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Transcript: Robert S. Mueller III: The Director (Part 2)

The full episode transcript for Robert S. Mueller III: The Director (Part 2).


The Oath with Chuck Rosenburg

Robert S. Mueller III: The Director (Part 2)

Chuck Rosenberg: Welcome to The Oath. I’m Chuck Rosenberg, and I am honored to be your host for another compelling conversation with a fascinating guest from the world of public service.

This episode marks our Season Four finale and, as promised, I am honored to share with you the second part of my conversation with Bob Mueller – the former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

As I noted in the introduction to Part One of my conversation with Bob at the beginning of this season, Bob is a man of few words. That’s still true – and so each word matters a lot. When he speaks, which is not often, it is definitely worth listening. Again, my interview with Bob Mueller is the only one he has given since leaving public life, and it may be the only one he gives. In Part One, Bob discussed his upbringing, his schooling, and his service in the Marine Corps – something for which he volunteered following the death of a Princeton classmate in Vietnam. That service included Marine Corps Officer Basic School, Army Ranger School, and Jump School, after which Bob was deployed to Vietnam, where he led a rifle platoon along the Demilitarized Zone.

A recipient of the Bronze Star with valor and the Purple Heart, Bob returned to the United States after his service in Vietnam and began a career in the Justice Department that took him to the heights of federal law enforcement and to the helm of the FBI.

Part Two of my interview with Bob begins as he becomes the 6th Director of the FBI, just a few days before the devastating attacks of 9/11. A meeting with President George W. Bush in the White House on the morning of September 12th dramatically changed Bob’s assessment of what the FBI needed to do to prevent another attack, and it led to an extensive restructuring of the FBI – one that was not fully embraced in all corners of the organization.

Bob navigated difficult challenges as he led a post 9/11 FBI, including an effort that he opposed to split the FBI into two agencies along the lines of Britain’s MI-5 and MI-6. He also forbid FBI special agents from participating in any interrogation of terrorist subjects that did not adhere to well established constitutional rules and procedures – a decision that was not particularly popular within the FBI at the time, but that turned out to be wise and prescient.

It is fascinating to see the FBI through the eyes of the man who served for 12 years as its Director – the second longest tenure in history – and the only person ever to be nominated as FBI Director by two presidents: George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

As before, I should mention what is not in this episode: any substantive discussion of Bob’s work as Special Counsel, leading the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Bob was abundantly clear when he testified before Congress about that work and his report, and that the report spoke for itself.

Early in my career, I was privileged to work on Bob’s staff at the FBI. Indeed, I share one story in this episode of my interview with him for that job, which I hope you will enjoy. I learned many things working for this decent, honorable, and courageous man, including to always take him at his word because he always tells the truth. Bob is an American hero – and it is very much worth listening to what he does have to say. Bob Mueller, welcome back to The Oath.

Robert S Mueller: Thank you. It's good to be back.

Chuck Rosenberg: Louis Freeh was the fifth director of the FBI and resigned in June of 2001. You were on a shortlist to replace director Freeh. You interviewed with President Bush for the job. Could you tell that story?

Robert S Mueller: Well, when my turn for an interview with President Bush came up, it was in the Oval Office with the President, I think, the Vice President and one or two others. And it's not as if I had not been in the Oval Office because my job required and periodically-- particularly when I was briefing that the President---so the President's in his seat at the end, I sit next to him for the interview, and the interview is going fine, I think. But then, one hears the ominous tone of a cell phone someplace in the Oval Office.

Chuck Rosenberg: It was a pet peeve of President Bush, as I understand it, for anyone's cell phone to go off in the Oval Office.

Robert S Mueller: I know that to be true because I was one of those who was involved in one of those incidents. And it happened to be in the middle of the interview and, and all of a sudden we hear a cell phone go off and President was looking around at the outset wanting to know who the culprit was until he landed on me. I wish it had not been mine, but indeed it had been mine. And when I realized that, I stood up rather abruptly and pardoned myself and I and so I apologized, and he was very gracious about it.

Chuck Rosenberg: Did you actually pick up the phone in the Oval Office?

Robert S Mueller: Yes. It was my wife, seeing how the interview went in the middle of the interview.

Chuck Rosenberg: So, he forgave you?

Robert S Mueller: Apparently so.

Chuck Rosenberg: Apparently, because he offered the job to you.

Robert S Mueller: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: You were nominated by President Bush to be director of the FBI on July 5th of 2001, and unanimously confirmed by the Senate on August 2nd, a vote of 98 to 0.

Robert S Mueller: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: That seems unusual these days.

Robert S Mueller: I leave that to you.

Chuck Rosenberg: Fair enough. And you took office as the sixth director of the FBI on September 4th, 2001.

Robert S Mueller: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: One week before the attacks of 9/11.

Robert S Mueller: True.

Chuck Rosenberg: Where were you on 9/11, Bob?

Robert S Mueller: At my office, up on the seventh floor of the Hoover building.

Chuck Rosenberg: And how did you learn that one of the towers of the World Trade Center had been struck?

Robert S Mueller: To the best of my memory, I was being briefed in the conference room right outside my office and an agent comes in and breaks up the meeting to tell me a plane had hit the tower in New York. And the initial reaction, I think for myself, and most others is there must be a small plane who got out of the airwaves in some, some way, shape, or form.

Chuck Rosenberg: That it was an accident.

Robert S Mueller: Yes, that was assumption of everybody that it was an accident. Another agent came in, a second planet had hit the other tower. And we knew then something was badly wrong.

Chuck Rosenberg: What do you do at that moment as the brand new director of the FBI?

Robert S Mueller: You've had very little time--the first thing you want to do is get all the information you possibly can from any possible sources, you want to set up liaison communications between ourselves and CIA and Defense Department, you name it, any of the other agencies that had information that would bear on what happened, and from there on in it, to a certain extent, of blank, because you're moving quickly from meeting to meeting. And the decisions that had to be made at that juncture had to be prioritized. And do you put the planes up in the air? And how and for how long? How many persons were injured or hurt? And what are we doing in terms of medical care?

Chuck Rosenberg: You had your first meeting with President Bush as director that next morning in the Oval Office, September 12th. And you tell a very interesting story regarding what you had prepared to brief the President about. And conversely, what he was interested in talking about?

Robert S Mueller: Well, I--this is my first briefing of the president after I had been sworn in as director. And I wanted it to be a super perfect briefing. I wanted to cover all of the bases of being so new, I want to make certain that I included in a briefing, those elements of information that would be necessary in ongoing investigation. And I came fully prepared to tell the President and others that what we were doing, preparing to identify these individuals and arrest them as soon as possible, so I gave some statistics on what we were doing in that regard. Halfway in the presentation, and the President stopped me and said, "Bob, you might have to tell me about what we're going to do to to arrest and charge these individuals. I'm not asking that. I'm asking what are you doing, and by you, I mean, you, the FBI doing, to make certain this does not happen again." And at that point in time, I felt like a chastened high school student. And my whole background as a prosecutor was identify the person who is responsible for this and make certain they go to jail and go to jail for a good long time. Well, that's not what the President wanted. And out of that question, came a shift and change of action for the FBI.

Chuck Rosenberg: I think it's such a fascinating and telling moment, because as you described, you are briefing the President on a criminal investigation. And he wants the FBI and others, of course, to prevent the next attack, so that triggers, literally a shift in how you think about the FBI and its mission.

Robert S Mueller: Indeed, it does.

Chuck Rosenberg: So, what did you do when you got back to headquarters after the briefing?

Robert S Mueller: I sat down with the leaders of the FBI and tried to get as much information as I could on what's happening at that point in time and what was likely to happen down the road and what kind of coordination we would need with the other agencies to assure that, that we identified the persons responsible, but more particularly, also to begin a discussion as to how you fulfill that requirement, that you prevent another terrorist attack.

Chuck Rosenberg: Which is an incredibly hard thing to do.

Robert S Mueller: Particularly when your institution has been prepared for arresting persons and put them in jail, and had a very slim intelligence function generally related to organized crime, and the necessity for changing the metrics, changing the allocation of personnel, setting priorities, all that happens in the wake of a disaster such as this.

Chuck Rosenberg: After your meeting with President Bush on September 12th, you not only reoriented the FBI, but you reprioritized its work.

Robert S Mueller: Yes, very quickly after briefing the president that day after the attacks, we recognized that changes had to be made, and the way we did our business. And we undertook a period of time, probably several months, to try to determine what the objectives of the organization is going to be in the future. We labored long and hard to make a set of priorities and guide us, so we all knew--and by all--in the FBI, and I don't care where you are in the organization, everybody in the organization ought to know what the priorities are. And so, we ended up with 10 priorities. The first three are protecting United States from a terrorist attack, protecting United States from foreign intelligence operations, and protecting the United States against cyber. Then, we had the criminal priorities: combat and public corruption, civil rights, national operations and enterprises, major white-collar crime, and significant violent crime. Those were our criminal priorities after we had sat and talked for a long time as to what those priorities should be. And finally, support federal, state, local, and international partners. Much of what we've talked about today falls under the necessity for cooperation and coordination with other aspects of the, the intelligence-law enforcement arena. And lastly, upgrade technology to successfully perform FBI's mission. What is often missed, particularly in reorganization, is a focus on you cannot do a reorganization without identifying the information technology that supports it. And that is one of the most difficult tasks to have, that is the information technology married up with the focus on preventing a terrorist attack or a national security attack.

Chuck Rosenberg: I know it was important to you that everybody in the FBI know what these priorities are.

Robert S Mueller: That's absolutely right. We went through iteration after iteration after iteration before we came up with the final 10 priorities, and those 10 priorities went out to the organization. And everybody in the organization was expected to know and understand those priorities and how those priorities guide their work.

Chuck Rosenberg: And you talked about it everywhere you went.

Robert S Mueller: I did, yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: And again, to your point, Bob, for those who had come to the FBI to catch bank robbers and fraudsters, this might have been a little disorienting.

Robert S Mueller: Very disorienting because your new job is completely different from your old job, as important, if not more important.

Chuck Rosenberg: And I recall there was also a shift in resources: more special agents, men and women were moved to the national security work of the FBI, and away from the criminal work.

Robert S Mueller: Well, if you've established a priority and make it a priority, all too often you establish a priority and the first opportunity you have to throw it out, you throw it out. So, you have to monitor particularly where the funds are going, what activities are they supporting, assuring yourself these funds are going where they should go.

Chuck Rosenberg: And it wasn't just funds. There's another resource which is people. They have to go in the same direction,

Robert S Mueller: From top to bottom in the organization.

Chuck Rosenberg: Part of the culture you're describing at the FBI was an office of origin model. And it's easy to think about it, let's say in the context of a bank robbery in Phoenix: somebody robs a bank in Phoenix and the FBI responds, and the Phoenix field office is the Office of origin for that investigation. That's simple, but in a counterterrorism or national security matter, that office of origin model doesn't work as well.

Robert S Mueller: Correct, we didn't understand that on day one.

Chuck Rosenberg: So historically, which office was the Office of origin for counterterrorism matters?

Robert S Mueller: It was New York.

Chuck Rosenberg: So, what did you feel you had to do?

Robert S Mueller: Well, it took me some time, but I think it was probably the first instance where we made the decision that the Office of Origin would not run the show, the show would be run by headquarters with input from New York. How do you choose what is the Office of Origin when you have so many plots that have been undertaken?

Chuck Rosenberg: And so, this was a cultural shift, it still made sense for an office to work a bank robbery, out of that jurisdiction's domain, but less sense for one office to be in charge of a massive counterterrorism investigation?

Robert S Mueller: Well, I think even then, I was not prepared to pass on to New York the responsibility for bringing persons to justice who had been involved, but also more particularly, who else may have been involved, and how do we prevent that person or persons from undertaking another attack? If you look back on it, and what we were absolutely petrified of it was we got four planes in the air that were going down. And who's to say there aren't another four planes out there? If you can get one out of, out of there, two or three of four, there is no way that New York should be responsible for the Bureau's activity in this particular case without very close oversight and partnership. And not only domestically, but also internationally.

Chuck Rosenberg: That requires centralizing responsibility for the work.

Robert S Mueller: It does.

Chuck Rosenberg: One of the interesting things about this, Bob, is that the New York Field Office of the FBI in particular, really, truly had this deep expertise in Al-Qaeda, and in terrorism going back to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1998 bombings of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. And that's really where your expertise was.

Robert S Mueller: Yes. And my problem was my expertise was in San Francisco. That's where I'm practicing, and Boston.

Chuck Rosenberg: You personally?

Robert S Mueller: Yes, I've been in the US Attorney's Office in both those places, but in neither San Francisco office or the Boston office was terrorism an issue.

Chuck Rosenberg: Right, so you didn't really have a background in it. Those that did were in New York, and you felt the need to centralize responsibility for managing a case of that magnitude at headquarters.

Robert S Mueller: And I won't say that the Bureau welcomed that way of operating.

Chuck Rosenberg: There was a lot of resistance to the change that you envisioned, that agents who were deeply experienced and very talented didn't want to give up control of these cases to headquarters.

Robert S Mueller: The whole organization was tremendously upset. And in fact, not without some thought beforehand, but there was a Special Agent in Charge in one of the field offices, who basically disregarded what was, in my mind, a relatively clear order to do something.

Chuck Rosenberg: Related to a counterterrorism case?

Robert S Mueller: Related to a counterterrorism case and something where the director should have been involved in the decisions that were being made. That SAC was moved out. And it became very clear to others in the organization that we ought to follow the objectives that have been laid out in terms of identifying those who could be possibly involved in another attack.

Chuck Rosenberg: But, you said the, the SAC, and for our listeners, that means Special Agent in Charge, so the man or woman running one of your field offices, was moved out. In fact, you moved that person out, you removed that person from their job,

Robert S Mueller: Yes, hate it.

Chuck Rosenberg: Why do you hate it?

Robert S Mueller: It's very, very hard to do. If you're in an organization like the FBI, you're a very close organization, their decision to make, that harm a person, his family or her family, and I just hate doing that.

Chuck Rosenberg: But it had to be done?

Robert S Mueller: Had to be done.

Chuck Rosenberg: There's a quote that I know you're fond of from a wonderful movie called Crimson Tide, where Gene Hackman plays a Navy captain: "We are here to preserve democracy, not to practice it."

Robert S Mueller: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: Culturally, what were the challenges in leading the FBI?

Robert S Mueller: You know, it's interesting, FBI, wonderful institution, terrific people--very hard to move, though, when for over 100 years, certain types of cases that come your way and you excel in that regard. But it is very, very hard to change and change your culture and one can understand you joined the FBI to take down bank robbers and narcotics traffickers and make the arrest and send them away. You did not come into the organization to do generally, counter intelligence operations.

Chuck Rosenberg: And suddenly, there was this enormous shift away from the more traditional work of the FBI, and to what President Bush wanted: the FBI to make sure that this sort of attack never happens again.

Robert S Mueller: That's true. Actually, President Bush was blessed and not being steeped in law enforcement. He was thinking about overall country, making certain that the assets or resources that are necessary to find in charge those who are responsible for the attacks were taken care of, as well as laying the groundwork for assuring it did not happen again.

Chuck Rosenberg: Bob, I know that this podcast is not a vehicle for me to tell stories about me, but I came to work for you about this time at the FBI. And if you'll indulge me...

Robert S Mueller: Please.

Chuck Rosenberg: I interviewed with you. You were and are a legend in our Department of Justice. I had not met you before, but of course I knew about you. And I was pretty nervous when I was ushered into your office for the interview and pretty eager to get the job. And I remember that my interview with you lasted about 14 seconds--you asked me two questions: why did I want to work there? And why did I think I'd be any good at it? And I fumbled my way through the answers. And then, you ushered me out of your office and I figured you hated me. And so, I was trying to salvage what I thought was the worst interview of my life. And I saw a baseball on one of your shelves. And I love baseball. And so, I was hoping you did too. And I said, "Oh, I see you have a baseball on your shelf, you must be a baseball fan." And you said, "Nope." And out the door I went. About an hour later you called me and offered me the job,

Robert S Mueller: Good, good decision.

Chuck Rosenberg: Well, it was one of the great professional privileges of my life to work for you and to work at the FBI. When I got there, there was a really interesting issue in which I think you made an incredibly important decision and involved in the interrogation of counterterrorism subjects overseas using methods that the FBI never used, and to this day, never uses. And I was hoping you would talk a little bit about that--the pressure on you from within the FBI to allow agents to participate in those interrogations, and the decision you made to prohibit it.

Robert S Mueller: Well, I'd monitored what was happening and other agencies in terms of the use of interrogation techniques, and a new, quite probably in the not too distant future, someone someplace would want the FBI to be involved in these interrogations where there are other methods used and we traditionally used. We, and I say we because this was a joint decision--yes, you make the final decision yourself, but--and these circumstances involves a whole institution. And after talking with a number of people in the institution, outside the institution, we made a decision, we would stick with our methods of interrogation, and two reasons for that: one is that I think we are one of the better, if not the best interrogating entity in the world, and that's in large part attributable to the fact that we put so much effort into ensuring that we use the appropriate constitutional mechanisms in eliciting information. The second reason is we are, for the most part, a law enforcement entity, or at least, we will be utilizing law enforcement techniques for interrogations in our offices. And we would be subject to scrutiny, and this is the practical side of it--whenever an agent took the stand in a court case and admitted to utilizing unconstitutional, or at least some believed, unconstitutional methods of gaining information. So, for those two reasons, principally, we made a decision to utilize our techniques, which did not include the enhanced interrogation techniques.

Chuck Rosenberg: And your decision, which I think in retrospect was exactly right, was not all that popular at the time within the FBI.

Robert S Mueller: True.

Chuck Rosenberg: Why?

Robert S Mueller: Because a certain segment of the intelligence community--let me just put it that way--believe fervently that you would not get the information you wanted without utilizing these unique techniques. And believe that we were depriving, and not just us, but depriving other intelligence agencies from information that could save lives. That was the argument on the other side.

Chuck Rosenberg: And what you are describing underscores, I think, in a really important way, the distinction between the CIA and the FBI: very different operating environments. The CIA does remarkably important and good work, but their agents don't testify in court. And so, they're not tethered to the same rules and constraints that an FBI agent.

Robert S Mueller: They will say they are not tethered.

Chuck Rosenberg: They will say they are not tethered, but they do have a very different operating environment.

Robert S Mueller: You know, one of the things that's interesting you learn over a period of time, is it's not just sitting down and questioning a terrorist subject, that's at issue--it's also the whole mechanism and it's critical on gathering information. But the whole mechanism for the CIA is to gather information regardless of where it comes from. And if you pick up as an agent, and you're working with a CIA, you will be faced with a problem of sourcing of information when it comes to passing that information over to the FBI, and the FBI wants to use that in a courtroom, you've got a real problem,

Chuck Rosenberg: Right, because the FBI has to show where "things" come from.

Robert S Mueller: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: And they have to show it precisely.

Robert S Mueller: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: I was hoping you would also talk about the theory behind FBI interrogations: that the way it's taught at Quantico and the way it's been practiced for more than 100 years is through this mechanism of rapport building.

Robert S Mueller: Yes, you'll get far more information from a subject if you appeared helpful than any other interrogation mechanism. And, again, it goes back to what are you seeking? FBI is seeking information on a particular job on a particular subject for a particular crime and making certain that everything is written up, so that it can be used in a courtroom or search warrant or what have you. Not so if you're in any of the intelligence agencies, not that I quarrel about its use in the intelligence arena--I can speak for the FBI and only speak for the FBI.

Chuck Rosenberg: And there's also a sense that information gleaned in that way, through rapport building interview techniques, is more reliable, I gather.

Robert S Mueller: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: There was another issue while I was working for you--actually, there were many but another one I wanted you to talk about--was a pressure within the US political system to break the FBI up into two pieces along the British MI5, MI6 model. So, in the UK, British intelligence has a domestic service and a foreign service: MI5, MI6.

Robert S Mueller: Right.

Chuck Rosenberg: And a lot of Americans know MI6 because that's where James Bond worked.

Robert S Mueller: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: But you thought breaking the FBI up into two pieces along that MI5, MI6 model would be a mistake.

Robert S Mueller: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: And I think in many ways, Bob, it was your reputation: you had been confirmed unanimously, 98 to 0 by the United States Senate, that held off that initiative and kept it as one. Why was it important to you that the FBI remain as a single entity?

Robert S Mueller: A number of factors, but the main factors were the exchange of information. Organizations tend to be very slow piped, and it becomes difficult to share information if you don't have a platform that is used by both with much the same techniques, if not the same paperwork. I spent a lot of time with Eliza Manningham-Buller, who was the head of MI5 during that period of time. And interestingly enough, she believed that our system is better in terms of gathering information and utilizing information.

Chuck Rosenberg: There's also an advantage to keeping your options open, to having various tools and various techniques under one roof, that if there was an intelligence matter, you could collect information and feed it into the intelligence community. But if you needed to prosecute someone in order to incapacitate them, the FBI could do that too.

Robert S Mueller: And for us, trying to prevent a terrorist attack is far more essential than how many terrorists you lock up. It goes back to the George Bush philosophy. And also, one step further, it's an incentive to cooperate if you're being locked up.

Chuck Rosenberg: Can you explain that?

Robert S Mueller: Your arrest of bank robber has done 10 bank robberies, say, and you know about eight of them but not the other two, and there's some desire to get that information, you can use this leverage, the eight that you got him on. And in many, many cases, particularly mob cases, and the like, it is a cooperator who breaks open a case. And if it's a relatively big case, somebody may get off lightly, but we've got the other background.

Chuck Rosenberg: Right, so the criminal enforcement tools available to the FBI actually foster US law operation, you get more breaks, and you make more cases

Robert S Mueller: Yes. Another issue that is benefited by keeping them together, and that's a use of intelligence tools and the ability to utilize intelligence analytically, and support the law enforcement responsibilities.

Chuck Rosenberg: You described Eliza Manningham-Buller as a good partner during this period. Her view and your view ultimately prevailed and the FBI remained intact. I think, Bob, thank goodness.

Robert S Mueller: Thank goodness.

Chuck Rosenberg: I think it's worth repeating for our listeners: you were director for a week before the attacks of 9/11. And so, the first five years of your tenure were extraordinarily difficult. I remember getting to work every morning at 5:30, so I could beat you into the office by 46 minutes. You came at 6:16, not 6:15, not 6:17, and didn't stop all day. What was the tempo like for you? And why did you drive yourself and the Bureau at that pace?

Robert S Mueller: Answering the second question, is because we couldn't allow another terrorist attack. And when it happened, we suffered by regional reputation and the like. The pace has never really bothered me, I'm always an early morning individual, and get more done during the early morning. And I've always had a schedule for accomplishing certain objectives. What I generally have done is persons responsible for the investigation and like would be at first briefings in the morning, relatively early, and for years, we briefed the president for years, we briefed the vice president if the president wasn't there, but that would be the first shot of the day. The second part of it would be learning what's happening up on the hill on what's happening in the media. And I'd usually have those briefings at the end of the day when it's important to have that information for the following morning.

Chuck Rosenberg: Bringing back lots of memories, Bob, but I recall after you came in each morning, that you would be briefed on the counterterrorism threat at 7am. And that we would then go brief the attorney general at 7:30am. And then, you and the attorney general, it was John Ashcroft at the time, would go to the White House to brief the president immediately thereafter. But for all that to happen, agents and analysts had to come to work in the wee hours of the morning, shortly after midnight, to read the overnight intelligence reports from around the world and to begin to synthesize this information so it would be available for you and the attorney general, and then, for the President.

Robert S Mueller: It would depend on which President. certain presidents are there early, others are they're very late. The ones who were there early, I'll put a little strain on the system because the president expects the vice president, head of CIA, and others from the intelligence community, they would start their briefing somewhere around 7:30 or 8:00. And then, we would join them, and that would be somewhat earlier. And my fear was that the CIA briefer, who would go first, would have something that I was not aware of and should have been aware of. So, I made sure that I was there early in the morning to get the latest news. But it's a pretty good system when you have to accumulate in one place--it works pretty well.

Chuck Rosenberg: We should say a word about the team that investigated the 9/11 attacks. You had a remarkable team of agents and analysts, many drawn from the New York field office, who worked out of headquarters for years.

Robert S Mueller: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: In the biggest case in FBI history.

Robert S Mueller: They were superb.

Chuck Rosenberg: There were actually, though, lots of notable cases during your tenure. There were anthrax attacks in Washington, DC, the DC snipers case, where two individuals, an adult, and a minor drove around for a couple of months, randomly shooting innocent people on the streets in the Washington Metropolitan Area. There was the shooting at Fort Hood, and the Boston Marathon bombing, among many, many others. But, I know that the Boston Marathon investigation raised incredibly difficult issues for the FBI. I was hoping you talk a little bit about that one.

Robert S Mueller: Early on, we were able to identify one of the individuals responsible for the marathon bombing. And there were issues with regard to identification that kept us going long and late

Chuck Rosenberg: One of the really interesting aspects of the Boston Marathon investigation, Bob, is that after one of the brothers, one of the bombers, was killed, the FBI got his fingerprints, ran them, and learn that earlier, the FBI had questioned him in another investigation. In other words, he had been on the FBI's radar, and you were the one who had to deliver that news to President Obama.

Robert S Mueller: Yes, one of the first things we were talking about at two or three o'clock in the morning was how to get this information to the president. He would definitely want to know at the earliest possible moment. And that being the case, I gathered the materials, such as they were, and then, ended up first person, at least I think I was the first person in the Oval Office briefing the President on this, it has to be called a bad news. But I feel much better having disclosed the bad news, as opposed to letting it languish.

Chuck Rosenberg: And that was always your philosophy when it came to bad news: tell it early, tell it accurately.

Robert S Mueller: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: In addition to telling the president you also told the public.

Robert S Mueller: You're not going to be able to tell the public everything that you told the president. In my mind, the most difficult part of it is telling the president, "hey, look, we had this guy in our sights two years ago." And "Director Mueller, what did you do with that?"

Chuck Rosenberg: Even after the Boston Marathon bombing, you and the FBI remained laser focused on a continuing threat from Al-Qaeda and from those that would do us harm. Non-metallic, explosive devices, for instance, were a very big deal during your tenure as Director of the FBI.

Robert S Mueller: Yes, al-Siri in particular.

Chuck Rosenberg: and who is al-Siri?

Robert S Mueller: He was basically one of the best ball makers that we've resolved.

Chuck Rosenberg: And non-metallic devices, the type that al-Siri was constructing, posed a particular threat?

Robert S Mueller: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: Why?

Robert S Mueller: Because many of the methods of discerning bombs and making a distinction between metallic and non, like going to the airport, for instance, what they're looking for is metal devices.

Chuck Rosenberg: So fortunately, that's not the case anymore. TSA has more sophisticated detection equipment, but at least back then, if you had a non metallic, explosive device, it could be smuggled through an airport.

Robert S Mueller: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: And because Al-Qaeda was particularly adept at manufacturing explosive devices without any metal parts, that was a huge concern for the FBI.

Robert S Mueller: True

Chuck Rosenberg: After the attacks of 9/11, and given President Bush's direction to you, Bob, to make sure this never happens again, that colored so much of your tenure, protecting America, and trying to stop these plots before Americans were harmed.

Robert S Mueller: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: When you were appointed in 2001, it was to a 10 year term. And in 2011, your 10-year term is nearing its end. My understanding is that the White House had not identified a successor. And the Attorney General at the time, Eric Holder, approached you about staying on for some additional period of years.

Robert S Mueller: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: What did he ask? And what did you say?

Robert S Mueller: Well, I can't remember the exact words. I'm not certain how far the dialogue went, because I was always under the assumption that I had a 10-year term and it was fast coming to an end. So, I didn't even contemplate staying longer the FBI.

Chuck Rosenberg: Because you didn't think you could?

Robert S Mueller: Didn't think I could.

Chuck Rosenberg: But it turned out with an act of Congress you could.

Robert S Mueller: It's true, but nobody, at least not, not I understood that to be waivable.

Chuck Rosenberg: But President Obama, at some point, asked you to consider staying if Congress would pass a law to extend your term.

Robert S Mueller: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: And it did. You do two more years?

Robert S Mueller: Yes, indeed.

Chuck Rosenberg: Why did you agree to stay for two more years?

Robert S Mueller: One reason why is that we have put in place a set of goals, if you will, for the organization to maximize its capabilities, I think you find in Washington, generally people rotate out every two or three years with a change of administrations. And consequently, issues that need to be resolved are rarely resolved because somebody, some administration will pick up the issue, start running with it, and then, that person's out, and you got to start all over again. Here, we have an opportunity with some degree of longevity to make the FBI a better organization.

Chuck Rosenberg: And it's also has been a part of you, Bob, part of your character that if asked to serve, and your inclination is to say yes,

Robert S Mueller: That's my inclination.

Chuck Rosenberg: Once you agreed to serve, you became the first and only director in FBI history to be nominated by two presidents: President Bush to your original 10 year term, and President Obama to the two year extension. I think you said you had very good working relationships with both presidents.

Robert S Mueller: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: But during your tenure as Director of the FBI, as you've told me, some of your hardest days were when special agents were killed in the line of duty as a result of adversarial action. One of the most difficult things that you ever have to face as a marine officer or as Director of the FBI is the loss of people under your your command. And I know we talked about this with you in episode one. You used to keep their pictures on the wall in your office. Why?

Robert S Mueller: It's so that you will remember the lives sacrifice by those who put themselves in very difficult situations which led to the death of the person.

Chuck Rosenberg: It's similar, in many ways, to losing men under your command in Vietnam.

Robert S Mueller: It is. You go through the same bit of turmoil with is necessary could you do anything else in the summertime and most have families, some with kids. They're at that age where they know and understand what happened. Ultimately, you're heartbroken to see those families at the funerals.

Chuck Rosenberg: And I don't know if people who worked for you at the FBI knew how profoundly it affected you. I certainly don't think they knew that you kept those pictures in your office. It's not something you would talk about.

Robert S Mueller: True.

Chuck Rosenberg: Why not?

Robert S Mueller: It's something you keep to yourself.

Chuck Rosenberg: Tragically, a number of FBI Special Agents died in the line of duty who had been first responders to the 9/11 attack sites. They had gotten sick, they had contracted cancer. And many of those brave men and women died as well, including during your tenure.

Robert S Mueller: I lost a lot of people as a result of response on 9/11.

Chuck Rosenberg: And I think our listeners should know that there are still agents of the FBI and agents and officers with other law enforcement agencies that contracted cancer that are sick and suffering and that continued to die all these many years after the attacks of 9/11--still happening.

Robert S Mueller: Same thing happens with law enforcement day in day out, small police departments, large police department, other federal agencies, so we can memorialize FBI personnel who've lost their lives, but also remember those who sacrifice in other ways

Chuck Rosenberg: That many people serve, and many people put themselves in harm's way. Who are your mentors, Bob, in law enforcement and in the Department of Justice?

Robert S Mueller: Now, the people I look up to people like Colin Powell, William Webster, and there are others that fill that slot periodically.

Chuck Rosenberg: Can you say a few words about Colin Powell?

Robert S Mueller: I first ended up working with him when I was in the Bush one administration. And they had in common situation room, but it was the Deputies Committee.

Chuck Rosenberg: So that would be a committee of the number two person in each of the federal agencies State, Treasury, Justice.

Robert S Mueller: Yes. And whenever there was a crisis, that group would get together and give direction to the rest of the White House to resolve particular issue.

Chuck Rosenberg: And that's where you first met them. But what impressed you about Colin Powell?

Robert S Mueller: He's unbelievably knowledgeable, a true leader in any sense of the word, respected by anybody and everybody who dealt with, never heard no foul word mentioned in the presence of Colin Powell. And a good person.

Chuck Rosenberg: It always struck me, and I think you're much the same way, that leaders like Colin Powell are both tough and kind, that they're civil and humble.

Robert S Mueller: Yes, yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: And they treat people well.

Robert S Mueller: Yes. All three of those are true

Chuck Rosenberg: For what it's worth, Bob, that's where I saw you treat people.

Robert S Mueller: A wonderful compliment. Thank you.

Chuck Rosenberg: And you could also be tough, but you're always civil, and you're always kind and you're always humble.

Robert S Mueller: Thank you.

Chuck Rosenberg: You mentioned William Webster. Now, for our listeners, many of whom will know him, some of whom may not. He was one of your predecessors as Director of the FBI. He was also a federal judge, and the director of the CIA.

Robert S Mueller: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: Credible.

Robert S Mueller: Yes. I'm not sure if I know anybody who matches his capabilities, skills, and positions in various agencies, but a delightful, delightful person.

Chuck Rosenberg: And when did you first meet Judge Webster?

Robert S Mueller: Probably when I went to justice for the first time I would have run into him.

Chuck Rosenberg: And what struck you about him?

Robert S Mueller: He's a tremendously organized individual and accumulates knowledge he utilizes in whichever position he is in put in our arena. I can't think of another person who has the background capabilities Judge Webster has.

Chuck Rosenberg: And like Colin Powell, also, civil, thoughtful, kind, decent.

Robert S Mueller: I used to aspire to him.

Chuck Rosenberg: Consummate gentlemen.

Robert S Mueller: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: There was something else I wanted to ask you about, and if our listeners could see me, they would see a big smile on my face, Lee Rawls.

Robert S Mueller: A smile on my face, college roommate and a person who spent a lot of time up on the hill.

Chuck Rosenberg: He was a dear friend from Princeton.

Robert S Mueller: Dear, dear friend with a huge beautiful wit and a way of putting things into perspective. You walk down the hall and he's in his office or something. And he sees you walked by and says, "Why do you let this happen?" Always ribbing you. And every ribbing that you took from him was justified. And his simple slice of humor made you see this, the real world is around here and take advantage of it.

Chuck Rosenberg: It only struck me with Lee and I had the privilege of working with Lee and for you that in many ways, he was like you very, very smart, dedicated, thoughtful, keep going.

Robert S Mueller: You're doing well.

Chuck Rosenberg: You agree with me so far, so far. And in some ways, he wasn't like you at all, that he was irreverent, something you would never be--

Robert S Mueller: I don't think he owned a white shirt.

Chuck Rosenberg: I don't think he did. His ties never matched his shirt, so sometimes he forgot to shave, but he was absolutely brilliant. And he loved public service. And he loved working for you. He was your chief of staff at the FBI.

Robert S Mueller: Yes, he was, along with 20 other people.

Chuck Rosenberg: But he did it more and more often than anyone else.

Robert S Mueller: Yes.

Chuck Rosenberg: I remember when we passed away, in 2011, way too young and suddenly, was an enormous blow to those of us who had worked with him and respected him so much. Can I tell one story?

Robert S Mueller: Sure.

Chuck Rosenberg: I remember in a briefing that had gotten particularly heated when you were the director of the FBI, and he was your chief of staff, people were getting frustrated with you, and I think you were getting frustrated with them. They didn't have the answers you were seeking. And you kept probing and pushing. And we just sat there quietly, silently, and, and Lee pose the following question to the group: "What's the difference between the director of the FBI and a four-year-old child?" And then, holding his hand just about two feet off the ground, he said, "Height." And everyone laughed, and the tension in the room went down, and we were able to go about our business. And Lee was always able to bring levity to the darkest moments. And people loved him and love working with him. And I know you did, too. In May of 2017, you were asked to serve as special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Bob, I'm wondering, after a lifetime of service, why did you say yes to that?

Robert S Mueller: Well, I found that I've gotten tremendous enjoyment out of public service. And I find it hard to turn down a challenging assignment.

Chuck Rosenberg: And I also have the sense that when you are asked to serve the country, at least in the past, you've always said yes,

Robert S Mueller: The appropriate answer for me has always been "Yes."

Chuck Rosenberg: You were called to testify before Congress. In fact, you were subpoenaed, so you didn't have a choice, but you didn't go beyond your report.

Robert S Mueller: Because the report says all I have to say about the investigation. Having been a prosecutor for a period of time, I know and understand the role of the prosecutor is to develop facts, and not theories. And consequently, I believed it was appropriate to put into the report issues that explain exactly what our findings were, and I refer you to the report.

Chuck Rosenberg: I think folks should know, although it's called the Mueller Report, I think people ought to be clear that you had an extraordinary team of agents and analysts and prosecutors that worked with you and for you. I was hoping you might say a word about those men and women.

Robert S Mueller: Well, I had an exceptional team of men and women who worked with me to conduct the investigation and write the report. And they all work with a huge sense of integrity. Although the decisions that were made were mine. And then when the office did the work, they did exceptionally well,

Chuck Rosenberg: And you're proud of them.

Robert S Mueller: I am.

Chuck Rosenberg: Having worked for you, Bob, I know this when you say that you have said what you're going to say and you have nothing more to add to take you at your word, but I do want to thank you for, yet again, stepping up and serving your country.

Robert S Mueller: Thank you.

Chuck Rosenberg: Can I ask you one last thing, Bob?

Robert S Mueller: Sure.

Chuck Rosenberg: You've said that the lessons you learned as a marine officers a young man stayed with you for your entire life. The values of teamwork and sacrifice and discipline are what guided you as Director of the FBI. Do you have any reflections on that?

Robert S Mueller: There are three pillars, in terms of values that have been unbelievably helpful to me having the opportunities I've had teamwork, sacrifice, and discipline those three values have been at my side through most of my career. I've ended up being able to spend some time in the government and private practice as well as in various institutions. And I've come to believe that it really does not matter which way you choose to serve. And the only thing that we ask is that you work for your country for your community. Each person must determine in what way they can best serve others in a way that will leave them believing that their time has been time well spent.

Chuck Rosenberg: Well, Bob, I can tell you that your time has been extraordinarily well spent and just want to thank you for a bunch of things: your leadership, your service to our country, and for giving me the privilege to spend part of my professional life working for you and for the FBI. I learned so much about leadership and dignity and integrity because of the type of person that you are.

Robert S Mueller: Thank you, thank you for that compliment. Pleasure working with you.

Chuck Rosenberg: Thanks to Bob Mueller for opening and closing our fourth season with two compelling interviews. A Princeton graduate, a decorated Marine officer, a federal prosecutor in San Francisco and Boston, and, for a dozen years, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Bob served his country honorably and well.

Because Bob survived the war in Vietnam when so many others did not, he believed that his good fortune compelled him to further serve his country when he returned home. He spent a career in the Justice Department doing exactly that. And even after he left the FBI, he was asked to serve, yet again, as Special Counsel, investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. As Bob noted in our interview, whenever he is asked to serve, the answer should always be “yes.” This is what a lifetime of distinguished service, a lifetime of “yes” looks like.

This is our final episode of season four, so I also want to thank you for spending some of your valuable time with us.

We created this podcast because we thought there ought to be a space for civil, thoughtful, and enlightening conversations. And though by necessity we highlight the life and work of a small number of people, we know they represent millions of others in towns and communities across this great country – teachers and coaches and first responders and health care professionals and volunteers who serve in so many different ways. At a time when we seem divided and troubled, please know that the vast majority of Americans are good and kind and work every day to better their communities. I am enormously grateful to them – and to you – for that work.

Second, because this is the end of season four, I have a slightly longer list of wonderful people to thank. Please bear with me:

This podcast would not be possible without the executives at NBC and MSNBC, so thank you to Cesar Conde, Rashida Jones, Phil Griffin, Noah Oppenheim, Ali Zelenko, Aaron Taylor, and Elena Nachmanoff. And thanks to the NBC podcast department of Madeleine Haeringer, Allison Bailey, and Barbara Raab.

Thanks to the marvelous folks at FannieCo, including Nic Bannon, Rob Hebert, Meg Morton, and Fannie Cohen, who produce this podcast, and make me sound a lot better and a lot smarter than I actually am.

Nor could we have reached so many listeners without the help of Tim Hubbell, Emily Passer, Olivia Cruser, Magdalena Hill, Lauren Begasse, Maria Sebastian, Gordon Miller, Paul Rodrigues, Shyam Thampi, Bill Plowman, Gerard Collins, Craig Donnelly, Rick Kern, Jake Wright, and Steve Doppelt. I am grateful to all of them. Kate Robbins transcribed all of our episodes, and you can find those transcripts and see her good work at

As always, if you have any thoughtful criticism, feedback, or questions about this episode or others, please email us at, that’s all one word, And though I cannot respond to every email, please know that I read each one, and that I appreciate it. If you liked this episode, please let us know by leaving a 5-star rating on whatever app you use for listening. And ask you friends to subscribe. We are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Tune In, and on every major listening app. If you are listening on a smartphone, swipe or tap over the cover art of the podcast.

By the way, all of our prior episodes from all of our prior seasons remain available and free. For instance, if you missed the first part of my interview with Bob Mueller, you can go back and listen to it now.

The Oath is a production of NBC news and MSNBC. This is The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg, thank you so very much for listening.