Press Box

The Beat Sweetener: Robert S. Mueller III

Of all the journalistic beats in Washington, none offers a better return on investment than a flattering piece about the FBI. Sweeten the FBI beat with a few sugary words, and then stand by to reap the rewards when the inevitable political scandals break–or when Osama Bin Laden tosses his next bomb or when the narco-traffickers get caught laundering their cash or when Russia’s spies fumble. Crime knows no holiday: You can never have too many FBI sources.

And the best place to curry favor, of course, is at the top, which is where the Washington Post’s Peter Slevin and Dan Eggen go today with their Page One hagiography, “FBI Nominee Lauded for Tenacity; Mueller Has Wide Support,” about President Bush’s choice for director of the FBI, Robert S. Mueller III, the current acting deputy attorney general.

Mueller couldn’t ask for better treatment from official biographers than he gets from Slevin and Eggen. (Mueller didn’t talk to the reporters, but they got excellent access to the nominee’s friends and colleagues.) They report that Mueller married his high-school sweetheart and joined the Marines, winning decorations for bravery in Vietnam. A passionate prosecutor of the BCCI scandal and the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing for the first Bush administration’s Justice Department, Mueller has shaken up offices and bureaucracies wherever he has gone, instilling in others his “no casual Fridays” work ethic. At the same time, defense attorneys call him relentlessly fair.

He’s willing to hire Democrats. And women! Although registered Republican, “a striking number of people describe him as apolitical,” Slevin and Eggen write, surely the highest compliment a Washington reporter can pay a member of the GOP. Mueller even worked for the Clinton administration, first at a regular street prosecutor job in Washington, D.C., and then as U.S. attorney in San Francisco.

“His edges are hard when he wants something done,” Slevin and Eggen write, just this side of hero worship, “harder when it isn’t done the way he wants but smooth when someone is suffering. He believes bragging is taboo.” He “blushed” and “mumbled” when told that his name was being shopped as FBI chief.

The downside, according to Sleven and Eggen, is that “He laughs at jokes but rarely tells them.” He’s never run an organization as big as the 27,400-person FBI. “He can be a little bull-headed sometimes,” Slevin and Eggen quote an admirer. And maybe there is just a little too much Marine left in him: “Friends say he’s punctual even about his own parties, signaling their end by flicking the lights.” That’s as bad as it gets.

The best evidence of beat sweetening, however, is not always a matter of what’s in a piece. It’s what’s left out. In a piece as padded with tribute as this one, surely the fact that the nominee has treatable and curable prostate cancer is as newsworthy as his propensity to show up for work at 7 a.m.

Likewise, it might be worth noting that Mueller can be overly loyal to law enforcement. The New York Times reported (July 6, 2001) that associates say he was reluctant to criticize the FBI after the Ruby Ridge siege in 1992.

By far, Mueller’s noisiest critic has been New York Times columnist William Safire, who dinged him (June 11) as “an intelligent apparatchik who showed a marked lack of interest in pursuing the Iraqgate investigation. He helped staff the Public Integrity Division with time-servers who would not rock the boat.” (The Justice Department’s Public Integrity section oversees prosecution of political corruption by elected and appointed officials.) In Mueller’s capacity as Attorney General John D. Ashcroft’s deputy, Safire writes, he “made certain his Public Integrity associates remained secure, taught the new deputy the ropes and now has Ashcroft’s backing for the FBI job.”

Also, Mueller remains controversial in California for his role in helping former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh craft a Justice Department policy that allows federal prosecutors to talk to unrepresented defendants. Under the California Bar ethical guidelines, state and local prosecutors still cannot talk to unrepresented defendants.

In all but endorsing their coveted source as the director of the FBI, Slevin and Eggen fail to note that Mueller’s nomination breaks the recent tradition of appointing federal judges to the FBI director’s job. Louis J. Freeh, William H. Webster, and Williams S. Sessions all drew credibility from their backgrounds as fair judges, not fair prosecutors. Then again, maybe the untold story is that Bush  wants his prosecutor to clean up the rogue FBI, not the United States.