FBI Director Robert Mueller Describes Agency’s Post-9/11 Transformation

Students at HBS often read case studies about leaders contemplating key challenges, an activity they tend to engage in as they stare out windows. Few of the leaders in our case studies faced as harrowing a challenge as the one faced by Robert Mueller on September 11, 2001, exactly one week into his tenure as the sixth Director of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

In a wide-ranging address and Q&A session last Thursday, Mueller described his efforts to transform the FBI from an agency focused on law enforcement into one focused on counterterrorism after 9/11, leadership lessons he learned along the way, and the principal security challenges facing the US in the years ahead.

As all new leaders do, Mueller said he arrived at the FBI on September 4, 2001 with a vision encapsulating the priorities and objectives that were going to define his tenure as Director. As happens to many new leaders, if not all, those priorities and objectives quickly went out the window.

“Clearly 9/11 was a cataclysmic event for everyone, but especially for an institution such as ours,” Mueller said. “When I came in I expected I’d be doing the types of cases I’d done as a prosecutor, but of course that changed when September 11 happened.”

Mueller recalled his first meeting in the Oval Office with President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other members of their administration in the days after 9/11. He opened the meeting by instantly talking about what the FBI had done in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

“About three of four minutes in President Bush said ‘stop it,’ and he said, ‘Bob, what you’re telling me the bureau is doing is what you’ve been doing for 100 years; my question for you today is what is the bureau doing today to prevent the next terrorist attack,’” Mueller said. “For the next four years of his term the question was always the same, he would ask me that every day.”

In order to reorient the agency and prevent another attack, Mueller made counterterrorism, counter-espionage, and cyber protection the FBI’s top priorities, and shifted resources to those areas.

He also set about developing the FBI’s intelligence capacity, both internally at the bureau and externally in its relationship with other government agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency.

The new expectations facing the FBI as it transitioned into an agency focused principally on counterterrorism and preventative efforts had a direct impact on Mueller’s leadership style. Acknowledging the advice of leadership experts who exhort leaders to delegate tasks to their people, Mueller said his daily briefings with President Bush made micromanagement of counterterrorism a necessity.

“If I have to brief the president every day, I had best know what’s happening in my organization with regard to every threat,” he said. “I micromanage that area to this day; our institution simply cannot afford to have us not be top down involved in that.”

Though his tenure as FBI Director will end next September, Mueller shared his thoughts on what the future would hold for the agency. For one, he envisions cyber security becoming the top priority for the agency, with important implications for the future leadership of the agency.

“I would expect that five years down the road, you will not be able to operate at the highest level of the organization without having spent time in cyber,” he said.

Mueller said the agency’s focus on cyber protection would require new legal frameworks that would allow the FBI to conduct investigations. In response to a student question about the balance between protection and civil liberties, Mueller said he believed the FBI had struck “an appropriate balance.”

“Any changes to our methods have to be done within the confines of the Constitution,” he said.  Mueller said he still had the habit of knocking on wood any time somebody congratulated him about the agency’s success in preventing another 9/11-style attack. As he reflected on his tenure as FBI Director, he said adaptability was essential in an environment where constant change comes with the territory.

“I think the key to whatever success we’ve had is due to our people, from being open to change, being very flexible in our organizational structure, in our short- and long-term goals, and to being responsive to the threats we face each day,” he said.