Robert Mueller: Straight Shooter With a Moving Target

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Robert S. Mueller, III was nominated by Bush today to head the FBI

When Bob Mueller took the helm of the Justice Department's criminal division in 1990, his subordinates liked to tease him about his Ivy-League roots, his stiffly formal public persona and the pressed blue jeans that were his idea of dressed-down for Saturdays in the office. His high WASP name — Robert Swan Mueller III — spawned the nickname "Bobby Three Sticks."

But there's nothing bland or diffident about Mueller's sharp, commanding style, formed on the hockey rinks of St. Paul's and Princeton and as a Marine officer on the front line in Vietnam. Confronted with a range of high-profile cases, from the BCCI bank fraud scandal to the Pan Am 103 terrorism investigation, he proved so decisive and careless of controversy that at one point, his deputy Dave Margolis warned him gently that if he didn't choose his battles, Washington might bang him up as it had done to so many of his predecessors.

Mueller fixed Margolis with his icy blues. "I don't," he said, "bruise easily."

Since then, the tough, intense 56-year-old career prosecutor, now U.S. Attorney in San Francisco, has won many admirers, like Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, who calls him "a straight-shooter, very professional — a guy who knows what he's talking about." He also has his share of detractors. One lawyer who worked for Mueller at Justice calls him "a bit of a martinet." Another says he let subordinates know the rule was "my way or the highway."

No one doubts, however, that Mueller's thick skin will serve him well if he is confirmed as the sixth director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Mueller's solid and strong-willed, and I think he's the perfect person to lead the FBI, given all the problems that have happened lately," says Bill Baker, who was the assistant director of the FBI for criminal investigations in the first Bush administration, when Mueller was assistant Attorney General for the Justice criminal division. "He knows the FBI well, but he's not inside it."

He'll be tested early. The bureau is sweating under the lights of four major outside investigations. Three of the probes — one into how FBI agent Robert Hanssen could have operated within the bureau as a spy, another on the indictment of another FBI agent for selling information to organized crime and the third on the eleventh-hour discovery of some 4,000 pages of documents that had not been handed over to defense lawyers for Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh — were ordered by Attorney General John Ashcroft. The fourth, a blue ribbon panel headed by former FBI director William Webster, was commissioned by former director Louis Freeh when Hanssen's 15 years of spying became known last February. In addition, committees in both houses of Congress are planning hearings on a range of bureau foul-ups.

A short biography

Mueller was born in New York, where his father worked for the DuPont corporation. After attending St. Paul's, an elite New England prep school, he graduated from Princeton in 1966. He attended New York University graduate school the next year and earned a Masters in International Relations.

In 1968, while others of his generation were attempting to avoid the draft, Mueller enlisted in the Marine Corps. After officer candidate school, Army Ranger School and Army jump school, he shipped out to Vietnam, where he commanded a rifle platoon. Toward the end of his tour he became aide-de-camp to the commanding general of the Third Marine Division. He was decorated with the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, two Navy Commendation Medals and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.

Upon his return to the States, Mueller enrolled in the University of Virginia law school and earned his law degree in 1973 and joined the San Francisco law firm of Pillsbury, Madison and Sutro the same year. In 1976, he became a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's office in San Francisco. He moved to Boston in 1982 and became a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's office there. When his boss, William Weld, moved to Washington in 1986 to become assistant attorney general for the criminal division under Attorney General Ed Meese, Mueller became the U.S. Attorney. In 1990, then-Attorney General Dick Thornburgh tapped Mueller for the criminal division post.

After President Bush's defeat in 1992, Mueller accepted a partnership in the blue-chip Boston law firm of Hale and Doar. To the surprise of his former associates, in 1995 he applied for a position in the homicide section of the U.S. Attorney's office in the District of Columbia. This was a huge comedown for a man who had supervised 900 Justice Department prosecutors, but Margolis says Mueller was caught up in the idealism of public service, explaining, "There's just too many young people dying violently in this city, and I want to do my share to put an end to that. I feel I'm obligated."

Meanwhile, his wife Ann was a teacher specializing in helping children with learning problems at a private school in Washington. Mueller became chief of the U.S. Attorney's office's homicide section where his reputation as a passionate prosecutor came to the attention of Janet Reno, who in 1998 asked him to go to San Francisco to beef up the U.S. Attorney's office, which was then beset by burgeoning computer crime.

Early this year, the Bush transition team asked Mueller to return to Washington temporarily to serve as acting Deputy Attorney General — the day to day chief operating officer of the Justice Department — until Larry Thompson could be confirmed as the permanent Deputy. "He worked with a number of people in Justice and gained their confidence as someone who was capable of running the FBI and also someone who the department could work with," says Thompson.

Thompson says Ashcroft's team was especially impressed by Mueller's extraordinary 1995 decision to abandon a lucrative private practice to take obscure murder cases in DC's hellish Superior Court. "He's not a person who's all that concerned about his ego," says Thompson. "He doesn't need to have a high-profile position to determine his self-worth."

The road ahead

Now Mueller will be tested as never before. The FBI director exercises immense power over countless lives, and he enjoys perks unusual even in Washington. Unlike most office-holders, the director can confine himself on the seventh floor of the FBI building for months at a time, making only rare, carefully controlled appearances on Capitol Hill. Mueller will be faced with the task of fixing the problems that got the FBI into the McVeigh and Hanssen messes, while repairing the bureau's flagging morale.

Mueller's critics are skeptical. "The cynics are saying, let him take over the FBI, it'll be great theater, and he'll run it into the ground in six months," says one former prosecutor who found Mueller overbearing. But his friends insist that behind his earnest demeanor, Mueller has the balance, wisdom and wry sense of humor to manage the task.

"He handles stress well," says his old friend Bill Baker. "He's going to have to."