Home News Speeches The Transformation of the FBI and the Rule of Law
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  • Robert S. Mueller, III
  • Director
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • The American College of Trial Lawyers 2012 Annual Meeting
  • New York City, New York
  • October 19, 2012

Remarks prepared for delivery

Good morning. Thank you, Bob, for that kind introduction, and for having me here today. It is always good to be back among friends.

I last met with you in October of 2002—a decade ago. My hair was a bit darker and less gray…and if I recall, some of you in the audience still had hair back then. Yet here we are today, certainly older, and, one would hope, a bit wiser. But I will tell you that I am honored to be here once again, and I am indeed pleased to honor Justice Powell.

Justice Powell took a keen interest in the FBI and law enforcement in general. Before his appointment to the court, he often wrote and spoke publicly about the rising crime rates in this country. But we in the FBI were most fortunate that he seemed to approve of our efforts to address crime.

And when Justice Powell passed away in 1998, our nation lost a devoted advocate for the rule of law.

Today, I would like to take a few moments to talk about the FBI’s transformation in the years since September 11th and what we are doing to propel the FBI into its next era. But I would like to discuss all of this within the context of the rule of law, for every facet of our mission must be viewed through this prism.

For Justice Powell, preserving the rule of law was paramount to his decision making. Powell’s thoughts are embodied by language he proposed in an early draft of the Court’s landmark 1974 decision in United States v. Nixon.

Powell wrote, “We are a nation governed by the rule of law. Nowhere is our commitment to this principle more profound than in the enforcement of the criminal law, ‘the two-fold aim of which is that guilt shall not escape or innocence suffer.’”

While his words ultimately were not included in the final opinion, their importance cannot be overstated. We are indeed a nation governed by the rule of law. It is a hallmark of our democracy, and our commitment to this ideal must never waver.

We in the FBI do face significant and evolving terrorist and criminal 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, and in every investigation.

Turning for a moment to discuss changes in the Bureau since September 11th…

When I took office as Director on September 4th of 2001, I had expected to focus on areas familiar to me as a prosecutor—drug cases, white-collar criminal cases, and violent crime. But days later, the attacks of September 11th changed the course of the Bureau.

National security—that is, preventing terrorist attacks—became our top priority. We shifted 2,000 of the total 5,000 agents in our criminal programs 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 upon strong partnerships and forge new friendships, both here at home and abroad. 

At the same time, we had to maintain our efforts against traditional criminal threats, which we have done. 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 along the way.

Looking back on this past decade, I recognize that I have learned some hard lessons on how to lead an organization at a time of transition. One such lesson is related to the need to delegate.

As a Marine, in officer candidate school, they evaluate you—physically and academically. I did fine in those areas, 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 did come 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.

I have learned some lessons better than others. People will tell you I am still not very good at delegating, and those are the individuals that are currently being micromanaged by me.

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 areas where one needs to be substantially 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.

Unfortunately, no management book offered a “how to” on either of these challenges. I received more of an “on the job” education on those fronts.

Another hard lesson one comes to learn in Washington relates to the need for humility.

Several years ago, I had a rather salty chief of staff, an old friend by the name of Lee Rawls, who was naturally humble. Lee knew how to cut through nonsense and get to the heart of the matter better than anyone I knew. He also knew how to put me in my place.

More than once, when I did seek to micromanage a situation, Lee would politely push me to the side. And I would hear him 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—out of the blue—“What is the difference between the Director of the FBI and a 4-year-old child?”

The room grew hushed. Finally, he said, “Height!” 

Despite these leadership challenges and a few more substantive obstacles along the way, we have made great strides over the past 10 years.

Together with our state and local partners, 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.

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

We have changed the way we do business over the past decade, principally to address terrorism. But the question remains: Where does the FBI need to be down the road?

National security remains our top priority. Terrorists are committed to striking us here at home and abroad…as we saw just this week with the attempted attack on the Federal Reserve here in New York and as evidenced by the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Libya a few weeks ago.

Spies seek our state secrets—and our trade secrets—for military and competitive advantage.

Cyber criminals sit silently on our networks, stealing information for sale to the highest bidder. Computer intrusions and network attacks are becoming more commonplace, more dangerous, and more sophisticated.

That is why we are strengthening our cyber capabilities in the same way we increased our intelligence and national security capabilities in the wake of the September 11th attacks.

We are enhancing our Cyber Division’s investigative capacity. We are hiring more computer scientists. And because even traditional crime is facilitated through the use of computers, we are building the cyber capabilities of all FBI agents.

We are converting computer intrusion squads in our 56 field offices into Cyber Task Forces that include state and local law enforcement and other federal agencies to improve information sharing and collaboration.

We are increasing the size and the scope of the National Cyber Investigative Joint Task Force—which brings together 18 separate agencies to coordinate and share cyber threat information.

We are also working closely with our international partners, sharing information and coordinating investigations. We have special agents embedded with police departments in Romania, Estonia, Ukraine, and the Netherlands, working to identify emerging trends and key players.

At the same time, we face a wide range of criminal threats, from white-collar crime and public corruption to transnational criminal syndicates, migrating gangs, and child predators. These threats are pervasive, and they will continue to evolve, largely as a result of globalization.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has argued—rather successfully, I might add—that the world is flat. Advances in technology, travel, commerce, and communications have broken down barriers between nations and between individuals. 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 now hyper-connected.

Such hyper-connectivity is empowering and engaging individuals around the world. But it also has empowered—and emboldened—criminals and terrorists.

While Friedman describes the impact of globalization in the context of commerce and finance, globalization has affected law enforcement and the criminal justice system just as profoundly. For the FBI, this means that the work we do will almost always have a global nexus, which presents a number of challenges.

Technology has all but erased the borders that once confined crime and terrorism. And yet the traditional nation-state’s jurisdictional boundaries remain the same, as do the individual criminal justice systems in these diverse nations.

Given these constraints, 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 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 back in 1988. With this attack, international terrorism first 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, Malta, and the United States worked together in ways we had never experienced before.

Partnerships like those forged in Lockerbie have never been more important. We have come to understand that working side-by-side is not just the best option, it is the only option.

The threats we face will continue, and the potential damage is exponential. To successfully address these threats, we must develop new strategies and the legal framework to support these strategies. But we must always strike a balance between thwarting crime and terrorism on the one hand…and ensuring that we adhere to the Constitution and the rule of law on the other hand.

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 evolve themselves.  But our values can never change.

In 1972, Justice Powell wrote the majority opinion in United States v. U.S. District Court—an opinion that established the warrant requirement for domestic electronic surveillance.

The crux of the case was, as Powell put it, the “duty of government to protect the domestic security, and the potential danger posed by unreasonable surveillance to individual privacy and free expression.” 

Justice Powell recognized that the rule of law is the only protection we have against the specter of oppression and undue influence—at every level of government.

We in the FBI recognize that principle as well. Strict adherence to the rule of law is at the heart of everything we do. In a practice started by my predecessor, Louis Freeh, all new agents visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington to better understand what happens when law enforcement becomes a tool of oppression or worse—rather than an organization guided by the rule of law.

Every FBI employee takes an oath promising to uphold the rule of law and the United States Constitution—the same oath that 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 his 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.

At a 1976 meeting of the American Bar Association, Justice Powell said, and I quote:  “Equal justice under the law is not merely a caption on the façade of the Supreme Court building. It is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. It is one of the ends for which our entire legal system exists.”

Justice Powell made the rule of law his life’s work. Our system of jurisprudence is stronger because of his unwavering commitment. And we, as citizens, are more secure because of his longstanding dedication to this ideal.

Thank you for having me here today, and God bless.

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