President Obama’s decision to seek a two-year extension for FBI director Robert Mueller’s term follows a lengthy White House search for a replacement that yielded no strong candidate to replace him, according to two sources close to the selection process. Mueller's 10-year term was due to expire this summer.
White House lawyers, working closely with Vice President Joe Biden’s office, spent months scouring the country looking for potential candidates to take the premier law enforcement job in the country.
But “there was no obvious great candidate,” said one source intimately familiar with the selection process who asked not to be identified.
Some of the possible candidates the White House search team focused on said they weren’t interested, the sources said. One of these was Merrick B. Garland, a highly regarded U.S. Court of Appeals judge in D.C. and former senior Justice Department official during the Clinton administration. He had been a runner-up for the Supreme Court vacancy filled last year by Elena Kagan.
James B. Comey Jr., a widely praised former deputy attorney general in the Bush administration who now has a lucrative position with a large hedge fund, had also indicated he didn't want the position, the sources said.
At the same time, other officials had made known they wanted to be considered for the post, including at least two Obama administration officials — Transportation Security Administration chief John S. Pistole and National Counterterrorism Center chief Michael E. Leiter — as well as a number of former senior law enforcement officials in previous administrations.
But in the end, White House officials were not overwhelmed with the choices available to them and decided instead to ask Mueller, a nominee of former President George W. Bush, to stay on for another two years in a position he has held since just before the September 11 terror attacks.
Another widely mentioned candidate, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago with a strong background in counterterrorism cases, was thought to be too much of a wild card, the sources said. It’s not clear how seriously Fitzgerald was considered by the White House. But administration officials may also have been concerned that Fitzgerald would spur too much opposition from Republicans, because of his role in the prosecution and conviction of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former top aide, when he served as special counsel in the CIA leak case.
“I think there was a feeling that Dick Cheney would call in every chit he had to torpedo” Fitzgerald, said Garrett M. Graff, the author of a new book about the FBI, “The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror,” who has followed the FBI selection process closely.
The difficulty in filling the position illustrates how sprawling the FBI job has become in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, said Graff. In the past, presidents have mostly turned to federal judges and prosecutors to fill the position, but the FBI has since evolved into an international agency whose mission of combating terrorism and collecting intelligence has become as important as its traditional law enforcement functions.
In a White House statement, Obama said Mueller “has set the gold standard for leading the bureau,” adding that “Given the ongoing threats facing the United States, as well as the leadership transitions at other agencies like the Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency, I believe continuity and stability at the FBI is critical at this time.”
The decision to retain Mueller also insures that the FBI will not be rudderless or headed by a newcomer during the upcoming tenth anniversary of 9/11 — a date that could be even more tense given al-Qaida's threats to retaliate for the killing of Osama bin Laden. Mueller was scheduled to travel to Pakistan last week but canceled his trip after the news broke about bin Laden's death. A senior bureau official indicated that given the heightened threat environment in the aftermath of the Bin Laden raid, it was not a good time for the FBI director to be out of the country.
Congress passed a law imposing a 10-year limit on the FBI director's term to prevent a single director from serving effectively for life as head of such a powerful agency, as did the bureau's most famous director, J. Edgar Hoover. For Mueller's term to be extended, Congress must approve Obama's request. But in light of the bipartisan respect for Mueller on Capitol Hill, that is not likely to be a problem.