Accountability, FBI-Style

Mueller’s answers to reporters’ questions about his counterterrorism reorganization are none of your business!

Chatterbox was impressed to see FBI Director Robert Mueller praise Minneapolis agent Coleen Rowley yesterday when he unveiled a reorganization aimed at refocusing the agency’s mission on counterterrorism.:

Let me take a moment to thank Agent Rowley for her letter. It is critically important that I hear criticisms of the organization, including criticisms of me, in order to improve the organization. Because our focus is on preventing terrorist attacks, more so than in the past we must be open to new ideas, to criticism from within and without, and to admitting and learning from our mistakes. I certainly do not have a monopoly on the right answers.

The FBI's proposed reorganization
The FBI’s proposed reorganization

Such praise is striking, because, in her now-famous memo, Rowley basically called Mueller a liar:

I have deep concerns that a delicate and subtle shading/skewing of facts by you and others at the highest levels of FBI management has occurred and is occurring. The term “cover up” would be too strong a characterization which is why I am attempting to carefully (and perhaps over laboriously) choose my words here. I base my concerns on my relatively small, peripheral but unique role in the Moussaoui investigation in the Minneapolis Division prior to, during and after September 11th and my analysis of the comments I have heard both inside the FBI (originating, I believe, from you and other high levels of management) as well as your Congressional testimony and public comments.

There’s quite a bit more in that vein—indeed, more than it was probably wise for Rowley to say, even in whistle-blower mode. Solomonically, Chatterbox agrees with Rowley that Mueller has been less than truthful in the past, and also with Mueller that what matters most now is how the FBI will address its shortcomings in the future. In examining Mueller’s proposed reorganization of the counterterrorism division, however, Chatterbox wondered how wise it was to fatten a Washington bureaucracy that FBI field agents in Minneapolis and Phoenix already have some difficulty squeezing past. Rowley raised just this point in her memo:

The Phoenix, Minneapolis and Paris Legal Attache Offices reacted remarkably, exhibiting keen perception and prioritization skills regarding the terrorist threats they uncovered or were made aware of pre-September 11th. The same cannot be said for the FBI Headquarters’ bureaucracy and you want to expand that?! … There’s no denying the need for more and better intelligence and intelligence management, but you should think carefully about how much gate keeping power should be entrusted with any HQ entity. If we are indeed in a “war”, shouldn’t the Generals be on the battlefield instead of sitting in a spot removed from the action while still attempting to call the shots?

Surely, Chatterbox thought, some reporter asked Mueller just this question. Chatterbox was keen to assess Mueller’s answer. But Chatterbox couldn’t find any such exchange in today’s news stories. No matter, Chatterbox thought, I’ll just ferret it out of the Q and A that followed Mueller’s prepared remarks. But Chatterbox could find no such transcript. It was no great surprise to see it missing from the FBI Web site (which didn’t even post a complete version of Mueller’s remarks prior to questioning) and from the Justice Department Web site (which instead posted John Ashcroft’s introductory remarks praising Mueller’s Vietnam battlefield gallantry). But the Q and A was also missing from the Federal News Service transcript. At the bottom of that transcript (which Chatterbox accessed via Nexis), Chatterbox encountered the following note: “(End of on-camera briefing; Q&A session is ‘pen-and-pad’ only and will not be transcribed.)”

Chatterbox phoned the FBI press office to inquire why no verbatim record was made of Mueller’s answers to reporters’ questions about his reorganization plan. Spokesman Bill Carter explained that the Q and A session wasn’t a “press conference” but rather “a meeting with reporters who cover the FBI on a regular basis.”  This “meeting” was “informal but on the record.” (For example, Carter said, in such “meetings” Mueller will “take his coat off and sit down.” Apparently, if Mueller keeps his coat on and stands up, they have to call it a press conference.)

As a former newspaper beat reporter, Chatterbox doesn’t object to the common practice of providing special access to the regulars. But if the session was “on the record,” why not transcribe it? Was some of it off the record? Carter wouldn’t say. (That’s probably off the record too!) Even if some of it were, it would be easy enough for the FBI to produce an official transcript that excised all off-the-record or not-for-attribution material. (They’ve been doing that with Freedom of Information Act requests for years.) If the FBI is serious about creating a new spirit, it must learn to be less pointlessly secretive when explaining fundamental reforms to the public. And if the press is serious about shining a spotlight on the FBI, it should refuse to attend any “informal but on the record” meetings with Mueller until he agrees to allow some sort of verbatim record. In the meantime, Chatterbox will have to hope that Mueller addresses Rowley’s question while a camera is rolling.