Fresh face at the FBI

Posted: Friday, July 06, 2001

This editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:

To head the FBI, President Bush has nominated the able Robert Mueller III, who has excellent bipartisan credentials and a history of successful law enforcement experience. He led the Justice Department's Criminal Division in the first Bush administration and - though a Republican - was named by President Clinton to head the troubled U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco, which he improved dramatically. Most recently, he served as acting deputy attorney general while the Justice Department was in transition, winning the respect of the current and former administration alike. He has experience with the FBI, but he is not of the FBI; that should position him to approach the job without the institutional myopia that often clouds the bureau's thinking.

Mueller's agenda will be crowded with problems. He will have to decide how the bureau should reform itself in response to the Robert Hanssen spying episode. He will have to examine the immense internationalization of law enforcement that his predecessor, Louis Freeh, brought about. Much of this extended the FBI's reach in a desirable way, but it also created an arguably unhealthy presumption that many international incidents, particularly terrorist attacks, are criminal justice matters, not issues to be dealt with diplomatically or militarily. Finding the right balance between law enforcement and more classical devices of foreign affairs is an unfinished project.

Mueller will need to develop a less political persona and a more bounded sense of his agency's mission than his predecessor had by the time he departed the scene. Though nominally a part of the Justice Department, the FBI over the past few years acted almost as its own branch of government. In addition to pushing foreign policy in directions the Clinton administration wished not to pursue, Freeh regularly lobbied Congress, where he enhanced his reputation at the expense of his boss, Janet Reno. Mueller should refocus the bureau as a police agency that understands its limits; its job is to make the prosecutorial option available, not to decide whether and how to use that option.

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