WASHINGTON (AP) _ With the White House seeking to rein in the independent-minded FBI, Justice Department veteran Robert Mueller has emerged as the front-runner to replace Louis Freeh as the agency's director.
Senior administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday the U.S. attorney in San Francisco is the only candidate under consideration. President Bush has asked advisers to expand the search, but views Mueller as a strong prospect.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said an announcement of Freeh's successor is not imminent.
The search is being conducted amid a philosophical debate over the direction of the FBI. One school of thought is that the agency needs a well-known nominee with political stature and a desire for independence in the tradition of Freeh.
Others believe the FBI's power needs to be curbed with a director who defers to the Justice Department. Mueller fits the bill: The former acting deputy attorney general won the support of Attorney General John Ashcroft by aiding in the transition from the Clinton administration.
Sources familiar with deliberations at the White House and the Justice Department said Bush advisers are leaning toward the second model after a series of mishaps at the FBI and a perception that the agency is too independent.
The FBI's woes will get a fresh airing on Wednesday at a Senate Judiciary committee oversight hearing. Among those testifying is former Sen. John Danforth, who accused the FBI of not cooperating with his independent investigation into the deaths of about 80 Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in 1993.
Mueller was acting deputy attorney general from January until last month, when he returned to California to resume his job as U.S. attorney in San Francisco. Prior to his California posting, Mueller was chief of the homicide section at the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, D.C.
The first President Bush named Mueller to be assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's criminal division. In that post, Mueller supervised the prosecutions of Manuel Noriega and John Gotti and headed up the investigations of the BCCI banking scandal and the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Mueller also was assistant to Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and was a federal prosecutor in Boston and California, where he investigated and prosecuted major financial fraud, narcotics, terrorist and public corruption cases.
Washington attorney George Terwilliger, deputy attorney general in the previous Bush administration, fell from the short list after advisers determined that his work as Bush's legal strategist in the Florida election recount would draw protests from Senate Democrats, sources said.
Bush's nominee must be confirmed by the Senate, which came under Democratic control this month.
The only other candidate on the short list was Brooklyn federal judge Sterling Johnson Jr.
A string of mishaps and what critics called a cover-up-the-mistakes mentality at the FBI may be motivating Bush administration officials to seek a new director who will help reign in the agency.
In the latest bungle, more than 4,000 FBI documents were withheld from lawyers for Timothy McVeigh, forcing Ashcroft to delay the execution. The FBI blamed the problem on glitches with computers and record-keeping.
In February, veteran FBI counterintelligence agent Robert Hanssen was arrested for allegedly spying for Moscow for 15 years. Hanssen has pleaded innocent to 21 espionage charges. Two separate investigations of the FBI's internal security are trying to determine how Hanssen eluded detection.
Other controversies, from a crime-lab scandal in the 1990s to the botched investigation last year of former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, have dogged the FBI in recent years.