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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    The director's unmarked Gulfstream jet rolled into a fast descent, corkscrewing to avoid potential ground fire. The U.S. embassy in Yemen had come under mortar attack three days earlier, on April 6, 2008, and the threat stream in Sana'a was surging. Mueller turned to Ed McCormack, chief of his security detail, shortly after landing. "Got a spare set of handcuffs?" he asked. McCormack obliged with a well-scuffed pair that had seen hard use on bank robbers in his street-agent days. Mueller stuffed them under his belt and set off for the presidential palace.

    Some hours later, Mueller's meeting with President Ali Abdullah Saleh was ending badly. The FBI chief pressed for the extradition of convicted al-Qaeda terrorist Jamal al-Badawi, who kept making unlikely escapes from Yemeni prison. Saleh dodged. He would need an act of parliament. He had personally obtained al-Badawi's promise to give up terrorism.

    Mueller was unmoved. Saleh turned to bluster. "He flared his arms, raised his voice, made it clear this was his country," recalls Carlos Fernandez, then the FBI's legal attaché in Yemen. The President stood and escorted his visitors to the door, past a gold-plated Kalashnikov rifle sent by Saddam Hussein. Mueller stopped and reached for the small of his back. He pulled out the 10-oz. Peerless cuffs and plunked them into Saleh's hand. "Next time I'm here, I'd like to see these on Mr. Badawi," Mueller said. Saleh's eyes widened as the translator caught up. Then Mueller cracked a smile and clapped the smaller man on the shoulder. Saleh threw back his head and laughed.

    The encounter highlighted a remarkable expansion of the FBI's global role. The bureau has more legal attachés — 60 full-time overseas posts in countries ranging from Saudi Arabia to Sierra Leone — than domestic field offices. Mueller has traveled to 40 countries in 110 visits overseas.

    To admirers, the Yemen trip showed off Mueller as an effective diplomat. "Saleh is very much a man's man in his own mind," says former U.S. ambassador Stephen Seche, who witnessed the stunt. "Mueller's strategy was to play to this element of his character." Saleh stood firm on extradition, but he gave Mueller a quiet guarantee "that Badawi was going to stay behind bars forever," Fernandez says.

    But the episode could equally be said to show the limits of Mueller's reach. This was his ninth unsuccessful attempt to persuade Saleh to extradite a man on the FBI's most-wanted-terrorists list. Two months ago, Saleh released several dozen al-Qaeda fighters from jail. The FBI will not say whether it knows al-Badawi's whereabouts. Meanwhile, Saleh himself is fighting for survival in Yemen and may soon be heading out the door.

    Mueller has had his share of failures, including missteps in the lead-up to the Fort Hood, Texas, shooting, disregarded warnings about the abuse of national-security letters and an epochal investigation of the 2001 anthrax letters that concentrated for years on the wrong man. Not least of the black marks is the serially disastrous effort to build a modern information system for the FBI. Mueller struggled throughout his term to replace what the Government Accountability Office called an "antiquated, paper-based, legacy system" for managing intelligence and case files. The first attempt, Virtual Case File, spent $104 million over three years on a project so badly broken that it had to be discarded altogether. He has promised delivery of the replacement project, called Sentinel, nearly every year since 2006. Mueller's most recent projection calls for "full operability" in September, the month he steps down.

    Yet even Glenn Fine, who dogged the FBI for 10 years as the Justice Department inspector general, gave a watchdog's grudging endorsement. "They haven't done everything perfectly. They've made mistakes," he says. "By and large, he has moved the FBI in the right direction."

    Mueller's goal of an agile, intelligence-driven service may spill the banks of plausible ambition, but there is not much doubt that important change is under way. "Our organization historically has been criticized for collecting a lot and either not doing anything with it or not sharing it," says Shawn Henry, who oversees the criminal and cyber divisions. When he sees valuable intelligence shared with other agencies, "it astounds me because I still expect some reluctance," but field agents increasingly accept that "if I can't action this, somebody else might be able to action it. If it's sitting in my drawer, or worse, sitting in my head, shame on me."

    Mueller maintains that the FBI's police role complements intelligence gathering. "Because of the cooperation we get in just about every case, because of plea bargains, we get a substantial amount of intelligence," he says. The hardened terrorists of myth, he says, "are like everybody else. There are very few that have not in some way cooperated for some period of time."

    Most people inside the bureau believe that the blown opportunities to head off 9/11 would not recur today. Even among the FBI's doubters, few disagree that the bureau has come a long way. Comey, whom Mueller has described privately as his preferred successor, says it will take another generation to reach the goals that Mueller set. "I think he has started the turning of the cultural battleship," Comey says. "I don't know if it's a quarter-turn or a half-turn, but the job of the next director is to keep pushing."

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