Robert Mueller has his marching order from President Bush, who has nominated the veteran prosecutor to be the next director of the FBI. He also faces the implicit commands of congressional critics to a bureau that has become better known in recent years for its scandals and blunders than for its successes. Mueller will be expected to impose a new management style to replace what even many of the FBI’s longtime admirers now denounce as a culture of arrogance. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which will hold hearings on Mueller’s nomination, warns that many Americans believe that the bureau has become “unmanageable, unaccountable and unreliable.” Mueller’s challenge will be to demonstrate, and fairly quickly, that he is capable of correcting those deficiencies.
The first test will come in how fully and willingly the FBI cooperates with the several investigations of its operations being conducted by the Justice Department and an independent commission appointed by Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft. The FBI has always resisted outside scrutiny. Congress is saying that must change, because the FBI’s mistakes and organizational failures have become too prominent to overlook or excuse. The bureau’s reputation has been built in no small part on its spy-catching successes. Yet its own relaxed internal security let Robert Philip Hanssen, a trusted high-level official, spy for Moscow undetected for two decades. The FBI has sometimes been remarkably skillful in gathering evidence to support arrests and prosecutions. But its too narrowly focused pursuit of suspects in the Atlanta Olympics bombing case and alleged espionage at the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory proved to be investigative fiascos.
Robert Mueller is certain to face tough questions at his confirmation hearing, and in the end he is likely to be confirmed. But however strong his leadership proves to be, the FBI will remain in need of independent oversight, perhaps from an inspector general. Had there been such outside scrutiny earlier, it’s likely that many of the self-inflicted embarrassments suffered by the bureau might have been avoided.