Cover Story: Is the FBI Up to the Job 10 Years After 9/11?

Inside Bob Mueller's 10-year campaign to fix the FBI

  • Photograph by Marco Grob for TIME

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    Tearing down old folkways in an FBI grown sclerotic with tradition called for a shift of power from autonomous field offices to the big blue chair in the director's conference room. That suited Mueller fine. He was an outstanding Marine officer candidate in 1966, author Garrett Graff reports in The Threat Matrix , but he earned a D for delegation. He is not a man who suffers attempts to chauffeur him around a briefing. "He's a perpetual-motion machine," says Thomas J. Harrington, who holds the FBI's third highest post, associate deputy director. "He likes to drive the thing the whole time." Among Mueller's disconcerting habits is a gesture with a cupped right hand that beckons a briefer to quit talking and slide over his notes. Mueller scans them and skips to cross-examination.

    Two men, 1,300 miles apart, had Mueller's attention when he convened his operations brief on Feb. 17. Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, a 20-year-old Saudi national, studied chemical engineering at Texas Tech University. Kevin William Harpham, 36, an unemployed Army veteran and avowed white supremacist, lived in a small town near Spokane. On this day the FBI's interest was a closely guarded secret, but indictments to come would allege that the two men were behind separate plots to set off powerful homemade bombs. Until recently, the FBI had not heard of either man.

    The Spokane attack struck without warning on Jan. 17. Shortly before the start of Spokane's Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, city workers found an abandoned backpack along the route. Inside was an explosive core laced with rat poison — an anticoagulant — and surrounded by lead fishing weights. A remote car starter and cell-phone parts were mated in a detonation circuit. The FBI lab in Quantico, Va., recovered DNA, but there was no suspect to test for a match.

    Good luck and shoe leather led the FBI to Aldawsari, the Saudi student. One of the trip-wire programs rolled out after 9/11 invited vendors of hazardous goods to report unusual purchases to the feds. Aldawsari went undetected at first as he acquired the ingredients of TNP, an explosive used in World War I artillery shells. filled an order for 3 gal. of concentrated sulfuric acid, and the Georgia-based QualiChem Technologies shipped 10 boxes of nitric acid to a FedEx mail drop. Neither reported the buys. Aldawsari also dodged a student-visa review after flunking out of Texas Tech. Only on Feb. 1, when he ordered phenol, his last ingredient, did Aldawsari trip an alarm. Carolina Biological Supply tipped the FBI's Charlotte, N.C., field office, and Con-Way Freight, where Aldawsari planned to take delivery, sent word to the Dallas field office by way of the Lubbock police.

    In Mueller's FBI 2.0, Dallas and Charlotte alerted headquarters, which put the leads together and took command.

    Mueller had every reason to believe his term as director would end long before this day. He had written his resignation letter on March 12, 2004, and fully expected to deliver it. At issue was a highly classified surveillance program, called Stellar Wind, that President Bush approved after 9/11. For the first time since Congress forbade the practice in 1978, the National Security Agency was spying on domestic communications traffic without a warrant. In the second week of March 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department ruled that Stellar Wind was illegal. The next day, Ashcroft fell gravely ill with acute pancreatitis. Bush sent two top aides to George Washington University Hospital, where the Attorney General lay in critical condition. White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and chief of staff Andrew Card Jr. asked the semiconscious Ashcroft to sign a document reversing the Justice Department's ruling. Mueller arrived at the hospital just after Card and Gonzales retreated in defeat. His notes described Ashcroft as "feeble, barely articulate."

    A close associate says Mueller saw the visit as a "cowardly and outrageous" attempt to take advantage of a sick man. The next afternoon, Mueller learned that Bush had reauthorized Stellar Wind over formal Justice Department objections. That night, he shut down the FBI's part in it and stayed up until 1:30 a.m. composing a letter: "Should the President order the continuation of the FBI's participation in the program, and in the absence of further legal advice from the AG, I would be constrained to resign as Director of the FBI."

    Mueller knew the stakes. Acting Attorney General James Comey, together with nearly the whole top cadre at Justice, was also preparing to leave — a meltdown that would have dwarfed Richard Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre.

    "I remember it all very well," says Valerie Caproni, then and now the FBI general counsel. "From my perspective, there was a very real likelihood of a collapse of government."

    Early on Friday, March 12, Mueller stood with Comey in a foyer outside the Oval Office. "We knew this was our last morning," Comey recalls. "We both were just staring out, looking at the Rose Garden, thinking, This is the last time I'll ever see this." Mueller, Comey says, "wasn't rattled, but I could tell he was just very sad."

    In the private dining room abutting the Oval Office, Mueller told Bush one-on-one that he would not carry out the President's order. He offered his resignation. Bush pulled back from the brink, submitting to the Justice Department's legal ruling.

    Mueller will not speak of the episode, but when asked, he offers an indirect reply. "There are days that go by, but not many, that you're not balancing national security against civil liberties when you're addressing terrorism," he says. "So they are not easy decisions."

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