Accessibility links

Breaking News

U.S.: Nominee Vows to Reform FBI

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, has been embarrassed over the past decade by errors that include the case of an agent who spied for Moscow during two decades. President George W. Bush has nominated Robert Mueller to be the FBI's next director. Mueller enjoys wide support in the Senate, which must confirm his nomination. But at a confirmation hearing on 30 July, the senators did not spare him questions about reforming the law enforcement agency. RFE/RL Andrew F. Tully reports.

Washington, 31 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The man nominated to be the next director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) says he is aware that the agency has made some serious errors in recent years. And he says that if confirmed, he would make sure that the bureau responds to those mistakes properly.

The nominee, Robert Mueller, a veteran of the U.S. Justice Department, which oversees the FBI, came under friendly but thorough questioning on 30 July during a hearing of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, which has oversight on all aspects of federal law enforcement, from judges to anti-narcotics agents.

The FBI is a large and prestigious law enforcement organization with a reputation for solving even the most difficult cases. By law, its jurisdiction is strictly within the U.S., but it has offices in 44 cities outside the country to serve as consultants to host governments. These countries include the Czech Republic, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Poland, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine.

If confirmed by the Senate, Mueller would become only the sixth director of the FBI. He would be limited by law to a ten-year term.

The members of the committee were unanimous in their praise for Mueller during Monday's (30 July) hearing, and it appears that the panel will approve his nomination with a large majority.

But each member of the committee made a point of citing the problems that have plagued the FBI over the past decade. They include agents' misconduct at two violent confrontations, failing to turn over documents to the lawyers representing convicted American terrorist Timothy McVeigh, the case of a former FBI agent who spied for Moscow for more than 20 years, and the recent disclosure that many of the agency's weapons and portable computers cannot be accounted for.

Once the agency was praised for its independence, particularly its independence from political pressure. Now, many critics say the agency has turned that independence into arrogance in its relations with other law enforcement agencies, whether on the federal, state, or local level. And these critics say that arrogance includes its inability to recognize that it has made mistakes.

The chairman of the committee, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), warned Mueller from the outset of the hearing that as director, he would face the difficult task of restoring public confidence in the FBI.

"Many in our country have lost some confidence in the bureau, and that's more than just a P.R. [image] problem. Because if you erode -- if you erode public trust, then you erode the ability of the FBI to do its job. Because if people mistrust the FBI, they're going to become less likely to come forward [to] report information that they [FBI agents] need."

Another leading member of the committee, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), agreed with Leahy that the FBI has a lot of work to do to improve its public standing. But he added that the bureau has done a good job of protecting Americans, particularly in protecting them from terrorism.

"One frustration that you will no doubt feel [if confirmed as FBI director] is that when the FBI does its job well, we will never hear about it. The newspaper headlines will never read, 'Millions of Americans Slept Safely Again Last Night.'"

Mueller made no excuses for the FBI. He praised its past performance, and at the same time acknowledged its errors, some of them egregious. But he said how an agency reforms itself is more revealing of its character than the missteps themselves.

"All institutions, even great ones like the FBI, make mistakes. The measure of an institution is in how it responds to its mistakes. I believe the FBI can and must do a better job of dealing with its mistakes. If I have the honor of being confirmed by the Senate, I will make it my highest priority to restore the public's confidence in the FBI, to re-earn the faith and trust of the American people."

One of the most recent embarrassments is the case of Robert Hanssen, who spied for the Soviet Union and Russia since 1979 until last February, when he was arrested outside Washington as he was trying to leave a package for his handlers.

According to the U.S. government, Hanssen passed 6,000 pages of documents revealing the identities of double agents, disclosing how the U.S. was intercepting Soviet satellite transmissions, and telling Moscow how the United States planned to retaliate against nuclear attack. On 6 July, Hanssen pleaded guilty to 15 counts of espionage and conspiracy. He faces life in prison without parole. A sentencing date has not been set.

Ivan Eland, a security analyst with the Cato Institute, a private policy organization, says there are two reasons why Hanssen was able to spy for so long.

First, Eland told RFE/RL, there is the possibility of simple incompetence. He says the personal lives of FBI and other U.S. security officials are scrutinized for unusual financial activity, which could indicate that they are being either paid or even blackmailed in exchange for sensitive information. Eland says to have missed the payments to Hanssen -- $1.4 million in cash and diamonds -- would be inexcusable.

But Eland says it is equally possible that the FBI knew of Hanssen's spying long before he was arrested. He says law enforcement and intelligence agencies often let a spy think he is evading detection. The suspect is given access to misinformation, which he passes to his handlers to confuse them. According to Eland, this also exposes the spy's contacts.

Eland says he is not sure whether Hanssen's long spying career was attributable to incompetence or the FBI manipulating the spy. But he notes the other problems the agency has faced in recent years, and adds:

"I think there's a large, a large possibility for government incompetence in these matters."

If Mueller is confirmed as FBI director, his own competence will be put to the test in trying to reform the trouble agency. The Judiciary Committee is expected to approve the nomination quickly. And Senator Thomas Daschle (D-South Dakota), the majority leader, has promised a vote on the nomination by the full Senate by the end of the week.