Robert S. Mueller III was at Camp David the Saturday morning after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Just days into his tenure as FBI director, he was humiliated when President George W. Bush dismissed his reporting and said he wanted him to prevent another attack. After his experience at Camp David, Mueller resolved and resolutely set about to change the FBI’s “culture.” That’s the word he used. He was going to make it into an intelligence agency, or in his repeated terminology, an “intelligence-driven” organization.
Although Mueller as a federal prosecutor had worked with dozens of special agents — case agents — in both Boston and San Francisco as a federal prosecutor, he did not know FBI culture nor how the bureau functioned. He also displayed hostility to SACs, the special agents in charge of each of the bureau’s 50-plus field offices.
Mueller did not understand the FBI’s office of origin, or “OO,” system, which had been in use for nearly three-quarters of a century, wherein one field office runs the case as the office of origin, sending out leads to other field offices, the Auxiliary Offices, or “AOs,” who report back.
In the case of the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon, the World Trade Towers, and in Pennsylvania, the logical OO would be New York or perhaps the Washington Field Office. Both had experienced international squads. The NYO had two, squads I-45 and I-49, which had famously chased al-Qaida suspects around the world for years.
But Mueller wanted centralization. Everything back at FBI Headquarters, all information and decision-making. Headquarters’ compartmentalization is a hallmark of intelligence agencies. Mueller’s predecessor, Louis Freeh, who had been a field agent, strongly believed in empowering the field offices. Not Mueller. He accelerated the centralization. He also believed SACs — the few he had encountered — presided over their territory like “dukes” — his word.
In the week after Mueller’s Camp David meeting, Barry Mawn, who succeeded James K. Kallstrom as the assistant director in charge of the NYO, tried to explain to Mueller that FBI Headquarters was never meant to be an operational entity. Further, he argued, the NYO had the investigative capacity, was near the Ground Zero crime scene, and had been the OO for the entire al-Qaida case up to now. Mueller just cut him off.
PENTTBOM, the bureau’s codename for the 9/11 investigation, would thus become the first case in the history of the FBI run from headquarters. It set a bad precedent, which would yield poisonous fruit in the Hillary Clinton email investigation and then in the Russia collusion fiasco.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, Bush ordered the Office of Personnel Management to allow retired federal law enforcement and intelligence officers to return to active duty — security clearances and all. Mueller was the only head of a federal law enforcement or intelligence agency who refused to enact the order. The CIA, we learned, went in whole hog, reinstating those who had language — or country-specific — skills and experiences. There were former agents with those skills. Robert “Bob” Quigley was both a bomb expert and an Arabic speaker. He volunteered; the FBI did not respond. Mueller was changing course, and he didn’t want anyone around who was less likely to buy into his centralized, “intelligence-driven” paradigm.
To run the 9/11 investigations, Mueller strangely passed over FBI executives who had extensive counterterrorism experience. Scotbom’s Dick Marquise, by then SAC of the Oklahoma City office, would have been a logical choice. He had shepherded the wide-ranging international investigation from shortly after the bombing on Dec. 21, 1988, over Lockerbie, Scotland, and finished with a terrorist conviction on Jan. 30, 2001. More than 10 years of effort, with the aircraft’s debris scattered across the width of Scotland, it presented evidence-collection challenges very much like those faced by the PENTTBOM investigators.
Mueller made numerous other moves to change the culture of the FBI, many of which had negative consequences. Replacing agent executives, he brought in “professionals” to take over key headquarters positions, perhaps enhancing short-term technical proficiency in those positions but losing long-term commitment and invaluable knowledge of the institution and its culture.
Hence, in the Mueller/Comey years, we saw non-agents running public affairs and congressional affairs and serving as general counsel — all positions where the ugliness of Crossfire Hurricane and its aftermath were manifest. So, as John Durham’s Sept. 15, 2021, indictment of Hillary Clinton lawyer Michael Sussmann showed us, we had FBI General Counsel James Baker, a non-agent, accepting misdirection from Sussmann. An agent would have known how to interview Sussmann. Baker, sitting alone with Sussmann in his Hoover Building office, didn’t even think to bring an agent into the room.
And in the summer of 2021, the IG reported on the misconduct of Jill C. Tyson, another non-agent who was brought in to run congressional affairs. She carried on a sexual liaison with a subordinate, which disrupted the workplace and demonstrated cultural rot at FBI Headquarters.
Time to Do Damage
Mueller had sufficient time to do his damage. His 10-year term was to end in September 2011. The U.S. Congress passed in July 2011 and then President Barack Obama signed into law a special exemption granting Mueller an additional two-year term. He served a total of 12 years, a term exceeded only by J. Edgar Hoover.
Mueller recruited James Comey to be his successor as FBI director. In 2013, Mueller regaled the executive conference — a meeting of the bureau’s most senior executives — with his account of a conversation with Comey. Then the deputy attorney general, Comey expressed hesitancy in accepting a “demotion” to become FBI director. Mueller demonstrated how he drew an organization chart on a napkin, showing the director reporting directly to the AG, bypassing the deputy. According to those in his audience, Mueller seemed to find that funny. What is not funny is the amount of damage Comey proceeded to inflict on the FBI until he was dismissed by President Trump on May 9, 2017.
Mueller’s change in culture — from a law enforcement to an intelligence mindset — was greatly exacerbated by Comey’s poor leadership, leading the FBI into the ugly morass of the Russia Collusion hoax.