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"But there's a place where you draw a black-and-white line and say, 'I can't do that'?" I ask.
"Yes," Mueller replies.
"'If I'm ordered to do that, I can't'?"
The Stellar Wind confrontation was a rare moment in presidential history, an act of defiance that turned the Commander in Chief in his tracks. "You can only do that once, threaten to resign," says Frances Fragos Townsend, who was then Bush's counterterrorism adviser. "The second time you do it, you're going to be told, 'Accepted.'"
That was not how it turned out for Mueller. He did it again two years later, with much the same result.
On May 18, 2006, with Justice Department backing, Mueller obtained a search warrant for the legislative office of Representative William Jefferson. The seizure of documents there, in a corruption probe, touched off a furious protest on Capitol Hill, where members of both parties accused the Bush Administration of crossing a constitutional line. Separation of powers, Jefferson's lawyers argued, forbade executive intrusion into the protected spaces of the House.
In tense negotiations, aides to Bush instructed the FBI to return Jefferson's papers. Mueller again joined by top Justice Department officials passed word that he would leave before handing back evidence obtained by a lawful court order. A standoff ensued. Finally, Bush withdrew the instruction. He asked the FBI to seal Jefferson's papers temporarily while the Congressman made a constitutional challenge. Mueller agreed, the search warrant was upheld, and Jefferson was convicted of bribery, racketeering and money laundering. He remains free pending appeal.
Mueller has never spoken publicly of this episode either. I ask him what issue of principle was at stake.
"I think you've perhaps hit on a " Mueller says, then stops. "I'm just going to stay away from it. I was close, but I've just got to stay away from it."
When Mueller convened his executive team on Feb. 17, Aldawsari had been under a microscope for two weeks. Four shifts of agents watched the Saudi engineering student 24 hours a day. Vehicles equipped with StingRay transceivers followed him around greater Dallas, recording his cell-phone calls. Agents had slipped secretly into Aldawsari's apartment, armed with a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. They inventoried his chemicals, cloned his computer drive and copied a journal handwritten in Arabic.
Hours before that morning's briefing, Aldawsari had published a blog post alluding to a special celebration of his upcoming 21st birthday. One of his handwritten journal entries, according to a hasty FBI translation, said, "And now, after mastering the English language, learning how to build explosives and continuous planning to target the infidel Americans, it is time for jihad."
Meanwhile, in the Spokane operation, investigators had caught a break. Harpham, a former member of the neo-Nazi National Alliance, was already a suspect, but until now he could not be linked forensically to the bomb plot. Hundreds of agents, canvassing retail purchases that matched bomb components, finally found a debit-card transaction in Harpham's name. The card had been used to buy a quantity of fishing weights at Walmart, the same brand and batch used as shrapnel in the backpack bomb.
As criminal cases, Lubbock and Spokane were well in hand. By now, the FBI of old would have placed the suspects under arrest. Waiting raised the risk that they might slip surveillance and flee or launch an unexpected attack. But Mueller has changed this way of thinking. Moving in too soon would tip the FBI's hand, risking the loss of valuable intelligence. Harpham and Aldawsari looked like classic lone wolves, but investigators could not yet rule out accomplices. Were there opportunities to trace a network of support financial, operational or ideological that might lead to plotters of otherwise unrelated attacks?
This new way of thinking "is wickedly important to him," says Tracy Reinhold, the FBI's assistant director for intelligence. "You want to make sure that you gather all the intelligence you can possibly get before you decide to disrupt."
Mueller dug in, detail by granular detail. Did Harpham have offline contacts with his online correspondents in the Vanguard News Network, where he posted messages calling for race war? Had his Army service at Fort Lewis, Wash., overlapped with soldiers there who provoked a scandal with white-supremacist tattoos? What was holding up delivery of Harpham's Army DNA records?
In Lubbock, the team that searched Aldawsari's apartment had been interrupted and did not have time to learn whether he had unpacked his chemicals or whether he had the makings for a high explosive that required no phenol. The hasty retreat also left a gap in electronic surveillance, which nowadays has to include not only phone taps and pinhole cameras but voice-over-Internet, social-network messaging and online-gaming consoles. The Texas plot was unfolding across three e-mail addresses, which sent one another lists of "targets" and "nice targets" and directions for handling TNP. Was it one man? Two? Three?