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Alumni Achievement Award: Robert S. Mueller III PCD '59
Alumni Achievement Award: Robert S. Mueller III PCD '59

If Bob Mueller had liked organic chemistry better, his life, and the direction of the nation's top law enforcement agency, would have been very different. He grew up wanting to be a doctor but during his senior year at Princeton University, the advanced math and science requirements caused him to reconsider. As a result, he went into law and became the Federal Bureau of Investigation's longest-serving and most influential director since J. Edgar Hoover. He took office in September 2001, just a week before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Shortly before the end of his 10-year term, President Obama asked and received Congressional approval for unprecedented special legislation that extended his term another two years.

The responsibility and the pressure of those years were unrelenting, but Mr. Mueller feels he was well prepared. "The most formative experience I had early on was the Marine Corps," he says. "For preparing you for life and leadership, there's no better educator than military service and, particularly, the Marine Corps."

During the Vietnam War, he led a platoon based in the dense jungles along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In December 1968, he received a Bronze Star for his "courage, aggressive initiative and unwavering devotion to duty" in a firefight in Quang Tri province. He also received the Purple Heart, two Navy Commendation Medals, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.

"Having lived for a year in Vietnam, and survived, meant that everything else was downhill after that," he says. "You learn how to operate under pressure; you just don't worry that much. If you spend a year in the jungle, you get used to that kind of situation and it's not that alien to you when the unexpected happens."

In the months before Mr. Mueller took office, there was concern at the FBI about increased jihadist chatter online, but no specific threat. "I anticipated doing the usual work federal prosecutors do," he says, "and I had some changes I wanted to make, but all that went by the wayside after September 11th. After that, the principal concern, quite obviously, was terrorism."

The focus of the Bureau shifted. Since 1908, its mission had generally been to investigate a crime after it was committed. In the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush charged Mr. Mueller with gathering intelligence to stop attacks before they happened. That required an overhaul of procedure and a shift in mindset.

Mr. Mueller's leadership was crucial in those early days. "One of the issues that came up," he says, "was that there was no love lost between the CIA and the FBI at that time, both because of statutes that precluded us sharing information, but also, we looked at things differently because we had a different mandate. We had to arrest and prosecute persons and put them in jail and the CIA and NSA are pure intelligence agencies. But we broke down those barriers when September 11th came."

The improved cooperation created a consistent and effective response to future threats. Terrorist strikes get reported quickly but only those at the highest level of government are aware of the many attacks that are thwarted by good intelligence. Mr. Mueller is unable to fully savor the Bureau's successes, however, because he understands how costly even one failure can be.

He says he is gratified "to have put into place some of the structures that enabled us to disrupt a number of terrorism plots but, whenever you say that, you're reminded of those we did not stop: the Boston Marathon bombing, the Fort Hood shooting. There are those that slipped through and it felt very personal because you meet the families and the victims who were wounded in those attacks. So on the one hand, I think what we did went a long way to enhancing our protection in the United States and also overseas. Then again, I think the greatest downside is that we were unable to stop all of the attacks."

During his tenure, Mr. Mueller transformed the FBI from a traditional law enforcement agency to a threat-based, intelligence-led national security organization. He was in charge of 12,000 agents in 56 field offices and 400 satellite offices in this country as well as 60 other countries, and it was not unusual for him to work from 5:00 a.m. to midnight. He reported potential threats to the Oval Office and acted as a counter-terrorism envoy to the leaders of some of the world's most volatile countries.

Mr. Mueller grew up in a bustling household with four sisters across from the Princeton Graduate School and Springdale golf course. He would often ride his bike through the University campus to Princeton Country Day School where he was on the soccer, ice hockey and baseball teams.

"I loved sports, especially hockey," he says. "PCD was a wonderful school for those sports."

Classmate Howard ("Mac") McMorris remembers those childhood years as idyllic.

"Bob and I would often meet to ride our bikes to PCD," he says. "Sometimes in the morning we would climb into the trees by the Princeton Infirmary to drill each other on French vocabulary."

The two were close friends but had one disagreement that ended with them smearing well-chewed bubble gum in each other's hair. Mr. Mueller does not remember the cause of the fight, but he vividly remembers his mother's reaction when she had to take the scissors to his hair: "She was not pleased."

Following eighth grade, Mr. Mueller's family moved to Philadelphia and he entered St. Paul's School. In 1966, after graduating from Princeton with a degree in politics, and marrying his wife of 51 years, he earned a master's in International Relations from New York University.

On his return from Vietnam, he enrolled at the University of Virginia School of Law, with the idea of becoming an FBI agent. By graduation, however, he was eager for litigation and took a position at a San Francisco law firm. From there, he joined the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California and ultimately became head of its Criminal Division.

"From 1976 to 2001, I spent 99 percent of my time as a prosecutor in Boston, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, and I did a stint in the Justice Department in the Criminal Division," Mr. Mueller says, summarizing his career with typical modesty.

Under his leadership, the Criminal Division in the Justice Department coordinated the prosecution of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega on drug trafficking charges, one of the first major international crime prosecutions; and investigated the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, the first major terrorist incident involving U.S. citizens. Additionally, John Gotti, the Gambino family crime boss, was successfully prosecuted.

"I've always loved investigating criminal cases, whether it was a narcotics case or a corruption case," he says with the enthusiasm clear in his voice. "I've been very lucky I've been able to spend most of my career in public service because the rewards you get are not matched when you're in the private sector. It's a great way to pursue what you love doing. I ran a homicide unit here in Washington, DC and being able to be part of an investigation, and then to see justice done, is tremendously rewarding." (He is referring to the time he gave up a lucrative private practice to work for a quarter of his salary in what was then considered the homicide capital of the U.S.)

[Bob Mueller] believes that keeping one's values intact is simple, whether fighting a war, upholding the law, or responding to a national crisis: "You just hang onto your core beliefs."

"I ran a homicide unit here in Washington, DC and being able to be part of an investigation, and then to see justice done, is tremendously rewarding."

Mr. Mueller says he gets "jittery" when he is not working so, after stepping down as Director of the FBI in 2013, he became a visiting professor at Stanford University where he taught cybersecurity. He is now a partner at WilmerHale in Washington, where his practice focuses on investigations, crisis management, privacy, and cybersecurity issues.

Mr. Mueller has enjoyed a remarkable legal career, fueled by his passion for the work and his belief in its mission. In Washington, where politics sway most decisions, he is held in high esteem for his independence, rock-solid integrity and resourceful leadership.

He believes that keeping one's values intact is simple, whether fighting a war, upholding the law, or responding to a national crisis: "You just hang onto your core beliefs."

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