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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    And then there is Mueller himself. Years ago, when he ran the Justice Department's criminal division, subordinates dubbed him Bobby Three Sticks. The Mob-style sobriquet made sport of his Brahmin demeanor and fancy Philadelphia name, Robert Swan Mueller III. Only one old friend, Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis, "has ever used that name to my face," Mueller says. In the FBI, it is not pronounced with affection. Michael Mason, who retired in 2007, says Mueller's Princeton diploma and prep-school pedigree gave agents an excuse to oppose reforms: "People tend to look for 'How are you not like me? Why is it O.K. for me to not like this?'"

    Mueller's occasional efforts to show a softer side tend to be awkward. One legendary example, recounted fondly by former counsel Chuck Rosenberg, began with a phone call before 6 a.m. at the office.

    "Yes, sir," Rosenberg said.

    "How are you?" Mueller asked.


    "Everything O.K.?"

    "Yes, sir. Everything's fine. Do you need anything?"

    "Nope," Mueller said.

    The line went dead, and the phone rang next door. A moment later, Mueller's special assistant told Rosenberg, "I just got the strangest call from the director."

    After 9/11, Bush summoned Mueller and Ashcroft to brief him daily in the Oval Office. He scaled back eventually to twice a week. Obama convenes a weekly Terror Tuesday to review threats and operations with a large cast of Cabinet and agency chiefs. Mueller likes to use visual aids. When he met President-elect Obama in Chicago, he and Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, brought an al-Qaeda map so large they call it the "horse blanket." But Mueller drew the line at showing Obama a staff-produced model of the underwear bomb — explosives stuffed into the crotch — that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab wore aboard a flight to Detroit in the failed Christmas bombing attempt of 2009. "Not a good idea," he said. Instead he showed a video clip of the basketball-size hole blown through the fuselage of a test aircraft when FBI technicians set off a replica of Abdulmutallab's bomb. Says Holder of Mueller: "The President relies on him, has faith in him, is anxious to hear from him."

    Under Obama as under Bush, many of the tough calls fall to Mueller. One of the toughest began on Sept. 9, 2009, when a shuttle-bus driver named Najibullah Zazi set out from Denver to New York City. A multiagency intelligence effort had identified him as an al-Qaeda operative on his way to a suicide bombing, but crucial details were unknown. He was thought to be carrying detonators and the explosive TATP. The case, Holder says, "literally developed as Zazi was driving across the country. How far are you going to let him go? If the concern is that he's bringing explosive material in the car, how do you deal with that?" Surveillance, hampered by weather, could not be guaranteed.

    As Zazi neared the Hudson River, Leiter says, the question was, "Do we let him go into New York City? You're approaching the Sept. 11 anniversary. You know he's talking to al-Qaeda. You don't know who he's going to meet, what he's going to do."

    The stakes were high for New York, and for Mueller, if Zazi decided to set off his charges on the George Washington Bridge. Arresting him would prevent a disaster like that, but Mueller held back, intent on identifying confederates. He arranged for ruses to search Zazi's rental car at a fake drug-screening checkpoint and then an impoundment lot, where traffic police towed it on a trumped-up infraction. Only when New York City detectives spooked Zazi did Mueller's agents move in.

    By then, the FBI and National Security Agency had enough in hand to unravel the plot. Zazi and two high school friends, all trained in Pakistan, planned to detonate backpack bombs simultaneously aboard subway trains in Times Square and Grand Central Station. Threats to prosecute his parents for immigration fraud induced Zazi to give up the details. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and two other charges. Sentencing is expected in June.

    The threat stream since 9/11 has brought perhaps a dozen plots as grave and near at hand as Zazi's. It is no small victory that all of them failed, even if a balky shoe-bomb fuse and other gifts of fortune played their roles. But the FBI has expended great effort too against less obvious threats, using controversial undercover tools. In case after case, agents or informants have fanned loose talk of violence by angry Muslims into FBI-led plots — recruiting participants, selecting targets, teaching tradecraft, providing cash or matériel and then swooping in with arrests. The Liberty City Seven in Miami were said to be conspiring to destroy the Willis (then Sears) Tower, but the consensus among trial observers was that they "probably couldn't have found their way to Chicago," as Posner puts it with only mild hyperbole. Six men aroused suspicion when they tried to copy a video about jihad. An informant, recruited under threat of deportation, offered weapons and drove them on surveillance routes, culminating in charges that they planned an attack on New Jersey's Fort Dix. Thus far, prosecutors have fought off entrapment defenses, but the Mutt and Jeff –style cases raise doubts about the FBI's priorities. "If we don't, someone else may very well help them," says David Kris, who oversaw national-security cases at Justice. "We can't afford to ignore them."

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