When Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III as special counsel to investigate possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, he called on Washington’s consummate clean-up man.
A decorated Marine in the Vietnam War, Mueller has established an unmatched reputation in government and in the private sector as the guy you bring in when the situation is too politically toxic for anyone else. Last year, a federal judge appointed him to help settle more than 500 lawsuits against Volkswagen for its use of software to hide excess vehicle emissions. The NFL tasked him with writing a report about Baltimore Ravens football player Ray Rice’s assault of his then-fiancée in an elevator. And Booz Allen Hamilton, the former employer of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, hired Mueller to conduct a review after another employee, Harold Martin, removed classified NSA information.
A former U.S. attorney in San Francisco, Mueller was appointed as FBI director a week before September 11, 2001. When Al Qaeda hijackers flew planes into buildings in New York and Washington, D.C., and crashed another in a field in Pennsylvania, Mueller headed the investigation of the largest crime scene in FBI history. At the same time, President George W. Bush gave his new FBI director a mandate: never another attack.
Mueller’s job was to transform the FBI overnight from an organization set up to investigate crimes after they occurred to one that could collect intelligence and prevent the next attack. The bureau Mueller took charge of was hardly equipped for the transformation. The FBI had just a handful of agents who could speak Arabic, and the most ambitious and talented agents viewed counterterrorism and counterintelligence as career dead ends.
Dale Watson, the counterterrorism section chief Mueller inherited, was once asked in a deposition if he knew the difference between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. “Not technically, no,” Watson answered. When asked if he thought someone in his position should know the difference, Watson responded, “To some degree, yes.”
Watson was indicative of the FBI at the time. Mueller’s predecessor, Louis Freeh, was a Luddite who had resisted efforts to give FBI agents unfettered Internet access for investigative work. As a result, when the 9/11 attacks occurred, agents were forced to fax around photos of the suspected hijackers.
The Bush administration reorganized the government after 9/11, creating the Department of Homeland Security. But Mueller succeeded in pushing back on early proposals to split the FBI into a law enforcement agency and an intelligence agency. Mueller insisted that the FBI could be both, arguing that there were advantages to marrying law enforcement powers with counterterrorism, intelligence and counterintelligence mandates. He reshuffled the FBI and created a new executive assistant director position for intelligence, elevating the importance of intelligence and counterintelligence programs.
“I am committed to the closest possible cooperation with the intelligence community and other government agencies,” Mueller told Congress in 2003.
Mueller was at times a measuring influence on some of the Bush administration’s more draconian instincts. In 2004, Mueller and Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who would later succeed him as head of the FBI, threatened to quit over the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program.
Yet Mueller wasn’t a consistent critic of broadening surveillance powers. He oversaw an expansion of the FBI’s human intelligence apparatus to more than 15,000 informants — 10 times more than the FBI had during the Church Committee investigations of COINTELPRO — and approved mass surveillance programs of Muslims in the United States. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit against the FBI over warrantless surveillance of Muslims in southern California, for which the Justice Department declared the state secrets privilege by asserting that the release of information related to the litigation would harm national security. Mueller also expanded the FBI’s use of stings to catch would-be terrorists, a practice Human Rights Watch found “often targeted particularly vulnerable people, including those with intellectual and mental disabilities and the indigent.”
At the same time, Mueller battled strife from within as he transformed the bureau to function more as a counter-terrorism and intelligence agency. One of his agents, Bassem Youssef, filed a discrimination lawsuit in 2003, alleging the bureau had a “glass ceiling” for employees of Middle Eastern origin and that the FBI continued to promote agents into counterterrorism positions despite lacking knowledge of Arabic and Middle Eastern culture. When asked about this in a deposition, Mueller stood by his hiring and promotion practices. “There are a number of qualities that go into making a leader, a number of skill sets that are necessary to be effective,” he said.
FBI directors are only supposed to serve a maximum 10-year term, a limit to prevent another J. Edgar Hoover, who ran the FBI and its predecessor organization, the Bureau of Investigation, from 1924 to 1972. Demonstrating Mueller’s bipartisan support, President Obama requested a two-year extension for the director, which Congress approved.
As FBI director for 12 years, Mueller changed the FBI from within. Counterterrorism and counterintelligence went from career dead ends to the sections the most ambitious agents applied to work in, and the budgets ballooned. In 2013, Mueller’s last year as director, counterterrorism and counterintelligence received more than $3.3 billion, the largest single expenditure in the FBI budget.
“The FBI has always adapted to meet new threats. And we must continue to evolve, because terrorists, spies, and hackers certainly will,” Mueller said in a November 2011 speech.
Now that he’s heading the investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign, Mueller is in a unique position to protect his and the FBI’s legacy. He has an opportunity to display what he has long argued — that the bureau can act as an effective counterintelligence agency while, at the same time, bringing criminal charges when appropriate. He has skin in this game, and for the Trump administration, this should be concerning.