Hearings Open on Mueller

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Laying out his agenda for the first time, San Francisco prosecutor Robert S. Mueller pledged Monday that his "highest priority" as head of the FBI will be to restore the American public's trust and confidence in the battle-weary bureau.

"There has been an erosion of management oversight. There has been an erosion I believe of management accountability," and that atmosphere has contributed to the recent string of law enforcement gaffes at the FBI, a stern Mueller concluded as the Senate Judiciary Committee opened hearings on his nomination for the 10-year post as director of the agency.

Among his priorities, Mueller said he wants to overhaul the FBI's management structure, ensure there is adequate security at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and expand efforts to fight terrorism, cyber-crime, securities fraud and other growing threats.

He also signaled his political independence as he acknowledged that a gun plan proposed recently by the man who would be his boss--Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft--conceivably could subvert the FBI's efforts to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.

Mueller's performance drew unrestrained praise from lawmakers, and Democrats and Republicans alike predicted that he will win easy confirmation to lead the FBI through troubled times. A Senate vote on his nomination could come as soon as Friday.

The White House hesitated for weeks before announcing Mueller's nomination three weeks ago, worried in part that Mueller--a longtime federal prosecutor who now is the U.S. attorney in San Francisco--might not have the name recognition needed to head the nation's premier law enforcement agency. But there was little sign of ambivalence at Monday's hearing, as senator after senator praised Mueller's legal acumen, his tenacity and leadership skills, and his decorated service as a Marine during the Vietnam War.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Mueller is "an exceptionally perfect fit for the job."

And Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that any nominee who could garner support from Barbara Boxer, the liberal Democratic senator from California, as well as from Ashcroft, the conservative Republican, "has to be doing something right."

The Senate hearing proved to be less about Mueller's credentials than about what changes are demanded at a 27,000-employee agency racked by scandals. The FBI has come under growing fire over former agent Robert Philip Hanssen's spying for the Russians, the bureau's failure to turn over thousands of pages of documents to defense lawyers for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh, abuses in the Wen Ho Lee espionage investigation and other recent missteps. The FBI now is facing five separate investigations into its conduct in these and other matters.

Senators on the panel ticked off the now familiar litany of recent embarrassments to the FBI and sought to leave their own imprint on what direction reforms should take. And the senators told the nominee that, as Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) characterized the challenge, they expect Mueller to "help the FBI overcome these recent black eyes and resume its place in the forefront of American law enforcement."

Mueller, who will be 57 next week and will soon undergo surgery for prostate cancer, pledged to continue many of the reforms now underway at the FBI and said he already has spoken with executives at successful corporations to get ideas for further management changes.

Among the ideas he wants to pursue, Mueller said, is the expanded use of polygraph testing for agency employees--a move the FBI resisted for years until the scandal this spring over Hanssen's espionage. He pledged to do away with the FBI's "antiquated" system of filing written investigative reports and to move to a paperless computerized system, allowing quicker access to information and avoiding the types of pitfalls seen in the McVeigh case. And he said he would consider expanded tape-recording of FBI interviews to give its investigations greater credibility--another idea the bureau has resisted through the years.

On a broader level, Mueller said the FBI "has outgrown its management structure," adding thousands of agents and billions of dollars in funding over the years without modifying its leadership structure. The result, he said, is a perception that senior managers try to cover up miscues and are not held accountable for poor performance.

"Nobody is perfect, and we want to encourage people to come forward immediately when mistakes are made," Mueller said. "But we must hold people accountable, and we cannot tolerate efforts to cover up problems or blame others for them. . . ." Indeed, Mueller surprised several Democrats with his apparent willingness to question Ashcroft's recent decision concerning a controversial gun policy. At issue was Ashcroft's proposal last month to have the FBI destroy gun purchase records within 24 hours instead of keeping them for three to six months to check for fraud.

Ashcroft said the privacy rights of gun owners are jeopardized by keeping the purchase records for months at a time. But Schumer has condemned the decision and proposed a legislative countermeasure, charging that Ashcroft is beholden to the National Rifle Assn.

With the issue heating up, Schumer asked Mueller whether he believed that Ashcroft's move to destroy the records almost immediately "could subvert the FBI's effort to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and go after the bad [gun] dealers."

"It could," Mueller responded. "I am not familiar with the debate or what evidence there is--what study there has been of the impact of the change--but yes, it could."

Schumer said after the hearing that he was impressed by Mueller's candor concerning the gun issue. "It confirms to me the merits of the argument [against destroying the records within 24 hours], and it confirms to me that this guy is a real straight shooter."

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