Person of the Week: Robert Mueller

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Mueller testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill

There's one job no one in America wants, and Robert Mueller's got it. And as the occupant of the hottest seat in the nation, he is our Person of the Week. Clouds have been gathering around the FBI for months, even years, but it's only over the past few weeks that the storm has moved in. Tragedy and disaster have given the FBI Director, who took on his new post six days before 9/11, an unenviable ubiquity. Now, as the hearings into intelligence failures continue on Capitol Hill, Mueller is under a very large microscope in a very public place. And everyone who's got anything negative to say about U.S. intelligence gathering wants to be sure that Mueller, who nods soberly from beneath hooded, fatigue-darkened eyes, hears every last word.

Despite his role as the target of criticism and anger, Mueller, a Justice Department employee since the 1970s, is striking a deliberately non-defensive stand before the 9/11 intelligence committees. In fact, he says he is "happy" to face the scrutiny of congressional investigators, a pronouncement that jibes nicely with his live television appearance last week, during which he outlined plans to restructure the FBI. He also offered a simple and direct mea culpa, referring specifically to Coleen Rowley's now-famously scathing letter, which criticized Mueller specifically and the FBI culture in general.

"Let me take a moment to thank Agent Rowley for her letter," he said. "It is critically important that I hear criticisms of the organization, including criticisms of me, in order to improve the organization. Because our focus is on preventing terrorist attacks, more so than in the past we must be open to new ideas, to criticism from within and without, and to admitting and learning from our mistakes. I certainly do not have a monopoly on the right answers."

The statement is typical Mueller — who, despite his occasional taciturnity, does not hide from responsibility. This week, during his marathon appearances before a closed-door joint congressional committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mueller seemed determined to maintain that lack of defensiveness. He sat quietly while the senators railed at him, and then calmly answered their questions. He was not there to tell us everything had been worked out, only to say that he, and many other people, were trying their darnedest to make things right.

Thursday night, President Bush proposed the creation a new Cabinet position, called the Secretary of Homeland Security. This new appointee will be responsible for the exchange of intelligence — essentially forcing the notoriously antagonistic FBI and the CIA to play nice. While it's not yet clear just how the new position will affect Mueller or his responsibilities, there's a good chance the new guy will have oversight over a lot of what Mueller does, addressing many of the lapses and loopholes that Mueller himself admits are serious problems. How will that play with Mueller? No one knows.

For the moment, however, Robert Mueller stands more or less alone, in front of a rising tide of criticism. He must know he could easily be the sacrificial lamb of these snarling investigations, out of a job after less than a year. But he could also be remembered as the one guy who kept his head, even as everyone around him proceeded to lose theirs.