No Nominee Yet, but the Fight Over Top FBI Job Is On


President Bush has yet to name a replacement for former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, but the politicking has already begun both for and against a San Francisco prosecutor who has emerged as the leading contender to head an agency under siege.

While the lobbying so far has been low-key as the White House mulls the selection, the stakes are enormous in determining who will lead an agency that once was regarded as the crown jewel of U.S. law enforcement but now has become distrusted by many.

“Whoever it is, it better be a person who is superhuman because the American people are going to need someone who can restore their faith in this agency,” Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a former FBI agent who was considered an early candidate for the job, said in an interview. “Clark Kent, where are you when we need you?”


Administration sources say Robert Mueller, the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, is considered the leading contender for the job, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has weighed in with a private letter to Bush encouraging the longtime prosecutor’s selection.

“Bob’s extensive background in criminal justice makes him a strong candidate to lead the FBI,” Feinstein wrote in her June 19 letter. “I know Bob both personally and professionally, and I believe him to be an individual of the highest integrity.”

But Bush has moved slowly to fill the job since Freeh announced two months ago that he would resign, and the president now finds himself in the awkward position of considering a candidate who may be more attractive to many Democrats than to Republicans.

For all his law enforcement bona fides and his GOP pedigree, Mueller was appointed to the San Francisco post by the Clinton administration, and that could cause him problems among Republicans who want an FBI director they can claim as their own.

Indeed, some conservatives have begun grumbling about his possible selection. The most notable broadside came last week from the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, often considered a bellwether of conservative opinion.

Under the headline “Questions for Mr. Mueller,” the editorial declared that Mueller “would be a peculiar choice.” The piece, echoing charges made by conservative columnist William Safire a decade ago, questioned whether Mueller, when he ran the Justice Department’s criminal division in Washington in the early 1990s, was too lax in pursuing the corruption scandal surrounding the Bank of Credit & Commerce International.


The editorial contained few specific accusations against Mueller, but its political significance could not be ignored.

“Clearly, the fact that they have taken a shot at him is reason to think that he might have some problems with the right wing,” said one senior Democratic official who asked not to be identified.

Another Democratic aide was even blunter, saying: “The knives are out for him.”

Some Democrats say conservatives are looking to make a late run at securing the FBI job for George Terwilliger, a former Justice Department official who helped map Bush’s legal strategy in the Florida election battle. He is considered the second finalist for the FBI spot.

Mueller would be a popular choice at the Justice Department, where he served for more than three months earlier this year as Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft’s acting deputy and earned many fans--including Ashcroft. Some Democrats on Capitol Hill also like him because they view him as a fairly apolitical prosecutor who would not be beholden to the party that put him in office.

But Terwilliger retains a loyal following among some conservatives from the administration of Bush’s father, when he served as top deputy to Atty. Gen. William P. Barr in the early 1990s.

As Mueller’s boss at that time, Terwilliger also was involved in the controversial BCCI investigation, and he oversaw the federal response to the Los Angeles rioting in spring 1992 that followed the Rodney G. King beating verdicts. He now is in private practice in Washington.


But questions have been raised about Terwilliger as well.

His current representation of the French bank Credit Lyonnais, in which he is trying to persuade the Justice Department not to seek criminal charges against his client in a Los Angeles-based insurance fraud investigation, has raised eyebrows. And his high profile in Bush’s Florida election battle has fueled concern about whether Bush would want to risk confrontation with the newly Democrat-run Senate by nominating an FBI director seen by some as too partisan.

Mueller has avoided the fray, declining interviews and going about his normal summer duties in reviewing the caseloads of each of nearly 100 prosecutors in his San Francisco district. “He’s not out there trying to create a high profile for himself,” an associate said.

Publicly, the White House also has maintained a resolute silence about its search.

Asked last week whether the FBI search was lagging, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said only that it is White House policy “not to comment or speculate on personnel.” Thomas J. Pickard, who was Freeh’s top deputy, has taken over as acting FBI director during the search but is not considered an active candidate for the permanent post.

Privately, administration sources say Mueller is still thought to have the inside track for the job. The signals have been decidedly mixed, however, with officials stressing that the White House still may look at other candidates. Some officials are concerned that Mueller may not have the “name recognition” to take over the FBI at a time when it is the target of four major investigations because of recent scandals.

John Sennett, head of the FBI agents’ association, has heard such talk, but he points out that two recent FBI directors, Freeh and William H. Webster, “were plucked from relative obscurity” and are nonetheless credited with significant achievements.

“A highly recognizable name may not be necessary in the next director. What we’ll need is a firm and credible person in the face of all the inquiries under which the FBI finds itself,” Sennett said.


Congressional leaders, calling for widespread reforms at the FBI in the wake of the the Robert Philip Hanssen spy scandal and the Timothy J. McVeigh lost documents debacle, have zeroed in on a reputed culture of arrogance and suspicion at the 11,000-agent bureau.

Sennett said the new director will need the fortitude not only to make changes but also to stand up to outside criticism and “preserve a good deal of the FBI’s culture that’s good and worth preserving, like its political independence and its investigative objectivity.”

Whoever gets the job will come under immediate fire, said Keating, a Republican.

“The far right frequently is suspicious of government in general, the far left is suspicious of law enforcement in particular, and when you have two constituencies combining to pound the FBI into camp dust lately, that’s not healthy for anyone,” Keating said. “This is going to be a difficult task for anyone.”


Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this story.