Robert Mueller knows his time is almost up, at least as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. His 10-year tenure ends in August, and bureau officials say they would like to have a new person lined up at least six months before his departure to ensure a smooth transition, something that is crucial for the country’s key law-enforcement agency. If an announcement is imminent, there’s been no hint of it.
Gallery: Top Candidates for FBI Director
Counterterrorism experts are puzzled by the delay, and they are not the only ones. As those who work at the FBI know, nobody is keeping a closer watch on their activities than terrorists both domestic and international, who would welcome a chance to go up against the bureau during a period when its leadership seemed adrift. That’s why it is important that President Obama, Vice President Biden (who is apparently leading the search), Attorney General Eric Holder, and others reach a decision—fast.
Whoever takes the job will be working under pressure: The threat of homegrown terrorism has grown dramatically over the past year, with a Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attempting to bomb a flight over Detroit, and a Pakistani-American, Faisal Shahzad, trying to set off explosives in Times Square. As Juan Zarate, who served as a counterterrorism official during the Bush administration, says, “The FBI is going to be on the hook for these kinds of attacks.” One of the key questions for the new director is: How will the FBI handle domestic intelligence? The CIA doesn’t do it. Neither, traditionally, does the FBI; its job is to investigate crimes, not potential crimes. Mueller has been aggressive in the realm of intelligence gathering, though, and has encouraged his agents to uncover as much as they can about potential terrorists. A successor might have a different approach.
So who will get the nod?
“There has been speculation about who the new director might be,” Bill Carter, an FBI spokesman, told me, “but no one has been nominated.” In the gallery, see the names being bandied about by counterterrorism experts, how these candidates might fare during confirmation hearings, and how they might approach the job.
Ultimately, Obama and Biden may be having a hard a hard time finding someone for the job because the candidates know what lies before them. One possibility, Louis Freeh, a former FBI director who retired in the spring of 2001, is said to have turned down the job—wisely, his former colleagues say. “Whoever gets picked is going to have a very tough time,” says an ex-FBI official who left the bureau last summer. “We’ve had a lot of near-misses and the threat is not diminishing, but the budgets are.”
Tara McKelvey, a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review, is the author of Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War (Basic Books).