MUELLER likely won't have to worry about his past but will need answers on FBI's future

Monday, July 30th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Robert Swan Mueller III is a man of few words.

The Justice Department veteran, former federal prosecutor and Marine veteran tapped to head the FBI is known for the brevity of his public remarks throughout his entire career.

When President Bush brought him to the Rose Garden to announce his nomination on July 5, Mueller spoke for just 48 seconds about the biggest professional challenge of his life.

He has said less.

Mueller (pronounced MULL-er) had only four words in 1988 about whether a stray cat living in a Boston courthouse should be evicted. ``The cat is fine,'' said Mueller, a federal prosecutor in Boston at the time.

On Monday, the 56-year-old lawyer will need to be a little more loquacious. The Senate Judiciary Committee, beginning two days of confirmation hearings, wants to know his plans for reforming the Federal Bureau of Investigation, an agency humbled recently by a series of high-profile blunders and a growing reputation in Congress as being out of control.

The FBI has been rocked by recent revelations that it failed to hand over Oklahoma City bombing documents to Timothy McVeigh's defense attorneys and that veteran agent Robert Hanssen spied for Moscow.

Lawmakers are calling for more oversight of the FBI. Polls show that more Americans have an unfavorable opinion of the nation's premier crime-fighting agency.

``This won't be a 'Hi, how are you,' type hearing,'' said the committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

``He's going to have to articulate clearly what he's going to do with the FBI. In the past, there's been some sacred cows in the FBI, questions that just weren't asked. He's going to have to answer those questions.''

Mueller's co-workers, friends and former employers say the tough-talking ex-Marine is the right man to bring the FBI back to health.

``Discipline is his middle name and he applies it not just to others; he applies it to himself,'' William Weld, former Massachusetts governor and Mueller's predecessor as U.S. attorney in Boston, told The Boston Globe.

Mueller has acquired the respect from senators in both parties, and has worked under Republican and Democratic presidents.

``I have known Bob for a lot of years and believe that he is a man of great integrity,'' said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who attended prep school in New Hampshire with Mueller. ``I am confident in his ability to restore the public trust in the FBI.''

With support like that, Mueller's confirmation is all but assured by the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., says he hopes to get a final vote on his nomination by the end of the week.

That would be good timing for Mueller, who has prostate cancer and will have surgery in August. His doctor said the condition is treatable and predicted a full recovery. ``Without question, he can perform the job,'' said Dr. Peter Carroll.

Born in New York City in 1944, Mueller earned his bachelor's degree from Princeton University, a master's in international studies from New York University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.

He is a Vietnam veteran, honorably discharged from the Marines as a captain with a Bronze Star, two Navy commendation medals, a Purple Heart and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.

He served as U.S. attorney in San Francisco and Boston and as the Justice Department's assistant attorney general in charge of its criminal division under the first President Bush. There, he supervised the prosecutions of Manuel Noriega and John Gotti and headed the investigation of the BCCI banking scandal and the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

His last stint at the Justice Department was earlier this year, when he was brought in from January through May as an acting deputy attorney general during the transition to the Bush administration. That is where he caught Attorney General John Ashcroft's eye.

``I saw firsthand his strong ability to manage,'' Ashcroft said.

The consensus is that Mueller does not have a political bone in his body and likely will not make the television talk show circuit. But he is not politically tone-deaf.

Within an hour of Bush announcing his nomination, Mueller was on the phone with the FBI's biggest critic in the Senate, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, seeking a meeting to talk about the FBI's future.

``He is not a political person, but he is politically savvy,'' said Eric Holder, the No. 2 Justice Department official in the Clinton administration and Mueller's former boss at the U.S. attorney's office in Washington. ``He's dealt with Congress before, and I don't see him having a problem dealing with them now.''

Grassley's verdict after the meeting? ``A forthright individual.''

Holder recalled being surprised in 1996 when Mueller phoned him seeking a job as a line prosecutor in Washington, then the murder capital of the nation.

``He said he thought that his trial skills could help,'' Holder said.

That is the Marine in him, Holder said, always going where he is needed.

Mueller's career has not been without criticism. He was faulted as being slow in pursuing the BCCI scandal, and his no-nonsense military bearing bothers some people.

``He's a person that, over time, people come to like,'' Holder said. ``But I would expect, in the short term, he's going to rub some people the wrong way. He's going to make some enemies, who are going to show up as anonymous sources in the newspapers. But what he's going to have to do is crack some eggs to get that place back in shape, and he's not afraid to do it.''