A Prosecutor's Hardest Case

As a preppie, a Princetonian and a University of Virginia law graduate, Robert Swan Mueller III would have been perfectly at ease in the clubby world of corporate law. But Mueller, who last week became George W. Bush's nominee to succeed Louis Freeh as FBI director, has spent most of his working life in the gritty and far less lucrative world of a federal prosecutor. When he went into private practice in the early '90s, a colleague recalls, he got a fraud case involving a major corporation. Mueller chose not to take the case because the firm, he thought, was guilty--a decision that would surprise many lawyers. Within a few months he returned to the trenches as a homicide prosecutor in Washington, D.C. "Bob had a hard time crossing the street," his friend says. "He loved putting criminals behind bars."

Assuming he wins confirmation by the Senate this summer--and there is no reason to think he will not--Mueller will bring his experience and zeal to the complex task of rehabilitating a proud but battered institution. The FBI may be the nation's premier law-enforcement agency, but it is also a 30,000-employee, $3.4 billion-per-year bureaucracy that has been dogged by repeated charges of mismanagement, high-profile blunders and poor discipline. The list of controversies runs from Ruby Ridge to Richard Jewell to Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwanese-born physicist accused of stealing U.S. nuclear-weapons secrets for China.

Mueller's biggest problem, a close associate tells NEWSWEEK, may be finding a way to change the FBI's self-protective "culture of arrogance." Why, for instance, did it take the bureau more than two decades to unmask Robert Hanssen, the FBI mole who pleaded guilty last week to spying for Russia? Sources tell NEWSWEEK the FBI was so focused on a CIA officer as its primary suspect that it ignored Hanssen, who lived in the same suburban Virginia neighborhood. Another land mine is a soon-to-be- released Justice Department report on how the FBI botched the Wen Ho Lee investigation. NEWSWEEK has learned that several FBI agents and officials involved in the Lee case are now being investigated.

Mueller is intimately familiar with the bureau's most recent storm. He was acting deputy attorney general when the FBI revealed that it had failed to turn over thousands of pages of evidence to defense lawyers representing Timothy McVeigh. The blunder delayed McVeigh's execution by a month and has led to yet another investigation. Mueller, says a colleague, understands how the mishap could have happened, since the case involved millions of pages of evidence. But what he found "incomprehensible" is that the FBI waited months before admitting its mistake. As the bureau's new boss, Mueller is determined to avoid that kind of self-inflicted damage--for in Washington, the cover-up is usually worse than the crime.