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Obama hopes to extend FBI director's term

President says Robert Mueller 'has set the gold standard for leading the bureau,' where a 10-year term limit is in place. Obama will ask Congress to extend Mueller's stay by two years, and key lawmakers voice their support.

May 13, 2011|By David G. Savage, Washington Bureau
  • FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III (Jason Reed / Reuters )

Reporting from Washington — President Obama will ask Congress to extend the 10-year term of FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who took over a sometimes plodding bureau caught flat-footed by the Sept. 11 attacks and turned it into a fast-moving counter-terrorism agency.

"In his 10 years at the FBI, Bob Mueller has set the gold standard for leading the bureau," Obama said in a statement Thursday.

"I believe continuity and stability at the FBI is critical at this time," he added.

Mueller, 66, told the president he was willing to stay for two more years.

Continuity and stability have been the president's themes of late when facing vacancies on his national security team. He is moving CIA Director Leon E. Panetta to the Defense Department to replace the retiring Robert M. Gates, and is bringing in Army Gen. David H. Petraeus to take over the CIA.

House and Senate approval are necessary for the two-year extension, and Mueller provides Obama with another well-regarded appointee with bipartisan appeal.

The FBI still lives in the shadow of its first director, J. Edgar Hoover, who served for 37 years, until his death in 1972. He amassed enormous and unchecked power in Washington by having his agents compile files on politicians, including the president. He also used secret wiretaps to spy on his enemies. After his death, lawmakers established that the FBI director would serve a single 10-year term. Mueller will be the first director to complete a full term.

Although there was no sign of strong opposition in Congress, one key senator said he was uneasy about relaxing the 10-year limit.

"This is an unusual step by the president and is somewhat of a risky precedent to set," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The limit is "an important safeguard against improper political influence and abuses of the past."

He added, however, that Mueller had "proven his ability to run the FBI. So I'm open to the president's idea."

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee chairman, said he was delighted by the news and said he fully supported the idea to retain Mueller for two more years.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, also backed the proposal.

But American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony D. Romero criticized the idea. Romero said the 10-year limit prevented "allowing an unelected official to hold the power to examine the lives of Americans, including our political leaders, for longer than is appropriate." He also said the FBI had abused civil liberties under Mueller.

In recent weeks, Obama administration officials reportedly considered several prominent candidates to step into the top job at the FBI, including former Deputy Atty. Gen. James B. Comey; New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly; U.S. Atty. Patrick J. Fitzgerald in Chicago; and former Assistant Atty. Gen. Kenneth Wainstein, who headed the Justice Department's national security unit in the George W. Bush administration.

"Bob is a hard person to replace," Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. told reporters last month, foreshadowing the outcome.

Mueller was chosen as FBI director by Bush in the summer of 2001. He took office on Sept. 4, a week before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

It soon became clear that FBI agents in Minneapolis and Phoenix had known weeks earlier of suspicious Muslim men seeking training to fly airplanes. But the bureau failed to "connect the dots," it was later said.

Mueller led the drive to transform the FBI from a crime-fighting agency to an intelligence-gathering operation.

david.savage@latimes.com

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