The White House has quietly begun thinking about potential candidates to succeed FBI Director Robert Mueller, whose 10-year term expires next year. The considerations have reached across party lines, according to people briefed on the process – a potential move to pick someone who could preempt a Republican effort to turn a confirmation hearing into a referendum on President Barack Obama’s national security policies.
At the FBI, Mueller’s inner circle is acutely aware that his tenure is drawing to a close, though Mueller himself is said to have not made plans for his life after the FBI.
The search is also said to include people with a range of backgrounds and managerial experience, an indication the administration may not select a candidate from the federal bench like Mueller’s three predecessors, Louis Freeh, William Sessions and William Webster.
While it is not known for certain who is under consideration, the list of potential candidates discussed in law enforcement circles is growing. Among them: Ronald Noble, the head of Interpol who was a top law enforcement official at Treasury during the Clinton years; Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. Attorney in Chicago and DOJ special counsel who successfully prosecuted I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the chief of staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney; and James Comey, the general counsel at Lockheed Martin and a former Deputy Attorney General who in 2004 bucked the White House by refusing to reauthorize the Bush administration’s warrantless domestic eavesdropping program.
Others include two well-known police officials — Raymond Kelly, the New York police commissioner whose department has sometimes clashed with the FBI; and William Bratton, the former chief of police in Los Angeles. Another possibility: Frances Fragos Townsend, President George W. Bush’s respected chief counterterrorism adviser, who would be the first female FBI Director.
Mueller, 65, was confirmed in August 2001 and began his term on Sept. 4, 2001, just a week before the Sept. 11 attacks. He previously served as a federal prosecutor in U.S. Attorneys’ offices in the Northern District of California and in Massachusetts. At the Justice Department, he headed the Criminal Division during the first Bush administration and served as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California from 1998 until 2001.
FBI spokesman Bill Carter noted that Mueller’s term does not expire until 2011 and said he has not seen indications of a White House search for a new director this time.
Additional reporting by David Johnston.
UPDATE: This story has been corrected to clarify that the White House hasn’t formally begun to interview potential candidates for FBI director.
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The Justice Department is now “scrambling” to assess sites outside Manhattan for a civilian trial of accused 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other alleged al-Qaeda terrorists, the New York Times reported late Thursday night, in an update to a previous version of the article that said a “chorus” of opposition had arisen.
The updated New York Times story suggested the administration’s response to the trial location issue was evolving quickly on Thursday, and that the Justice Department may have been caught off guard by the strength of the opposition to a Manhattan trial.
Earlier Thursday evening, the New York Daily News reported that the White House had “ordered” the Justice Department to evaluate other locations for a trial, while Fox News reported that the White House “has begun discussing alternate locations with the Justice Department.”
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s opposition to trying five alleged plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in federal court in Manhattan has ballooned into a major political problem for the Obama administration. It lent momentum to moving the trial out of the city.
According to the New York Times, “the apparent collapse of what had seemed since November to be a settled decision to hold the trial in lower Manhattan” became clear when New York’s senior senator, Democrat Charles Schumer, said Thursday he was encouraging the Obama administration “to find suitable alternatives.” New York’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, also a Democrat, added she was “open to alternative locations,” the newspaper said. And New York’s Democratic governor, David Patterson, reiterated his opposition to the trial location.
Meanwhile, the New York Daily News reported Thursday night that the White House had “ordered” the Justice Department to evaluate other locations for a trial, though it cited no source for the information. Fox News reported that the White House “has begun discussing alternate locations with the Justice Department.”
Department spokesman Dean Boyd told The New York Times that no decision has been reached on moving the trial.
The growing uproar over the trials is a political setback for Attorney General Eric Holder, who announced his decision in November to try the accused 9/11 plotters in New York, including the self-confessed 9/11 “mastermind,” Mohammed. The alleged terrorists had been held at the military facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which the administration has been trying to shutter.
Holder has also come under criticism by conservatives for the decision to charge alleged Christmas Day airplane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab criminally rather than hold him as a military detainee for questioning by intelligence experts. Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) decried that decision Wednesday evening in giving the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech.
Opposition to a civilian trial for KSM, as Mohammed is known in government circles, cropped up immediately after Holder announced his decision in November. Within hours, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who served under George W. Bush, slammed the decision in a speech before a meeting of the Federalist Society in Washington.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney, ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Attorney General John Ashcroft and other conservatives piled on, arguing that military tribunals are a more proper setting to weigh charges against the alleged 9/11 plotters.
But what brought the controversy to a boil were remarks on Wednesday by Bloomberg, who had previously supported the trial in federal court, blocks in lower Manhattan from the site where the World Trade Center towers were brought down in 2001 after al-Qaeda operative crashed hijacked commercial airliners into the buildings.
Bloomberg, a Republican, objected to the security costs, estimated to be $200 million a year for a Manhattan trial. “It would be great if the federal government could find a site that didn’t cost a billion dollars, which using downtown will,” he told reporters Wednesday, according to The New York Times. On Thursday Bloomberg stepped back a little from his earlier comments. “[W]ould I prefer that they did it elsewhere? Yes, but if we are called on, we will do what we’re supposed to do,” he said, according to the Times.
According to the Daily News, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly catalyzed opposition among Manhattan business leaders, who then leaned on Bloomberg to reverse his position. Kelley gave a speech arguing the trial would be too disruptive and costly at a Jan. 13 policy charity event, the tabloid reported.
“What turned this around was when Ray made a presentation to the Police Foundation,” the Daily New quoted an unnamed source. “Everyone went from thinking, ‘Justice will be served’ to thinking ‘We are screwed.’”
In Congress, New York Republican Rep. Peter King (R) introduced a bill Wednesday to cut off financing for civilian trials of accused 9/11 terrorists, and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) said he would introduce companion legislation in the Senate next week.
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If you’re wondering what went into Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to prosecute Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his alleged confederates in federal court, and why he settled on the Southern District of New York, The Washington Post’s Carrie Johnson has some answers.
Top prosecutors in Alexandria, Va., and Manhattan twice made their pitch to Holder in the command center in department headquarters. Holder favored New York for security reasons. According to Johnson:
In the end, the biggest factor that influenced Holder’s decision-making, according to senior Justice Department officials, turned out to be a confidential security study prepared by the U.S. Marshals Service. That agency operates behind the scenes to protect courthouses, judges and witnesses in scores of facilities across the country. The marshals concluded that the Southern District of New York — with its hardened courthouse, secure Metropolitan Correctional Center and underground transportation tunnels through which to bring defendants to and from court each day — was, hands down, the safest option.
The politics were easier, too. In New York, Holder enjoyed the support of New York Gov. David A. Paterson (D), New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, as well as Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). But in Virginia, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R) and Sen. James Webb (D) have opposed bringing detainees to U.S. soil.
When the decision was made, Holder called Neil MacBride, the U.S. Attorney in Alexandria, and Preet Bharara, the top prosecutor in the Southern District. MacBride pledged his support without complaint, Johnson reported.
Prosecutors from EDVA will head to New York to present evidence to a grand jury and help try the case. Holder’s national security adviser, Amy Jeffress, will decide the final composition of the trial team.
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