Robert Mueller Is Ready for His Closeup

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Robert S. Mueller

Monday afternoon Robert Mueller began the first round of his confirmation hearings with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Mueller, nominated to replace Louis Freeh as the top dog at the FBI, is widely expected to sail through the hearings; some insiders predict heíll wrap up the vote by the end of the week.

The FBI has been dogged by accusations of mismanagement, sloppy record-keeping and, most spectacularly, of misplacing thousands of files connected to the Timothy McVeigh/Oklahoma City bombing case. The recent arrest of longtime FBI agent (and accused Russian double-agent) Robert Hanssen only served to heighten the growing sense of internal disintegration.

By most accounts, Mueller is just the man for this very unforgiving job. A former Marine, Mueller has worked as a prosecutor since 1973. He counts Republicans and Democrats alike among his many fans: California Senator Barbara Boxer has publicly endorsed him, as has U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, for whom Mueller has worked since President Bush took office.

TIME Justice Department correspondent Elaine Shannon, who is keeping an eye on Muellerís confirmation process, spoke with Monday morning.

What kind of confirmation hearing do you think Mueller can expect?

Elaine Shannon: I expect it to be short and sweet. Thatís not to say there wonít be questions. The Senators can ask anything they want, and theyíre going to want a lot of reassurance from Mueller: Some people are worried that heís too much of an insider.

Muellerís a career prosecutor, and he has made a lot of personal friends — many of whom will now be working for him. So some people worry that heíll be too forgiving, too cozy with people he knows.

On the other hand, some folks whoíve worked for him have said heís very tough, even too tough, as a manager. Then you have former employees who just describe him as firm but totally objective.

Is Mueller expected to have specific plans at this point for addressing all the Bureauís problems?

I donít know. Everyone will be watching to see what kind of changes he would make, but itís hard to think of how he could provide a quick, flashy remedy for the Bureauís most publicized problems. Itís hard to address the screw-up with McVeigh, for example, on any immediate level, since that was a problem involving most field offices as well as Bureau headquarters.

Muellerís got a tough job ahead of him. On the one hand he has to convince the White House, Congress and the American people that the FBI is ready to take on the 21st Century. Thatís hard, especially considering all the new fronts in crime, like international crime, cyber crime, and the proliferation of criminal networks that can organize and disperse faster than law enforcement agents can possibly get together and work out a plan of attack.

Of course, as heís shaping up the Bureau heís also got to restore morale at the, which is at a real low point. Can he do both at the same time? Maybe, but itíll be a neat trick if he does.