During FBI's Mueller Era, 9/11 Elevated Priority of Intelligence and Prevention

Robert Mueller's first day as director of the FBI was just one week before September 11, 2011. As he closes his tenure, former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and Julian Zelizer of Princeton University join Ray Suarez to examine Mueller's legacy and the evolution of the FBI's mission in the last 12 years.


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JUDY WOODRUFF: Longtime FBI Director Robert Mueller made his farewells to the law enforcement community today at a ceremony at the Justice Department.

Ray Suarez looks at the outgoing director's tenure and how the FBI has evolved.

RAY SUAREZ: Mueller led the agency for 12 years, starting just one week before the 9/11 attacks. Today, Attorney General Eric Holder said Mueller has transformed the bureau since then, and prevented a number of serious terror plots.

The outgoing director, in turn, gave much of the credit to those he's worked with.

ROBERT MUELLER, FBI Director: It has been my privilege to work with so many talented and dedicated public servants, men and women who give everything in their power to keep the American people safe, men and women for whom the rule of law is the guiding principle.

RAY SUAREZ: For an examination of the Mueller era at the Bureau, we turn to former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who worked closely with Mueller during George W. Bush's administration, and Julian Zelizer. He's a Princeton University professor of history and public affairs, and is the author of a book on the politics of national security.

Secretary Chertoff, it's been said that Director Mueller had to oversee the transformation of the FBI from a crime-fighting agency to a national security one. In practical terms, what did that mean? What had to change at the FBI?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary: Well, of course, the FBI continues with a crime-fighting mission.

But what he had to do was really elevate the issue of intelligence and prevention to be equal priorities with prosecuting and punishing crimes after that they occur. And that meant creating a career path that will foster the development of an intelligence capability. It meant to some degree centralizing some of the activities of what used to be a widely decentralized agency, so you could have a coordinated approach to dealing with counterterrorism.

And perhaps most important it meant taking the FBI overseas, putting them into the field, getting them involved working side by side with our men in uniform and women in uniform to actually collect information, forensic information that has intelligence value.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, the director said: "I love doing bank robberies, drug cases, homicides. As a prosecutor, that's what I thought I was going to be overseeing when I got to the Bureau. But now Americans expect us to prevent the next terrorist attack."

What did that mean about the FBI that he had to change?

JULIAN ZELIZER, Princeton University: Well, 9/11 fundamentally changed the role of that agency from something that was really focused on domestic crime-fighting to something that was focused on terrorism, partially, and that included the expansion of analysis, the expansion of intelligence gathering, going across borders, and a redefinition of the mission of what the FBI was all about.

And that included some internal struggles. And I think it will be ultimately a very significant change that we saw under President Bush that has continued and will remain a permanent part of our policy infrastructure.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, that wasn't just happening at the FBI, but many agencies involved in criminal and let's say intelligence activities, as part of a huge run-up in spending, in capability. In the case of the FBI, has it paid off? Did it work?

JULIAN ZELIZER: Well, that's the question people will ask.

Obviously, many supporters of the changes will argue that many important cases have been prevented. The subway bombing in New York City was one of the big landmark efforts where a really big terrorist threat was averted. There are many the public knows about, many which we don't know about, but overall that will go on the plus of what we have done since 9/11 to reestablish a sense of normalcy in this country and to prevent many attacks.

On the negative side will be critics who say that there's been an erosion of civil liberties and there will also be questions about events such as the Boston bombing, where some of the holes in intelligence gathering have been exposed.

RAY SUAREZ: Secretary Chertoff, same question. Has it all been worth it? Have some of the tradeoffs been larger than the benefits you derive from -- in an agency of the FBI?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, from the standpoint of the FBI, there have been, as the professor said, a number of plots that were disrupted. Some are well-known. Some are not well-known.

I can tell you during my time period -- and we met with the president pretty much once a week with the FBI director to talk about ongoing plots, and the Bureau was involved in disrupting or in some way preventing those plots from coming to fruition.They're not perfect. Obviously, the Boston Marathon bombing is an example of something they didn't succeed.

But if you look at the total scorecard, it's quite remarkable what the transformation has done, and, frankly, without a significant sacrifice of civil liberties.The Bureau still operates within the traditional framework of the law, in many cases supervised by the courts.

RAY SUAREZ: Secretary, you mentioned the Boston bombing.And I guess the Mueller era at the FBI is bracketed by 9/11 on one side and the Boston Marathon bombing on the other. And this was a case where the FBI already had Tsarnaev in the system, but didn't make the connections between what it had.

Is that an illustration of a problem where now agencies are able to collect these huge databases, but can't necessarily connect all the crosshatchings that would get us to a suspect?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, it does illustrate the fact that although we have now gotten a lot better about connecting the dots, it still requires you to understand the significance of the individual dots. And there are going to be times when either because of human error or some misalignment of priorities, something is going to get missed.

So I wouldn't consider this to be in any way undercutting the overall success of the system, but it is a useful opportunity to take a look at what didn't work right. Did we not pay enough attention to the source of the information because it came from the Russians? Was there some failure to follow up on something because an individual didn't appreciate the urgency?

In the hand, analysis, no matter how it is enhanced by technology, really depends upon human beings.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, when we look back at Robert Mueller's 12 years at the FBI, I guess the question comes up whether the emergency ever passes, whether there's ever a time when the threat is seen off, when you can stand down, or do places like the FBI only grow in the one direction, ever larger?

JULIAN ZELIZER: Yes. I mean, the history of national security institutions is that they remain in place, they continue even after the crisis is over.

That's certainly case with a lot of the Cold War institutions that we developed, although they were reformed and reorganized after 9/11. With this particular threat with terrorism, it's unlikely that the threat will go away any time soon.It will change in nature, it might diminish in some places, expand in others, but the FBI is not going to lose the new characteristics that it's gained since 9/11.

I think this is a little bit like the Cold War in that respect and this institution and the changes that Mueller put into place will remain permanent. They will be reformed. Some might be scaled down, but the basic character of the FBI is what it is today, and it's not going to go back to the J. Edgar Hoover days.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Secretary, are we ever going to have anybody, now that the job is so expanded, who's the director for 12 years again?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, of course, you know Congress created a 10-year term. And I think that is going to be the norm. It was a little bit extraordinary to have Bob Mueller held over for another couple of years.

But the theory here is you want to have continuity and you want to establish that the director is operating without the timeline that a particular administration has, but really stands a -- of administrations. There's got to be continuity. There's got to be nonpartisanship. Bob Mueller brought an incredible sense of professionalism and experience to the job. In many ways, he is the mold, I think, of directors to come, including Jim Comey, who just got confirmed.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Secretary Chertoff, Professor Zelizer, gentlemen, thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: My pleasure.

JULIAN ZELIZER: Thank you.