipate making your first substantive changes at the bureau?"