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  • Robert S. Mueller, III
  • Director
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • National Symposium for United States Court of Appeals Judges
  • Washington, D.C.
  • November 04, 2011

* Remarks prepared for delivery

Good morning. I am honored to be here.

When I received your invitation, I believed that by now my tenure at the FBI would have come to a close. Unlike federal judges, the FBI Director is not appointed for a life term. Though there are days when I feel as though it might be a life sentence. 

Nonetheless, I was grateful to have the opportunity to extend my term, and I am pleased to be able to join you.

Today, I want to discuss the necessary changes we made in the FBI in the wake of September 11th and the impact of globalization on the work we do. But I want to focus on these issues within the context of our adherence to the rule of law, for every facet of the FBI’s mission must be viewed through that prism.

We in the FBI face significant and evolving criminal and terrorist threats. Regardless of the threats we face or the changes we make, we must act within the confines of the Constitution and the rule of law—every day, in every investigation. Indeed, the rule of law remains our guiding principle—our lodestar. 

A Decade of Transformation

Before coming to the Bureau, I had been a prosecutor for the bulk of my career, though I had worked for a time in private practice. 

I have been lucky to spend the better part of my professional life in public service and to benefit from the intangible rewards that come from such service.

When I took office as Director in September 2001, I had expected to focus on those areas familiar to me as a prosecutor—drug cases, white-collar criminals, and violent crime. But days later, the attacks of September 11th changed the course of the Bureau. 

A few days after the attacks, I was briefing President Bush in the Oval Office. As I was describing to the president the FBI’s efforts to identify the hijackers and gather evidence on those responsible, the president cut me off. 

“Bob,” he said, “I expect the FBI to determine who was responsible for the attacks and to help bring them to justice. That is what the Bureau has been doing since its beginning. What I want to know from you—today—is what the FBI is doing to prevent the next attack.”

I must say, I felt like a chastened schoolboy who had turned in the wrong homework assignment. 

And for the next four years, I briefed President Bush daily, and the question was always the same. Thereafter, I continued to regularly brief President Bush, and do so today with President Obama. And the question remains the same. 

That initial question posed by President Bush—what is the FBI doing to prevent the next attack?—triggered a number of changes in the Bureau. 

First and foremost, national security—preventing terrorist attacks—became the FBI’s top priority. 

We shifted 2,000 agents from our criminal programs, particularly the drug program, to national security. And we dramatically increased the number of Joint Terrorism Task Forces across the country. 

But we also understood that we had to focus on long-term, strategic change. We had to enhance our intelligence capabilities and update our technology. We had to build on strong partnerships and forge new friendships, at home and abroad. And we had to do all of this while respecting the rule of law and the safeguards guaranteed by the Constitution.   

Today, the FBI is a threat-focused, intelligence-driven organization. Of course, there have been challenges and leadership lessons along the way. 

As a Marine, if you go into officer candidate school, they evaluate you—physically and academically. I did fine on those, but I did not do well in the “delegation” category.

I complained to my training sergeant, “What is this ‘delegation’ and why are you evaluating me on it?”  

I came to find out that it was an essential component in running an organization. 

The fact of the matter is, to whom you delegate and how you delegate is as important as anything else. People will tell you I am still not very good at it, and those are the individuals that are currently being micromanaged by me.

Several years ago, I had a rather salty chief of staff, an old friend named Lee Rawls, who would put me in my place. More than once, when I sought to micromanage a situation, he would politely push me to the side. 

And I would hear Lee say, “Don’t listen to him. He thinks he’s the Director of the FBI, but we can take care of this.”  

In one particularly heated meeting, everyone was frustrated—mostly with me—and I myself may have been a wee bit ill-tempered. 

Lee sat silently, and then said, “What is the difference between the Director of the FBI and a 4-year-old?” The room grew hushed. Finally, he said, “Height!” And with that, he broke the tension.

Micromanaging aside, it was responding to the terrorist threat and addressing the Bureau’s outdated technology that came to be my most substantial challenges. 

The management books will tell you that as the head of an organization, you should focus on the vision. As they put it, you should be on the balcony and not on the dance floor. 

While this may generally be true, for me, there were and are today those two areas where one needs to be personally involved. First, the terrorist threat and the need to know and understand that threat to its roots. And second, the need to ensure and shepherd the transformation of the Bureau’s technology.

Despite obstacles in each of these areas, we have made great strides over the years. 

We have thwarted dozens of terrorist attacks since September 11th and we have updated the technology we use to collect, analyze, and share intelligence. We have put into place a long-term strategy to ensure that we are doing what is necessary to meet our priorities. We are focused on the value of our intelligence reporting and on the need for complete source coverage.

And we have new metrics for success, based on the number of terrorist attacks thwarted and the long-term impact of our criminal programs at the neighborhood level…not only on the number of arrests and convictions, but on the consequent decreases in street crimes and homicides as a result of our efforts.  

The FBI in the Era of Globalization

Let me turn for a moment to the impact of globalization on law enforcement.

In Tom Friedman’s book, The World is Flat, he describes globalization in the context of commerce and finance, not in terms of terrorism and crime. But the impact of globalization on law enforcement and the criminal justice system is as profound as any of the changes he describes. 

Advances in technology, travel, commerce, and communications have broken down barriers between nations and between individuals. Globalization has had a flattening effect, leveling the playing field for all of us. 

Friedman argues that we are now living in “Flat World 2.0.” With the price of smart phones falling lower and lower—and with the rise of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—our world is hyper-connected. 

Never before has it been so easy and so inexpensive to communicate across oceans, to express opinions on the world stage. There is no better evidence of that than the social media-fueled Arab Spring.

This hyper-connectivity is empowering and engaging people around the world, allowing individuals to establish spontaneous centers of command and control previously only available to large organizations and nation states. 

But what does this mean for law enforcement? It means that the work we do will almost always have a global nexus. 

Consider the recent charged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States by persons connected with the government of Iran. These individuals allegedly sought to conspire with associates of a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador on U.S. soil. 

The facts of this case are highly unusual, but the impact would have been very real, and many lives could have been lost. 

Yes, terrorists do seek to attack America from foreign shores. But here in the United States, we also confront international organized crime from Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. Migrating gangs from El Salvador and Mexico. Human trafficking from Thailand and China. And child predators from the world over. 

Addressing cyber crime is the next challenge for law enforcement and our criminal justice system in this flat world. Cyber criminals need not even be in the same country—let alone in the same room—to steal our data, steal our proprietary information, and steal our state secrets. 

For criminals and terrorists, technology has all but erased borders. And yet the traditional nation-state’s jurisdictional boundaries remain the same, as do the individual criminal justice systems in these diverse nations. 

Given the constraints of our various criminal justice systems, we are often at a disadvantage in addressing global threats. 

How do we prosecute a case where the crime has migrated from one country to the next, with victims around the world? How do we overcome these jurisdictional hurdles and distinctions in the law from country to country?

As a prosecutor for the Department of Justice, I worked with our counterparts in Scotland to investigate the bombing of Pan Am 103 in 1988. With this attack, terrorism hit home for Americans in a profound way. 

But for those of us in law enforcement, it brought to light the importance of international partnerships as a bridge between conflicting legal systems. It also brought to light the need for a global presence to meet global threats. 

Investigators from Scotland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the United States worked together in ways we had never experienced before. Partnerships like those forged in Lockerbie have never been more important.

Today, we all understand that working side-by-side is not just the best option, it is the only option.

Let me bring to your attention one issue of critical importance, another area where we are increasingly at a disadvantage. Within the United States, the legal framework for the interception of electronic communications has not kept up with the impact of globalization. 

Many social networking conduits—in contrast to traditional communications carriers—are not able to provide the electronic communications we seek in response to a court order.

The laws covering this area have not been updated since 1994, when we were moving from a copper-wire phone system to digital networks and cell phones. But of course, over the years, technology has expanded exponentially.

We need to ensure that our ability to intercept communications is not eroded by advances in technology, understanding that any changes to the law must strike a balance between government access and protection of civil liberties. 

We need to work with Congress and the courts on this critical issue.

Our Commitment to the Rule of Law

Turning to the FBI’s commitment to the rule of law and the balance we must strike…

The FBI has always adapted to meet new threats. And we must continue to evolve to prevent terrorist and criminal attacks, because terrorists and criminals certainly will. But our values can never change.

Regardless of emerging threats, the impact of globalization, or changing technology, the rule of law will remain our guiding principle. 

It is fair to say that the FBI has had missteps over the years. But these missteps and mistakes have provided opportunities to improve. And though it may be a cliché to say we have come out of such situations stronger and smarter, it is true. 

As have many corporations, we have established a compliance office to examine vulnerabilities and to ensure that we have the training and the policies in place to safeguard against those vulnerabilities. 

Our Privacy and Civil Liberties Unit addresses the legal implications of our investigative and intelligence collection programs and ensures that we meet all privacy requirements.

And in a practice started by my predecessor, Louis Freeh, all new agents visit the Holocaust Museum to better understand what happens when law enforcement becomes a tool for oppression.

Every FBI employee takes an oath promising to uphold the rule of law and the United States Constitution—the same oath that I and each of you have taken. 

For us, as for you, these are not mere words. They set the expectations for our behavior…the standard for the work we do. 

In my remarks to new agents upon their graduation from the FBI Academy, I try to impress upon each one the importance of the rule of law. 

I tell them it is not enough to catch the criminal. We must do so while upholding his civil rights.

It is not enough to stop the terrorist. We must do so while maintaining civil liberties.

It is not enough to prevent foreign countries from stealing our secrets. We must do so while upholding the rule of law. 

It is not a question of conflict; it is a question of balance. The rule of law, civil liberties, and civil rights—these are not our burdens. These are what make all of us safer and stronger. 


In September 1962, following a court order and in the midst of substantial resistance on campus, James Meredith sought to enroll as the first black student at the University of Mississippi. 

On the evening of his enrollment—September 30—President Kennedy delivered a televised address.

He said, and I quote, “Our nation is founded on the principle that the observance of the law is the eternal safeguard of liberty, and defiance of the law is the surest road to tyranny.”

The notion that no man is above the law –and in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, that “no man is below it”—is the only true protection we have against the specter of oppression and undue influence.

In the end, we in the FBI know that we will be judged not only by our ability to keep Americans safe from crime and terrorism, but also by whether we safeguard the liberties for which we are fighting and maintain the trust of the American people. 

Thank you for having me here. I would be happy to answer any questions you might have.

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