Robert Mueller III denies that political turmoil surrounding the controversial firing of US attorneys has had any impact on the Federal Bureau of Investigation and warns of continuing terrorist threats to the US, especially from weapons of mass destruction.
The FBI director spoke Wednesday at a breakfast for bureau chiefs and columnists sponsored by the Monitor. His appearance came the day after the arrest of six foreign-born Muslims on charges of plotting an armed attack on Fort Dix, N.J., with assault rifles and grenades. The FBI said it first learned in January 2006 of the plot to kill as many US soldiers as possible.
Mr. Mueller said the bureau and the Justice Department decided to arrest the men this week because the suspects were about to obtain weapons from a source the FBI did not control. "Consequently, the danger of their undertaking the attack without us being knowledgeable about it was enhanced and increased."
On the broader question of the terrorist threat to the US, there is "no doubt in my mind that Al Qaeda is plotting to attack us in the United States," Mueller said. He said "the biggest threat faced by the United States in the counterterrorism arena ... I would say right now is WMD [weapons of mass destruction] in the hands of terrorists."
The FBI director parried repeated questions about whether the controversial firing of eight US attorneys by the Bush administration had affected FBI morale or whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's weakened political situation affected Mueller's relationship with his boss. Mr. Gonzales is slated to return to Capitol Hill on Thursday to testify about the firings to the House Judiciary Committee.
"The only thing I will talk about is the FBI," Mueller said. "The FBI has not been affected at all. We continue as we have in the past and whatever controversy there has been regarding these eight US attorneys has not affected the work of the FBI with our counterparts in the US attorneys' offices." Mueller spent a considerable portion of his career working in US attorneys' offices – 12 years at the start of his career, then a later stint in the District of Columbia US attorney's office, and finally a tour as US attorney for San Francisco.
Democrats are zeroing in on charges that the US attorney firings may have resulted, in part, from a desire to influence probes of public corruption. When asked whether Bush administration officials in the Justice Department had interfered with FBI public-corruption investigations, Mueller said, "I have not seen an indication of political pressure in any way adversely affecting any of our investigations."
Mueller was asked how the FBI's reputation was affected by a March 2007 report by the inspector general of the Department of Justice. The IG found the bureau had made widespread illegal and improper use of so-called "national security letters" to obtain Americans' phone and financial records. "Yes, it does hurt to have stumbled there and as you can see we are addressing that," Mueller said. Before the breakfast began, Mueller's aides distributed a sheet listing seven steps the bureau was taking "to correct deficiencies identified" by the inspector general.
Mueller added that, "I tend to think that if you travel around the country and talk to people about the FBI there is a huge amount of residual respect and current respect for the work that we do.... Every one of the mistakes you make, be it a Waco or a [misplacement of] guns and laptops or what have you, becomes a problem for a period of time."
This fall, the director will have completed six of the 10 years in his term. As the breakfast ended he was asked what his greatest accomplishment and disappointment had been since being sworn in on Sept. 4, 2001. "In terms of greatest disappointment, probably it is not being able to have the information technology proceed as fast as I would have liked," Mueller said. When Mueller appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in late April, Chairman Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont complained about "a string of costly delays in the FBI's efforts to upgrade its computers."
Known in the bureau for being self-effacing, Mueller said, "The greatest accomplishment so far is not mine, it is really the organization's – the willingness of the FBI and its people to understand in the wake of Sept. 11 that priorities had to change, that we had to do things differently to protect the American public. It is the bureau itself, the agents, the analysts, the professional staff who understand that and have welcomed change, embraced change."