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Hearings Open on Mueller

Senate: Bush's pick to head the FBI tells panel his 'highest priority' is to restore public's trust in the battle-weary bureau.


WASHINGTON — 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.

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