WASHINGTON — A federal prosecutor in San Francisco has emerged as the leading candidate to replace Louis J. Freeh as head of the beleaguered FBI, administration sources said Tuesday.
Robert Mueller, a longtime Justice Department official who is now the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, is "clearly the only candidate left," said one administration official who asked not to be identified.
A second administration source familiar with the discussions about the FBI post confirmed that Mueller is considered the leading candidate of those considered so far but cautioned that the White House has not ruled out bringing new names into the mix for consideration. "It's not a done deal," the official said.
Rumors have intensified in recent days about the White House's plans for a successor to Freeh, who last month announced plans to retire. But Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said Tuesday that "there's nothing imminent."
He refused to discuss possible nominees. "I have not indicated who is under consideration to become the next director of the FBI, and I don't speculate about who the president is interviewing and when the president will make that decision," Fleischer said.
Mueller has been widely known for weeks to be among the two leading contenders for the high-profile job.
The second candidate, George Terwilliger, was a top Justice Department official during the administration of Bush's father. But he was also a legal strategist for George W. Bush during the Florida recount battle, and that is considered a potential political roadblock to his confirmation, particularly at a time when the FBI is undergoing tremendous scrutiny for its failure to turn over documents in the Timothy J. McVeigh investigation and its inability to detect major espionage breaches in the Robert Philip Hanssen spy case.
The missteps have prompted calls for reforms from members of Congress, including some who have traditionally been strong supporters of the FBI.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), head of the House Judiciary Committee, plans to introduce a measure today that would create an inspector general post to oversee the FBI, and the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a separate hearing today with a high-profile list of witnesses who will examine allegations that the bureau has resisted outside scrutiny.
If Mueller succeeds Freeh, he will be asked to revitalize an agency that has seen its image badly tarnished by the scandals of the last few months. The agency is already expanding its use of polygraphs on agents as a result of the Hanssen case, and more security reforms will likely result from an ongoing review into the case.
Although Mueller does not have the name recognition of some other candidates, he is popular among Justice Department officials because he served earlier this year as acting deputy attorney general during the first few months of Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's administration.
A Republican, Mueller is regarded as a candidate who would have a fairly broad base of political support because he was picked by Democrats in the Clinton administration in 1998 to head the U.S. attorney's office in Northern California.