With the announcement that James B. Comey will be nominated by President Barack Obama to replace Robert W. Mueller III as the director of the FBI, a modern era will soon come to an end. Mueller has served longer (12 years) as FBI director than anyone since J. Edgar Hoover. He is the first person to complete a full term as director since Hoover's tumultuous and controversial 48-year reign, and the imposition of a 10-year term limit by Congress in 1976. While the public and the press generally laud Mueller for his achievements at the FBI, his own agency has a more conflicted view.
Mueller was appointed by President George W. Bush to replace Louis Freeh just days before 9/11, and was a bit like a raw recruit the first time he witnessed combat in the stressful period that followed the attack. He was little heard or seen in the field as he allowed Deputy Director Tom Pickard to lead the daily all-office conference calls and manage the initial stages of the TRADEBOM and PENTBOM cases, as the investigations into the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks were known. Mueller soon found his voice, however, and set about ensuring that the FBI was protected from the wolves that were circling the bureau, sniffing the blood of blame and recrimination for the 2,977 innocent victims. The wolves were bent on dismantling and destroying the organization that allowed 19 Saudi terrorists to live among us for so long, essentially unnoticed. The FBI was described as having precipitated an intelligence failure of epic proportions.
Mueller eventually prevailed over his detractors, and he satisfied the FBI's numerous 9/11 critics by creating the National Security Branch, an Intelligence Division, a Cyber Division, and reprogramming thousands of FBI agents from criminal work into counterterrorism and intelligence analysis. He personally initiated one of those grand paradigm shifts in government that academics and historians build careers around analyzing and evaluating. There is no doubt that Director Mueller is held in the highest esteem by local law enforcement, Congress, and the general public; he will go down in history as one of the FBI's greatest directors.
Within the FBI, however, there are at least two divergent views of Mueller's legacy. The first is that Mueller saved the FBI from being broken up into its component parts amid the 9/11 Commission's call to create a new domestic intelligence agency to address counterterrorism. For that political feat he is a hero to a great many current and former agents -- certainly to the more than 50 percent of FBI agents who have joined the bureau since 2001, many specifically to fight terrorism. Most of them have spent their entire careers working counterterrorism or intelligence matters, however, and they have no experience with the criminal investigative organization that was the pre-9/11 FBI. Theirs is a world of terrorism leads, assessments, preliminary investigations, national security letters, FISA intercepts, and the occasional undercover operation targeting a self-directed domestic terrorist.
Much like the way the FBI shifted in the 1940s from fighting bank robbery and gangster crime to fighting Nazis and catching Communist spies during the Cold War, the modern FBI became all counterterrorism, all intelligence, all the time, after the 9/11 attacks. Mueller effectively transformed the FBI into the intelligence agency that his critics always wanted it to be
To effect this great change, Mueller mandated that the FBI would leave no counterterrorism leads unaddressed, at a time when the amount of unaddressed work in FBI files was a standard by which field office manpower needs were documented. At the direction of President Bush, Mueller ordered this focus on prevention -- at the expense, if need be, of prosecution. He shifted the internal and external legacy of the FBI agent from that of a hard-nosed, cigar-smoking, tough-guy criminal investigator, to one of desk-bound, egghead intelligence collector, perusing open and classified sources for leads and tips -- an FBI agent whose job it was to collate and analyze information about terrorism, not just to investigate federal crimes.
But there is another view of Mueller's legacy. The shift to an intelligence agency was dramatic and disheartening to those who had joined the bureau under other former directors, particularly Louis Freeh, to investigate gangs, organized crime, and international cartels -- and actually put people in jail. It was now clear to them that being part of an intelligence agency was not the same as being a member of the world's premier law enforcement agency.