FBI Director Robert Mueller speaks during his farewell ceremony at the… (Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images )
WASHINGTON -- Outgoing FBI director Robert Mueller began the job a week before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He prepares to step down from the position 12 years later in a world that has changed completely — and with it the agency, which Mueller is credited with guiding into the 21st century.
At a farewell ceremony Thursday morning at the Justice Department, colleagues praised Mueller for his dedicated leadership and transformation of the once-embattled bureau. Mueller inherited an organization coping with scandals, including the discovery just months before that an agent was spying for the Russians, and that soon faced questions of its relevancy after 9/11. But, Atty. Gen. Eric Holder said, he leaves behind the world’s preeminent law-enforcement and intelligence agency.
“Bob set the standard for what it means to be director of the FBI,” Holder said, before giving him an award for exceptional service. “He leaves the nation safer, stronger and more secure than when he found it.”
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The two men first worked together when Holder was U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. In 1995, Mueller left private practice to serve as a homicide prosecutor under Holder, a job that Holder noted was far below Mueller’s qualifications and salary at the time.
Several speakers highlighted that decision as emblematic of Mueller’s career-long dedication to public service, which began with a tour in Vietnam with the Marines during which he won a Bronze Star and two Navy Commendation medals.
“He is and always will be a U.S. Marine,” former CIA Director George Tenet said. “His life has been defined by trust, discipline and honor.”
Tenet collaborated closely with Mueller during his early years as FBI director, helping him to modernize the organization’s intelligence operations and bridge the gap with the CIA.
He recalled facing congressional hearings with Mueller and trying to make his friend smile. “Isn’t that the dumbest question you’ve ever heard?” Tenet would whisper. “Shut up,” Mueller would reply.
Mueller was known in Washington for his strong, stern leadership style and fierce commitment to his ideals. He almost resigned in 2004 over President Bush’s support of an illegal National Security Agency wiretapping program.
But he briefly dropped his stoic demeanor at several points Thursday morning to join in the event’s celebratory and humorous tone.
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When John S. Pistole, the head of the Transportation Security Administration who was deputy FBI director for six years, advised Mueller to get “TSA PreCheck” because he would be traveling without a security detail from now on, Mueller quipped, “Now you know why you’re invited.” PreCheck allows vetted passengers to avoid airport screening lines.
At the end of the ceremony, Mueller spoke briefly, thanking those who have served under him and calling the Justice Department and the FBI another family.
His time as director gave him “gifts that I did not anticipate and for which I will be forever grateful,” he said.
Mueller’s final day is Sept. 4. He will be replaced by James Comey, who was confirmed by the Senate on Monday.