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Bush Chooses Prosecutor to Reshape FBI

Law: U.S. Atty. Mueller is picked to lead an agency that is struggling with its credibility. A bruising nomination fight is probably avoided.

July 06, 2001|JAMES GERSTENZANG and ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — President Bush on Thursday chose Robert Mueller, an experienced government prosecutor who is now the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, to direct the FBI and wrestle with the spate of problems that has plagued the bureau.

In nominating Mueller, 56, for the 10-year term to succeed Louis J. Freeh, Bush took a course likely to avoid an angry, politically tinged confirmation battle in the Senate. Still, the hearing on Mueller's nomination is virtually certain to turn into an in-depth look at the agency's recent blunders.

As Mueller stood beside him in the White House Rose Garden on Thursday, Bush referred obliquely to the travails the bureau has encountered.

"The FBI has a great tradition that Mr. Mueller must now affirm and some important challenges he must confront," the president said. Bush also said he expects the agency to "remain independent of politics and uncompromising in its mission."

Mueller, if confirmed, will assume the FBI's top job during one of the agency's toughest periods. The Justice Department has launched three investigations into the bureau's operations, and it is also being reviewed by an independent commission set up by Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft.

These probes, along with intense scrutiny from Congress, were triggered by two recent episodes: the discovery that FBI counterintelligence agent Robert Philip Hanssen had spied for the Russians and the FBI's failure to turn over thousands of pages of documents to lawyers for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh, which forced a one-month postponement of his execution. Even before these incidents, the bureau had faced harsh criticism for its handling of the investigation into whether Los Alamos nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee had given secrets to China.

Congressional critics have charged that these image-damaging foul-ups underscore a climate of arrogance and suspicion toward outsiders at the FBI. And this is a culture that needs to be corrected, the critics say.

Freeh announced his resignation in May after eight years in the director's job. The choice to succeed him was widely believed to have been narrowed to Mueller, who has worked in Republican and Democratic administrations, and George Terwilliger, a former Justice Department veteran. Now a private lawyer, Terwilliger helped map out the Bush campaign's legal strategy during last year's Florida recount, which could have made him a more controversial pick.

Mueller, who won the Bronze Star as a Marine in Vietnam, was named assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division in 1990 by former President Bush and directed several sensitive cases. These included prosecutions of John Gotti, the New York mobster, and Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega. He also supervised an investigation of the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Although a Republican, Mueller was named U.S. attorney in San Francisco by President Clinton in 1999. He inherited an office that Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) noted was in need of improvement.

"He came in, he restored a great morale, prosecution rates went up, he put nine women in leadership positions," Boxer said Thursday.

She praised Mueller's selection for the FBI post: "This is a good move. Kind of what the doctor ordered right now."

Mueller would be the agency's sixth permanent director. He would oversee an operation that has moved from chasing bank robbers, kidnappers and Cold War spies to tracking cyber-crime and defending against terrorism. The FBI has a budget of $3.4 billion and more than 27,000 employees, including more than 11,000 agents.

"The next 10 years will bring more forms of crime, new threats of terror--from beyond our borders and within them," Bush said. "The tools of law enforcement will change as well. The FBI must be ready to protect Americans from new types of criminals who will use modern technology to defraud and disrupt our society."

Mueller spoke for less than a minute at the White House ceremony. He thanked Bush, saluted the FBI as "the foremost law enforcement agency in the world" and said he looks forward to the confirmation process.

Mueller was known to be Ashcroft's choice for the job, and the attorney general returned from a vacation in Missouri for Thursday's announcement. Ashcroft was impressed with Mueller's work as acting deputy attorney general earlier this year.

But as Mueller drew Ashcroft's favor, some conservative activists began expressing opposition to him. A frequent public complaint concerned his handling a decade ago of the Bank of Credit & Commerce International investigation; the critics charged Mueller had been too lax in pursuing the case, which involved fraudulent financial activities totaling billions of dollars.

Privately, some of the conservatives also raised concerns that Mueller had been appointed to his most recent post by Clinton.

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