The jockeying over who will replace FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has begun, with the FBI agents’ association urging that President Obama select the former head of the bureau’s Washington field office for the critical position.
Mueller, 66, is facing a mandatory 10-year retirement in September after a tenure in which he oversaw the crackdown on terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001, and the bureau’s ongoing transformation into an intelligence agency focused on preventing attacks.
In a letter sent Monday to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the FBI Agents Association recommended Michael A. Mason, a longtime FBI agent and supervisor who is now security chief for Verizon Communications. Mason, a former assistant director in charge of the Washington Field Office, would be the FBI’s first African American director.
Law enforcement sources said other possible candidates include Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago who investigated the leak of the identity of former CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson; New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and John S. Pistole, administrator for the Transportation Security Administration and Mueller’s former deputy. All three declined to comment Monday, as did Mason.
The sources, who declined to be identified because the search is not public, said that contenders also include James B. Comey, who was deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, and Frances Fragos Townsend, a top Bush terror adviser who was a confidante of then-Attorney General Janet Reno in the Clinton administration. Townsend declined to comment; Comey did not return e-mails seeking comment.
White House officials declined to comment, but law enforcement sources said the search for Mueller’s successor is being led by Vice President Biden, who chaired the Judiciary Committee in the Senate. Among those advising Biden are Holder and Louis J. Freeh, who was FBI director in the Clinton administration, the sources said. President Obama will make the decision.
It is unclear if any front-runner has emerged or precisely what qualities the administration is seeking in a nominee, though sources said counterterrorism experience is considered especially important.
Experts said that Mueller, a low-profile former Marine and federal prosecutor with a no-nonsense style, will be difficult to replace. Mueller started a week before Sept. 11, and his agency has successfully led the government’s efforts to prevent another terror attack on U.S. soil. It has also been criticized by some civil liberties advocates and Muslim leaders for tough anti-terrorism tactics.
“Mueller was there on the ground when we went through all this, when we had the Sept. 11 attacks, when we had the response and when he had to change the agency,’’ said Stephen A. Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University and former Justice Department official.
The agents association, which represents more than 12,000 active and retired FBI agents, is arguing that Mason fits the profile. A native of Obama’s home town of Chicago, Mason spent nearly 23 years with the FBI, rising to become executive assistant director for the Criminal Investigative Division before leaving in 2007.
His nomination would be a symbol of how far the agency has come from the days of longtime director J. Edgar Hoover, when African American agents faced difficulties and Martin Luther King Jr. was hounded by government investigations.
In an interview with The Washington Post in 2006, Mason said he was struck as a child by the heroism and intelligence of the bureau’s fabled G-men and that by seventh grade he was faithfully watching the weekly television show “The F.B.I.”
Konrad Motyka, president of the FBI agents association, said there was a “groundswell” of support for Mason’s candidacy among agents. “They said that throughout his entire career, he put agents first, had tremendous integrity and was very frank with everyone,’’ Motyka said.
Mason would be a somewhat unusual pick, however, in that he was an FBI lifer before moving to the private sector. FBI directors in recent decades have tended to come from outside the agency. Of the four directors since 1978, only Freeh worked as an FBI agent, and that was for just six years.
A possible outsider choice is Kelly, who has the backing of Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). Schumer said at a news conference Monday that he would press Kelly’s nomination with the administration.
“He understands terrorism, which obviously is at the forefront of the FBI’s mission these days,’’ Schumer said. “He has great community relations, he’s been known for outreach, and how to deal with all the disparate communities here in New York. ... I think there could be nobody better than Commissioner Kelly.’’
Staff reporters Anne E. Kornblut and Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this story.